~ madhubani painting: an introduction ~

Hindu women who live in villages near the market town of Madhubani in northern India maintain old traditions and teach them to their daughters. Painting is one of the traditional skills that is passed down from generation to generation in the families of some of the women. They paint figures from nature and myth on household and village walls to mark the seasonal festivals of the religious year, for special events of the life-cycle, and when marriages are being arranged they prepare intricately designed wedding proposals.

But even though women in the villages around Madhubani have been practicing their folk art for centuries, the world at large has come to know about these women and to consider them to be "artists" only in the last thirty years. Even now, most of their work remains anonymous. The women, some of them illiterate, are in any case reluctant to consider themselves individual producers of "works of art" and only a few of them mark the paintings with their own name.

Among the first modern outsiders to document the tradition of Madhubani painting were William and Mildred Archer. He was a British civil servant assigned to the district during the colonial era. The Archers obtained some drawings on paper that the women painters were using as aids to memory. Works that the Archers collected went to the India Records Office in London (now part of the British Library) where a small number of specialists could study them as creative instances of India's folk art.

What led the women painters to share their work with the larger world was a major ecological and economic crisis that resulted from a prolonged drought in 1966-68 that struck Madhubani and the surrounding region of Mithila. In order to create a new source of non-agricultural income, the All-India Handicrafts Board encouraged the women artists to produce their traditional paintings on handmade paper for commercial sale.

Since then, painting has become a primary source of income for scores of families. Production and initial marketing have been regulated by regional craft guilds, the state government of Bihar, and the Government of India. But the continuing market in this art throughout the world is a tribute to the resourcefulness of the women of Mithila who have successfully transferred their techniques of bhitti chitra or wall-painting to the medium of paper, and have resisted the temptation to adapt their traditional designs too freely in pursuit of unpredictable public tastes.

As the map indicates, the Mithila region and the villages around Madhubani are situated near the northern edge of the state of Bihar as it approaches the India-Nepal border. People of Mithila have their own language and a sense of regional identity that goes back more than 2500 years. Among the most celebrated figures believed to have been born in the region are Mahavira (a great spiritual hero of the Jain religion), Siddhartha Gautama (better known to the world as the Buddha), and Sita (the legendary wife of Prince Rama and herself a central figure in what may be the world's most popular epic, the Ramayana).

The Region of Mithila

Regional Map

Near the India-Nepal Border

Commercialization of the folk art has been a mixed blessing. It has been regulated by governmental bureaucracies, has generated a multi-levelled distribution system, and has put a premium on productivity per se -- independent of any meaningful connection to the traditional cycles of village life and the rhythms of the religious year. But it also has allowed people around the world to discover a style of art with a long heritage linked to the lives of women, and that retains evident signs of its rootedness in a vital folk tradition. And, more to the point, it has created a new source of gainful employment in rural India for women and their families.

The exhibited paintings include examples of several themes in the representational but stylized and symbolic Madhubani tradition -- the great life-cycle rite of marriage; some of the major goddesses and gods of the Hindu pantheon; domesticated and wild animals. The earliest of the paintings (the Goddess Durga, matted in blue) dates from 1969, when only a few women artists had demonstrated their willingness and ability to work extensively with the medium of paper, and the most recent from 1993.

The paintings are from a teaching-collection assembled by Gene R. Thursby from time to time since he first lived in India from 1968 to 1970 as a Fulbright Fellow. In repeated visits over the years since then, he has continued research on modern religious and cultural movements, and has maintained his interest in the creative work of women artists in this region. "One might at first believe that a knowledge of India's complex history and religions would be a prerequisite for an appreciation of the creations of Indian culture, " R. C. Craven conceded toward the end of his Concise History of Indian Art, but then he confirmed that his own view of the matter was "that the vitality and directness of Indian art make it accessible to all and no knowledge other than that basic to all humanity is needed."

Why give special encouragment to people to consider -- even to contemplate -- forms of art that stay close to folk tradition? Roy Craven (in agreement with the earlier art historian and curator of the Boston Museum collection of Indian art, Ananda Coomarasamy) gave the best answer: "Throughout Indian history the great masses who lived in the villages have (in the words of Coomaraswamy) 'worshipped, not the abstract deities of priestly theology, but local genii (Yaksas and Nagas), and the feminine divinities of increase, and mother goddesses'. Down through time the forces of the soil have robustly spawned and fertilized the arts. In fact, the sophisticated and complex icons of Hinduism could never have been conceived and brought to fruition without the support of this rich and vital substructure."

The online exhibit was organized for two main purposes. First, to honor the memory of art historian Roy C. Craven who died in 1996. His great enthusiasm for the great range of artistic traditions of India continues to enrich the lives of his colleagues, former students, and many friends around the world. Second, the exhibit may serve to make a wonderful tradition of women's painting to become better known to people around the world and honor one of the art's remarkable practitioners, Sita Devi.

Return to the Welcome Page of the exhibit.