It was rural Mithila’s own feminine magic, the large-eyed Gods on wall paintings that the British colonial officer, William G Archer discovered in 1934. And now Manisha Jha revels in it across the world
It was her teenaged daughter who pointed out to Manisha Jha that the public transport bus in New York sported her logo.
It was an insignia representing a Madhubani design – as a symbol of the city’s call for respecting its multi-dimensional, inclusive cultural texture.
“It felt really good,” beams Manisha with a true sense of elation while discussing the incident with this writer.
She has reasons to allow her chest to swell with pride. “Though Madhubani painting is a deep-rooted culture, it’s a wrong notion to believe that it is a household name in Bihar,” she clarifies.
“And to see it has travelled all the way to an alien land like the US! It is truly an exuberant emotion.”
That is an oxymoron, may be. For Madhubani, so rich in variety and themes and colours, an art form of the village women of the Mithila region of what is now known as the eastern Indian state of Bihar, is not so celebrated in India as it is abroad.
As Manisha’s daughter pointed out to her in a New York bus.
She explains how‑far from the much maligned, rather unruly and nearly lawless state of Bihar to the art galleries in the Capital city of New Delhi‑ the art has evolved to its present form.
“The deeply orthodox, conservative society that confined women to their homes and truncated their roles in life to household chores, child rearing, and managing family rituals, could only let its practitioners express their creativity as a ritual wall painting,” explains Manish, going into the socio-psychological roots of this art form
“It’s a tradition that was primarily a women’s domain, and remained restricted to some tradition-bound homes, where the advent of any and every festival manifested itself in this art on the freshly plastered mud walls and floors of the homes.”
Until some city-bred artists ‑ in her case, the self-taught discipline of her art‑took it to the metropolises for other art lovers to ponder on the unique blend of complex geometrical patterns, technique and strong depiction.
The times have changed and, of course, today there have been many male artistes making a living as Madhubani painters in the country.
With the passage of time, this painting as a form of wall art – which has a long history throughout the Mithila region‑ developed in the more recent work of art on paper and canvas that led to the term “Madhubani Art” being used alongside “Mithila Painting.
“The deeply orthodox, conservative society that confined women to their homes and truncated their roles in life to household chores, child rearing, and managing family rituals, could only let its practitioners express their creativity as a ritual wall painting,” explains Manish, going into the socio-psychological roots of this art form.
As she states, the class character of this art –and hence, the handicap – was that this society was steeped in religion, which formed the leitmotif of the depictions of the scenarios, the characters, mostly Gods.
“As a result of their limited exposure to the fast evolving world around them, our ladies faltered in developing the form and technique too, with many features remaining ossified and inflexible for decades.”
Barring a few of its original characteristics, of course.
“In fact, the human ‘eye’ portrayed in every original Madhubani painting has a distinctive feature of being the omniscient judgemental gaze of a deity keeping a watch, just the way every image of Goddess Durga Triyambakey signifies Agni, Surya and Chandra, and is, hence, perceived to be the supreme power.
West Finds East
It is a sad tale of Indian history and historiography that only Chinese Moroccans, Arabs, Greeks, French, Englishmen and others had to tell us about ourselves.
Or, when one Max Mueller had to reinvent the Vedas for us.
Thus it is that the world realised the richness of Madhubani art only when in 1934, the British colonial officer, William G Archer, while inspecting the damage caused by the massive earthquake in Madhubani district, discovered the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of homes.
Archer, who subsequently became the South Asia Curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, took black and white pictures of some of these paintings and gave the art form its much deserved recognition.
“In fact, he likened them to the works of modern Western artists like Picasso,” says Manisha.
It took another three decades for Madhubani painting to receive its official patronage in 1969, when the artist Sita Devi received the Bihar State Award and the National Award, as also, Jagdamba Devi became the first artist from Mithila to receive a National Award, and later, the Padma Shri.
Besides the two pioneers, many others such as, Ganga Devi, Mahasundari Devi, Shashi Kala Devi, Leela Devi, Baua Devi, Yamuna Devi, Shanti Devi, Chano Devi, Bindeshwari Devi, Chandrakala Devi, Godavari Dutta, Chandrabhushan (Rasidpur), Ambika Devi (Rasidpur)and Bharti Dayal have been honoured with the national award.
And now, with many Americans and Europeans evincing a keen interest in Bihar’s antiquity Santaous heritage of paintings, a few of them enrolling under Manisha Jha to submit their university doctoral theses, it’s time for the clarion call to all those who invariably look at the west for inspiration.
“Let this art form be introduced at the school level and universities, for the form to get noticed, appreciated and imbibed,” Manisha makes a fervent appeal.
In the same breath, she implores, “But, please, not the way, the city of Patna is infested with Madhubani art at kiosks, on the walls of public lavatories, public transport with film posters and other city announcements overlapping them. Instead of popularising art, it is most likely to cheapen it,” she warns.
Being a practitioner, teacher, academician and ardent lover of art, Manisha obviously knows more.
And rightly so.
After all, isn’t it Balance in Art that creates the visual equilibrium, where all the elements – line, movement, emphasis, texture, pattern, shape, colour, etc., ‑ are arranged in a composition so as to not allow one to seem look more overbearing than the other?
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Arnab has been a journalist and a keen film enthusiast, and has worked with some of the leading national dailies like Times of India, Hindustan Times and Mail Today. He has been a business journalist and later focussed on features specialising in stories on music, films, music & film personalities; art, culture, books, and social issues.