Creators of Madhubani paintings struggle as demand dries up

City COVID-19 Economy

By Nishant Kumar

Bihar: Maithili artists, the makers of the world-famous Madhubani paintings, are struggling to survive as their only source of income – the sale of artefacts – has decreased during the pandemic.

“Art is taught to us from childhood and it’s an heirloom,” said Kanak Jha, a Maithili artist. “We learn painting and drawing not primarily for fun but also as a means of income which is now severely affected due to the lockdown.”

Maithili is a centuries-old form of painting created by women in the villages of central Bihar. The paintings, originally made on walls, have in recent decades been made on paper and canvas.

“We use readymade colours to paint on cloth. However, on paper, we still use traditional dyes. Mahasundri Devi of Rathi village introduced cloth painting during the 1970s, and since then we all follow it,” said Jha.

The artists are primarily rural women who paint after finishing their household work.

Sales of Madhubani paintings have dipped. According to the Bihar government, Madhubani paintings have an annual turnover of Rs 50 crore. They contribute significantly to the economy of Bihar’s Madhubani, Darbhanga and Sitamarhi districts.

Deepmala Kumari, another Maithili artist, said: “Earlier, I used to make Rs 20,000 monthly in profits by selling my artefacts to middlemen, but now I work as a maid in other people’s houses for my livelihood.” 

She has held solo exhibitions in Kolkata, Patna, Allahabad, New Delhi, Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur and Varanasi. “We usually send only our best of products as exhibits,” she added.

The paintings are famous for pictorial representations of the Ramayana. They  are classified into the Brahmin shaili (style), and Harijan and Kanchi styles.

Recently, Dulari Devi was bestowed with the Padma Shri for her contribution to the field of Madhubani paintings.

“So what if persons like Dulari Devi have brought laurels to the state? She will be forgotten like Vijya Laxmi (a Padma Shri awardee for Mithila paintings),” said Sachin Gupta, owner of an artefacts shop in Madhubani. “Except for a few who got fame and awards, it is a way of survival for others.” He blames the apathy of the government and society towards the Madhubani paintings.

Menu Kumari, a popular painter in Uchhaith, said it takes ten days to complete a painting. She earns a meagre profit of Rs 2,000-Rs 2,500 since there is no demand in the market. “Working as a daily-wages labourer is a better deal than this,” she said.

Sanjeev Kumar, who works with an NGO called Sewa Sansthan, said: “We now get orders from big markets like Delhi and Mumbai. We directly get in touch with the artists,  cutting the middleman out.” With this both, artists and buyers benefit.

The artisans allege that the government is not interested in buying their work directly from them.

“When an artist goes to the local office of the Central Cottage Industries Emporium with their paintings, they are paid a token sum and have to wait for months for the balance payment, which is made only after the paintings are sold,” said Kumar. Earlier, the payments were made in just three months.

Abhimanyu Shrivastava, sub-divisional magistrate, Madhubani, told The Observer: “The Bihar government will soon start an indigenous app for selling painting and artefacts. Contracts awarded by the government, like painting trains or government buildings, have stopped only because of Covid-19 and will resume after the pandemic subsides.”

The government has promised to eliminate middlemen.

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