Mithila is a form of folk art traditionally practised by women in the Mithila regions of Nepal and India. Mithila, the Maithili-speaking territory in Mid-west Nepal and some places in Bihar, India, was a very highly educated country thousands of years ago. The origin of Mithila art is rooted in the legend of King Janak ordering his subjects to paint the walls of homes to welcome Lors Ram when he came to ask for his daughter Sita’s hand in marriage. The country was very rich in arts of its own type and style, which now we know as Mithila Arts.
Then, Mithila paintings (also known as Madhubani paintings) were done at weddings, festivals, and feasts. The artists were mostly women of the family, who oversaw the responsibility of decorations in their respective homes. They are done in primary colours of natural origin using flours, clay, and cow dung on hand-painted wall hangings, wooden stools, miniature paper and leaves, stone pottery, bamboo and leather goods, and applique work. As it evolved, the centuries-old art form has now gone commercial, enabling female artists to hone their skills. What was passed down from one generation of mothers to the next generation of their daughters, gives them financial independence, recognition, and respect within Nepal, and increasingly, across the world.
The history of Mithila Art:
The birthplace of Sita, Janakpur cradles the Mithila civilization. The Indian sub-continental epic of the Ramayana is considered to be the origin of the Mithila art. It is believed that King Janaka of Mithila hired local artists to decorate the town of Janakpur with a unique art form for the wedding of his daughter Sita to Lord Ram. Centuries of modern democracy and appreciation for folk art have revitalized the heritage, culture, and traditional art of Mithila. However, it was only when the Panchayat regime ended in 1990 that this art form began garnering international attention as one of the Nepali folk arts. As the art evolved, the paintings became more than a way to beautify homes and provided women with a creative outlet to tell the stories of their lives.
Elements in Mithila art:
Traditionally, the Mithila painting was one of the skills that were passed down from generation to generation of women in the Mithila region. There were different varieties of Mithila paintings done on walls coated with mud and cow dung. It bore precision and skills to bring forth the symbolic representation of the subject depicted. This credits its uniqueness.
Mithila art is a kind of traditional painting that reflects the natural environment including animals, people, lifestyle, tradition, and culture of the local people. It is also a pattern of men being the primary subjects of depiction in the paintings and their association with nature. Some include scenes of religious legends and deities from ancient tales. Natural objects like the Sun, the Moon, the Tulsi plant are also widely painted, as they hold much religious and cultural significance in Hinduism. Some also feature scenes from social events like weddings, in the royal and local senses.
What makes Mithila art so special and beautiful is that there is no space left in the canvas of choice. The gaps are all filled by paintings of flowers, animals, birds, and even geometric designs of a variety of colours. The paintings are all narrations of mythological and religious events done with fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens, and even matchsticks. The colours are of natural origin and customized using dyes from plants and mud.
Some widely painted images of deities include Vishnu, Ganesh, Radha, Krishna, and of course Sita, and Ram. Particular occasions like birth or marriage, and festivals such as Holi, Surya Sashti, Kali Puja, Upanayana, Durga Puja are depicted too.
Colours used in Mithila art:
The artists of Mithila, generally women, use different local colours in their art. They use bright and vibrant colours which makes their art stand attractive and eye-catching. Generally, they use bright red, yellow, and black colours accompanied by green, orange, brown, blue, and white. The three primary colours red, yellow, and black are very natural. The artist women derive the colour black from soot, the colour red from local clay, and the colour yellow from petals of flowers or turmeric. These indigenous colours make the art attractive, lasting, and inexpensive.
They prepare vegetable colours from different flowers, fruits, bark, and roots. The colours become durable and adhesive after mixing in the gum which is also prepared naturally from the Babul tree. Black is easily obtained from lamp or fire soot and is easily dissolved in hum water. A light colour is obtained by mixing cow-dung and gum in freshwater. The bark of the Peepal tree is dried in the Sub and boiled in water until it gives a pink colour. The blue colour is obtained by crushing the berries of wild herbs. They also use watercolour mixed with rice flour (called ‘pithar’ in the local language) and vermillion (‘sindur’ in the local language).
The artists then use these colours to bring their imagination and vision to life on paper.
Status of Mithila art today:
The ancient Mithila Kingdom territory lies on both sides of the Nepal-India border today. Recently, there has been a renaissance of Mithila literature, dance forms, and art. The Mithila art piques the interest of art lovers in different countries across the world, namely, the USA, Australia, the UK, and Russia. The art form has gradually evolved to fit the modern art standards and to become palatable to worldwide appreciators. Various day-to-day items like bags, cushions, coasters, mugs, crockery and murals feature the genius of Mithila art. The most popular is the home decor in the form of prints for table linens, napkins, lampshades, posters, and wall hangings. You can also find notebooks, greeting cards, wrapping papers, and wallpapers.
This is not to say that the artists behind the Mithila artforms live luxuriously. Most suffer from unpredictable fluctuations in the market. When art is becoming widely industrialized and printed mechanically for boosting sales, the business of local artists suffers a lot. Going through a middleman to sell their art and paintings in local and international markets doesn’t earn them as much profit as needed.
What is needed is official training and certification should be offered for Mithila training. Today, when Mithila painting as an art form is creating livelihood opportunities and attracting customers across the world, it becomes more imperative than ever to unleash its true potential. Local and big-scale exhibitions and fairs are required. There is still so much to explore in this centuries-old art form. Its expansion on a global scale can make women of Mithila drawn towards art entrepreneurship. There is already so much being done in this regard in Janakpur in Nepal and Madhubani in India. We must stay eager for the next round of commercialization for Mithila art.