Aditi De of the ‘Women’s Feature Service’ writes about a meeting she had in the 1980s, with Gangadevi, the gifted painter of Mithila. Gangadevi is largely responsible for placing an ancient art, practiced for centuries by the women of her village, in the artistic map of the world.

Face to face, Gangadevi, seemed shy at first glance. She drew the pallav (the border of the sari) of her brightly coloured cotton sari over her head, and pushed her black-rimmed spectacles firmly onto the bridge of her nose.

Madhubani Magic of Gangadevi [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]
Madhubani Magic of Gangadevi [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]

Gangadevi had just returned to India after attending the Festival of India in the United States. Her mind was alive with all the strange scenes she had seen, the people she had met, and she needed to record all her experiences on paper. Gangadevi had just been honoured with a National Award for Crafts by the Indian government.

Before our eyes, we watched America reborn through Gangadevi’s vision. She dipped her quill into a pot of black ink, and quickly put it to grainy, handmade paper. Black lines emerged as tall skyscrapers, with an upright rectangular shape within. What could it be? A lift, with a hat topped, shoe-clad man in it! Soon, we watched a long car, almost as long as the road whiz by. Women in knee-length skirts and men in checked shirts tucked into jeans, with young kids in tow, appeared on the scene through Gangadevi’s drawing.

Gangadevi was born in the Mithila region of Bihar. She lived all her life in the region. What made her special was the unique gift she possessed – her magical fingers. Fingers, which drew absolutely spectacular line drawings of the myths and religious symbols of India.

This gift is not unique to Gangadevi alone. For over three thousand years, women in the Mithila region have been painting such beautiful sketches.

Maybe it has something to do with the historic value and beauty of Mithila. “Mithila,” Gangadevi revealed, “once stretched from the right bank of the Ganga to the foot of the Himalayas, one of the first kingdoms of eastern India. Both the Buddha and Mahavira, founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively, were born in the Mithila region.”

Most of the 30 million people who live in the Mithila region are farmers. The soil is fertile, and crops include wheat, rice, lentils and sugarcane. Early visitors loved its lush greenness so much that they called it Madhubani or the ‘forest of honey.’

Gangadevi’s paintings too are referred to as Madhubani. Few things best portray the beauty, lushness and colour of the region, as her paintings.

But why are women the painters here? It could be because Mithila is a matriarchal society, where daughters inherit the property from their mothers. The social conventions that bind girls in other parts of India from expressing themselves, do not apply here. Though poor, the girls of Mithila are encouraged to paint freely.

Gangadevi remembers that her mother handed her first brush to her when she was still a child. It was a piece of rice straw and a few threads drawn from the hem of her sari. For ink, she used soot scraped from the bottom of a cooking pot, or from the chimney of a hurricane lantern.

Like her cousin sisters and aunts, their mothers and grandmothers, Gangadevi learnt to mix the soot with cattle urine or gum arabic dissolved in water, or sometimes even goat’s milk. Since they didn’t have enough paper in the village, pages from her school notebook were often glued onto cloth to give her a large canvas to practice on.

But usually, the women of Mithila painted on the walls of their homes, made of mud applied to a framework of branches. Their villages, some still without a school or electricity, often grew up around a pond. Whenever there was a wedding in the family or a celebration like Holi or Diwali, the women would draw a kohbar or ceremonial picture.

“During a wedding,” , Gangadevi narrated, “first a kohbar drawing on paper would be sent to the boy as a proposal of marriage. Each gift of cloth, jewellery or spices exchanged between the families would be wrapped in a kohbar paper. “We painted leaves and trees, flowers, birds and auspicious fish on miniature huts of papier-mâché.” A Mithila painting done with prayer and art was said to attract the blessings of the gods into the house.

Scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata appeared under the spell of the Mithila women’s fluent fingers. Traditionally, they were done on walls, on papier-mâché objects, or on sheets of paper. But today, because we in the cities demand it, Mithila paintings with their sweeping lines and bright colours, crop up on clothes at crafts bazaars, on greeting cards and pen-stands, something that the villagers of Mithila would never dream of using.

Gangadevi is no more. She spent her last years battling cancer. Her last history is depicted in a room at the Crafts Museum in Delhi. Fine, exquisite lines sketch her visits to doctors, the stretcher she lay on, even the medical tests she underwent. None of these picture stories are like photographs – for they are all in the Mithila style that Gangadevi brought into our lives.

Gangadevi lives on through the paintings she left behind for us. Like her, hundreds of women in Mithila continue to depict our myths and religious symbols through delicate lines and bright earthy colours. And maintain the continuity of tradition by handing down their art to another generation.

928 words | 9 minutes
Readability: Grade 8 (13-14 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: features
Tags: #india, #fingers, #myths, #paintings

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