Jitwarpur is a sleepy village with latitude-26.34 and longitude- 86.07 has an approximate population of 8000-9000 persons. Jitwarpur is located near the northern border of Nepalese Himalayas which forms the border between India and Nepal. The lanes and bi-lanes are narrow flanked by both mud and now few concrete dwellings. Jitwarpur is one of the 79 villages of Madhubani Tehsil and block of Madhubani district headquarter. It is one of the five villages of Najirpur Panchayat namely Jitwarpur, Kanail, Najirpur, Srichandrapur, and Baharban.
Some of the other prominent Madhubani painting clusters other than Jitwarpur are Ranti, Rashidpur, Simri, Rayam, Bhachhi, Samalia, etc.
Jitwarpur is about 4 km from Madhubani district headquarter. It is estimated there are about 400 houses consisting of 10 prominent castes residing in three localities (tola), namely Dakshin Bari Tola, Mahapatra Tola, and Pichwari Paswan Tola. The key castes residing in Jitwarpur are Ram, Paswan, Brahmin, Das (Kayasth), Rai, Yadav, Kumhar, Thakur, Mandal, and Mahapatra. It was mentioned, from the 400 houses of Jitwarpur, about 250 houses have members making Madhubani paintings and about 90 houses have trained and skilled hands.
A broad caste wise break-up of Madhubani artists: Mahapatra- 20 percent, Paswan 20 percent, Kayasth 20 percent, Ram 20 percent, and others constitute 30 percent.
Mithila painting has been a domestic ritual activity in Jitwarpur village which was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934. The Jitwarpur women were painting on the walls of their huts and this art form. Traditionally these paintings were passed down over generations from mother to daughter. In the year 1960-61 monsoon season, Bihar experienced serious drought resulting in widespread scarcity of food and the government launched relief projects to help mainly illiterate and rural populations. These projects varied according to local customs and needs. Bihar government awarded Bombay based artist Bhaskar Kulkarni, erstwhile member of the Indian Handicrafts Federation, with a grant of Rs 50,000 to launch a relief enterprise.
Kulkarni traveled to various regions of Bihar including Jitwarpur, a village southeast of Madhubani district and observed wall relief made from mixtures of cow dung and mud depicting religious festivals and folklore. Recognizing the potential, he encouraged their creators, the village women, to execute their designs on paper and provided the women with commercial colors, ink, brush, and other art supplies. Kulkarni, whose atypical hippie-like appearance perhaps being the stumbling block only succeeded in initially cajoling a few Mahapatra Brahmin and Kayasth women to experiment with the new medium he proposed. They later transferred their images to the cloth as well.
Kulkarni displayed the initial paintings at the Government Industrial exhibition in New Delhi in 1962 where they were sold between Rs 5 and Rs 10. He organized the first exhibition of Maithili or Madhubani School of paintings at New Delhi in 1967. By the early 1970s, the paintings had become widely known, and two of the artists — Ganga Devi and Sita Devi — were recognized as artists in their own rights both in India and abroad.
Later, Dalit women were also persuaded to take up painting on paper under the drought relief program. The traditional artists were not adept at the promotion of their work. They also lacked entrepreneurship. They did not capitalize on the commercial potential of these crafts for a long time. After independence, apart from Kulkarni, Shri Upendra Maharathi, a gifted artist originally hailing from
Orissa, also worked extensively to revive and popularize arts and crafts of Bihar with support from the first Chief Minister of Bihar, Shri Krishna Sinha. The result was the formation of the Bihar State Cottage Industries and Handicrafts Board. This organization supported the artisans and sold their products through their own outlets. This art owes a huge debt to persons such as Pupul Jayakar, Bhaskar Kulkarni, Upendra Marathi, Raymond Lee Owens, and Lalit Narayan Mishra, etc., who worked to popularize it, both in the country and abroad.
The success of Ganga Devi and Sita Devi further encouraged other local women to try their hand at this new art form. So it was that outstanding painters were discovered and Mithila folk paintings came to be popularly known as Madhubani paintings. Thus Jitwarpur was officially recognized in 1970 when the President of India gave an award to Jagdamba Devi, the first recipient from Jitwarpur. Other painters also were similarly decorated later; Mahasundari Devi, Sita Devi, Ookha Devi, Godavari Dutt, Bua Devi were also given this national award.
The distinct but the overlap of styles of art was then practiced by the women from two distinct castes- the upper and the scheduled castes in Jitwarpur. The religious form was produced by Brahmin and few of the other upper castes and the ‘secular’ forms drawn from daily life were depicted by the Harijan women. Both styles used religious motifs, folklore images and flat patterns of vibrant color. This art of the Jitwarpur women since then is known as Madhubani art because Jitwarpur village is proximate to Madhubani town.
Source: UMSAS, Patna. Text partially edited.