On Mithila Painting

in Interview
Published on: 13 April 2016
In Conversation with Bharti Dayal

Bharti Dayal is a Madhubani artist (National Awardee) from India. In the interview she talks about the history and present status of the Mithila style of painting as well as her own art practice.  


  • Could you please tell us about the history and origin of Mithila painting?


    Madhubani Art traces its origin to the great Indian epic “Ramayana” where it is believed that King Janaka of Mithila commissioned local artists to paint murals and decorate the town with this art form for the wedding of his daughter Sita. Gradually, Madhubani art came to symbolise women's empowerment, as the women began to paint pictures of gods and goddesses. Women have transmitted the beauty, love, care, environmental consciousness, traditions and faith incorporated in this art form for generations.


  • Could you please talk about the transformation of the art form over the years?


    The art started transforming in 1934 when there was an earthquake in the region and most of the walls crumbled. William G. Archer, who was the British colonial officer of Madhubani district, while inspecting the damage noticed these paintings on the walls. In the 1930s he photographed the paintings and wrote about them in an article in Marg, which is an art journal. After a few decades, between 1966 and 1968 a drought crippled the agricultural economy of the region. Bhashkar Kulkarni who was then the director of the Handicrafts Board, based in Mumbai, encouraged the women to replicate their mural paintings on paper and facilitated sales, as a source of income to ensure their survival.


  • Do you think commercialization has affected the art form in any way?


    Commercialization has affected this art form in a negative way. Duplication and replication are rampant and have made it a dying art. It has lost its glory, essence and originality. The most important aspect of this art form is its feminine expression, but with the changing scenario, that has been lost. We need to create and think of new and contemporary subjects to bring back the glory of this ancient art.


  • Please tell us about the different styles of Madhubani painting.


    Madhubani art form is known for its five distinctive styles: Bharni, Kachni, Tantrik, Gobar and Godna (tattooing). Each style was practiced by a particular social group although all styles retained a uniformity in their focus on the depiction of divinity, rituals, natural elements and daily life.


  • Please tell us about the significance of Mithila painting. How are colours and motifs used in the art?


    The philosophy of Madhubani art, which is a living tradition, is essentially based on the principle of dualism. Opposites run parallel to each other: life and death, day and night, joy and sorrow, body and soul etc. They are featured in the imagery to represent a holistic universe. For example, the fish is an auspicious sign for growth and prosperity, the parrot signifies love and sexuality and the peacock suggests romance and devotion. There are also bamboo trees and lotus leaves symbolizing fertility and the continuation of human life. Geometric patterns and sacred enclosures, within the composition, drawn in multiple lines are inspired by the tantric traditions of the region. The elaborate kohbar, or paintings on the walls of the nuptial chamber during weddings always comprised the moon, sun, tortoise, snake, lotus and bamboo trees as a symbols of the female and male genitalia. Navgraha or the nine planets- the sign of the cosmos, bestow love, prosperity and fertility on the newlyweds. Turquoise blue which is mostly used in the paintings symbolises the water and sky. Red signifies auspiciousness and also suggests aggression and passion. Green is associated with greed as well as nature and blue stands for peace.


  • Now Madhubani paintings are being made on different mediums. Do you think the style differs from one medium to the other?


    Yes it does matter what medium is being used.


  • Do you only work with traditional themes or do you also experiment with new ones? If yes what are they?


    My paintings have abstract elements alongside figurative motifs. They are a combination of tattoo motifs, lines, concentric circle motifs of flora and fauna, figures from the spirit world and elements from animistic traditions. Care is taken to encompass elements and themes that appeal to the new generation besides divine icons.


  • What is your suggestion for keeping this art form alive?


    We must have a museum with proper documentation of the history of this art form to protect this heritage. At the same time we need to train children to paint and also give them the opportunity to imbibe, appreciate and preserve this art form for the future generations.