On teaching / learning folk arts – Madhubani Paintings

The following post on teaching / learning Madhubani painting is written especially  for educators, facilitators, teachers who are keen on introducing their students to this art form.  I hope the information, reflections herein can help in the teaching / learning not only of Madhubani painting but of other Indian folk arts as well, primarily  the visual.

Exploring any folk art is incomplete without arriving at some understanding of how we view the ‘folk arts’ in general. This might involve understanding the context of a particular art form; the way that art form is used by a specific community,  the common, shared understanding held by people about its creation and symbolism etc.  A discussion on the above can make the curriculum and the learning experience much more meaningful.  [Chalmers, G. (n.d.]

 At the outset, I would like to share a definition of folk art I find helpful.  “(….) primarily non-professional art practiced in any community by ordinary men and women in various walks of life, who have undergone no regular training or apprenticeship, who do not belong to any professional guilds, and do not practice it as a trade at the behest of others but for decorative and ritual use in their houses and communities.”  [ Subramanyan, G.K. 1976]
Last year, I decided to learn (teach myself and then my students) Madhubani painting.  Its colours and intricate nature had fascinated me for a long time.   Little did I know about the rich world of stories and symbolism that was to open up during the course of my exploration and practice of this art form.  After all, it is a folk art form deeply connected to and reflective of the lives and ways of people of the Mithila region.  It is, as all folk art can be said to be, an extremely “social” form of art.  [Chalmers, G. (n.d.]
A 28 X 40" Sita Swayamwar Chitravalee Mithila style I recently completed

A 28 X 40″ Sita Swayamwar Chitravalee in Mithila style that I recently completed

Prachi Dublay, exponent and scholar of tribal music and a singer, has remarked, “tribal music or folk music is shaped, influenced and is in constant dialogue with its surroundings. It is a response of humans to their environment and is a product of that very environment.”  Even though Prachi speaks of music, what she says can be applied to the entire gamut of folk arts.  K.G. Subramanyan (who we sadly lost in June 2016), in a 2003 talk titled, “Relating art and the environment” echoes a similar sentiment.  He speaks of folk art forms being an evidence of a live nexus, not only between man and man but man and nature, a quality absent in modern societies. According to him, serious art is one that grows out of and takes support from the environment and in return refines, enriches and safeguards it. [Subramanyan, K.G. 2003]  As per this description then, the folk art forms such as Madhubani paintings become art forms to be evermore specially nurtured.

Before moving on to teaching and learning, I will, very briefly, touch upon the value in the practice and exploration of folk art forms:

 Folk art forms help to understand the role of arts in not only perpetuating cultural values deeply cherished by a community of people but also questioning them:  Speaking particularly of Madhubani paintings, one can say it served in the ‘education’ of young girls as they learned about age-old folk stories, rituals, traditions, other culturally significant knowledge including utilization of the surrounding natural material in the making of intricate and geometric renditions of various themes ranging from Tantric symbols to their own emotional world to folk lore to socially relevant issues in the world around them.  The training received mostly by girls to make Mithila paintings was their ‘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 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 (unlike painting) the Kohabar ~ or Kohobarlekhna, where lekhana means to write or that what is written. [Thakur. U, 1982. P. 31).
 Various contemporary themes requiring urgent awareness and attention have also found their way in Madhubani paintings.  Here  one can see works in the Madhubani style that speak out against Purdah system, or of women yearning for freedom from inside of prosperous but confining homes, or of migration done by men for work and its impact on women and families left behind.  Female infanticide, unfair treatment meted out to the girl child, changes in societal norms and lives of women, difficulties faced by the population of senior citizens etc.
It is through these styles and expressions that common men and women embellished and made their environments special and beautiful using naturally available material.   Below is a picture recently taken by a friend during her stay in Madhubani.  One can see Shiva Shakti painted on a wall in the home of Dulari Devi, of Ranti village, Rajnagar, Madhubani.  Such examples abound even today.
(C) Maha Lakshmi 2016

(C) Maha Lakshmi 2016

An understanding of the arts is diversified and deepened with the exploration of such art forms.   For instance, one can become more attentive towards village arts and also the functional crafts. The sophistication, expertise and sheer diversity of these found across our country’s rural landscape is baffling. Additionally, there are the religious ritual arts such as icon-making, sculpture making, miniature and mural paintings of various styles of various regions. And then there is the work of contemporary artists who are the products of art schools and colleges.  Studying folk arts can help students understand how art forms express traditions, values and ideologies of a group of people and the impact that contexts and places where an art form is socially grounded has on the visual renditions. [Subramanyan, K.G., 1976]
It can offer a peek into the shared world-view of a group of people apart from their commonly understood purpose of art making and its impact on the community’s culture.  It can help get a glimpse of what a particular community valued, paid attention to, was concerned with and in doing so can help us better understand the human condition.
Through exploration of various folk arts, students can connect to the uniqueness of their own communities as well as others’. Looking at several Madhubani paintings during the course of my study, not only helped me understand the parts that make a typical, traditional painting but also facilitated my entry into a community’s religious, environmental and social lived-experience of this world.  Having very recently married into this community, it helps infinitely to have this artistic medium introduce me  to its folklore, rituals and symbolism.
Let us now take a look at how one can begin to explore / learn / teach this rich and deeply meaningful form of Madhubani paintings:
In traditional societies there weren’t any known art or craft schools. Apprentices learning under master craftsmen was the trend where students got initiated stage-wise into the crafts.   In the case of Madhubani paintings, mostly practiced by women, many women came together in the making of a single painting, usually led by the more experienced / senior woman of the household.  The training that girls received to make Mithila paintings was their
‘education’.  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].
What can a student belonging to an altogether different community, geography, culture but keen on learning about this folk art form do to have a meaningful experience stemming out of an authentic understanding?
I shall first detail out the steps I used to teach myself this art form subsequently sharing the curriculum an organizations has designed for the same.  
If one is an educator, facilitator, helping students explore this art form in present times, one could proceed thus:
1. Encouraging students to ‘Look’ at several, and I emphasize several Madhubani paintings.  The internet is a great and rich resource where images of Madhubani paintings abound.  Given that we are attempting to learn an art style that is very specific to a particular community and geography, that might be very far flung from one’s current location, the  access that a student has to images on the internet is indeed a blessing!  If one can see actual paintings, then that is ideal.  One could also browse books on the topic, the ultimate aim being exposure to several paintings.
‘Looking’ should ideally involve close observation of and attention to emerging patterns.  For instance:
  • What are some of the common features in the paintings falling under the category ‘Madhubani paintings” or, can one identify features that can be said to be essential for a painting to belong to this category?  It could be , for instance, elements that make up a painting: a madhubani painting is rarely complete without a border, flora and fauna, intricate patterns that fill up the surface etc.
  • What are some of its striking characteristics that one has noticed?
  • Is there a painting that seemed different than the ones seen so far? If so, why?  Does it still fall into the category of Madhubani paintings? If so, why? Are boundaries of the art form changing?
 The exercise of ‘looking’ through countless Madhubani paintings, helped me arrive at the following list that helped me grasp the type / style better:
  • Intricate border on every single painting.
  • Side profile of human forms was depicted majority of the times.
  • Almond shaped eyes of humans and other creatures.  White eye with black eyeballs.
  • The paintings not very refined in appearance, the figures appearing crude.  This reminded me of Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s narration of a story, During an exhibition of his works at the Jehangir art gallery, a woman visitor exclaimed his work was so simple that even her child could do it. The artist is said to have replied, “Yes. Anybody can do it. There’s an artist in everybody.” As Picasso is known to have said, it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.  There is an organic informality in the paintings.
  • Highly intricate paintings with lots of detailing.  Very little empty space in the paintings.  Emptiness is considered inauspicious, I found out as I read more about the art form and how it reflected people’s lives and beliefs.
  • Lots of flora and fauna (no matter what the story or theme), animals especially fish, birds, tortoise symbolizing fertility, erotic love etc.
  • Depiction of religious, mythological themes with contemporary artists depicting current themes.
  • A narrow but vibrant palette (Not that one cannot experiment with colours) Given that this art form used natural dyes and raw materials from nature to make paint, the colour range was limited. The colour palette is one of the defining features of this art form.

2. Simultaneously, reading literature (books, articles, websites), meeting artists if possible, meeting people of the community in order to understand the history, socio-cultural context of this art form and its iconography is extremely critical.  This is a very crucial step in order to bring authenticity to one’s work and make informed paintings. One can better understand, for instance why in a painting depicting marriages, fish or a clay elephant are an integral part, what does the bamboo plant stand for, what is the significance of the lotus etc.   Every painting depicting a particular theme has elements in whose absence the painting would be considered incomplete.

To know more about this aspect of the art form you can access an article here.  (You can access several other resources about the art form through this article)

3. Training one’s hand to draw the intricate patterns special to Madhubani paintings:  The oft seen detailed patterns and shapes in Madhubani paintings can be made easy, fun, helping the practitioner to focus attention, gain steadiness of hand as one loses oneself in the mindful making of scallops, lines, dashes, dots, waves etc.  What helped me tremendously was a website that showcases typical patterns that make up Madhubani paintings

– Patterns helpful for Madhubani – 1

– Patterns helpful for Madhubani – 2

[Love Madhubani (2013) Blog Post]

The above resource helped me practice and familiarize myself with the range of shapes and patterns that I can refer to during making of a painting.  I have made three such sheets full of patterns, that acts like a Madhubani painting vocabulary, and at times when I feel I am unable to think of new designs or patterns to fill up my paintings with, these sheets comes to my rescue giving me ideas and helping me move forward.

4. Practicing Madhubani on a presented outline:

A facilitator could provide students with outlines, that students can practice filling and adding color to. Example:

Courtesy: artsycraftsymom.com

Courtesy: artsycraftsymom.com

5. Choosing to make one’s own painting:

Steps 1, 2, 3 and 4 may not necessarily happen in a linear fashion.  They can happen simultaneously.   However, it is important to understand and build upon one’s knowledge of the culture and context of this art form at all times.

Finally a student can choose her own theme to paint.  She might benefit from planning her painting thus:

– The theme

– Size of the painting and the surface to be used (whether paper, cloth, wall, furniture etc.)

– Orientation of the surface (vertical or horizontal depending on the theme and elements to be included)

– Border pattern

– The various elements and their placement in the painting  (Example:  Trees, Peacocks, 2 women etc.)

The Mithila Art Institute’s core team designed a curriculum to train young people in this art form.  “The first six months focus on control of materials, figure drawing, Maithil culture and command of the traditional iconography. In the last six months, students are free to paint traditional or contemporary subjects. Most do both”.

The Institute’s curriculum focuses on classic Maithil aesthetics, care of execution, and on encouraging students to think of themselves as artists. The goal is to develop the students’ skills and to use the distinctive Mithila aesthetics and iconography to create paintings that are rooted in the tradition but that also express the artist’s interests, experiences, and concerns.

The students are asked to write brief descriptions of their paintings in Hindi or English on the back of their work to facilitate discussions with visitors and potential buyers. They are also encouraged to visit local cultural sites, meet with established artists, and participate in the Institute’s professionalization workshops. Run by visiting artists, these teach the use cameras and computers, and how to document one’s work, improve presentation skills, and combine art and family life.

Watch their lovely video here.


[1] Chalmers, G. (n.d). [Presentation]. How to teach folk arts to young people: The need for context.  Retrieved from http://locallearningnetwork.org/index.php/download_file/-/view/280/

[2] Subramanyan, K.G. (2003). [Talk].  Relating Art and the Environment.  Retrieved from http://www.aaa.org.hk/Collection/CollectionOnline/SpecialCollectionFolder/2144

[3] Mishra, K. (n.d.) Mithila Paintings: Past, Present and Future. [Government Report]. Retrieved from http://www.ignca.nic.in/kmsh0002.htm

[4] Thakur, U. 1982. Madhubani Painting. Abhinav publications.

[5] Love Madhubani (n.d.) 43 Madhubani Border Designs. [Blog Post].  Retrieved from http://lovemadhubani.blogspot.in/

[6] Mithila Art Institute. Website. Retrieved from https://mithilaartinstitute.org/Home/Index

[7] Subramanyan, K.G. (1976). [Talk].  Art Education in India.  Retrieved from http://www.aaa.org.hk/Collection/CollectionOnline/SpecialCollectionFolder/2144

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