Through Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar, the #DoorsofIndia journey took me to a destination I have always wanted to explore—Madhubani. We drove 175 kilometres from Patna before sunrise to make it on time to the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani town.
Mithila art, popularly known as Madhubani painting, is an art form that the women of Madhubani learn at a tender age. It becomes a part of their traditional lesson as well as develops to a cultural accomplishment.
Only in 1966-68 it became a means of financial support. Due to the prolonged drought some artists sold their work for a commercial fee in order to sustain themselves. However, I have to admit, I adore the purpose that the art now serves. Jitwarpur village in Madhubani district has become the only village in the country from where three women in the field of art and culture have received Padma Shri. They have been Jagdamba Devi (conferred Padma Shri in 1975), Sita Devi (conferred Padma Shri in 1981) and Baua Devi (conferred Padma Shri in 2017). The other names include Mahasundari Devi in 2011 (from Ranti village), and Ganga Devi in 1984.
When I reached Mithila Art Institute, I first met Kaushik Jha, the Chief Administrator and General Manager of the Institute. He had patiently answered all my questions through my research and helped me connect with the families of these eminent women. He also introduced me to Vineeta Devi, a Madhubani artist and a teacher at the Institute. She lives in Ramnagar and learnt the art from her grandmother. Her work has been exhibited internationally and cheerfully explained the process of the art itself to me. She sketched the auspicious Shanti Kalash on a piece of paper as she explained its significance to me. Drawn above the main door of the house, the Kalash would have two pairs of fish in the lower section and conch above it. This was believed to usher in positive energy and remove negativity from the house. These designs are no longer seen on the new concrete houses though.
We drove off 4 kilometres away from Madhubani town to Jitwarpur first to visit houses of Baua Devi, which shares its space with an HDFC ATM. Walking into the village, I came across the concrete home of Sita Devi which is now inhabited by her sons and their families. After a quick look at her Padma Shri awards kept in a glass shelf, I continued to explore the other mud houses of the village.
But it wasn’t until Mahasundari Devi’s house in Ranti did I enjoy a panorama of the art across the walls. A mix of the old mud house with the new age plastered walls, her house has been beautifully designed with figures of Radha-Krishna, Goddess Lakshmi, Ganesha, flowers and peacocks, amongst others. These have been painted by Bibha Das, Mahasundari Devi’s daughter-in-law, and her companions.
After getting a cue from the women here, I headed to the neighbouring ‘dori’. This was an open courtyard where women of Shilp Sangh worked to complete their projects or creations. Shilp Sangh is a cooperative society which trains, employs women painters to enable by providing livelihood opportunities on a sustainable basis. They were working on a number of fabrics to produce garments like saris or stoles to home decor items like wall hangings. They spend about 5-6 hours every day here, painting and creating received orders and for their skill here they are financial compensated. The women I met here were across age groups, outspoken and confident.
As I drove away from Shilp Sangh, I realised how Mithila art has evolved as purpose in the lives (women and men) here. In the past, it may have been an accomplishment on a woman’s resume for an upcoming alliance. Then it graduated to her source of independence and financial liberation. But from most of my conversations in Madhubani, I understood that it now gave their lives a meaning or a direction. This is very subjective. Some of them use the art to showcase their creativity or pencil a cause they feel deeply connected with. Some of them use it to see themselves in the national and international league of artists. And for some it is the reason they come out of their houses, meet other women and share a credible bond of companionship.
Do you know of lives that have been enriched by art?