The exact time when Mithila art originated is not known. According to local mythology, the origin can be traced to the time of the Ramayana, when King Janaka ordered his kingdom to decorate the town for the wedding of his daughter, Sita, to Lord Rama. Madhubani, which by one account means Forest of Honey, (‘Madhu’-honey, ‘Ban’-forest or woods) is a region in the northern part of Bihar. A region that has a distinct regional identity and language that reportedly spans 2500 years. The women painters of Mithila lived in a closed society. It is locally believed that Madhubani painting tradition started when Raja Janak commissioned local artists to paint murals in his palace in preparations for the marriage of his daughter Sita to Lord Ram. The paintings were originally done on walls coated with mud and cow dung. The kohbar ghar or the nuptial chamber was the room in which the paintings were traditionally done. Originally the paintings depicted an assembly of symbolic images of the lotus plant, the bamboo grove, fishes, birds and snakes in union. These images represented fertility and proliferation of life. There used to be a tradition that the newly married bride and groom would spend three nights in the kohbar ghar without cohabiting. On the fourth night they would consummate the marriage surrounded with the colourful painting. The Mithila paintings were done only by women of the house, the village and the caste and only on occasion of marriages.
Mithila painting, as a domestic ritual activity, was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934 when the houses and walls tumbled down. Then British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer, while inspecting the damage “discovered” the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of Mithila homes. He was struck by reported similarities to the work of modern Western artists like Miro and Picasso. During the 1930s he took black and white photos of some of these paintings, which today are the earliest images of the art. He also wrote about the painting in a 1949 article in ‘Marg’ an Indian Art Journal. The drought from 1966 to 1968 crippled the agricultural economy of the region. As part of a larger initiative to bring economic relief to the region, Ms. Pupul Jayakar, the then Director of the All India Handicrafts Board, sent the Bombay based artist Mr. Bhaskar Kulkarni to Mithila to encourage women there to replicate their mural paintings on paper which, to facilitate sales, as a source of income to ensure survival.
The contribution of foreign scholars in promoting the art form internationally has also been immense. Yves Vequad, a French novelist and journalist, in the early 1970s wrote a book on the basis of his research on Mithila painting and produced a film ‘The Women Painters of Mithila’. The German anthropologist film-maker and social activist Erika Moser persuaded the impoverished Dusadh community to paint as well. The result was the Dusadh captured their oral history (such as the adventures of Raja Salhesh, and depictions of their primary deity, Rahu) — typified by bold compositions and figures based on traditional tattoo patterns called Goidna locally. This added another distinctive new style to the region’s flourishing art scene.
With financial support of Moser and Raymond Lee Owens (a Fulbright Scholar then), along with land in Jitbarpur donated by Anthropologist Erika Moser likes of Dr. Gauri Mishra spearheaded the setting up of the Master Craftsmen Association of Mithila in 1977. This association was very active during the life time of Owens working in tandem with Ethnic Arts Foundation a non-profit 501(c) 3 of USA. Master Craftsmen Association is reported to have later merged with SEWA Mithila which unlike its namesake in Ahemdabad is registered under Society’s Act and not under the Trade Union Act. It endeavours to uphold similar mission of providing the artists of the region with a regular source of income through exhibitions, and sales to collectors and art galleries. Ford Foundation has a long history of association with Madhubani painting. Ms. Viji Srinivasan, then a programme officer with Ford Foundation, and who later set up an NGO Adithi headquartered in Bihar and worked on women’s issues including livelihood through handicrafts too played a role in nurturing the cluster. Since the 1990s, Japan has also shown a keen interest in Madhubani paintings, mainly because of the initiatives of Tokyo Hasegawa, who set up the Mithila Museum in Tokamachi, where around 850 Madhubani paintings are exhibited on a regular basis.