The following article on Madhubani / Mithila Art is by no means exhaustive. Much has been written about this art form and continues to be. Information I have read has been varied and I have not exactly been able to verify every fact or detail. But I will continue to update this article with each piece of information I receive that will help represent this art form authentically and in all its astounding richness. Here, I have attempted to pool in information from various sources and attempted to make a list of them towards the end , but I am sure I have missed out on several other, probably more authentic ones. I hope you find this article somewhat informative.
Mithila paintings or Madhubani paintings as they are popularly known, are a centuries old folk art form of the Mithila region of the Indian state of Bihar.
The stories of its origin are varied, difficult to attest and rooted in mythology. It is said that, Tulsidas, a 16th century Bhakti poet, in his magnum opus the Ramcharitamanasa (literally, the lake of Lord Rama’s deeds) , makes a reference to Lord Siva’s wife Gauri / Parvati as having first made a painting of this nature for the wedding of Sita and Rama. Some stories talk of how Sita’s father, king Janaka, decreed that everyone should paint their homes with auspicious symbols to celebrate his daughter’s marriage with Rama, and thus, originated the Mithila Shailee (style) and so on and so forth. However, this art form is far from being bygone. Even today, Mithila art plays an important role in marriages and other ceremonies in Mithila and associated regions. Not to mention, the popularity of this art form the world over has only soared in the past few decades. This happened, when through the Government’s initiatives, women were encouraged to bring this art form from walls, where it was traditionally made, to paper for the purposes of sale and subsequent income generation in the aftermath of a severe drought that hit the region (1966 -68). It is now famous in India and abroad as Madhubani painting. Madhubani literally means the “honey forest” and alludes to the rich vegetation, flora and fauna believed to have existed in the region.
On observing the paintings, one finds a constant and generous depiction of flowers, trees as well as a variety of animals especially fish, peacock, parrots, elephants, birds, turtles etc. The inspiration that this art form and its artists draw from nature is strongly evident in the paintings. A student or viewer of Mithila paintinsg is additionally informed of the cultural knowledge – the rituals, traditions, festivals and ceremonies of the Maithils, the people of Mithila. This art form, in a manner characteristic of any folk art, is inseparable from the daily lives and living of the people who make it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that a serious student of Mithila art cannot afford to keep herself distant, not only from the traditions, rituals, ways of life and living of the Mithila people but also information regarding flora and fauna found in the region, means of making natural dyes and preparing walls or surfaces for painting. All these factors make Mithila art what it is and help it acquire, as Kailash Mishra puts it, a ‘distinct regional identification’. [Mishra, K. (n.d.) [Government report]]
Mithila paintings are mostly practiced by women and many women come together in the making of a single painting, usually led by the more experienced / senior woman of the household. This form of painting could have very well served in the ‘education’ of young girls as they learned about age-old folk stories, rituals, traditions, other culturally significant knowledge like utilization of the surrounding natural material in order to make art, intricate and geometric renditions of various themes ranging from Tantric symbols to their own emotional world to folk lore to the socially relevant issues in the world around them.
The training girls received to make Mithila paintings was their medium of education. Aripanas (floor designs / Rangolis) borrowed heavily from science, geometry and to be able to make intricate paintings a well developed sense of proportion, colour sense as well as a deep knowledge about rituals and traditions, all was required. Through assisting and making intricate Mithila paintings, a ‘parallel literacy’ developed, predominantly based on images with which women expressed themselves and their culture. [Mishra, K. (n.d.) Government Report] An oft heard phrase is that of women writing the Kohabar ~ or Kohobarlekhna, where lekhana means to write or that what is written. [Thakur. U, 1982. P. 31).
Women of the Brahman caste contributed to promote the style of Mithila paintings called Bharni. Their art can be said to be characterized by bright colours bordered with a bold, dark black outline. Decorating the kohobar-ghar (the bridal chamber where the newly wedded couple spends their first few nights) and depiction of gods and goddesses such as Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti dominate the themes. These women were known to have lived a relatively confined existence and were “made to adhere strictly to specific themes and symbols pertaining to the rituals.” [Madhubani Art (n.d.) Blog Post]. Bharni has minimal use of lines with very vibrant colours whereas the Kacchni style has more emphasis on intricate lines with muted colours, usually black and dull red and earth colours. (See examples below). Women of the Kayasth caste earned their name for their elaborate style of Mithila paintings that used plenty of lines and making paintings predominantly with outlines only. They depict village or religious scenes to the finest details. It is said that Brahmins prefer to use bright hues while the Kayasthas opt for muted ones, more lines and outlines.
The third group comprising of women of the Scheduled Castes or Harijans, are known to treat their surfaces with mud or cow dung prior to painting. [Nishith, N. (n.d.) Blog].
According to Neel Rekha, an art historian, in her dissertation titled, “Art and Assertion of Identity: Women and Madhubani Paintings” (cited in [Madhubani Art (n.d.). [Blog Post]), Harijan paintings broadly come under two styles – Gobar, or cow dung painting (made by Chamar caste that disposed carcasses), and Godana, or tattoo painting (made by Dusadh community who were agricultural laborers).
As surfaces, walls and floors were originally most common for Mithila paintings.
For centuries, the people of Mithila region have made ingenious use of raw materials that are abundantly available in their natural surroundings – also using nature as one of the inspirations for their beautiful paintings. The colours are natural hues derived from clay, barks of trees, flowers, berries, metals and vegetables. Example: yellow is prepared from turmeric or from chunam (lime) that is mixed with the resin of the banyan tree or banana leaves, black from burnt Jowar (Sorghum) or Kajal (Kohl), orange from the Palasa flower (Flame of the forest), green from the Bilva leaf or the Saim creeper [Madhubani Art (n.d.). [Blog Post]]. Plant resin was used with the colours, primarily as a binder, to make the paint stick. The colors used are usually deep red, green, blue, black, light yellow, pink and lemon although as mentioned previously, some painting styles used colours more boldly while others made use of muted shades and lines to fill up the painting.
Brushes that were meant to fill the tiny details are usually made out of bamboo twigs whereas those for filling colour in wide spaces were prepared from a small piece of cloth attached to a twig.
Mithila paintings abound in a wide range of themes – from Tantric beliefs to symbols of fertility and those ensuring healthy, fulfilling married lives to depiction of stories of brides and grooms, Gods and Goddesses and other mythical characters to daily village life lived by various castes to practiced rituals and traditions to social issues like bride burning / migration / female infanticide and much more, although this theme came much later.
Aripanas or floor patterns (Bhumi chitra)are made using the fingertips of one’s right hand and are made for many ceremonies such as thread ceremony (Upanayan) or first ear-piercing of a child (Karna- Chhedan) or first hair cut (Mundan) or festivals, marriages etc. They are made with the rice paste called Pithar or sometimes dry rice powder with turmeric and vermilion powder and take the forms called Astadala, Sarvatobhadra, Dasapata and Swastika. Some Aripanas are said to be associated with the Tantric cult while as Upendra Thakur states in his book, Madhubani Paintings, their subject matter can be broadly classified into i) images of human beings, birds and animals including fish, peacock and snake along with natural phenomena ii) flowers (lotus), leaves, trees and fruits iii) Tantric symbols iv) Gods and Goddesses such as Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Vishnu. [Thakur, U. 1982. P. 43, 44] One can know in further detail about Aripanas, what is presented here, being merely the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Upendra Thakur’s book, published by Abhinav Publications, provides information regarding Aripanas. It is sure to not disappoint the interested reader.
Wall paintings in Mithila art, unlike Aripanas do not primarily express anything metaphysical (ibid.) They are usually found in 3 places inside a house, example, the Goddess’ room (Gosauni-ka-ghara), the bridal or nuptial chamber (Kohbar-ghara) and the Verandah outside the Kohbar Ghara (Kohbarghara-ka-koniyaan) where friends of the bride and groom sit and laugh and have a jolly time.
For a largely accurate depiction of the Kohbar painting, visit here.
The Kohabarhghar paintings primarily revolve around a married couple’s life and marriage, after all it is the chamber (in the bride’s home) where the newly married couple is expected to spend the first few nights after their marriage – chaperoned and then alone. It is also the chamber, where marriages are consummated. The paintings depict symbols associated with fertility and good health. Example: fish, playful courting parrots, lotus flowers in bloom, parrots who are also the vehicles for the God of love and desire Kama, along with turtles, elephants and stories of Radha and Krishna. The Nayan-Jogini is a prominent theme in Kohbharghar paintings. This documents explains a Kohbharghar painting in detail. A lot has been written about the Kohbarghar paintings by Upendra Thakur as well.
Some of the classic elements of Mithila paintings are the borders of the paintings that are sometimes very elaborate, figures in profile, large almond shaped eyes, background of decorative branches and flowers and the fact that very little space, if at all, is left empty in any of the paintings be it of any style. The artists (common women folk, originally) also delivered strokes from brushes rather than any preliminary sketch.
You can view a range of beautiful Mithila paintings, that are described above, at the below sites:
1] For Tantric Mithila paintings of Krishanand Jha, with an informative write up, please see here.
2] A beautiful collection of paintings in various styles such as Bharni style, Godna style, Kachni style, Geru style, Gobar style, Tantric style, with some well-structured explanations here.
3] A collection of paintings by various artists from the Mithila Art Institute, founded by the Ethnic Foundation for the Arts, here.
4] Some more pictures here that have one particular image highlighting the different Bharni, Kachni and Gobar styles.
5] To see artist Rani Jha’s feminist perspectives in Mithila Art, where paintings are based on themes of female feticide, Purdah and confinement, dowry deaths, migration etc. please see here.
6] To see most of the classic elements attributed to Mithila Art, yet ones that expand the vocabulary of the art form, see here.
7] A collection of paintings by a single artist on a variety of surfaces such as cloth, recycled cans, prints on canvas, greetings, plant pots and saucers, wedding cards etc., here.
8] A range of paintings produced by an artist from Madhubani who seeks to marry the traditional with the contemporary, here.
9] An absolutely beautiful story, mostly in pictures of Lalita Devi and her parrot, here.
A list (by no means exhaustive) of notable organizations and Individuals active in the creation and preservation of Mithila Art:
7] Manisha Jha
Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India attempts to explore each subject in-depth and showcase its multiple facets giving its visitors options of reading, watching or listening their way through each topic. Following are the links they have curated on the topic of Mithila / Madhubani paintings:
Article: The Congruence of Tradition and Art-making in Mithila
 Mishra, K. (n.d.) Mithila Paintings: Past, Present and Future. [Government Report]. Retrieved from http://www.ignca.nic.in/kmsh0002.htm
 Thakur, U. 1982. Madhubani Painting. Abhinav publications.
 Madhubani Art. (n.d.). [Blog]. Retrieved from http://madhubanii.blogspot.in/
 Creative Mithila: The popular Madhubani Art from India. (n.d.) Origins. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://creativemithila.wordpress.com/
 Zirnis P. (n.d.). Mithila Painting. [Blog]. Retrieved from http://peterzirnis.com/