Reviving India’s Madhubani Paintings
Ashish Kumar is busy. The moment a visitor leaves the stall, he turns to his English grammar textbook to study. Summer vacation is ending in a week, and he has to brush up his grammar before school begins. Till then, he is in charge of selling Madhubani paintings at an exhibition in the south Indian state of Kerala.
“This is the third exhibition in Kerala State. The other two in Kozhikode and Kochi were good. Had good sales. It’s a little dull here,” Kumar explains in Hindi.
Madhubani painting, also known as Mithila painting, is practiced in Mithila, Nepal, and Bihar, India. Artists use their fingers, twigs, brushes, nib pens and matchsticks to create the artwork. Eye-catching geometrical patterns in natural dyes and pigments are distinct characteristics of the artwork.
Ashish is one of the many artisans traveling within India to sell Madhubani paintings. His mother Sarita Devi runs Madhubani art workshops in Delhi and Bihar. His stall, stacked with framed artwork in various sizes, offered at prices ranging from $10 to $52.
“People usually don’t know what a Madhubani painting is,” explains Kumar. “They come, check and sometimes feel offended at the price of these ‘simple’ drawings.”
Kumar is new in sales. He has learned this from his father, a regular presence in most cottage art and handicraft shows. It is through his father’s network that he got a place in the cottage industry exhibition in Kollam, Kerala. “And that, too, for free,” adds a beaming Kumar.
Like many rural and homogeneous crafts, the art of Mithila is also being promoted by government and private agencies. Kumar himself is one of the beneficiaries. The artwork of his mother gets featured regularly featured for free in exhibitions hosted by the Office of Development Commissioner – Handicrafts, a government agency that implements various developmental schemes at the central level to support the local activities of each state in the handicrafts sector.
With many startups opening dedicated e-commerce websites for handicrafts, Madhubani paintings have found their place in these sites, too. However, lack of coordination and quality training has affected the quality of the art.
The Times of India last year quoted Archaeological Survey of India Regional Director PK Mishra, saying that the originality of color, design, motif and sensitivity of Madhubani paintings is on the verge of extinction.
“People learn this art from trainers in towns and metropolitan cities, not from its experts. These trainers themselves do not know the essence and aesthetic beauty of the silk art,” he told the newspaper.
However, with increased exposure and sales opportunities in India and abroad, standardization is bound to happen, assures Chandan Kumar, one of the organizers of the Sahara Arts and Crafts fair in Kollam.
For now, touring salesman like Ashish play the biggest role in promoting the artwork across India. More than the returns, Ashish is happy seeing the drawings of his mother becoming prized possessions of several individuals and firms in India and abroad.
About the author – Chandu Gopalakrishnan