Darbhanga: The eye-catching Mithila paintings, also known as Madhubani paintings, is one of the finest visual folk art forms practiced in the Mithila region of north Bihar, with global recognition to boot. However, what is lesser-known is the condition of its artisans – predominantly women – who have excelled in this form for generations. They are faced with multiple challenges: absence of an organised marketing system, insufficient earnings, middlemen running the show and no encouragement from the government.
As a result, the upcoming generation is not invested in adopting the art form as a profession. Therefore, the danger of a slow disappearance of the cottage industry looms large.
“It is ironical that an artist has to struggle throughout their life for sustenance and a respectable living and that he or she has to die first to gain recognition and respect,” 59-year-old Urmila Devi, a resident of Jitwarpur village in Madhubani district, told NewsClick.
She said the unavailability of an organised market to sell artwork poses a big challenge for them.
“It takes at least seven to ten days to make a painting on hand-made paper, using organic colours. Since there is no market, we have to depend on middlemen who buy our paintings and give us peanuts in return. They sell these paintings at fancy prices at big stores or galleries. After spending close to a week on it, we get between Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500 for a painting. Even working as a daily-wage labourer is a better deal than this because they get Rs 500 a day in the village. We know we are being exploited by middlemen who take advantage of our illiteracy and poverty,” she rued.
The artisans allege that the government is not interested in buying their work directly from the artists. “When we go to the local office of the Central Cottage Industries with our paintings, we are paid a token sum. We have to wait for months for the rest of the payment, which is made only after the paintings are sold. Earlier, the payment used to be made in three months,” said 27-year-old Santosh Paswan from Jitwarpur.
He said his village was declared a ‘Shilpkala Gram’ four years ago, but it has not yet been developed accordingly. “The government had acquired four acres of land to build an auditorium for organising exhibitions and setting up stalls, but even construction work has not started yet. The village does not even have a primary health centre,” he added.
Uttam Paswan, a national award winner from the village, has been suffering from liver cancer, but is unable to undergo treatment due to a lack of money. Chano Devi, another national award winner from the same village, died of cancer in 2012 without any medical intervention. By the time locals raised funds for her treatment, it was too late.
Role of the Middleman
The artisans are primarily rural women who paint after finishing their household work. One of the issues is that they barely speak any other language except Maithili. Also, they do not move out of the village for business. Middlemen or agents bring them work orders and they are dependent on them as a result.
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Even the government, does not buy the paintings directly from local artists. Earlier, the Ministry of Textiles used to organise a number of exhibitions throughout the year. However, such exhibitions have witnessed a sharp decline under the current regime.
“Earlier, there used to be at least 24 exhibitions such as Gandhi Shilp Bazaar, Craft Bazaar, Indian Expo, etc., each for 15 days in a year. But these exhibitions are no longer organised,” Paswan alleged. He said that artisans now have to wait for the Suraj Kund Mela, the Trade Fair organised at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi, the Sonepur fair, Opendra Maharathi Shilp Anusandhan exhibition and the Bihar Mahotsav. “Aside from these well-known exhibitions, the ministry used to organise smaller exhibitions and fairs locally. But now, NGOs organise them and swallow the funds whole,” he further alleged.
Mohli Devi, also from Jitwarpur, complained only rich and well-connected artists are able to take part in these exhibitions. “Only a handful artists who have good connections and have money can visit these fairs or contribute to the counters at Dilli Haat, Hyderabad Haat, Chandigarh Haat, Orissa Haat and others.
“We get Rs 100 a day from the government to participate in the Gram Shri Mela to showcase our art works. Is it possible to bear expenses of one-time meal in a big city?” she questioned.
Meera Devi, another artisan from Jitwarpur, said the agents who buy their paintings sell it to customers who are foreign nationals at times. “We sell it to the agents, thinking that it would attract art lovers to our village. They come here sometimes and give us a respectable sum, but not often. Painting is not just part-time work, our families depend on it,” she said.
She said that the government used to contact certain artisans directly to place orders earlier. However, the system does not exist any longer, and artists get work orders through agents only. “Despite the exploitation, we have to maintain cordial relations with the middlemen. We get close to half of what they sell our paintings for, but we can’t oppose them since they get us business,” she said.
Rupa Jha, a resident of the same village, recalled that her painting on a silk saree was once selected by a showroom in Delhi for Rs 50,000. However, the buyer refused to buy it the moment they noticed her name written in the corner.
“We are not even supposed to let people know our names. We can’t write it on our artwork because if we do so, they (business agencies) fear the customers will approach us directly to get their material painted at a lower price and it would be a big loss to them,” she said.
“Governments (both at the Centre and the state) have failed the industry. It suffered the double whammy of demonetisation and the ongoing lockdown. The monthly turnover of this cottage industry was between Rs 25 lakhs and Rs 30 lakhs pre-lockdown. Despite the fact that the Madhubani paintings contribute a major chunk of Bihar’s foreign exchange, it does not have a marketing channel. The number of exhibitions have gone down drastically (25% of earlier) and only selected artists are invited to set up stalls. Except for few like Dilli Haat, there is no dedicated market for the art work. The industry still does not have a government emporium. In the name of financial assistance, few artists were given a loan of Rs 50,000 under by the Micro Units Development & Refinance Agency Ltd under the Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (PMMY). But the sum was too less to make any difference. One artists should at least get between Rs 2.5 and Rs 3 lakh. Of the over 5,000 applications submitted by the Department of Handicrafts, Ministry of Textiles, only around 500 artists get Artisans Credit Card and too after bribing officials,” Anil Kumar Jha, secretary, Gramothan Parishad — an NGO working for welfare of artists, told NewsClick.
Jha is from the village of Ranti, another hub for Madhubani paintings. Four people from Jitwarpur and Ranti have been honoured with the Padma Shri award, 10 with other national awards and 150 with state awards. At least 100 women from the two villages get a pension of Rs 3,000. Those who are awarded at the state level get a monthly pension from the government after having reached 60 years of age.
“Not just award winners, but all artists who are above the age of 60 should be given a pension,” demanded Jha. “Unfortunately, very few paintings by the doyens are left for conducting exhibitions. If a budding artist wants to learn from the paintings of legends like Sita Devi and Gita Devi, he or she won’t find them as they have not been kept,” he added, advising the government to introduce courses in Madhubani painting at some level, either in the school or college syllabus.
Unfortunately, India does not have a collection of Sita Devi’s paintings, which find a place in permanent collections at the Mithila Museum in Japan, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and in many other global institutions.
Breaking the Caste Barrier
Madhubani paintings wer initially practiced by upper-caste Brahmin women to beautify their houses during a marriage or in festivals. Legend has it that a government official who visited Jitwarpur noticed Sita Devi’s ‘bharni’ style of Mithila paintings, which emphasise strong colours over fine lines. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi then got to know about her. She was asked to paint on paper and canvas for which she was paid.
Sita Devi is considered among the first to take the traditional art form from the walls of her home onto paper and canvas. Her distinct aesthetic popularised the ‘bharni’ style of Mithila painting.
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Her work brought critical national and international attention to the art form. She found admirers in several politicians, including former presidents and prime ministers like Lal Bahadur Shastri, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Indira Gandhi. In 1975, she won a National Award and was awarded with a Padma Shri in 1981. Three years later she won the Bihar Ratna Samman.
The recognition of her work resulted in a ray of hope for others, who also began showing an interest in the art form to earn a living. Women from the Dalit community also learned to paint. They were supported by the men as they were bringing in money.
Caste discrimination crept in here as well though. A new style (Harijan painting) of the Mithila painting was introduced which indicated the caste of the artist.
Madhubani paintings had five distinctive styles now — Kohbar, Bharni, Katchni, Tantrik and Godna. Brahmins and Kayasthas practiced Bharni and Katchni, while Tantrik and Godna were the styles of the so-called “lower” castes. The Brahmins used to draw mythological stories from tales of the Mahabharata and Ramayana while Dalits would paint about their day-to-day activities and rituals.
As time passed, the lines of discrimination blurred. Brahmins began making Godna paintings and the Dalits showed an interest in painting mythological figures. In a state still fighting caste, the Madhubani painting was an avenue for artists to break boundaries.
No Technological Advancement
At least 70% of the families in Jitwarpur depend on the art form for a livelihood. Out of them, close to half are not even able to write their own names. It is why artisans have found it difficult to start online businesses.
“We cannot take part in different exhibitions organised by the government because a lack of resources. We will be able to work independently if the government arranges for some kind of office in our state where we can exhibit and sell our art-work directly,” an artist said. There is fear that the current generation will suffer the same fate as their predecessors if the government does not act.
‘Everything up to Scratch’
When contacted for a comment, an official at the Marketing and Service Extension Centre, Office of the DC (Handicraft), Madhubani district, claimed that “everything is up to scratch”.
“The government is providing Rs 20,000 per artist under the Hasta Shilpa Vikas Yojna, aside from there being several insurance schemes for them. In addition, the government is mulling over organising more and more exhibitions. Workshops are held for people of various age-groups and plans are being chalked out to conduct more special camps for schoolchildren in the future,” he told NewsClick.
While a Madhubani painting might have impressed Michelle Obama, the former first lady of the United States, during her visit to New Delhi in November 2010, its distressed creators have no reason to smile. The sorry state of affairs does not even find a mention in the manifestos of any political party.