Manjusa art is believed to be the only art form in the history of art form in India which has a sequential representation of the story and is displayed in a series. This is also called a scroll painting. Manjusa art is a folk art of Bhagalpur, Bihar, and has been dated back to the 7th century. The name Manjusa is also associated with an elaborate story, a goddess and also a festival celebrated in Bhagalpur. The Sanskrit word “Manjusa” means a box and Manjusas are temple shaped boxes, made of bamboo, Jute-Straw and Paper inside which the devotees keep their ceremonial materials. These boxes are however illustrated with paintings that tell a tale. The tale is that of Bihula who saved her husband from the deity’s wrath and a snake-bite and also of Bishahari or Mansa, the snake goddess known for her anger when displeased but also her fierce protectiveness when propitiated. Earlier the story called `Bihula-Bishahari Gatha’ had an oral tradition of being sung though, nowadays not too many people sing it, but in Assam and Bengal the tradition is still continued and the songs are sung with the story of Bihula. It is a well-known folk art. In an attempt to save this art form from extinction, in the year 1984 the Bihar government made an intitative called “Jansampoorna vibagh” in which they went to the villages of Bhagalpur and showed them slideshows of Manjusa art and educated people about this traditional art form encouraging them to revive this age old tradition. This initiative has led to other governmental and non governmental organisations to come up with unique plans to promote this art form by using them as a mode of communication in various schemes.
Manjusa art is the folk art of “Angpradesh” whereas Madhubani painting is of the Darbang Pradesh.
This art was earlier done by only two familes the Kumbhakar caste and the Malakar caste. The Kumbhakar caste used to make the pots on which the manjusa art is painted and worshipped during the festival. The Malakar caste makes the actual “manjusas” and paint the manjusa art on this strucutres.There is another caste called the Kashira caste, they used to make the pots out of “peetal”/brass. There are only two families left who still practice this art.
Earlier the Pandit family Cheddhi and Basant Pandit used to make the manjusa art for the temple, for this service all their expenses were taken care of by the village.
This art has been prevalent in Bhagalpur for a long time but between1931 -48 , it was brought to the forefront. In this period during the British rule, an ICS officer by name W.G.Archer and his wife started finding out more about Madhubani painting and Manjusa art.He fell in love with the art form . W.G.Archer put a collection together of manjusa art and had an exhibition in The India Office Library in London which became part of the Archer Collection. It was at this time that Manjusa art gained international recognition.But at that time due to the British rule the artisans could not flourish. After this golden period, Manjusa art seemed to be fading away in the background and was being practiced only by some people. In 1984 the Bihar government made an intitative called “Jansampoorna Vibagh” in which they went to the villages of Bhagalpur and showed them slideshows of Manjusa art and educated people about this traditional art form in the hope of reviving it. After which Smt.Chakravathy Devi and Jyothi Chand Sharma came into the picture and helped revive this craft.Smt.Chakravathy Devi was one of the most traditional artisans and belonged to one of the two families who have started this art.She has worked tirelessly in reviving this craft. During the same time Smt.Nirmala Devi also started working in this field and has come to be known and honoured for her efforts to revive this craft.
In 1992, an artisan by name Mr.Manoj Pandit started experimenting with different materials and started painting on silk and other fabrics which helped take this art to the next level. From being just an art done for religious purposes, the artisans were able to use it in products more suited to the market.
The Bihar government has been making a lot of efforts to revive this craft and many skill upgradation trainings have taken place both in Bhagalpur as well as in the nearby villages. They have made a good effort in trying to make people aware of this craft. They have taken certain moves like it is madatory that all the Zilla Parishad banks have to have a manjusa art painting hanging in their banks, which automatically provides the artisans with some kind of market. Recently the Bihar government has put together a committee which comprises of 11 people out of which 4 artisans will be present to apply for a patent for the manjusa art form. They are planning to patent it as a Bhagalpur folk art.
Manjusa Art is based on a folk story. The tale is that of Bihula who saved her husband from the deity’s wrath and a snake-bite and also of Bishahari or Mansa, the snake goddess . Earlier this story used to be sung in the oral tradition, Nowadays though the oral songs are not as popular, an effort is being made ot revive them.Manjusa Art is the first narrative folk art below is the story on which Manjusa Art is based and is illustrated.
The story goes that one day Lord Shiva was taking a bath in Sonada lake, at which time 5 hairs from his plait broke and fell into the water.These 5 hairs become 5 lotuses at the bank of the river.As Shiva continues with his bath, he hears a sound coming from the lotuses, all 5 of the lotuses request Lord Shiva to accept them as his daughters.Shiva replies that without seeing their true form, he cannot accept them.All 5 lotuses convert into their true forms of 5 women.They are 5 sisters their names are
• Jaya Bishahari – symbols – bow & arrow + Amrith Kalash • Dhothila Bhavani – symbols – one hand the rising sun and in the other hand a snake • Padmavathi – symbols – one hand there is a lotus • Mynah Bisahari – symbol – the mynah bird in one hand • Maya bishahari / Manasa bishahari – symbols – both hands are snakes.
Lord Shiva accepts these 5 women as his “Manasaputri” which means he accepts them as his daughters in the human form. They are also known as “Datta Putri” daughters who have been adopted. As he accepts them in their human form, they are also known as “Manasa”.
The 5 sisters go to Goddess Parvati and ask her to accept them as her daughters, to which she refuses. The sisters get agitated and they turn themselves into their snake form and hide in the flowers. When Goddess Parvati goes to pick the flowers the snake bites her and she becomes unconscious, at that time Lord Shiva comes and requests them to revive her and that she will accept them. Jaya Bishahari feeds Goddess Parvati amrith from her amrith kalash and revives Goddess Parvati. Parvati grants them a boon saying that they can get rid of the snakes poision and were called as “Bishahari”.
One day all the 5 sisters were playing together in their snake form a game called “Jhingri”. At that time Lord Vasuki Nag approaches them.The sisters tell him that now that they are of Lord Shivas family and everyone of his family is worshipped then they too should be worshipped. Lord Vasuki Nag replied that in Angpradesh Kingdom, in Champanagar there is a Lord Shiva Devotee by name Chando Saudagar. If he accepts to worship them then everyone on earth will follow. On hearing this, the 5 sisters ask Lord Shivas permissison to approach Chando Saudagar and head towards Champa Nagar. Chando Saudagar was a very successful businessman. He was a very strong Lord Shiva devotee and did business all over the country and beyond. He had 6 sons. When the Bishaharis approached him and asked him to worship them, and they said if he did so, then they would grant him boons of wealth & power. At which Chando Soudagar’s reply was that he did not know who they were and he will not worship them. On hearing this Mynah Bisahhari gets really angry and curses him “if he does not worship them then they will ruin his business and kill his family.” But Chando Saudagar even on hearing this refuses to worship them. Chando Saudagar was also known as a very stubborn man and once he made up his mind about something, it was very difficult to get him to change it. Once when ChandoSaudagar was travelling with his sons in the boat “Sonamukhi” which was made of gold, his wife Sonka Sahund requests ChandoSaudagar to worship the Bishaharis , at which he again refuses. Bishaharis become furious on his refusal and drown the entire family along with the boat. But the Bishaharis discuss amongst themselves and realise that if they drowned Chandosaudagar also then their wish of being worshipped would not be fulfilled.So all 5sisters prayed to Lord Hanuman, who appeared in fromt of them and He pulled out Chandosaudagar from the sea. After this incident, Chando Saudagar still refuses to worship the Bisaharis, as time passes by, Chandosaudagar and his wife have another son BalaLakhendra. Once the son grows up they go in search for a suitable bride for him. His marriage is fixed with a Girl by name Bihula from the nearby village of Ujjaini. This proposal was accepted by Chandosaudagar after much deliberation, as he was very much aware of the Bisaharis curse and wanted to make sure the girl whom his son marries would be able to stand up against the Bisaharis. There are many other small stories here, which claim that Bihula had been cursed by an old woman that she would become a widow on her wedding night. It is said Chandosaudagar tests Bihula’s intelligence by asking her to prove herself through some tasks he set her. After he was satisfied, the proposal was accepted and with a lot of pomp and celebrations the wedding took place. Always aware of the threat of the Bisaharis, an iron house had been constructed for the couples wedding night. This house had been constructed by no other than the “Daivashilpi” Bishakarma. The Bisaharis though had made sure that they had intercepted this plan and had requested him to leave a small hole as fine as a hair in the wall of the room. The night of the marriage the house was surrounded by a lot of people guarding it and also mongooses the enemies of the snakes. The Bisaharis managed to get Lord Shivas snake ”Maniyar” to enter the house and kill Bal- Lakhendra. Bihhula distraught at her husbands death starts crying, at which the rest of the family appears. Chandisaudagr is about to order that his sons body is to be immersed in the river, when Bihula stops him and says she will travel with his body and approach “Nethula Devin” to revive him. Bihula orders the same Bishakarma who had constructed the house to construct a boat for her, in which she can take her husbands body and a cover /Manjusa to cover the body. She also requests an artist to draw the story of her tribulations on the Manjusa in which all her family members were depicted. She also requested him to portray all the flora and fauna of the Ang Pradesh. The colours were used such that sacrifice, Determination and happiness were portrayed.
As Bihula takes her husband in the manjusa they go through sonapur ghat, godha ghat, Jwari ghat Jokaseni ghat, Sahushanka Ghat, Bhojaseni ghat,then they finally reach galantri ghat, where the water is such that it is like acid and there the flesh of Bala gets dissolved and only the skeleton remains.(Even today the water there is not used, it is said to cause deaths for animals, it is on the way to Katihar). She puts the skeleton into a potli and continues on her journey. As she is going ahead, she experiences an incident. She sees one woman with two men. She was the form of Nethula dhobin. She saw her cut her husband into “koota” and the son she cut and made into a “paat” . She washes her clothes (story goes that she used to wash the clothes on all the gods and goddesses) and once she is done with certain mantras she brings back her husband and son alive and then they continue on with their work.
Bihula witnesses this and realizes that she can help her in making her husband alive. Bihula approaches her and requests her help in reviving her husband. After a lot of trials and tribulations, Bihula manages to approach Lord Shiva in heaven and there she conceals her face by wearing her Ghoongat. She requests Lord Shiva that she wants all the wealth that her Father in Law Chandosaudagar lost to be returned to him, and requests all the other gods and goddesses, that when she entered Champanagar all the happiness had gone, so she requests them to give them back their happiness. She also asks that her 6 sis in laws who are widows should become “suhaagan” again, and that she is blessed with the happiness of having children. All her boons were granted, at that point of time she removes her ghoonghat and Bisahari recognizes her as Bihula. At that point Bishahari tells her that all your boons will come true only on one condition that you will make sure that Chandosaudagar will worship her and her sisters. Bihula agrees and assures her that she will get this pooja done. Bisahari brings Bala back to life. The entire family with the sonamukhi boat and their wealth head back to Champanagar. Once they go the entire family starts greeting one another with a lot of celebrations and festivities. At that point of time Bihula stops them and say there is one condition that Chandosaudagar has to do pooja for Bisahahri. He refuses, the moment he refuses Bisahari asks Bihula with her power to create a sense of darkness ”aandhi”. Bihula does so, and the 7 brothers again fall into the lake where they are getting drowned, the family requests ChandoSaudagar to do pooja, he still refuses and says he would rather die then do this pooja, as he removes his sword to kill himself, and offer himself to Lord Shiva, Lord Shiva appears and tells him not to kill himself and Bishahri is his daughter, on hearing this ChandoSaudagar says he will offer pooja in his right hand only to Lord Shiva, so Shiva says then offer pooja to her with your left hand. Chandosaudagar accepts this and worships Bisahari with his left hand.
The paintings are done using a brush and paints.
The main colours used are green, yellow and pink/red. Yellow signifies peace or samriddhi, Pink/red signifies sacrifice and green signifies happiness. Black and blue cannot be used as they are not considered holy for religious purposes. Earlier the colours used were natural colours. They used indigenous plant materials.They extracted the dyes from various parts of the plants.After a while they started using “kaccha” colours which are powdered colours which are normally used for holi. The colours are not fixed and thus are temporary and will fade overtime. Nowadays, though they are using fabric paints. Once they started working on fabrics they started using fabric paints and use the same paints even for the paintings they do on paper. If the painting is meant for religious purposes then some of the traditional artisans still use the powdered colors. Off late, the artisans have started drawing with permanent markers.
Earlier they used to use bamboo sticks which were sharpened as brushes, and then they started using brushes made out of squirrel hair/camel hair which are easily available in the market. But since they have started using fabric paints, if the brushes are not washed immediately then they get ruined, so they have started using brushes made out of plastic.These brushes are cheaper and last longer.
The outline is first drawn and then filled in. They do not use scales and other implements for drawing as they feel the lines drawn by hand is what adds to the painting as opposed to drawing them symmetrically by hand. Everything is drawn free hand.The little imperfections and the fact that the lines are not straight, they feel is a part of folk art. Now when they paint on the fabrics, the more skilled artisans draw it directly on the material whereas the other artisans first sketch an outline and then start the painting.
When they start a painting for religious purposes that is for praying, the artist makes a pile of rice in the room, places a beetel leaf with a beetle nut on top of this pile and prays for permission from the goddesses to start the painting. The moment the leaf shifts a bit or falls, they consider this as a sign that they have got permission and can start their work. Even when doing regular paintings, before starting the traditional artisans utter a mantra in the name of Goddess Bisahari and start the painting.
All the characters in the story are differentiated by certain symbols. In the Bisaharis they can be differentiated by what they hold in their hands. In Manjusa Art all the characters and any human form are depicted in the form of English letter ‘X’ with limbs drawn with linear and uniform bold lines. Other features include portraying Bishahari along with Snakes. The main characters in the art form are projected Sans ear and with big eyes. For decoration, wavy lines are used.
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