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Mithila Painting: A Brief History of Traditional Art Form of North Bihar

The art form is appreciated across the globe because of its great aesthetic value and adherence to tradition.
Mithila Painting

Artists show one of the Mithila Paintings they were working on. 

Darbhanga: Many of us take a cursory glance at colourful strokes on walls at popular hangouts, trains and government buildings across the country, but these colourful geometrical patterns magnetically attract art lovers — stimulating their senses to read the multi-layered meaning of the exquisite Madhubani art or Mithila paintings. 

From small streets in North Bihar to magnificent settings in urban India, the Mithila paintings attract the onlookers, soothing their eyes, their hearts and minds.

This traditional and ancient art form is practised in the Mithila region of Bihar with a variety of tools, including fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens or matchsticks and using organic colors made from indigo, sandalwood, rice powder, plants, leaves, flowers, turmeric, charcoal, etc.

Mostly influenced by religious beliefs, love for nature and social goods and evils, the Mithila paintings contain images of deities, the sun, the moon, flowers, birds, herbal plants and waterfalls. It also depicts the abstract scenes from courts of the kings and familiar objects from day-to-day lives with a social message.

Earlier, the folk art used to be practised on walls with clay and floors with several colours like a Rangoli, but later, it descended to hand-made papers and canvas. Though the paintings on the walls and floors were almost simplistic and far from sophistication, the beauty of themes, the delicacy of sketching and the flamboyance of colors are the mainstay of Madhubani painting even today.


The origin of this art form is traced to the mythological time of Ramayana when Lord Ram was the King of Ayodhya in North India. Lord Ram and Goddess Sita, if legends are to be believed, saw each other for the first time in the forest of ‘Madhuban’ (forest of honey) — from which the word Madhubani is said to have been derived. 

Mithila Painting 1

Upon breaking Lord Shiva’s bow, which was a precondition for the wedding, Janaka — the erstwhile king of Mithila — married his daughter Sita to Lord Ram. A group of artists was tasked with decorating the wedding venue with beautiful paintings to create an indelible impression of the rich culture of Mithila on guests.


Mithila paintings have two ‘gharanas’ — the Ranti Gharana and the Jitwarpur Gharana (two localities in Madhubani districts) — with five famous styles Kohbar, Godna, Tantric, Bharni, Kachani and Harijan.

Bharni, Kachani and Tantric paintings are based on religious themes. The Mithila region of Bihar has been a seat of tantric practices for the Saiva and Sakti communities. References to the tantric connection of Madhubani Painting are found in the literary work of the poet Vidyapati who belonged to the 12th century.

However, today, Madhubani paintings have travelled around the world and have transcended beyond the boundary of caste. 

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Godna Painting is tattooing, which is an age-old tradition of India. Modernisation has influenced the Godna art and artists to a great extent. Tattooing has shifted from body to paper, cloth and canvas. Female tattooists have played an important role in the dissemination of Godna painting in the country.

Kohbar Painting is done in a room for a newly wed couple. Artists in the bygone times used to paint signs and symbols of sexual pleasure on the walls of the rooms. Of late, this style has witnessed several transformations and modernisation.


The three styles mentioned above used to be practised by women belonging to “upper caste” Brahmin and Kayastha families. It was based on their socio-economic status and lifestyles.

Mithila Painting 2

But the monopoly was broken around 1960s when Dalit women of the Dusadh community introduced Harijan painting, which is largely based on King Salhes, who is considered a God in the community. While the motifs, technique and style of the Harijan Painting is traditional, the content marks a remarkable shift from the Hindu narratives of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Following innovations and advancements, Buddha’s life stories have been introduced to this visual imagery of the art form.


Mithila Painting is believed to have begun in the Treta Yuga (epoch). Until 1934, it was just a folk art in the villages. A major earthquake devastated Mithilanchal that year. A British officer, William Archer, when visited the region to assess the damage and destruction caused by the tremors, he spotted the paintings on the broken walls lying in the debris. 

He found it similar to the paintings of modern artists such as Picasso and Mira. In an article he wrote in 1949, he had mentioned the uniqueness, brilliance and characteristic features of the Mithila paintings. And this is how the rest of the world came to know about the wondrous art form.

Mithila Painting 3

An association namely the Master Craftsman Association of Mithila was set up at Jitwarpur in Madhubani in 1977 with the financial support of a Fulbright Scholar at that time. This helped artists of the region earn handsomely. 

However, the art form of the region got official recognition much later. In 1969, the Bihar government honoured Sita Devi for her Madhubani paintings. Later in 1975, Jagadamba Devi was awarded Padma Shri for her paintings. 

Sita Devi was also awarded Padma Shri in 1984. Later, she was also honoured with the Bihar Ratna and Shilpaguru awards.

In 2011, Padma Shri was conferred upon Mahasundari Devi. She was followed by Boua Devi who got the award in 2017.

With Assembly elections around the corner, prominent political faces of the state are turning the compulsory mask-wearing rule into a style statement, donning face masks with Mithila art. Priced between Rs 50-100, these masks are finding takers from across the country.

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