Themes and Symbolism
Thematically, Madhubani paintings are mostly based on Hindu religion and mythology but they also staple motifs such as lotus, fish, turtles, snakes and other elements of aquatic life and nature. Warli art, known for its monochromatic depiction, is a two-dimensional art with no perspective. Warli art has themes mostly around nature and human dependence and association with nature; it does not depict mythological characters or images of deities. Since I was fusing the two art forms and nature being common to both I decided to stick to the themes around nature. I started with three key themes-Fish, Sun and Snakes that later got expanded as my knowledge and learning got bigger. Let’s discuss some of the themes and symbolism associated commonly depicted in my paintings:
Sun is the soul and the source of all life. It is an enormous lamp that
is constantly spreading the light to ensure earth remain habitable and
the atmosphere of celestial sphere (sky) is maintained. During
my research, I also learned that the rising Sun is Surya, depicted by
masculine version whereas at sunset it is Savitri, the feminine version.
Though my painting I tried to depict both versions spreading its light
and energy on earth. Also depicts relationship with both human life
and nature to bring about the balance.
Trees are sacred in India and have been worshiped since time immemorial both being
associated with a god or a goddess and as a matter of gratitude because life cannot exist
without trees. In both the art forms, tree of life paintings is very common and artists are
inspired by different trees around them for example inWarli art banyan tree, the most
venerated trees is commonly portrayed whereas in madhubani art it is more ornamental tree
such as Kusum or Palash. I selected birds, a very common motif both in
Madhubani and Warli art. In Madhubani art, the birds are painted in a very decorative
manner, without any realistic touch. In Madhubani art, various birds such as parrot,
peacock and very common and symbolize love.
In Hindu mythology, snakes are both feared and revered. They are worshiped in
temples as well as in their natural habitats, offering them milk, incense, and prayers.
In both Warli and Madhubani art form, emergence of snakes is not only celebrated
but also is regarded very auspicious.
According to Mithila artist’s fish is the symbol of good luck and holiness. Fish also symbolize water with which it is associated. As per Hindu mythology, fish is also one of the many avatars of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe.
I also selected two more themes common in both art form associated with their rituals and social events. One is a mural (done on the wall) and other is bhitti (done on the floor) painting. The people of Mithila and Warli tribe have strong belief in their traditions and rituals which is very visible in their art expression- for example in both the communities, marriage requires certain rituals without which it is incomplete for example in Warli art, Laguna Chauk has to be drawn vertically on the walls in white rice paste; similarly, Kohbar ghar (marriage house) has to be painted on the main wall of the nuptial chamber in the house of a Maithil bride. Both Chauk and kobhar ghar have specific patterns and motifs that have symbolism associated and are done by only married women in the community. Aripan or floor paintings are done on every auspicious occasion in the community. They are geometrical shapes and made with ground rice on the floor, typically outside on the house, as a symbol of welcoming the Gods.
The caste system in Indian society is among the world's oldest forms of surviving social stratification. Madhubani painting became an important form of caste identity for the artists producing them. During the 1960s, when madhubani art first gained its visibility the Mithila paintings were done mainly by the upper caste women. Much later, on the encouragement and persuasion of German anthropologist film-maker and social activist Erika Moser, people from lower caste (Dalit- scheduled caste) community started to paint as well. Though the Indian Constitution, adopted provides legal framework for equality of all citizens, the relevance of caste system has not completely diminished after 70 years after independence. Even today, the repression of lower caste continues in the society. As a social worker, I strongly oppose this repression and, in my compositions, I tried to mix the different styles to symbolize equality among humanity.
Modernization and change of milieu around us have impacted the art too. In madhubani art, in the past few decades, the popular mythological themes have been overshadowed by secular images inspired from scenes of nature and day to day rural folk life. Also, more contemporary themes like feminism, environmental pollution, national and international events have also been portrayed by the artist. Similarly, the content of the Warli art too has moved away from the traditional themes. Artists nowadays are including elements of modern world such as bicycle, car, building, computers, airplane and trains. My effort has been to keep the originality of the art intact and also bring back the traditional motifs and themes that are somewhere getting lost in the modernization.