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Paintings from Bihar

Popular art is the expression of people's sensitivity. Although it is intimately related to the decorative or lesser arts, while at the same time displaying an affinity with higher forms of art, the great strength and importance of popular art reside in the fact that it simultaneously creates a form of artistic expression while revealing the psychology of the society from which it emerges, reflecting its moral values and customs.

The people of Mithila in northern Bihar stick to their centuries old custom and orthodox belief that the land of Mithila or Mithialanchal is holier when compared to other parts of Bihar. The belief possibly stems from the historic fact that Mithila was first to be brought under the influence of Aryan culture. And to this day the Mithilis take pride in their continuity of language, custom and culture. They are known to adhere to the minutest details in rituals from birth to death as per the dictates of the Sastras.

The tradition of painting walls for beautification of dwellings in Mithila is believed to have survived from the epic period. Tulsidas gives a vivid account of Mithila decorated for the marriage of Sita with Ram. These decorations are mythological murals, added with deities of Hindu pantheon, besides regional flora and fauna. The earthquake of 1988 devastated parts of Darbhanga and Madhubani. Perhaps, the greatest damage caused was the palace complex, replete with paintings done two centuries ago, as per the Mithila traditions.

The land of Mithila is covered by the present districts of Champaran, Saharasa, Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Samastipur, parts of Munger, Beguserai, Bhagalpur and Purnea. Madhubani is the heartland where the paintings are more profuse than elsewhere.

The ceremonial folk paintings - popularly identified as Madhubani paintings are the exclusive monopoly of women artists, passing down for generations from mother to her daughter. The girl learns to play with the brush and colours at an early age which finally culminates in the Kohbar (nupital room), which acquires great sanctity in the social life of Mithila. All religious ceremonies relating to the marriage are performed in the Kohbar. The deep (earthen lamp - a symbol of happy conjugal life) is kept burning in all through for four days.

The Kohbar is replete with paintings based on mythological, folk themes, and tantric symbolism. The paintings in this chamber are designed to bless the couple. The central theme of all paintings are love and fertility, though the approach may vary. It can commence with the story of Sita's marriage or Krishna - Radha episode with the ecstatic circle in which he leads the gopis. Mithilis are Sakti worshippers with the influence of Tantric rituals and so Siva-Sakti, Kali, Durga, Ravna and Hanuman also appear in their murals. Symbols of fertility and prosperity like fish, parrot, elephant, turtle, sun, moon, bamboo tree, lotus, etc are more prominent. The divine beings are positioned centrally in the frame while their consorts or mounts or simply their symbols and floral motifs form the background. The human figures are mostly abstract and linear in form, the animals are usually naturalistic and are invariably depicted in profile. It begins with the flow of the brush without any preliminary sketching. Though natural colours and twigs have given way to brushes and artificial paints, the subject of Madhubani paintings remains unchanged.

The chief exponents of these paintings are the Mithili Brahmins and Kayasthas. In the village of Jitwarpur (stronghold of Brahmins) and Ratni (dominated by the Kayasthas) the Madhubani paintings have emerged as a commercial activity where children can be seen engaged in arranging the hand crafted paper or fetching the colours. The commercialisation of Mithili art took place in 1962 when an artist touring this village was attracted by the murals. He persuaded the women to paint in their traditional way on paper. This was a great success and a ticket to trade. Since then the painting medium has diversified. Wall paintings were transferred to hand made paper (which was of poster size) and gradually it preyed for other mediums and motiffs like greeting cards, dress materials, sunmica etc.

In the beginning home made natural colours were obtained from plant extracts like henna leaves, flower, bougainvillea, neem, etc. These natural juices were mixed with resin from banana leaves and ordinary gum in order to make the paint stick to the painting medium. Home made paints, though cheap, was time consuming and produced less than the requirement. The solution was at hand to switch to the synthetic colours available aplenty in the market. Now colours come in powdered form, which are then mixed with goat's milk. Black was obtained from the soot deposits by the flame of diya, dissolved in gum.

The colours are usually deep red, green, blue, black, light yellow, pink and lemon. They create mood and hence played an important role. For instance, energy and passion find expression through the use of red and yellow, as monochrome crashed over large surfaces of the painting. Concentration of energy and the binding force is best reflected in red while green governs the natural leaves and vegetation. The Brahmins prefer the very bright hues while the Kayasthas opt for mutted ones. In another class called the Harijan style of painting, hand made paper is washed in cowdung. Once the paints are ready, two kinds of brushes are used - one for the tiny details made out of bamboo twigs and the other for filling in or space is prepared from a small piece of cloth attached to a twig.

Patna Qalam

Besides the Madhubani paintings, Bihar is famous for the Patna Qalam (paintings). The 200 year old art form traces its origin to Humayun's exile to Persia, from where he brought a select set of artists to illustrate Dastan-i-Amir Hamza. The Persian artists who had migrated from Hirat had mastered the distant lines from the Chinese and added to it an intense individualism.

Akbar greatly encouraged the painters and by the end of his reign a new kind of painting emerged out of the native and foreign fusion. This was referred to as Mughal style of painting which further ramified, later on, into numerous sub schools or Qalams, Patna being one of them. In words of Abul Fazl, the Mughal paintings are "incomparable, transforming in animate objects into life through the minuteness in details, the general finish, the boldness of execution observed in pictures."

Jehangir's expertise in painting can best be summed up from his own memoirs: "As regards myself, my liking in painting and my practice in judging it have arrived at such a point that when any work is brought before me, either of deceased or those of the present day, without names being told, to say on the spur of the moment that it is the work of such and such a man. If any person has put the eye and eyebrows in a face, I can perceive whose work the original face is, and who has painted the eye and the eyebrows."

Aurangzeb's dislike for art compelled the artist to leave Delhi in search of new patrons. Their first march was to Murshidabad where the Bengal Nawabs were at the helm of their golden days. However, the glory of Murshidabad was shortlived and once again the artists panicked but this time they packed for Patna, which was fast growing into a commercial city with various European factories and trading centres. The migrant artists who settled at Patna produced numerous paintings which are commonly referred to as Patna Qalam.

The earliest among the migrant artists to Patna included Sewak Ram (1770-1830) and Hulas Lal (1785-1875). Sewak specialised in `Kajali Siahi' which excludes the pencil work before applying the brush. Paintings by these two artists can be seen at Patna Museum and State Art Gallery. Ram Sewak depicted typical Indian occupations of the kind that generally appealed to the British. He displayed his adaptability not only in the choice of theme but in technique as well. His subject includes holy men, farmers, grain sellers, potters, weavers, musicians, etc. It is astonishing how these descendants of the Mughal miniaturists who revelled in giving a visual form to literature adapted their wares to British tastes. Shiva Lal and Shiva Dyal Lal were famous for their miniatures. Shiva Lal's famous painting, `Muslim wedding' has been commented upon as the picture with dignity and restraint in absence of the gorgeous colours and decorative background of the Mughal paintings. These two artists had quite a flourishing business at Patna and among their customers were both Europeans and Indians.

The Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library has among its collection two miniature portraits of Nur Jehan at different stages of her life. Painted by Syed Moinuddin, they reveal the Bihari miniature akin to Delhi's ivory discs. Of the two portraits, one depicts Nur Jehan as an empress dressed in formal regalia with her fair looks although an element of remorse creeps in. The other painting captures her happier mood (possibly before the death of her first husband) draped in the traditional orhni that anchors her maidenly appearance.

The theme of Patna Qalam, though on small canvas, centres around the lives of ordinary people, their profession, customs and cultures of Bihar. Unlike the Delhi artists, they used the slating dot system. In the early days, the artists themselves prepared their own paper for painting and so were the colours assembled from various flowers, leaves, metals, shellac, clay, etc. Besides paper, paintings were also made on ivory, metal and mica sheets.

When the Britishers left India they purchased a good number of these Patna Qalams. Thereafter the art was on the scale of decline. Around 200 of them are preserved in Kensington Museum, London. Patna Museum has 65 of them while Chaitanya Mahasabha, Khuda Baksh Library, Lalit Kala Akademi, Government School of Arts and Crafts are few of the places for reviewing this famous school of painting.

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