Keywords: Folk art, culture, narrative painting, identity, immigration, pictorial narratives, Madhubani, "garden of honey", global connections, religion and art, style elements, visual literacy, social studies and visual art
The ancient art of Madhubani is widely practiced in the Mithila region of the northern Indian state of Bihar. The art originated from Madhubani town and traditionally the artists were all women. The style of folk art is also known as the Mithila style.
Culture – Human beings create, learn, share and adapt to culture, cultures are dynamic and change over time
Individual development and identity - Personal identity is shaped by an individual’s culture, by groups, by institutional influences, and by lived experiences shared with people inside and outside the individual’s own culture throughout her or his development, questions related to identity and development are central to the understanding of who we are.
Global connections – Through the experience of this artist, students will examine questions such as: What are the different types of global connections? What global connections have existed in the past, exist currently, and are likely in the future? How do ideas spread between societies in today’s interconnected world? How does this result in change in those societies? What are the other consequences of global connections? What are the benefits from and problems associated with global interdependence?
The ancient art of Madhubani is widely practiced in the Mithila region of the northern Indian state of Bihar. The art originated from Madhubani town and traditionally the artists were all women. The style of folk art is also known as the Mithila style. Click here for a slide show from the BBC. You will see how Madhubani is practiced today.
Traditional Indian Wedding, Madhubani painting, 2009
Artist: Sunanda Sahay
Acrylic over fabric
34 x 19 in.
Sunanda Sahay specializes in a style of folk painting
originating in the Madhubani region of North India.
Sunanda Sahay has exhibited her paintings and given
workshops at area museums (Museum of Fine Art, Peabody Essex Museum,
Fitchburg Art Museum, Danforth Museum) and at local libraries.
grew up in the heart of the Madhubani region. Artistic interests led
her to seek out practitioners of the art from local villagers and
learn directly from them.
Please tell us about your ties to the Madhubani region. How did you end up living in Acton?
The Madhubani region lies near the border of India and Nepal and carries a rich pastel of cultural legacy in art and literature. I call Darbhanga (of which Madhubani is a district) my home and lived there until my marriage. I maintain regular contact through my parents, who are practicing physicians and have built a hospital there. They are also strong patrons of the Madhubani art.
I moved with my husband and children to the U.S. about 15 years ago.
During the first five years, we lived in the Chicago and Washington, D.C. metro areas. Eventually, academic and professional opportunities pulled us to New England. I feel truly fortunate and blessed, living in a strong and supportive community.
How did you become interested in painting?
I have always been artistically inclined. Growing up, I learned classical Kathak dance and wrote poetry. I also took lessons in Madhubani art with local artists. But the paintings became my primary passion only after I moved to Acton. As my kids became older, I found more time to devote to creative work.
Because these paintings are such an intimate part of my growing up, they give me a sense of belonging and completeness. They connect me to my core – it’s almost an act of meditation. It is also an act of exploration in culture and values.
Madhubani paintings are not practiced as art for art’s sake, but are colorful narratives that highlight cultural ideals of devotion, harmony, truth, love, and splendor. Most paintings depict stories from our ageless epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Hence a painting is not just a pattern of bright colors and shapes, but a canvas of lively characters that convey an intricate story that is filled with intrigue, surprises, symbolism and deep philosophical import.
What inspires your work?
My paintings are not just shapes and colors, but renditions of stories from our treasure troves of epics and folklores. So, when I think of a new painting, I actually think of a story and the message it conveys. Sometimes, I paint a scene or an image of an avatar, but even these are so full of symbols and inspirational visages that they turn into a rich chronicle.
Once I have selected the subject of a new painting, the rest is relatively easy. I do my best to stay true to the traditional themes of mythology and social customs, and to the traditional style characterized by dense, arching, and brightly colored strokes.
Though there are traditional codes that determine the relative appearances and symbols, the artist has a great degree of latitude in picking characters, moods, colors and shapes. Thus, each painting is a unique piece.
Why is it important for you to share your technique with others (in workshops like the one that will be held at Sargent Memorial Library on April 20)?
I’m involved in a variety of community efforts. When I meet people my age, or students, teachers, etc. I sense in them a strong urge to learn more about India and its culture.
To me, India and America are two halves of a life that are in many ways complementary. India’s ancient wisdom regarding how to live a life of fulfillment, harmony and health may be an antidote to the stress, speed and isolation that characterize the modern life.
When you first see a Madhubani painting, you are immediately greeted with a surfeit of natural bounty surrounding human figures – all vibrating in bright color in dense proximity.
Then, as you study the figures and the landscape, its story and message come alive.
There is something universal about these sentiments that not only connect me to the art, but also connect me to my community. The art allows me to express my individuality while establishing a bond of fellowship.
Each event yields new friendships and insights, and it’s indeed very gratifying. I also want people to be conscious of various folk art forms that many times we don’t even notice. Folk arts tell the story, culture and history of a whole region and capture it for eternity.
Madhubani – literally means from the “garden of honey”.
Practiced for centuries, this style of painting is still practiced in the villages found in the state of Bihar, in the foothills of the Himalayas bordering Nepal. This is an area of rich and ancient traditions – the site of the ancient University of Nalanda and the birthplace of the Buddha. It was a tradition practiced mostly by women and passed from mother to daughter. The themes painted depict enduring cultural traditions of the community that are religious or social or from nature.
Paintings with religious themes illustrate stories from the lives of Buddha, Krishna or scenes from the two great Indian epic poems - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Paintings with social themes show customs, marriage, birth, thread ceremony, depictions of rural life and agriculture, festivals and superstitions.
Paintings with themes from nature are pictorial narratives of rural life and celestial bodies such as the sun and moon.
There is much symbolism in the paintings such as the central themes of love and fertility. Others include fish for good luck, peacock for romantic love/devotion, serpents for divine protection and banana for fertility.
Madhubani was seen as murals drawn on clay walls of village homes. Murals were done to mark celebrations or live events. Madhubani has since moved from walls to paper and silk. Today in many homes the practice of Madhubani is seen as an occupational alternative to agriculture. Women practice this art, producing paintings on paper, cloth for clothes and decorative items and wall hangings to supplement their household incomes. And because they do it from their homes, it is socially acceptable in what is still a traditional community.
From the slide show, interview with Sunanda and her description of Madhubani, consider the following questions:
What traditionally began with women gradually included men as well. What does the ‘infiltration’ of men in this art form say about the nature of the art form and about how culture changes and adapts.
How is Sunanda able to practice her art from so far from where it originates? What does this tell you about how ideas spread across societies and cultures? Are there geographic boundaries that limit global connections?
A caption on a slide says “I wish more people would learn Madhubani. It’s our traditional culture and art form. It must be followed and promoted.” What is the purpose of tradition (art or otherwise)? Should all tradition be promoted? Why and why not?
Why is religion such a huge theme in art? (See art from the Renaissance: http://www.oil-painting-shop.com/artists-guides/famous-religious-paintings.html )
Style elements of Madhubani paintings – can you pick out elements that are common to all of them? For example, borders, line drawings, side views, lots of detail. (We can add to this from the Smithsonian visual literacy piece)
Do! [Hardcover] by Gita Wolf, Ramesh Hengadi, Rasika Hengadi, Shantaram Dhadpe and Kusum Dhadpe; Tara Books, 2009. Ages 4-8
The Flight of the Mermaid [Hardcover] by Sirish Rao and Gita Wolf; Bhajju Shyam (Illustrator); Tara Books, 2009. Grades 2-4
Following My Paint Brush by Dulari Devi and Gita Wolf; Tara Books, 2011. All ages
The London Jungle Book [Hardcover] by Bhajju Shyam ; Tara Books, 2005. All ages
One, Two, Tree! [Hardcover] by Anushka Ravishankar and Sirish Rao, Durga Bai (illustrator); Tara Books, 2011. Ages 4-8
Writing activity to promote visual literacy http://americanart.si.edu/education/resources/documents/graphic_organizer.pdf
Integrating Social Studies and the Visual Arts http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/idealabs/ap/guide/index.htm
Updated March 2013