Madhubani is a form of painting that originated in the Mithila district of Bihar state in India. As an art form, it is believed to be nearly 3000 years old. Traditionally this form of painting was undertaken solely by women to decorate the walls and floors of their village huts. The greatest efforts were spent in decorating the ‘kobbar ghar’ or the nuptial chambers for the newly wedded bride and groom to enjoy.
The walls were first prepared by plastering them in cowdung, after which they were white washed and then covered in rice paste. The main parts of the paintings were often given to the most talented painter. However everyone, apart from the men, played a part in decorating different areas of the walls. Paintings were often painted in a centrifugal way – starting from the centre and then moving outwards.
The paint was made from locally available plants and roots. In his book on the history of Indian paintings, Krishna Chaitanya explains how the dyes were obtained. Blooms of the ‘Kusum’, which is found growing in the wild grass, provided the scarlet colour. Kusum, when left to darken, turns to a deep Sienna. The juice of the banana leaf mixed with lime and milk gave a soft gold dye. Turmeric was used for a dark yellow shade. Smoke captured from the charcoal fire gave a rich black. Flowers from the ‘Palasa’ plant were often used for yellow, while green was obtained from certain climbers. The binding agent for the paints was made from goat’s milk mixed with the gum from the ‘Babool’ tree. A sharpened twig of bamboo served as the brush and rags of cloth were used to colour larger areas. Because the paints were freshly made, the paintings acquired a unique radiance.
Nowadays these paintings have acquired a commercial aspect and are now done on paper with chemical paints being commonly used. It was during one of the exhibitions on handicrafts in India, that I first came across the Madhubani paintings. I hadn’t come across this style of art before and liked the combination of strong colours and intricate designs. The photos shown are of the paintings that I purchased. Unfortunately this traditional art form is no longer used to decorate the walls in Mithila. Otherwise how amazing it would have been to see the walls of a hut covered with these radiant designs – all done to welcome a new bride.