When folklore and reality are blurred, there is a sense of fantasy that pervades the air. As the local folk point out the forest where Lord Ram met his love Sita for the first time, the smell of fresh flowers, the blushing young girl and the budding romance is clearly audible in their voice. Every corner you turn, there is a relic from an era that for us urban dwellers exists only in mythology. It is explained in a manner of reminiscence, as if the event happened before their eyes. One cannot blame them for it, cause it does happen in front of their their eyes almost everyday. They paint these wonderful scenes on their walls, on paper, on fabric almost everyday. Sometimes Sita’s floral motif skirt is a blue and sometimes a bright green. The change in color depicts the season when the artist painted- the blue flowers that lend their violet-blue shade bloom in the winter.
Madhubani paintings are believed to have originated as a wall adornment during Lord Ram and Sita’s wedding. Sita’s father, King Janak commissioned women from all over the kingdom to paint. The women painted to impress the ‘baraat’ (wedding procession). The area locally referred to as ‘Mithanlanchal’ comprises of the area north of the Ganges and south of the Himalayas. In present day, part of the area falls in Nepal. Janakpur in Nepal is a major centre for this art form.
Madhubani paintings are an essential part of women’s lives in the region. The women use colours from their own garden. They squeeze out the red from berries, grind leaves for green and burn rice in an earthen pot for the deep black. They make brushes using bamboo sticks and paint walls with beautiful motifs of Gods and nature.
The form starts with a border. Once the intricate border has been worked upon, the main motif takes centre stage. Featured above is the ‘Kohabar’, a ritualistic painting drawn in the marital room. This is where the bride and the groom meet each other for the first time. Symbols of happiness, fertility, good healthy and prosperity complete the painting. The auspicious symbols like fishes, ‘Kalash’ (a jar of holy water), betel leaves, coconuts and a bride in her wedding finery add finishing touches.
Life in these villages dispels most myths. Even the idea of a mandatory 24 hour power and water seem somewhat excessive. If you can attain happiness with a few hours of electricity, warm your hands on the freshly made oven fueled with cow dung, eat smoking hot ‘bajjiyas’ made from shrubs in the kitchen garden and watch the women paint their breathtaking designs, everything else seems irrelevant. The women here begin their day early. It isn’t easy to fire the stove on cold misty mornings. When all the housework is over and done, the neighborhood women gather together to paint. The colours come from each other’s garden. With advice aplenty from older ‘didis’ and ‘maajis’, the younger ones slowly venture out.
Vimla Devi has been painting as long as she can remember. Her little box contains colours and brushes laid out to suit her style. She labours over her painting for long hours, taking breaks only to offer advice when asked for. She lives in her own world where she witnesses Ram and Sita’s life everyday.
When all these women would paint individually, there weren’t many takers. As they happily receive me, they aren’t sure if I would have come into contact with them if they had still been on their own. Being in a group empowers them to face a world that they have rarely encountered. Married off young, they have never stepped out of the confines of their home. Even their dire circumstances failed to get them out all by themselves. In a group, they are all together. Happily weaving stories and participating in administrative tasks in the office, they have been able to break free from bonds that always relegated to take a place at the end of the system.
As I prepare to leave, the women take down my number. They make sure to call me and check if I reached my hotel safely. So I am a part of that group now. I am happy.