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Traditionally women were trained in and taught the arts within the homes. In modern times, young men have also acquired certain skills and are often encouraged to learn whatever arts they proclaim having a propensity for.
Women of our community were taught from a young age to be able to draw and paint. Although it was popular to delve in decorative art, as well as depicting nature, objects and landscape, the Mathurs also devised other ways to be unique – almost in a very folksy way – and one of these occasions was Diwali – when Lakshmi is drawn in a very particular and defined manner by placing dots, in sequence on a sheet of paper; the dots are then connected to create highly stylized and ethnic patterns.
These drawings with their own particular stylization of the deity and the unique patterns that women and mothers in every home enthusiastically produce till today, thereby achieve a completely different level of ethnic, traditional and artistic accomplishment. Other auspicious motifs also used for embellishing the picture – are a “satiya” (Swastika), “hattries” (toy clay houses for oil lamps), and “diyas” (oil lamps), decorative garlands with birds, floral borders and pictures of the then existing locale, children playing, women cooking, or churning curds and whey, “maniharans” (bangle sellers),“halwaais” (vendors of sweetmeats), all such themes interspersed to brighten and enhance the central Lakshmi figure. Finally gold dust was scattered over it to make it glow!! Once finished, the Lakshmi picture was hung in every prayer altar and treated as a manifestation of the true goddess to pray to, for her blessings. Children’s curiosity was ably appeased about the intricate drawings with lots of stories revolving around the symbols and the illustrations, creating a further interest in the “pooja” ceremonies.
“Alpana” or “Chauk lagaana” is a form of welcoming incoming guests, by painting the home-doorstep and entry way with catchy designs on the floor. It was also a very particularly stylized skill, with many variations and especially done at festivals or weddings. It is usually done with rice powder paste and water, often mixed with colours to enhance the visuals. Women also would use the same mix for painting decorative pots, and matkas to arrange them around the house and outdoors. Mathurs also prided themselves on being able to decorate their homes with home made mango leaf or ashok leaf “bandanvaars” and other suitable adornments distinctively and tastefully.
“Mehndi” (henna decoration on hands and feet) is another traditional Mathur art/skill. The Mathur weddings were wonderful occasions for young maidens to show off their skills as artists who would intricately adorn and anoint a bride’s hands and feet with mehndi for her special day and get amply rewarded for their efforts. Designs of this art included diagonal floral vines running across from the wrist to the fingertips and often with auspicious symbols of peacocks, birds, “kairis” (paisleys) and flowers.
Weddings were a great occasion – when the bride’s mother welcomed the groom for the first time at her doorstep; she performed an “arti” dedicated to him. The “thaali” used for this purpose was decorated by a female member of the household; the designs entailed intricate sculpted patterns from ordinary flour dough, and when dried, painted, and glittered for effect. “Diyas” were placed on the thaali for the arti.This artform still continues with huge fervour.
Another way in which the Mathur women indulge in and enjoy the arts is in making “teehals” (gift wrapping bridal clothes) for the farewell of a bride-to-be or the welcome of a “bahu” (son’s bride into the family. The entire trousseau to be given away to the girl member or to be presented to the bahu coming into the family, was artistically and beautifully gift wrapped, individually in home embroidered tablecloths, or transparent wrappings, and tied and embellished with gold frills/trimmings called “dhanak” or “gota” or “kiran”. The single package then was completed with an affectionate, lyrically composed hand written poetic note – “doha” on a hand painted or decorated card. Whereas there was a fond farewell poem for the going away bride with auspicious blessings, attached to each of her bridal sari package, a similar fond welcome poem was attached for the son’s homecoming bride’s presents too! This is very peculiar to Mathurs who still pride themselves in this venture.
One of the very typical Mathur decoration skills is painting the “manddha” – the “manddha” is decorated by women and children of the family and this form of art is called “manddha cheetna” (chitrit karna). A “manddha” is a free standing wooden structure on a base, with 4 short crossed arms at 2 levels, attached midway and at the very top, with “shakoras” or flat clay bowls hung from each arm end. The symbolic item was placed at the venue of the wedding, intended to be an invitation for the entire village, (when the “shakoras” clanged in the wind, birds flew away announcing the event far and wide), as well as for invoking the deities from all 4 directions such as uttar/north, dakshin/south, poorab/east and paschim/west).
Examples of other artistic crafts include sewing, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, shuttle lacemaking (some of these being imported avocations from Europe); as well as all manners of crafts, such as making fabric ragdolls, purses, useful home items, as well as learning to cook a whole variety of culinary delicacies, and all other creative and dexterous ventures. Women belonging to highly cultured families would take pride in sewing their own clothes, embroidering their linens, saris, blouses, shawls and ornamentalizing their more formal clothes with “zari” (gold thread) embroidery, as well as embellishing achkans or kurtas and caps with “zari ka kaam”. A traditional trousseau for every girl getting married comprised various articles of beautifully tailored clothing and linen, including quilts, bedcovers, cheval sets, and tablecloths, with impeccable tailoring, and fine embroidery, as well as often an array of knitted articles. And if a family decided to be extravagant, then there were other such accompaniments to bridal wear, as home tailored and embroidered shawls, fans, drawstring purses, cummerbunds, comb and cosmetic cases, blouse cases, jewellery carrying cases, bangle cases, or cases for harmoniums, sitars, taanpuras, and tablas (musical instruments). Oftentimes, a “chauparrh” with case was also enclosed. This is a very old game like snakes and ladders but played with ivory dice, and little dome shaped wooden, coloured-by-team-set game pieces to be moved on a cross piece of pre stitched and elaborately embroidered fabric.