India: Capturing The Different Strokes of Women Madhubani Artists


Rajnagar, November 14 (Women’s Feature Service) – At first glance, it seems to be just another nondescript rural hamlet in India – acres of flat, green agricultural land, stacks of harvested crops by the roadside, a small cluster of modest dwellings … Yet, this rather plain countryside has a remarkable history and heritage. It is home to one of the most intricate, colourful and expressive traditional art forms – the Madhubani.

Ranti village is where the “barely literate” Mahasundari Devi shed her purdah (veil) and picked up the brush to make a name for herself as one of the foremost practitioners of a fine art that typically draws its inspiration from Hindu mythology or scenes from everyday rural life. Today, the great artist may be no more but her sister, Karpuri Devi, lives and paints there along with several other women who are keen to take the legacy forward.

Meet Karpuri, 86, Dulari, 49, and Mahalaxmi, 26, three generations of women artists from Ranti in Bihar’s Madhubani district, who are generously using the characteristic colours of the Madhubani to give this ancient art form their own new twists. An evocative photo essay by Tahir Ahmed.

As one undertakes the five-mile drive from the quaint railway station at Madhubani, going past stretches of green fields dotted with grain stacks now ruined by the Cyclone Hudhud, to reach Ranti village in Rajnagar block of Madhubani district in Bihar, what instantly catches the eye of the weary traveller is the beautiful Madhubani art that adorns walls of the humble homes. The villages of Ranti and neighbouring Jaitpur are well-known in this region for being the epicentre of the Madhubani art form. Traditionally, exquisite Madhubani paintings are created by groups of women.

madhubani art on a home wall
A beautiful example of Madhubani art adorning a wall on a humble home

This is Karpuri Devi, 86, younger sister-in-law of the renowned Madhubani artist, Mahasundari Devi, whose name is synonymous with this folk style. Sitting in the veranda of her single storey home, which she has painted with ornate patterns and figures in Madhubani, Karpuri reminisces about the days when she had first picked up the brush, “Decades ago, women in the village were not allowed to step outside the confines of the home. We had to be very discreet about our work. Typically, we used twigs, brushes, matchsticks or nib-pens to make paintings with themes from the Ramayana or what we saw of daily life around us. For years, the wall was our canvas. Paper came much later.”

Karpuri Devi
Karpuri Devi, 86, younger sisterin-law of the renowned Madhubani artist, Mahasundari Devi

Karpuri Devi strongly believes that it is from their ancestral home in Ranti that Madhubani has gained real popularity across India and around the world. It started off with Mahasundari, who received her first felicitation in 1976 from the Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir for her work that depicted the struggles of a Maithil girl. With every passing year, their repertoire grew and by the 1990s, both Mahasundari and Karpuri had created their own niche and name in the world of Madhubani art. Their works, commissioned by the government of India, also found a place in the famous Mithila Museum in Japan.

Madhubani art
Madhubani art

From the window of the room where Mahasundari and Karpuri once created their masterpieces one can spot the home of Dulari Devi, 49, one of the duo’s most celebrated students. Belonging to the poor mallah (fisher folk) community, she had first stepped inside their home as a domestic help. She shares, “While doing my routine cleaning chores I used to observe them painting these beautiful, intricate works of art and many a time used to wonder whether they would teach me as well. So one day I asked Karpuri Devi outright. To my great surprise, she readily agreed! In an instant, I was transformed from a daily wager to an artist.”

Dulari Devi
Dulari Devi, one of the most celebrated students of Mahasundari and Karpuri

Dulari Devi has taken Madhubani to the next level. While the first generation stuck to the traditional themes of Ramayana and used only basic colors – red, yellow, green, black and geru – Dulari expanded the palette. “Not only did I start using more colours but I also decided to tell different stories, ones that honoured my heritage,” she says. One of the first paintings she sold was of a fishing village. Although Dulari can’t read, she has a biography, ‘Following My Paint Brush’ in her name today, which is a collaborative effort with Gita Wolf. Education of children belonging to the Mallah community is an issue close to her heart and Dulari wants to use whatever star power she has to influence parents into ensuring they receive formal schooling.

Dulari Devi with her State Award
Dulari Devi with her State Award

Educated, artistic and confident young women from Ranti and its neighbouring villages are infusing new life and ideas into Madhubani. There are numerous artists in their early twenties nowadays who are eager to project the concerns and challenges of the woman of today. One such artist, who is focused on highlighting modern issues even as she maintains the characteristic geometric patterns of the Madhubani style, is Mahalaxmi, 26, a recipient of a scholarship by the Ministry of Culture. Proud of her work, she maintains that she would like to continue painting even after marriage even though she admits that “our society is still not ready to accept the idea of a married woman pursuing a fulfilling career.”

Mahalaxmi, recipient of a Ministry of Culture scholarship

Like Mahalaxmi, Radha Kumari, 18, believes in portraying the problems that girls like her have to deal with these days – like this painting she had done on eve teasing. For many new-age artists, the Madhubani is a medium though which they can raise their voice in support of gender justice and equality. Times are truly changing from the days when Karpuri Devi was convinced that in the Madhubani style women had to be rendered as a mirror image of Sita, the epitome of feminine virtues, courage and self sacrifice. Incidentally, Karpuri still sticks to her version, “That was Satyug (an era of truth as described in Hindu philosophy) and it was important for everyone to remain within their boundaries. So it should be now, too.”

Radha Kumari
Radha Kumari

Mahalaxmi, however, doesn’t quite concur with her mentor and idol’s ideology. Referring to the story of Ahalya that finds a mention in the Ramayana, she says, “Ahalya was a beautiful woman who had been cursed and turned to stone. She was ultimately liberated by the touch of Lord Ram. But ‘why should a woman wait for anyone to ‘rescue’ her?’ I truly believe that the time has come for us, women, to be our own Ram and free ourselves from the shackles of patriarchy.”

Radha Kumari drawing

((c) Women’s Feature Service)

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