Manjushas are temple-shaped boxes, made of bamboo, jute straw and paper. According to legend, Manjusha art traces its origin to the Bihula-Vishahri or Mansha folktale, popular in erstwhile Anga Pradesh and found also in an altered form in West Bengal. The paintings are drawn primarily on the occasion of the Bishari puja, celebrated usually in August to propitiate the snake gods. As Bihula’s boat was decorated by a character called Lahsan Mali, this art has been confined to the Mali or gardener caste. Like Madhubani, Manjusha too is pictorial reflections of folklore, poetry and the larger cultural consciousness of the region.
Manjusha Art is considered by many as modern art, due to their form and abstract themes. This is why the art-lover who discovered them for the outside world, W.G. Archer, an ICS officer who worked in different parts of Bihar between 1931 and 1948, compared them to the works of
Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Archer, in fact, took some of these paintings to the India Office Library in London as part of the Archer Collection.
The Manjusha or the border lining the work is often criticized as merely the “ceremonial” part of the painting, but its what sets them apart. A temple-shaped structure with eight pillars, it often has swirling snakes depicting the central character Bihula’s tale of love and sacrifice.
Manjushas, thus, have often been referred to as a snake paintings by Westerners, including Archer. Other motifs figuring prominently in these paintings are drawn from nature, be it the sun, the moon, fishes, sandal or bamboo, each with its own significance in the folklore. Unlike Madhubani, Manjushas are painted only in three colors – red, yellow and green – on a black background. According to legend, Manjusha art traces its origin to the Bihula – Vishahri or Mansha folktale, popular in erstwhile Anga Pradesh and found also in an altered form in West Bengal. The paintings are drawn primarily on the occasion of the Bishari puja, celebrated usually in August to propitiate the snake gods. As Bihula’s boat was decorated by a character called Lahsan Mali, this art has been confined to the Mali or gardener caste.
The Manjushas, which are made up of Jute straws and paper, depict sketches of different characters, apart from those of Gods and Goddesses, thereby giving a vivid description of the entire mythology attached to Bishahari puja.
Importance of this art form could be compared at best with the splendor craftsmanship that was prevalent in the ancient “Ang desh” – a name with which this zone was once famous. Despite being quite different in style, the present day depiction of the Manjusha art is termed by the connoisseurs as simple. But before going into the details of this folk art, it is necessary to know the myth attached to it.
This art was earlier done by only two families the Kumbhakar caste and the Malakar caste. The Kumbhakar caste used to make the pots on which the manjusa art is painted and worshiped 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.
Sixty five years old Chakravarti Devi is the living legend of this art here. According to her, three colours – red, green and yellow – are primarily used in this folk painting. She is the senior most artist among a total of 20 odd people who make Manjushas. Earlier, they used to prepare over 1,500 Manjushas in comparison to the present number of around 500. She attributes the waning popularity of Manjusha art to the decline in number of Bishahri Bhagats (devotees).
In this style of paintings, human beings are depicted in the form of English letter ‘X’ with limbs drawn with linear and uniform bold lines. Other features include portraying Bishahri along with Snakes. The main characters in the art form are projected Sans ear and with big eyes. For decoration, weave lines are used. Unfortunately, this unique art is today facing an imminent danger of becoming extinct in absence of any encouragement either from the various social organisation or the government. Artists associated with this art form are now switching over to other trades in order to make their both ends meet.
Story Behind Manjusha
Maina, Bhawani, Devi, Padma and Jaya – the five sisters – were the ‘Manas Putriyan’ (divine daughters) of Lord Shiva. The were also called Bishahari. Once they apprised Lord Shiva of their keen desire to be worshiped on the planet Earth. The lord pondered for a while and put a condition, saying “if my Bhakt, Chando, accepts to worship you all then it is all right for me”. According to the myth, Chando, who was a trader and lived at Champanagar on the western outskirts of Bhagalpur town, refused to comply to their wishes. This infuriated the five Manas Putriyan who killed all the six sons of Chando and also drowned his ship carrying merchandise. However, the fate had something else in its mind as Chando’s wife Sonika gave birth to the seventh son, Bala.
In the meantime, an Ujjain based trader, Basu, was blessed with a daughter, Bihula. As time passed by, both Bala and Bihula grew into adults and one fine day even their marriage was fixed. However, the wrath of the raging sisters had not subsided by then and they threatened to kill Bala on the very night of his marriage. In order to check their entry into the house, Chando prepared a compact dwelling, made of iron and bamboo, for the couple. But, the still angry Bishahari sisters somehow managed to slip a Naag (snake) inside their new dwelling which bit Bala killing him instantaneously. A non-chalant Bihula then prepared a Manjusha shaped boat and went to Indralok (heaven). There she requested the Gods to revivify her husband. The Gods were pleased with her concern for her husband and thus Bala got back his life. On her return from the Indralok, Bihula persuaded Chando to worship Bishari. And since then Bishahri Puja is observed, says the myth.