Every Madhubani painting has a story and theme behind it. It symbolises a rural way of life or an element treasured by the rural folk Photograph: (WION)
Enter Dilli Haat and you will be greeted with scores of shops dealing with Indian handicrafts, textiles and artefacts. A treasure trove for those looking for authentic Indian handmade goods, the place never disappoints.
But behind the happy, cheerful faces of local craftsmen, are echoing tales of hope and despair.
One such tiny shop is manned by Ashish Kumar from Madhubani in Bihar. As I enter his den, Ashish is seen showing the eponymous paintings to a prospective client, a foreigner visiting from England.
Ashish is one amongst many traditional Madhubani painters who survive on their paintings for a living, and it’s not a very rosy picture for them as narrated by him.
Struggling for Stability
Ashish Kumar says, “I come from Jitwarpur village in Madhubani where there are close to 500-600 odd artisans. We all write applications to the Madhubani head office in Madhubani for government sanction and every year only 10-15 are selected. The government gives them (selected ones) TA/DA while helping the painters to put up a shop at a temporary location in the form of an exhibition or at places like Dilli Haat for 15 days. The only great thing in this arrangement is, that even if we don’t earn anything at times, we don’t lose our own money in the process as the basics are met with the help of the government.”
Ashish Kumar has been painting since 9 years and has learnt Madhubani art from his father. “Everyone in our house is a painter; my mother, father, sisters, brothers, relatives, everybody. It runs in the blood of that area, we are born painters”, adds Ashish.
Do the paintings compensate the painters fairly?
Ashish offers me a proposition instead of answering directly. He says, “At the moment my most expensive paintings are for Rs. 80,000 on canvas and Rs. 65,000 on handmade paper. It took us almost 3.5 months to 3 months to make each as no painter paints for more than 2-3 hours a day. Pricing of each Madhubani depends on the size of the painting and the clarity of work. Also, any single painting is painted exclusively by one painter as no two hands are the same, and would lead to irregularities of design elements.
This painting is priced at Rs. 80,000 and took about 3.5 months to make. It has different elements within one painting (WION)
“Now, these paintings might sell tomorrow or might just go back with me to my village. There is no certainty.
“So even though there are considerable profit margins, selling the art is a tricky business”, he adds.
These paintings might sell tomorrow or might just go back with me to my village. There is no certainty.
While Ashish says much in so many words, there is Amit Kumar Jha, manning another shop in Dilli Haat, who does not mince words.
Amit says, “I have been painting for 15 years and I have got a chance to showcase at Dilli Haat for the first time, and that too I have been given a shop in an unnoticeable corner. I wrote several letters to the head office to change the location of my shop but they paid no heed. They only do favours for middlemen and not real artists like me.
“I come from the birthplace of Madhubani--Jitwarpur village (same as Ashish Kumar’s) and I can tell you that although demand has increased, the return on our paintings is abysmal.
“There is no government support for artists like me. In most cases, owing to lack of resources and desired reach to the customer, we have to sell it to the middlemen at throwaway prices. They eat up the profits on our hard work”, he adds with disappointment.
However, among the clan of painters, there are a few privileged ones too.
Devendra Kumar Jha is a National Awardee for Madhubani paintings from the same village who has even travelled to Milan with his paintings. He has showcased his work at Milan Fashion Week with government support and plans to head there this September too.
He says, “There is no dearth of work in the market and especially for those who want to work. The industry is in great shape. There is a lot of profit in this business and there is ample government support for all artisans.”
Devendra has been in the trade since 1992 and feels like a veteran in the industry. Not one to call out to the government or his work, he feels that those who complain are not working in the right spirit and want to earn money without putting any effort.
This Madhubani painting called Mandala was initially a tattoo design that women got made on their bodies for the long lives of their husbands. (WION)
Challenges in the ‘Art of Beauty’
Madhubani art or what is also called Mithila paintings by many, apart from being a much-toiled art also poses a challenge in the nature of its form. The painters draw with the help of their fingers, carefully selected and sharpened twigs, bamboo nib pens and sometimes even matchsticks. They make these pens with freshly peeled bamboo which are then sharpened with rocks and knives to get the desired curve. Ashish insists that his family uses only the needle-thin pen-like structure to draw.
Once the pen is secure, painters then make their daily needful of black colour which is used in maximum quantity. Until recently, Madhubani was restricted to the only black and white and was worldwide known for its retro and monochrome tones. The addition of colours in Madhubani paintings is fairly new and procuring them is quite a task for the craftspeople.
Arun Kumar, a Madhubani painter at Dilli Haat says, “Biggest challenge for us is to get hold of the colours as we only use natural dyes and pigments. We make our own colours--all colours.
His brother Ashish Kumar adds, “Green is made from a paste of leaves, orange from traditional vermilion and black from dibiya (a bottle full of kerosene oil with a wick on top used in villages) that runs all night to provide us with light. When it burns the entire night, it produces black smoke which we collect to condense and use as the black colour for our paintings. Black kajal (kohl) is also made out of it in many of our homes.
All painters narrated their own way of making colours. While some got their black colour from dibiya, some from tawa (a kind of utensil) on which Indian chapati is made and others even swore by burning arwa (an Indian rice variety) to make their charcoal like paint.
Interestingly, all painters at Dilli Haat narrated their own way of making colours. While some got their black colour from dibiya, some from tawa (a kind of utensil) on which Indian chapati is made and others even swore by burning arwa (an Indian rice variety) to make their charcoal like paint.
Bright colours also have an interesting origin like a shade of blue comes from peeling Burgundy or orange from Katha (Catechu).
Fishes are for good luck while Trees signify life and the Sun is for energy on Madhubani paintings (WION)
A Different History Than Told
While many of us, living here in India, have already seen or owned at least one Madhubani painting, most of us don’t know that the paintings weren't meant to be drawn on canvas or paper.
Madhubani paintings known for its geometrical designs, chronicling village lives and spiritual themes were originally a form of wall art; it was painted on freshly plastered mud walls and floors of huts in Madhubani villages of Bihar.
Originally, the paintings were made only by the women of Madhubani villages. It was their way of expression--speech of freedom. The paintings acted as a form of vent for the womenfolk who could draw their imagination, dreams, and future sans any restrictions.
Painters at Dilli Haat recite how travellers from Japan came visiting in earlier times to the village and spotted the mud houses with these beautiful paintings. They asked the painters to draw it on pieces of paper and carried it back to their country. Japan now has a ‘Mithila Museum’ where Madhubani paintings have been preserved for an eternity. They felt strongly about it and wanted the world to see what Madhubani paintings looked like.
Another untold story around Madhubani is that of its women painters. Originally, the paintings were made only by the women of Madhubani villages. It was their way of expression--their speech of freedom. The paintings acted as a form of vent for the womenfolk who could draw their imagination, dreams, and future sans any restrictions.
The women painters also started a silent movement where caste barriers were done away with, as some drawings like that of deities were supposed to be drawn only by upper caste women while lower caste women could draw village life. In due time, this changed and now everyone can draw anything.