“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.”
Nestled in the flood plains of the Ganges, the Mithila region has given rise to ancient cultures and is the birthplace of a significant body of classical arts and literature. We find the earliest references to Mithila in the great Indian epic narrative Ramayana, and it is believed that Mithila artists adorned the walls of the whole kingdom to celebrate the wedding of their Princess Sita with Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya.
Mithila (also called Madhubani) art has been practiced by the women of the region through the centuries and today it is considered a living tradition. The art not only depicts the social structure but also the cultural identity of the land. It has changed very little over time in terms of its form and style and Mithila art remains inseparable from people’s daily lives, rituals and festivals. It would be appropriate to say that the art is a part of the social fabric—it is a primary vehicle for preserving moral values and cultural narratives as well as for bringing together families and neighbors during festivities. These celebratory occasions are really enjoyed by the people of this region—every new season and social occasion calls for elaborate rituals accompanied by symbolic activities and art-making. Some of these are described in greater detail in this article.
Women have played a central role in perpetuating this heritage and until recently, only they created these paintings, closely guarding the distinctive elements of their family’s artistic lineage, which were transferred from mother to daughter. After the men left for work in the fields, the women would finish their household chores and sit down in groups to paint. While painting, they would also sing hymns and prayers, or perform family rituals. Thus, the activity of painting was also a social act of bonding and communing.
It is only in the last few decades that Mithila artists became aware of their art’s commercial possibilities. Initially, these paintings were made on walls and it was a form of bhitti chitra (wall mural). In 1934, an earthquake struck the region causing widespread damage and a British officer called William G. Archer made a visit to the region to assess the overall damage. During his inspections, he saw these paintings on the walls of various homes and was struck by their uniqueness. He eventually documented these in 1940 through photographs thereby providing one of the earliest visual records of these paintings (Heinz 2006:10). Later on, after the drought that affected the area from 1966-68, the Indian Government made efforts to develop this art form commercially (Jain 1994:152). They provided handmade paper to the villagers and encouraged them to sell their paintings as an additional source of income (Madhok 2005). Since then, the art has been receiving growing attention and the villagers continue to practice their traditions. Over time, commercial artists have also begun using chemical colors, and started to paint on different surfaces apart from paper such as cloth for saris, kurtis (tunics), home furnishings, etc.
The themes of the paintings however have by and large retained their traditional moorings; these mostly revolve around traditional and ritualistic stories drawn from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, tales of Krishna and also Tantric symbolisms. Based on the rituals of Mithila, one can see three broad themes—nature, social life, and religion.
Visuals depicting nature are an integral part of Mithila paintings as they emphasize the constant and indissoluble interdependency between the affairs of human beings and the environment. Paintings with social scenes depict the rites and rituals of ordinary life including birth, marriage and death; farming and harvesting; as well as seasons and festivals. Finally, religious stories drawn from the epics and folklore provide immense creative fodder for this art with gods and goddesses being constantly depicted on the walls of village homes.
The Mithila style of painting can be divided into three primary forms—bhitti chitra (murals or wall paintings), patachitra (art on canvas, which came later) and aripana (made on the floor). Bhitti chitra and patachitra comprise colorful depictions of gods, nature and rituals using colors that were traditionally derived from natural ingredients such as stones, leaves and flowers. These days however, mostly chemical colors are being used. Aripanas are based on geometrical shapes and made with ground rice on the floor, typically outside the house, as a symbol of welcoming the gods. These creations also feed the birds and make for an interesting exchange between people and creatures. In fact, birds and various creatures, from fish to snakes, find a prominent place in Mithila art.
As discussed earlier, the Mithila region has a vast number of festivals and social rites which are depicted in the symbolic language of Mithila art. Some key ones include upanayan (sacred thread ceremony), marriage, kohbar (paintings done on the walls of the nuptial chamber or kohbar ghar), Madhushravani (celebrating the arrival of the monsoon, the festival is considered particularly auspicious for newly married couples), Lakshmi Puja, Deepavali (festival of lights), Govardhan Puja (celebrated on the fourth day of Diwali), Chhath puja (a festival dedicated to the Sun god and his wife), Basant Panchami (Saraswati puja), Holi festival, Shivratri (worship of Shiva), Ram Navami (celebration the birth of Rama), Sama Chakeva (celebrating the migration of the birds from the mountains back to the plains), Nag Panchami (worship of snakes to provide good harvest), Janmashtami (celebration of Krishna’s birth), Magha Saptami (harvest festival celebrating the coming of spring), Devotthan Ekadashi (celebrating the awakening of Vishnu), and Chaurchan (worship of the moon). Most of the rituals also involve folk songs usually related to stories of divinity sung by groups of women.
The following are descriptions of some of the rituals depicted in Mithila art:
Upanayan and Moondan (head-shaving) – This is an important ritual amongst Maithil people and is considered a rite of passage for a Hindu child. During this ceremony the child receives a sacred thread, known as the yajnopaveetam, which represents the second birth of the child, akin to his spiritual baptism. This ritual is celebrated as elaborately as a wedding and includes extended family, friends and neighbors.
Saurath Sabha – This is a unique annual congregation of Maithil Brahmins, which is meant to enable the father of a girl to meet several prospective grooms all in one place. In a setting similar to a large village fair, all eligible boys seat themselves under trees. The fathers with the help of the Panjikars (chronicler), who maintain genealogy charts of the community, pick grooms based on their own particular preferences in terms of the family and dowry. Although this practice is at odds with contemporary social norms, the Saurath Sabha still continues to take place.
Wedding rituals – The painting typically shows a bride in ghoonghat (veil) , a dhoti (wrap for men) clad groom wearing a flower sehra (veil for men), a priest chanting hymns and a sacred fire around which the bride and groom will eventually take seven rounds and seven lifelong oaths. Several women can be seen attending to the bride, although it is common now to also have the groom's family members and the male members of the family attend the ceremony. This is a major social ritual where all close and extended family members, neighbors and friends participate actively and bless the bride and groom. Wedding scenes are popular themes in Mithila art.
Gowna (bride departing in a palanquin) – After the wedding, the bride is sent to the groom's family in a palanquin as part of a ritual called Gowna. Today, palanquins are gradually being replaced by cars.
Kohbar – On the first night after the wedding, the bride and the groom enter the kohbar ghar (nuptial chamber) where they are asked to perform several entertaining rituals and games that serve as icebreakers that generate lots of laughter from family members who crowd into the room. After this introductory play, they worship Goddess Gauri every morning for the next four days. On the fifth day, certain wedding rituals are repeated and the groom again applies vermillion in the parting of the bride’s hair.
Elaborate local symbols are also painted on the walls of the kohbar ghar. Four shapes of Naina Jogin (protective one-eyed veiled goddess) are drawn on the four walls to protect the newly-weds from the evil eye. Other symbols, said to promote the couple’s fertility and longevity are also drawn. These include a large central mandala (spiritual symbols) surrounded by six smaller mandalas and several other figures and abstract forms. These paintings are full of auspicious signs and symbols of love, fertility, sensuality and spirituality. There are depictions of bamboos, betel leaves, banana trees, pairs of frolicking parrots (symbols of love), fish, serpents (power of regeneration), elephants (symbols of strength), peacocks (symbols of eternity), tortoises (symbols of longevity), as well as the sun and the moon. The bride honors the kohbar artwork by offering vermilion, and leaving a print of her turmeric-dipped hand on the kohbar.
Kohbar painting stands out amongst all other Mithila art. While other paintings are made with black outlines, kohbar paintings are created with either just red or in combination of yellow/blue colors. Black is never used for these paintings. Punam Madhok succinctly summarises the development of kohbar paintings: “Centuries of rituals have shaped the artistic vocabulary of these unusual wall paintings that represent love and fertility in marriage.” (Madhok 2005)
Madhu Shravani – In this festival celebrated in the month of Shravan (August), one of the rituals involves a newlywed couple where the groom is made to touch the knee of the bride with a warm wick symbolizing the endurance of the girl. During this festival, which lasts for thirteen days, various mythological stories of famous characters like Nal-Damayanti, Shiv-Parvati and Bihula-Saudagar are narrated to young girls, with the belief that they will learn the various duties expected of them through these stories. Shiv and Parvati are worshipped extensively for the maintenance of marital bliss. Through this period, the newly married girl stays at her parents’ house where her husband visits her everyday. During this time the couple are required to do everything together, starting from gathering flowers for puja, performing pujas and other social rituals. The rituals teach the value of patience, sharing and caring, and symbolize the formal start of their lives as married companions.
Vat-Savitri Puja - This ritual is practiced by married women every year to celebrate the story of Savitri who, through her devotion, wit and faith, brought her husband, Satyavan, back to life. According to the story, the Lord of Death, Yamraj, was confronted and outwitted by a determined Savitri when he tried to take away Satyavan’s life. Ultimately, he had no choice but to resurrect Satyavan who also got back his kingdom as part of the boon given to Savitri. During the ceremony, women walk around a banyan tree (Vat), tying thread around it and praying for the long life of their husbands.
Chaurchan (worship of moon) – This is celebrated by both men and women during the months of Bhado-Chaturthi (August-September). Various kinds of aripans are drawn, and couples worship the moon after fasting.
Jitiya (ritual for longevity of the offspring) – Mothers perform this puja for the well-being of their children after observing a nirjala (without water) fast all day. They also retell stories of divine beings, including many about Shiv, Parvati and their son Ganesh in particular.
Kojagara – This is considered one of the most auspicious festivals of Mithila. People gather and light wick lamps to worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The festivities go on through the night as it is believed that when Lakshmi descends she asks, “kah jagara (who is awake?)”. It is a special ritual for those who have been recently married or have just had their sacred thread ceremony. Newly married men receive gifts from their wife’s family.
Chhath – This festival is celebrated on the sixth day of Diwali and involves the worship of the sun. On the first day of this festival, men and women stand knee-deep in a river or pond to worship the setting sun. Early next morning, while it is still dark, they once again stand in cold water to greet the first rays of the rising sun and offer oblations. Various offerings of fruits and homemade treats are made, while the worshippers themselves are supposed to maintain a strict fasting schedule. Family and friends gather to help support the devotee who is performing the ritual.
Sama Chakeva – This is another popular ritual observed in Mithila. It is also commonly depicted in Mithila paintings. The ritual is observed only by women and is performed purely for entertainment. Women prepare different kinds of dolls and idols and sing songs while playing games. It is celebrated for the well-being of brothers.
Bhai Dooj (Bhai Dwitiya) – This too is a celebration of the relationship between brothers and sisters. Sisters offer gifts, betel leaves, betel nuts and water to their brothers in a special ceremony. They pray that their relationship may last forever, just like the River Ganga and the River Yamuna have flowed together through eternity.
All these rituals are performed in social groups to the accompaniment of art, music as well as instructions on the practical and ethical aspects of life. Entertainment, education, enrichment, arts and socialization go hand-in-hand in Mithila. As Yves Vequaud concludes, “…village life is strengthened and sustained by the universal prevalence of social gathering, traditional story-telling, dancing and singing festivities and ceremonies, processions and rituals.” (Vequaud, 1977) The essence of Mithila art is not contained in the objects of art that can be viewed and admired but in the process that brings communities and families together. The making of a Mithila painting is a conscious effort to relate to society and its hallowed traditions. In doing so, Mithila art is less an expression of an artist’s individualistic style and more a blending of the creative spirit of the individual with that of the collective.
Archer, Mildred. 1977. Indian Popular Painting in the India Office Library. London: H. M. Stationery Office.
Archer, William G. 1949. ‘Mithila painting’, Marg, 3(3), 24-33.
Archer, William G. N.d. William G. Archer Collection. India Office Library, London.
Heinz, Carolyn Brown. 2006. ‘Documenting the Image in Mithila Art’, Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 22 (2): 5-33.
Jain, Jyotindra. 1994. ‘Ganga Devi: Tradition and Expression in Mithila (Madhubani) Painting’, in Perceptions of South Asia’s Past, eds. Catherine B. Asher and Thomas R. Metcalf, pp. 148-160. New Delhi: Oxford and IBH Publishing Co.
Madhok, Punam. 2005. ‘The Interplay between Marriage, Ritual, and Art in Mithila’, The Virginia Review of Asian Studies Vol. VIII: 227-241.
Vequaud, Yves. 1977. The Women painters of Mithila. London: Thames and Hudson.