A celebration of culture and traditions, Madhubani art has gradually become a means of bridging the gap between myth and reality, especially for the female artists. Traditionally used to decorate the wall of the homes during festivals, and occasions of birth, marriages and other religious ceremonies, themes of Madhubani paintings sketch has evolved significantly with diverging narratives, with now expressing the societal problems and the predicament of every young woman anticipating a progressive future, where their rights and contributions are recognized and not underpinned by patriarchal stereotypes.

Rooted in the ancient times of Ramayana,  it is believed that King Janaka asked the artists of his kingdom to paint his daughter Sita’s grand wedding to Lord Ram. It is practiced primarily by the women living in the region of Mithila in Bihar and Nepal, who used to decorate the floor (aripana) and mudwalls (kohabar) of their homes for auspicious ceremonies and festivals. Characterized by intricate geometrical, floral patterns and form and vibrant natural colors on the canvas, Madhubani paintings employ natural tools as well including twigs, nib pens, matchsticks and often the fingers.

Now Madhubani art is not limited to representing mythology, rural life or folklore but it has extended its arena. Now, it plays a prominent role in empowering the women of the community as well as in bringing change in societal practices and countering the practice of deforestation. Tracing the origin and evolution of this art form, it would be right to say that Madhubani painting is part decoration, aesthetics and part remark on the existing social practices, at the same time recording the lives of rural women in a patriarchal society where reading and writing are skills reserved only for men of upper castes.

Here’s a list of seven women Madhubani artists that you should know about:

1. Sita Devi

A pioneering Madhubani artist, Sita Devi showcased the nature and influence of the arts in the socio-political development of benighted rural India. With her untiring efforts, she brought the bharni form of Madhubani paintings out of homes and exhibited it in public both across India and the world. Her contributions were officially recognized by the Government of India in 1981 and she was awarded the civilian honor of Padma Shri.

It was the efforts, popularity, strong determination, and commitment of Sita Devi that got her not only global recognition but also paved the way for the development of her village Jitwarpur as she always demanded. Her success gave her village its first primary and later secondary school, concrete roads, and electricity poles. Later, she also undertook a project of teaching Madhubani art to 1000 villagers for their social and financial empowerment.

2. Godawari Dutta

Born in pre-independence India, Godavari Dutta inherited the Madhubani art from her mother. She has worked significantly in improvising the art form and taught more than 50,000 students and artists from across the country in about 35 odd years of her career. She made headlines when she was awarded Padam Shri at the age of 93 by the Government of India owing to her contributions towards this art form making it a part fo Indian heritage.

Taking her mother’s legacy forward she participated in exhibitions across the country and also visited Germany and Japan several times to present her Madhubani paintings. Gradually, her work became extremely popular and she earned global accolades. Later in the 1980s she started her own educational institutes to impart skills and train the artists.

Being associated with the art from for long, she has witnessed drastic changes in the art form. With the acrylic colors replacing the natural colors and mass reproduction of Madhubani paintings unlike in the past when no two artworks would be the same.

3. Mahasundari Devi

Barely literate, she learnt Madhubani art from her aunt and married a school master at the age of 18. Shedding her purdah (veil), the Hindu tradition prevalent at that time, it was in 1961 that she picked up the brush to practice the art form. Gradually creating her own niche, she inspired the future generations to empower themselves. What’s most remarkable about Mahadunadari Devi is her efforts to support the artists and art, she founded the cooperative society of Mithila Hastashilp Kalakar Audyogki Sahyog Samiti.

Depicting the struggles of a Maithil girl in her painting, she highlighted the challenges that women were facing in the society. This inspiring artwork made her win her first award from the Bhartiya Nritya Kala in 1976. Later in 1982, she was recognized and awarded by the president of India for her untiring efforts and commitment to art. She was also honored with the civilian award of Padma Shri in 2011 for her paramount contribution. She was renowned for her expertise in sikki work, sujani craft, and clay work. She died in 2013 at the age of 92 but her legacy and artwork are kept alive by her sister-in-law Karpuri Devi and granddaughter Pushpa Kumari.

4. Malvika Raj

While Madhubani paintings sketch still retains its traditional essence of  illustrating scenes from Hindu mythology and folklore, the young Dalit artist from  Samastipur region of Bihar, Malvika Raj is making waves with her representation of the genre with an innovative twist centered around Buddha’s epoch and Hindu narratives. A graduate from NIIFT, Mohali, she draws her most inspiration from the Kobhar form of Madhubani and creates paintings depicting the life and stories of Lord Buddha, Dalit leader Babasaheb Ambedkar and several other revolutionaries close to her heart. Her inventive painting of Ambedkar’s life narratives including the caste humiliations he faced, have been displayed at the prestigious University of Edinburgh.

However, her idea of using Madhubani art to represent her narrative has not been accepted with an open heart by the mainstream community and has attracted its part of controversy as well as criticism. Owing to the inclusion of elements of her Dalit community in the art, she has raise the furore of many of many communal and political groups for causing a shift from the traditional depiction of Hindu mythology and deities in art.

5. Dulari Devi

Dulari Devi proudly takes the legacy of her mentors Mahasundari and Karpuri Devi forward with her stunning Madhubani paintings. Belonging to the traditional fishermen community of Mallah, she got acquainted with her mentors while working as domestic help at their homes.

While doing her routine cleaning chores at Karpuri Devi’s home, she often got mesmerized by the beautiful and intricate works of Madhubani art and wondered if she could learn the art form. So one day she gathered the will to ask Karpuri Devi outright, who agreed to teach her. Hence, changed her life from being a daily wager to an artist.

Transforming the traditional Madhubani art and expanding the limited palate from primary colors, she has created works in her own distinctive style. Although being illiterate, with her collaborative efforts with Gita Wolf, she even published her biography titled ‘Following My Paintbrush’. With her artwork, she attempts to work extensively to educate the children of the Mallah community for a better life.

6. Pushpa Kumari

Born in 1969, Pushpa Kumari was raised under the guidance of her grandmother, Mahasunderi Devi, a prolific Madhubani artist. Her artworks illustrate social issues and challenges but with a spiritual perspective. Her emotional intensity and approach towards social issues of HIV, female foeticide, or even mythology make her stand apart from her artist counterparts.

Not only does she represent the world she inhabits, but also renders her own understanding of these issues in an interesting fashion retaining the traditional style of painting. The personal and political interpretation of the theme through subtle details, elements or dramatic expressions adds life and meaning to her art.

7. Mahalaxmi

The legacy of these prolific Madhubani artists is carried forward with the rise of a generation of young artists who illustrate their personal narratives and experiences, most of which are influenced by their specific gender. Mahalaxmi is one of the young artists from that generation who attempts to use her art to steer a discourse around the everyday problems of women such as street harassment, molestation and lack of education and opportunities. A recipient of an art scholarship by the Ministry of Culture, she strongly believes in feminism and works to represent the traditional Madhubani art to highlight the traumas and challenges of women.

On being questioned by her mentors about her lack of emphasis on mythological significance and other traditional concepts in her work, she instantly replied that the tales of the past always portray women as dependents waiting to be liberated by the men, but it’s time that they stand for themselves, and break the shackles of patriarchy and walk with their male counterparts with confidence and pride.

Wrap Up

Undoubtedly, with time, women artists are perfectly bridging the gaps between personal, political, and professional lives. Transforming with time, their artworks are not mere pieces of beauty but a reflection of their struggles and challenges as well as realities that defy the patriarchal structure that they inherited. Using their art, they have redefined the art form in their own distinctive manner at the same time carving a niche of their own and creating their own history!