Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why I Like Madhubani

Once I went to our neighbor's house for some dahi khatta* and saw these amazing  Madhubani paintings hanging on the wall. There were the paintings of gods Shiva and Parvati, Lakshmi and Ganesh. I was completely new to India that time and there were many things that stunned me but unlike other things, Madhubani didn't come out of my mind.

The first Madhubani painting I ever saw.
I do like to draw sometimes but I have a strange relationship with drawing. As a child I used to make about 4 good drawings a day. It was all story telling and depiction of things that I wanted or places that I wanted to be in. At the age of 7 I got admitted to an art oriented secondary school where "the fun was over".  We did learn new things but we had to move from two dimensional drawings into the three dimensional. That was not bad as long as we could draw thematic paintings such as "The Independence Day" or "Christmas". That still allowed some kind of story telling but when we grew a little bigger even these types of lessons disappeared and were replaced by still lives and landscapes. These things were "from reality" and that's why I felt as if I had lost something precious. We had graphic art lessons as well which was more fun for me at that time. But there came a time when these lessons too were replaced by more hours of still lives. I was meant to study in an art college but I ended up quitting my school and becoming a nanny in England instead. I didn't want to do  something I wasn't sure of when my other passion was travelling and experiencing other cultures.

Childhood memories of 2D paintings.
So these Madhubani paintings had reminded me of my childhood days when the two dimensional drawings were OK and I thought that it would've been so much fun to draw them. I didn't know anything about them and even when I read all the possible articles online, it didn't help much. I think that one needs an experience to be able to paint a Madhubani painting. It is vital to understand  the drawing and especially - your own drawing. The only teacher that I had were the Madhubani paintings. The best way to learn is to look at them and let them engulf you with their charm. It is a pleasure to think that these paintings have been painted by someone who lives in a clay house with mud walls, someone who is not educated and therefore pure, someone who has the skill running in their blood and someone who knows Ramayana like the fingers on their hands.

Madhubani art stall at the Delhi Hath

It took time for me to get some of the basics and there were many things that I did wrong. So here goes the list: 

COPYRIGHT NOTE: you can copy and use it but not sell!

My first Madhubani paintings where I used to paint the background white.
These are made using fell tips and they each are just for telling a story.
* In the beginning I thought that Madhubani painting is  drawn on a white paper with a pencil. Then the empty space would be painted white, then the little shapes would be colored and lastly - it all would be outlined with a black permanent marker. Like this, it lasted days to paint a small painting and it didn't look good at all.

These are the paintings done on handmade paper using acrylic but with colored background (usually the background is left white). These do not tell a story but are merely decorative.
I studied the paintings again and I realized that normal painting rules don't apply to Madhubani paintings. They are the graphical art that looks better when using simple and natural mediums such as yellowish handmade paper, black ink and natural colors (well I don't even know the names of the flowers they extract the paint from, so I use acrylic). Firstly the drawing is done using black ink and then the colors are filled. Handmade paper is better than normal white paper because it absorbs the colors and it makes its finishing more printing like. The normal paper doesn't absorb the color and the color just gets all layered on the top of a painting. Of course it's possible to avoid this with the help of water but I don't like using much water as it can get spilled on the painting.

Small size Madhubani inspired paintings.
* In the beginning I highly recommend to copy the paintings of real Mithila villagers who are the only true experts of this art and can be your indirect art teachers. Study their paintings, their styles, their motives and designs, discover the unlimited opportunities to express yourself within a piece of paper and try to guess the story they tell. Do not take the color lightly. Madhubani painting is so colorful that a beginner might think he just needs to  fill multiple colors to get the effect that Madhubani paintings have. It's wrong! Maithili villagers might be uneducated but they know the color theory and they know that less means more. A very impressive and colorful painting might only use 4 colors and a little bit of the 5th one for contrast. Madhubani painting is difficult simple, don't take it lightly!

These are the two big size paintings that I copied for the sake of learning.                                   
* You might have fun drawing the border and double outlining every single shape in the beginning but soon you will feel exhausted of all your geometrical designing skills. You might feel you cannot think of any new design and you will feel so inferior compared to the village aunties. This is the time when you should google "Madhubani paintings" and search for new designs. It is not a copyright infringement, it is not copying and you should not feel ashamed about it. To learn the basics in any field we must copy a lot at first and the natural skills will come out later. In this case copying is learning. The other good reason to copy Mithila paintings is to understand how the painter thinks when he is painting that painting, what is he talking about in the painting, what story is he telling, what real trees is he depicting, what kind of dresses they wear in Mithila, what kind of ornaments are there on the painting's characters' saris? The more we get closer to the villagers thinking, the more we will be able to look at the world from their perspective, the more we will be able to  produce a better Madhubani painting. Because Madhubani is a local art, practiced in no where else but Bihar, authenticity is important for any folk art.

Various drawings including on wall and cloth that I made.
* Read Ramayana! The same as with the creative exhaustion of geometrical designs, one day you might feel exhausted of a story you want to tell. Majority of Madhubani paintings tell stories of gods, depict their weddings, wars and other important scenes. How come these villagers know so many stories, how can they remember each and every scene? The secret is the Ramayana. Ramayana is a Hindu Holy Scripture that evolves about the lives of Hindu gods Rama and Sita. Mithila people are so fond of Ramayana especially because Mithila is a birthplace of Sita. Mostly the village people are uneducated and the word or mouth, folk art, festivals, dance and music are the mediums through which young generation is taught the old traditions. Ramayana is being retold everywhere starting with morning's bhajans (religious songs), yearly festivals, marriages and ending with the grandma's stories being told to her grandchildren. Ramayana is being regularly shown on TV as a film and as a cartoon series for children. Stories from Hindu mythology are sunk deep in the souls of Indian people, even Indians of other religions know them!
However we, foreigners, do not know these stories, because we know the Bible stories that were being told by a priest in a church or maybe some other kinds of stories (that could well possibly be painted in Madhubani style as well). If we want to learn real authentic village Madhubani, we could do so better by reading and trying to illustrate the Ramayana.

Some of the newest paintings where I still keep coloring the background.
*Everyone who wants can make a Madhubani painting. You do not need to have any artistic background whatsoever. You only need two things - a big wish and to know how to draw the three basic geometrical forms: a triangle, a circle and a square. Madhubani paintings can be characterized by such things as border, two dimensional drawing, main colors and no shading and double (triple, etc) outlining. In spite of that, there is a great variety of mastery levels of a Madhubani painting. A few paintings will look impressive with their  complicated compositions, intrinsic designs, creative use of color and will be drawn in perfect straight lines that usually determines the artist's experience. Other Madhubani paintings will look as if they were painted by a five year old and will even make you laugh at how cute and primitive they are, however they will both be equally perfect, whole and complete. You might wonder why and there's that answer you will never find and a mystery that you will never solve! You might just call it a "Bihari blood".

Some of the paintings where I try not to color the background.

* To see all these drawings in full size, you can check out my Flickr profile, if you cannot access the Flickr (like you have to sign it or something), please let me know and I will improve the quality of photos.


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