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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Apr 15, 2018, 1:23 AM; last updated: Apr 15, 2018, 1:23 AM (IST)

The Madhubani Touch

Srinand Jha in Madhubani
Bihar’s Madhubani railway station is awash with colours, thanks to rural artists. In presumably biggest such work, they have painted an array of themes in sharp and colorful strokes depicting village life and mythology

Srinand Jha in Madhubani

Indian Railways is the most visible face of the Indian state. Mahatma Gandhi used rail travel and station premises for mass awakening drives during India’s struggle for Independence. Railway tracks or the station premises have remained the preferred locations for sit-ins by farmers groups or other communities. But seldom has an Indian station been in the news for revival or promotion of a folk art form. Welcome to Madhubani railway station.

Until some months ago, the railway station at North Bihar’s bordering district of Madhubani was a drab, nondescript and a filthy building with ‘paan’-stained walls and stinking public conveniences. Since October last, the station compound has transformed itself with an extensive art gallery of sorts. Bright-colored folk paintings have come alive across a 17,000-square-ft area. Claims are that the station hosts the world’s longest painting, but this is a bit of a stretch. 

Madhubani is no Colorado, which holds the current record on the world’s longest mural that spreads across 178,200 square feet and stands 58 feet tall. But, how did the change happen in the sleepy township? 

The art form

Madhubani (‘honey from the forest’ in literal translation) is known as the birthplace of Hindu goddess Sita. The place is known for its wall paintings: figures and concepts depicting an array of themes in a splash of sharp and colorful strokes signifying aspects of village life, or mythological narratives derived from the Hindu scriptures. The art form – called the Madhubani or Mithila paintings and also as the “Bhitti Chitra” – is believed to have a 2,500-year-old genealogy; but was re-discovered as recently as 1934 by William G Archer, an officer of the British Raj.

Figures of women are traditionally drawn by using tree-twigs by using natural dyes such as charcoal and soot for black color, turmeric extract for yellow, red from sandalwood or blue from indigo. These are shown as having big bulging eyes and sharp noses, usually ornamented with big nose rings. 

Natural elements such as fish, parrot, elephant, turtle, sun, moon, bamboo tree or the lotus find a generous representation in these paintings. “Figures and symbols denote different characteristics and emotions such as love, valor, devotion, fertility or prosperity,” says Rakesh Jha of Craftsvilla, an organization working for promotion of what is also called the “Mithila Art” that thrives in Madhubani and adjoining districts, as also in Nepal’s Terai region. Initially, these paintings were done on mud walls of homes but, over the years, these have found their way to bags, cushion covers, coasters, mugs or even mouse pads.

The station project

Forget the Jagdamba Devis, Sita Devis or the Bouwa Devis (all Padma awardees); the fact is that there is probably not a single home in that area that does not have a painter; mostly women. For this lot, painting the ‘Kobhar’ (illustration made for newlyweds) comes spontaneous. This is the reason that in less than two months about half of the work is over. 

The volunteers – teenagers and elders –arrive each morning by buses; or by foot from nearby villages, singing and chirping as they sketched out and painted magical forms on the walls of the railway station. “This is nothing short of a renaissance of a folk art form,” says Dr Bindeshwar Pathak of the Sulabh International who, as brand ambassador for the Indian Railways, completed the honors at the April 7 culmination function of the unique painting experimentation at the Madhubani station. Pathak announced an award of Rs 2,000 each for all the artistes engaged in the project, besides a cash Prize of Rs 5,000 each for the five best paintings.

Way forward

Station premises will remain relatively cleaner for some time, but a bigger upshot of the experimentation relates to its “domino effect”. As part of the district administration’s plan, all government buildings in Madhubani are now being painted with motifs and forms of the Mithila Art, while similar paintings are also coming up at the nearby Darbangha station. The Bihar Sampark Kranti, one of the popular New Delhi-Madhubani trains, will shortly have replicas of these paintings on its coaches. “The Patna and Rajendra Nagar stations are also being done up with Madhubani and ‘Tikula’ art, says Ranjan Thakur, divisional railway manager at Danapur. 

The success of the volunteer-based experiment at Madhubani does contain some positive messaging about the possibility of reviving folk art forms that exist across swathes of India’s countryside. But, for this to happen, the public and private sectors along-with those involved in preservation of folk art traditions will have to be on the same page. “On the surface, the initiative such as the one at Madhubani looks good. But what is actually required is a structured and a sustainable approach,” says Devnath Pathak, sociologist and folk art enthusiast.

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