The district of Madhubani, Bihar has become famous as a centre of extraordinary art, thanks to the efforts of several ordinary, yet highly talented and determined women. Traditionally used to decorate houses, these paintings have now gained worldwide recognition. Materials such as cowdung, mud and natural colours are applied to create intricate designs consisting of geometric shapes, symbols, figures of nature and gods and goddesses. Initially encouraged as a source of income after the drought of 1960s, this art is now reproduced commercially to create a variety of products made of cloth, paper and canvas.
Three generations of women in Madhubani’s Ranti village have been the foremost proponents of this art. The journey began with Mahasundari Devi, a talented artist with no formal education, and was continued by her sister-in-law, Karpuri Devi. In the earliest years women were confined to their homes, restricting their artwork to the four walls of their households. Mahasundari’s work was first acknowledged in 1976 with a felicitation from the Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir, following which their work came into the mainstream. It has also been showcased in Japan.
Dulari Devi, who is a pioneer of the next generation, is a shining example of the Guru-Shishya tradition. Beginning her journey as a household help in the home of the above mentioned women, she became one of their best students. Belonging to a lower strata of society, the Mallahs (fisherfolk) she actively works for the upliftment of children from her community.
The third generation of artistic young women are more articulate, educated and confident, although they still have to battle societal pressures. Some of them are recipients of scholarships from the Ministry of Culture, using their art to showcase social conflict and discrimination that is prevalent in modern society.
Apart from these women, who have primarily represented the upper strata of society, there are also talented artists from amongst untouchable communities such as Jamuna Devi and Mitar Ram who are lending a new dynamism to the art form. Almost as if to unshackle themselves from the historical constraints imposed on them, their concepts are fresh, doing away with the conventional designs, almost wild in their expression.
In recent times, Madhubani has transcended the boundaries of art and has transformed into a form of collective expression. The artists have been addressing problems such as deforestation by painting treespainting trees with the images of Gods and Goddesses, not only saving them from being chopped down, but also adding to the tourism potential.