my aunt said, “shall i get a madhubani saree made for you?”

i was intrigued, madhubanis were paintings, weren’t they? with endless little lines, geometric figures, krishna, radha, peacocks, flowers, faces with elongated eyes, deer, forest… fine lines and bright colours. how do you make a saree of that?

madhubani pieces are fairly commonplace or at least they used to be. i am not talking of extremely intricate pieces, it’s the more basic ones, often in black/green/red and maybe blue that you see in government emporiums, handicraft fairs, even framed in hotels and offices. folk art, found everywhere. i’d never really spared them much thought. they are there, part of the scene, intriguing in a way perhaps but mostly taken for granted, at least by me.

i’d of course not imagined they could have anything to do with something i wore. my aunt, who runs a boutique and often makes wonderful sarees and other things for me, could sense my hesitation over the phone. she decided to take matters in hand and told me she’d get one made and send it across.

a couple of months later the saree arrived. she’d chosen a tussar, the body was a shade of muted red, the border and pallu had been left unbleached, and on that ran detailed madhubani work in black and deep red with kundan sparkling here and there. across almost nine yards went the five-inch wide border and the circular centre piece on the pallu was at least two and a half feet across with additional work along the edges. a fabulous richness about the saree.

madhubani is a district in the north of bihar along the border with nepal. this region was once part of the kingdom of mithila. madhubani art is said to have started thousands of years ago… some say, when king janak asked the women of mithila to decorate the palace for his daughter sita’s wedding with ram.

initially, the women who gave shape to this art form, painted motifs from daily life on walls, stylising them to give madhubani, or mithila painting, its distinctive look. over time, new motifs and figures were added; each thing of course means something and is often symbolic. fish, for instance, signifies fertility and luck, peacocks indicate romantic love… while living in southern bihar, now jharkhand, i remember seeing intricately painted huts in santhal villages. that too was possibly influenced by the work of these folk artists. even now, most madhubani artists are women.

my aunt tells me these sarees are painted in narpati nagar in madhubani district. thick nibs, about twice the size of normal pen nibs, are used to create these patterns. earlier, the ladies used only vegetable dyes, however of late they’ve switched to commercial colours as they seem to last longer. it takes between two and three months to make the sarees you see here.

i bought the onion pink tussar with madhubani border and pallu in black a couple of years later. two of my friends wanted similar sarees. others said they’d like theirs on crepe for a more swish fall. far away in bihar, possibly living in simple tenements and huts, the women artists were unfazed and came back with exactly what had been asked for.

who are these women i wonder at times. we call this an art form, yet no one knows the names of these creators… true, a few have been recognised and even travelled to other parts of the world to show their work, but that’s just a handful of artists. is it just one woman who makes a saree, or do a few of them work together? how do they get this skill? do they have people to pass on their knowledge to? how do they draw with such intensity and sense of proportion… repeating motifs flawlessly; filling and perfecting instinctively. in today’s world, where the word art has us in a tizzy over the price of this painting or that, where art is “investment,” i wonder what $$$ these artists’ work would have commanded if the right marketeer got to it.

in a way, i am glad that’s not happened. not everything should be valued only in cold hard cash, especially art. i hope the artists are paid well for their efforts though. aunt said, they do madhubani with gold paint these days, i had to ask, “so, where’s mine?”


sarees tell stories | madhubani sarees bought around 2008/09 from raya’s boutique, 2/1/2 rakhal mukherjee road, kolkata 70025, phone +919874130648.

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