Madhubani is famous the world over for its paintings. These are paintings that used to decorate the village house walls until it became interesting to the world from the point of art. People then started painting on paper and cloth for the international market. I have seen examples of such painting in galleries but it is quite an experience to sample it at source.
‘Where I can see some paintings?’ I ask the hotel receptionist.
‘There is an emporium downstairs but it is closed today,’ he tells me. It is Sunday.
‘I am more interested in visiting the factories or meeting the artists who make these paintings.’
‘You can go to Jitvarpur. There are many artists in this village.’
So I take a rickshaw to Jitvarpur. It is already late afternoon. Daylight may be around for another hour or so. There is a returning crowd from Jitvarpur that’s blocking the only narrow road leading to it. Progress is slow. I find out that there was some mela there today. Some sadhu had given his darshan. I see lot more women than men for some reason. Perhaps this sadhu has a way with women.
When I arrive at Jitvarpur, I walk into the village. The houses are all interesting. They are made of mud walls, thatched roofs, cane fences and thatched walls with a framework of cane. Their use of natural materials in various ways interests me a lot. Finally I ask someone about the paintings.
An old man takes me to his house. I take my seat outside on a broken plastic chair. He comes back from inside with a wad of paper paintings. I browse with interest. A small crowd of children, men and women gather around me. I pick out the paintings one at a time and ask a girl to explain. With such questions I learn a lot about Madhubani paintings.
There are broadly two types – kachni and barni. The former is black-and-white and it is mainly defined by bold lines, patterns and strong forms. The latter is colourful with both vegetable and mineral dyes used as colours. Thematically, the paintings are called either Mithila and Gondwa. Gondwa is defined by repetitive motifs that fill the canvas. One of the men defines Gondwa as ‘tattoo art.’
In general, the outlines are drawn first and colouring is done later. While paintings are generally bright coloured there is also the practice of scrubbing them with cowdung paste. This turns the canvas brown and mellows the colours. I personally liked the paintings coated in this manner with cowdung.
Themes are generally natural or spiritual. Trees, birds, tortoises, fish and flowers are some common motifs. Ras-leela is a common spiritual theme. Radha and Krishna make an interesting pair for many artists.
The old man, Ram Narayan Das, shows me many paintings. I finally buy a small one for Rs. 40. Then a 14-year old girl who has been patiently answering all my questions, Pooja Kumari, takes me to her house to show me her work. I walk past mud houses through a narrow lane. I arrive at a courtyard. In the verandah, on a charpoy are seated her grandparents. They make space for me. A few paces from where I sit a couple of bulls are munching on hay.
Soon I am joined by three generations of artists of the house. The man of the house comes out with his wife. Their children surround me as well. Pooja brings out her small collection of kachni paintings. Her themes are drawn from nature and fish in particular. Her younger brother, perhaps only 8, shows me some of his. Painting is done by everyone here, not just the women.
Paintings can take just a few hours or many weeks. Pooja’s grandmother tells a story. It seems that painting as it is today was a pursuit of a few many years ago. It was her mother-in-law’s grandmother who had popularized painting by her unique work and themes. Everyone is painting now in this village. Many have won national awards.
‘If you want, I can do a painting tonight. You can collect it tomorrow morning,’ tells me Pooja’s mother. Artists here are open to creating new work to suit your taste. I am not all that fussy. I don’t know much about paintings and much less about buying art. I buy a small fish-kachni piece done by Pooja. She set the price of Rs. 50 and I accept it without bargaining. She is pleased.
I thank them for their hospitality. It is past sunset and a little light lingers. I head past village houses but I am stopped by Prabhat Kumar Dutt. I am not likely to buy any more paintings but I follow him anyway to his house. It is already dark. I squat on the verandah. He goes in and comes out with his brother, sister and mother. Each one is carrying sheaves of paintings in various sizes.
A torch is brought out. Under torch light I am seeing painting after painting, mermerized by the magic of the artists here. The paintings I see in this house are simply stunning. It is like discovering a treasure. It is like that traveller who discovered Codex Sinaiticus in the depths of a monastery. I must have seen about 200 paintings.
Prabhat’s sister tells me that her favourite them is trees. She shows me a large kachni that depicts the Tree of Life. The details are beautiful. It has taken her an entire month to do this. It is priced at Rs. 2000. I don’t buy anything from them although these are clearly the best ones I have seen at Madhubani.
Prabhat tells me about one woman who made Madhubani famous by addressing the theme of untouchability. I wonder if this is the same women that Pooja’s grandmother spoke about. I thank them for their time. Though there is a clear commercial interest, I can see that the artists here take pride in their work. Art drives them towards creation. Commerce is just a secondary motivation.
I walk back to Madhubani in darkness. The crowds are gone. The stars are up. Rolled up in my hand are a couple of Madhubani paintings.