Madhubani murals are a product of communal spiritual experience. They embody millennia of traditional knowledge passed down from mother to daughter, and ensure presence of our myths, writes HARSHA V DEHEJIA
The life of a village is sustained by social gatherings, festivals, rituals and processions, dancing and story telling. One such village is Madhuban, located in the ancient kingdom of Mithila, present day northern Bihar, where a unique tradition of painting is preserved by women to tell stories. Done on mud walls with natural colours, these murals are like a story book, a visual education from which the community learns ancient epics and derives its values, assuages its fears and enriches their lives. These Madhubani murals are a product of communal, spiritual experience and embody millennia of traditional knowledge. They are passed down from mother to daughter, and ensure the living presence of our myths.
In times, ancient Madhubani artists celebrated Sita, who was the daughter of King Janaka of Mithila, and for women of Madhuban, she is their daughter as well. They sing of her beauty, venerate her acts of valour, celebrate her womanhood and commiserate with her trials and tribulations. It is said that King Janaka asked the women of Mithila to paint their homes with images of Rama and Sita to celebrate their wedding, and this was the start of the tradition of creating murals. That would take the painting tradition thousands of years back. The tradition of Madhubani painting changed in 1960 when the artists were encouraged to create their painting on paper, which could then be sold and generate badly needed revenue for the people of Madhuban. The transformation from mural to paper also saw the introduction of the Krishna-Radha narrative, which then became more popular than the story of Rama and Sita.
The women of Madhuban eschew realism and lyricism for the bold and the beautiful, with evocative colours and bold lines, large eyes and an aquiline nose, to create a living space where the parrot is as important as the gopi, cowherd girl, and the flute of Krishna beckons and is heard along with the hooves of the cows, for this is their interpretation of Vrindavana and it comes close to their lives. One sees and feels the touch of a woman in these paintings, in the lyrical depiction of nature and the beautiful love of Radha and Krishna. It is as if one hears the voice of the poetry of Vidyapati in these paintings, and the women of Mithila express their latent and often suppressed romantic feelings. The Madhubani painter is an artist of the earth, she is a gramin — a person who lives in the village, who is involved in the many activities of working with the earth, who lives and functions in harmony with the world around her, the world of trees and fruits; birds and blossoms; waters and wind; sun and the sky, all of which are not just inert matter but deeply meaningful to her and have a living presence in her life and world view. She integrates the love of Radha and Krishna with this world.
One traditional Madhubani art form different from the murals and the painting is the kohbhar. The kohbhar is a girl’s proposal of marriage to a young man. The kohbhar’s design and composition is heavily charged with tantric erotic symbolism and features bamboo, lotus blooms, fish, parrots, the kalasha and trees, and often shows a girl in a palanquin being taken to her in-laws’ home. In colouring her blue, the Madhubani women recall the love of Krishna and the gopis. Sexuality is represented in the kohbhar as the root of all creation, and fertility and fecundity for these rustic Mithila women are the basis of spirituality. The art of Madhuban finds its best expression in the kohbhar ghar, the nuptial chamber where the newly married couple spend their first few days.
Here images of fertility and fecundity such as lotus, bamboo, parrot and fish share the same space as that of Radha and Krishna under the kadamba tree. Life for the Mithila women is an organic whole and this finds expression in the kohbhar.
An engagement with Madhubani painting, and especially that of Radha-Krishna shringara, is not merely an encounter with a painting, but it is to participate and understand the life and mind of the Madhubani artist as she expresses Krishna shringara, and through it become Krishnamayi. ■