Through her workshop, Ambika Devi propagates the tradition of Madhubani paintings

There is a little bit of Mithila in every Madhubani painting, Ambika Devi a Madhubani artist says. The flora and fauna colour the paintings, literally. There is bark of mango trees and mehendi leaves in its browns, blues take their hues from berries, green from the leaves of the poya, red from the flowers, yellow from fresh raw turmeric, and black from a combination of soot collected from kerosene lamps, cowdung and gum (from trees). Cowdung mixed with neem juice and rice powder is used to ‘dye’ the paper, a few drops of water from the Ganga added to it for ‘purification’.

Then there is the spirit, the years of tradition handed down from mother to daughter. It is an heirloom bequeathed to the next generation in the villages that comprise Madhubani district in Bihar, the land of Madhubani paintings. It carries with it the fragrance of the soil of its birth; it’s a narrative women of Mithila proudly claim as theirs.

Ambika Devi from ‘one of the 10 villages that make Mithila’ has been a practitioner since she was 11 years old. She is at the RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Tripunithura, a part of a Spic-Macay initiative teaching or, as she sees it, familiarising students with the art form. Madhubani paintings bear the Geographical Indication (GI) tag.

“I derive comfort from such sessions. Comfort because I am convinced Madhubani will survive time.”

Ambika has been associated with Spic-Macay for almost eight years now. She travels to various parts of the country teaching youngsters the art form.

For her Madhubani is an emotional bond with her ancestors and the land of her birth. A President’s Award winner, she learnt her painting from her mother, who is also a President’s Award winner, as did her mother from Ambika’s grandmother. “We don’t know when it began. We do know it has always been there as part of our collective unconscious.”

Young girls in these villages in Mithila are encouraged to learn drawing motifs – arpan – made out of powdered rice drawn for pujas. Her mother used to tell her to embrace Madhubani but she never took it up seriously, not until she was in her teens.

“I thought if I was married off to some other village I might not get a chance to pursue it.” But fate had other plans and she married into a family that lived ‘very close’ when she was 17. “My mother’s story was my mother-in-law’s…Madhubani painting. By then even my attitude was changing. It is an activity that brings all the women in a community together. A Madhubani painting is a must for our rituals. We have 12 pujas a year and for each there is different motif which we draw. Each has its own symbolism. Even marriage functions need these.”

She adds that there is no compulsion for women to pursue this tradition; two of her sisters don’t paint while she and another sister paint.

Kobad is painted on a wall in the room, in the bride’s house, where the newly married couple spends the first few days after the marriage. It has motifs such as bamboo, fish, elephant and the sun and the moon – each with its own significance.

And the groom takes sindoor for his bride wrapped in a painting of Dasavatar painted by his mother or womenfolk in his community. “While painting these we sing ditties about weddings and marriage. As long as these functions are there, we will always have work.”

Ambika lives in Delhi with her husband and two children. “But all the raw materials and my imagination are still rooted back home. And I get the colours from my village.” For the paintings she uses natural colours but for saris, dupattas and garments she uses fabric paint.

Aid from the government and handicrafts department has come a long way in making this work economically viable for women. It is more than economic freedom - “menfolk acknowledge our contribution; women who have been doing this have done much better than most highly educated men.”

She has taught her children, son and daughter, painting. “My daughter, who is in Class X, is good at it. This is something women can do better. I have done my bit by teaching her, now I hope she teaches her children in order to perpetuate the tradition.”