What is Folk Art?

The various kinds of media people use to express their feelings, emotions, and ideas are considered art. Similarly, folk art is an expression of the world’s traditional cultures. It is rooted in the traditions of the community and culture it comes from and expresses cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics. It encompasses a range of decorative or utilitarian media such as cloth, wood, paper, clay, metal, leather, and more. The artists’ creative skills reflect their community’s authentic cultural identity, rather than an individual identity. Folk artists learn skills and techniques through apprenticeships in informal community settings. Usually, the skills are handed down from one generation to the next to carry on a familial and communal business. Artists may also learn through formal education and training.

Folk art differs from modern art in the way that it may be used every day or reserved for high ceremonies and rituals. Most art forms are handmade or include handmade elements, accompanied by new, synthetic, or recycled components. It may be made for use within a community of practice or it may be produced for sale as a form of income and empowerment. Folk art includes forms of expressive culture like paintings, sculpture, origami, clothing, dance, poetry, songs, and foods. It reflects shared social and cultural issues and aesthetics. And since, traditions are dynamic, folk art may change over time and may include innovations in tradition.

In various genres of international art, the artist is allowed to unleash his/her imagination without such boundaries. Modern art portrays the theme of contemporary situations, landscapes, portraits, religion, expression of feelings, and so on. Traditional artists, on the other hand, have to be based on the social, religious, and cultural practices of the region. Although, we can see various examples of our art form being influenced by western styles; temples, sculptures, stone crafts, metal crafts, and inscriptions.

Folk art in Nepal:

Mithila paintings (also known as Madhubani paintings) are among the most famous paintings in the world. The popular art of the Mithila region expresses the creativity and patience of its people. It shows the psychology of the society to which it belongs. And like any folk art, it also reflects the morals, values, and customs of the region in an interesting and eye-catching way. This centuries-old art is done with fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens, and matchsticks using natural dyes and pigments. These paintings are predominantly made by the women of the Mithila region and thus signify a great deal in the then male-dominated society and its evolution to the current time.

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.

Read: The Historical Significance of Mithila Art


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. 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 to its uniqueness.

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 in 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 sart 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.

Read: Challenged Faced By Artisans In Nepal

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 toward 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.

Check out the popular NFT collection: Janani inspired by the Mithila Art!