Mithila, a region in the state of Bihar, northern India (and also stretching into Nepal), has an important tradition of knowledge in the form of paintings. Madhubani paintings (also known as Mithila paintings) have been practised by the women of the region through the centuries and today it is considered as a living tradition of Mithila. The art not only depicts the social structure but also the cultural identity of the land with its depictions on themes of religion, love and fertility. The most renowned paintings in the world are those of Madhubani. This well-known form of art created in the Mithila region reflects the sensitivity and ingenuity of its inhabitants. Like all folk art, it exhibits the psychology of the culture to which it belongs and is a fascinating reflection of regional morality, beliefs, and practises. Using natural dyes and pigments, this ancient craft is created with the aid of fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens, and matchsticks and is distinguished by striking geometrical patterns. In a society where men predominate, the fact that these paintings are done primarily by women in the Mithila region has significant cultural significance. The Mithila region, specifically the villages of Jitwarpur and Ranti close to the city of Madhubani, is where the traditional painting style known as Madhubani paintings was born. Madhubani literally translates to “honey woodland.”
Dalit art has emerged as a means of protest and resistance as well as an endeavour to document the origins and severity of caste prejudice throughout history. Dalit artists from all throughout India have chosen sombre themes that highlight significant issues with oppression, discrimination, and supremacy as well as the triple burden they inflict on Dalit women. Women from the Dusadh and Chamar subcastes of the Dalit population in the Bihar region of Mithila mastered the art of Mithila painting, which differed from paintings by upper-caste women in theme and technique. Erika Moser, a German anthropologist, is to be credited for encouraging and directing Dusadh women to embrace the art in the 1970s and begin writing a new chapter of their social acceptance and financial independence. This led to Dalits being included in Mithila paintings. Moser, who is also a filmmaker and social activist, inspired the destitute Dusadh neighbourhood to paint. The outcome was the Dusadhs recording their oral history in bold compositions and figures based on conventional tattoo patterns, locally known as Godna, such as the exploits of Raja Salhesa and representations of their main deity, Rahu. The already thriving art community in the area gained yet another distinct new style as a result.
Author Raymond Lee Owens and publisher Moser provided financial assistance, and they also gave property in Jitwarpur for the project. People like Dr. Gauri Mishra were instrumental in establishing the Master Craftsmen Association of Mithila in 1977. During Owens’ lifetime, this organisation was quite active and collaborated with the Ethnic Arts Foundation of USA. As time passed, the previously oppressed members of the Dusadh community gained a lot of confidence from this art and its practise, boosting their self-esteem enough to engage in increasingly empowering political activities and discourses.
Jamuna Devi pioneered this painting style. Essentially, it is giving the paper a light gobar (cowdung slurry) wash to impart a lovely sullied appearance and feel, which enhances the beauty of bright colours. From a caste standpoint, it’s significant to note that the Chamars and the Dusadhs have ventured into Mithila painting as a full-time profession, in contrast to other scheduled castes of Jitwarpur village like the Malis, the Pasis, the Doms, and the Dhobis, who all stuck to their traditional professions. Jamuna Devi began painting in a new way as a result, and upper caste painters soon began to copy it as it gained popularity and demand in commercial markets. Jamuna Devi’s paintings gained an extraordinary luminosity from the Holi colours on cowdung-washed paper, catapulting her to fame. Large exhibitions including her mud frescoes and paintings were held in Japan, New Delhi, Patna, and Varanasi.
Men from the area were equally important in assisting women in creating their masterpieces by educating them about their cultural heritage and their gods and deities, such as Salhesa and Rahu. Ramvilas Paswan from the village of Laheriagunj and Roudi Paswan from the village of Jitwarpur were two of these individuals.
Godna, or tattoo paintings, is a significant subaltern art form. By examining the customs and practises of the Nat society, one can determine how this art developed throughout time. Since ancient times, the ladies of this village, known as Natins, have been skilled tattoo artists. The phrase “Godna” is used by Dalit women in Bihar to refer to Dalit emancipation, which they define as the eradication of caste and the restoration of manuski (dignity to themselves). Godna designs were painted as identifiers on the bodies of captives and upper caste people, especially in Bihar and Bengal. According to research by historian Claire Anderson, the majority of these tattoos were created by illiterate women from lower castes who drew imaginative patterns and numerals at the imperial rulers’ request.
But the prejudice Dalit women endured is also part of the story of Godna. According to the Manu rule, they were required to wear only jewellery made of iron and other inferior materials. In some ways, getting a tattoo violated this recommendation. As a result, Godna for Dalit women became a desirable medium for subaltern expression in addition to being the inversion of markers of identity. Simple black-and-white figures dominated the early tattoo paintings’ designs, which were mostly inspired by auspicious characters and symbols that were seen as lucky in the Nat culture. This is where Chano Devi, the pioneer of Godna paintings, made a significant contribution. Her husband, Roudi Paswan, made a vital contribution to the development of the art form. Chano Devi began illustrating Salhesa’s life story through her artwork with the help of her husband, giving the tattoo patterns further context. She also played around with natural colours to develop a more distinctive look. Later, these hues evolved to serve as the primary signifier of Dalit Godna paintings. The use of Holi colours was soon abandoned in favour of natural colours by other painters as well, giving rise to a brand-new, vibrant Godna (tattoo) painting style. These organic hues were mostly created using a base of cow dung combined with leaves, flowers, vegetables, barks, and roots.
Thus, the development of Dalit paintings helped to firmly establish Dusadhs and Chamars in the realm of folk art and gave them their own place in the social structure of the society’s cultural hierarchy.
Two of the famous Dalit Madhubani artist
Shanti Devi is a Madhubani painter who has won national awards. She is from the Dusadh caste in the Mithila region. She talks about her career as a painter in her Folkartopedia interview. She claims that she initially skipped school since she was born into a Dalit family. She was inspired to pursue an education after observing females from upper-caste households attending school. Her mother worked as a farmhand. She lacked the funds to send her daughter to school. Her mother also feared Dalits being denied an education due to traditional conventions. Even though Shanti Devi eventually attended school, she encountered casteism. Her teachers forced her to sit alone in class and enforced untouchability. Her upper-caste teachers frequently used racial insults. She managed to complete her matriculation despite all of the obstacles she encountered. When she was around 15 years old, she was married. Her husband’s family lacked a decent place to live and enough food to eat. Shanti Devi had observed her mother painting on her house’s walls. Even though her father-in-law was a painter, she had no idea that she might support herself by creating these paintings. The idea that she would someday work as a professional painter never even occurred to her.
In her hometown of Laheriaganj, her paintings were never appreciated. The upper castes held a monopoly on the arts. It needed a visiting American researcher to see her potential and give her encouragement. Why did she opt for this specific style of Madhubani painting? She claims that Dalits were prohibited from depicting the Hindu deities in paintings. She describes an event in which an elderly Brahmin man threatened to bring harm upon her and her husband if she persisted in painting Kali, Durga, Shiva, and Parvati. She then began depicting the nature and animals of the hamlet in her paintings. Later, she made the decision to depict Maina Sati, Macharkand, and Raja Sahlesh, the goddesses of their respective castes.
According to Shanti Devi, anytime someone asks about Madhubani art in the area, the upper-caste residents always point them in the direction of the upper-caste painters. Thus, Dalits are denied the chance to market their art. Shanti Devi gave her national award back to the President, stating, “If I don’t have a place to store it, what good is it to me?” The central government surprised her by giving her Rs 62,000 to build her home. Because they were envious, the upper caste residents of her hamlet put up a number of barriers to the construction of her house. Casteism is evident in the art, as Shanti Devi’s narrative demonstrates. Shanti Devi claims that untouchability is still practised and that upper castes consistently deny Dalits’ prospects. She is upset that the government held numerous Madhubani painting exhibitions as early as the 1980s, but that no effort was ever made to engage the illiterate Dalits who could not understand the advertisements.
In an interview with the Syracuse Arts Sciences channel, Dulari Devi describes her difficulties. She is a Madhubani painter from the Machuwara caste, which is an EBC (an extremely backward caste) that includes fishermen. She had previously performed housekeeping duties for an upper-caste painter. She longed to be one of the young women who painted the house when she saw them. It would take her some time to work up the nerve to inform her boss that she wanted to attend an art school. She could not have accomplished it on her own, even after receiving admittance and learning to paint. In 2013, she was given the State of Bihar Award for Excellence in Art. She also wrote the first Mithila painter’s autobiography, the acclaimed Following My Paintbrush (Tara Books, 2010). The stories of Dulari Devi and Shanti Devi make it clear that the Dalits and other backward castes are unable to pursue art as a means of support. The Dalit and other backward caste women had to battle both caste and gender restrictions in order to participate in the industry, whereas upper-caste women have traditionally been the Madhubani painters. Financial difficulties prevented these women from beginning a business, and the industry’s predominance by Brahmins and Kayasthas prevented their company from expanding. Many women from Dalit and other lower castes are aiming to become Madhubani artists today, following in the footsteps of Shanti Devi and Dulari Devi. This updated style of Madhubani painting serves as a tool for empowerment rather than merely as art. Dalit and EBC women can imagine taking part in the best international exhibitions and winning acclaim all over the world. Since merely receiving accolades won’t fill their empty tummies, they have made an appeal to the state and federal governments for assistance and recognition.
Rittika (she/they) practising therapist. Art, music and philosophy enthusiast ( “Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness… an empathy… was necessary if the attention was to matter” – Marry Oliver)