The artists of Madhubani.

From cave paintings to modern day graffiti, people from across the planet have needed little to express their creativity.

The women of Mithila were no exception to the rule. Using fingertips and twigs dipped in a homemade paste of crushed rice they decorated walls and floors with intricate drawings of divinities, occasions, celebrations and occurrences before passing down the skills to daughters and grand daughters to continue the tradition. The tools they used were rudimentary but the art they created were masterpieces, meant to be treasured behind closed doors, till a massive earthquake brought them out in the open. Sixty four years after, even the men have started dabbling in the art that is speculated to have originated in the vicinity of 7 AD.

Madhubani art has garnered worldwide acclaim for its raw and unconventional style of painting in recent times.

Discovered in the debris left behind by an earthquake in 1940 and promoted by the all India handicrafts association in the mid 60s, the art of the simple folks wended its way to become a prized collector’s item. The people who created it never considered themselves as artists. The paintings were no more than a household chore to be completed on time before festivals begun and a part of home décor. Scattered across the rural landscape in numerous villages and settlements, the impoverished inhabitants were more concerned with earning an income through trade and agriculture.

Difficult times ushered in the change.

Bihar, once the cradle of empires and religions, is presently counted among the less developed states of the country with a substantial population living below the poverty line. Annually, employment and livelihood pressure push many of her poor to leave behind home and families to work in cities as manual labour, tea vendors and fruit sellers or engaged in odd jobs. The meager earnings acquired are sent back home after deducting daily expenses.

Madhubani artists are more fortunate.

The art of their ancestors ensured them a more respectable occupation and the patronage of art lovers from money spending countries like the US. Over the years, many have done extremely well and amassed fame and small fortunes. Artist Arun Kumar, who produces Madhubani paintings with Sanju Devi, came down to Delhi hauling his stock all the way from an obscure village called Marar in district Madhubani, more than 1200 kilometers away. His assorted collection included paintings, saris and dupptas. Santosh Paswan, another Madhubani artist, arrived from the village of Jitwarpur. He made his first video appearance on Facebook and owns an email account. A sign the rural dwellers are evolving with the times.

Success of earlier government supported painters and international recognition was inspirational. Now, each year, artists will travel thousands of kilometers from native villages located in distant parts of the land to display talent and wares in bustling cities. Cultural avenues like the open air Delhi Haat in New Delhi offers enormous opportunities to establish clientele, contacts and gain from a quick sale.

Taking up temporary residence with friends, relatives or in cheap hotels, the artists will wait in flimsy makeshift stalls suffering the seasonal weather perils for inquisitive shoppers to come calling. Among the few interested in making a purchase, the city dwellers will inevitably engage in a round of bargaining, bringing down the quoted prices. Some days there will be no sales.

Setting up stall in no way guarantees profits. But it’s a start and even self financed entrepreneurs will risk it. Tourists from other countries have always been more generous and less persuasive. And are more likely to buy hand picked selections or place in an order.

The art itself has seen a gradual transformation and developed subtle variations. Walls, floors and household objects have given way to handmade paper, canvas, cloth and bags. Mesmerizing new patterns and ideas have been infused with the traditional style of painting. Skills passed down from generation to generation have been complemented with training programs. Madhubani art is the region’s biggest export and everyone wants it to stay that way.

Themes in Madhubani art was at first segregated by cast.

Each level in the social hierarchy incorporated their own ideologies and a record of their lives into the painting. Women belonging to the upper cast Brahmin families became highly specialized in religious themes. The ones below produced less stylized but innovative pictures ingrained with their lives and beliefs. This made the art form an unintentional collage of varieties and a visual history of the people.

Use of environment friendly material.

Such as natural dyes, pigments, charcoal and in some extreme cases cow dung gave it a distinctive rural appeal with an authentic historical past. Nib pens, match sticks and paint brushes favored by the new generation aren’t seen by critics as a deviation from the old style. The old folklore themes are still being painted in the old natural ink and new ideas are being represented in the traditional style.

Support of local non profit groups like the Mithila Sewa Samiti Committee in Madhubani has been instrumental on many fronts. This particular group regularly organizes training programs for first generation painters and imparts business building skills. Till date it has empowered more that 1500 artisans besides organizing exhibitions on a national level.

Paintings cost anywhere between Rs. 500 to 18,000.

An entire collection sold can fetch in quiet a handsome sum. Prices are not arbitrarily fixed. Level of work, hours invested and skills determine the quoted amount – as the artist in the picture explained,”finer the work, more the price!”

Male artists represent a new era in Madhubani art.

Hitherto, men never involved themselves in what was traditionally seen as a woman’s handiwork. But with it fetching in a good amount in the market, picking up the easel comes easy. Ultimately, the art is the identity of this ancient land and its people. No one wants to see it dead.


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