This life affirming story in the Indian Express highlights how the “Madhubani painters in Bihar rose to the challenge and earned a steady income, even during the lockdowns”.
The piece begins with a brief primer in Madhubani painting for the uninitiated: “Legend has it that Madhubani paintings originated when King Janak wanted the kingdom of Mithila decked up for the wedding of his daughter Sita to Lord Rama. History records that Madhubani painting has been practised in Bihar’s Mithila for centuries, reaching a wider audience in the 1930s through a smitten British officer, who had visited the region for earthquake relief work…
The Mithila region comprises the towns of Madhubani, Darbhanga, Sitamarhi and adjoining areas in Bihar. Its painting style, called Mithila or Madhubani art, is distinctive, with fine lines and bright colours, historically depicting motifs like the sun, fish, and scenes from the lives of Lord Rama and Krishna, although over the years, many diverse themes have been incorporated. Practised traditionally by women, it was used to decorate the walls of houses, but now can be found on everything from saris and lampshades to handbags and, in the post-Covid world, masks.”
Covid-19 meant that the Madhubani artisans could no longer sell their wares in melas/fairs. So they went online and they did so at scale: “Pooja Jha, a college student, is a Madhubani painter from the village of Ujan. When the lockdown first hit, demand for apparel and décor items went down, she says. “The only thing selling well was masks. In my village, a shopkeeper started making and selling them for Rs 50, and people flocked to him. This inspired other artists to paint masks too. A self-help group would go house to house, collecting masks made by women to sell. But I knew the way to reach more customers was through technology. So I created a Facebook page, Mithila Chitrakala, where I would upload pictures of hand-painted masks. Soon, orders started streaming in,” says Jha.
Jha would buy plain masks from a tailor, paint them, and dispatch them through the village post office. “At a time when sending or receiving most goods was prohibited, masks were allowed. I got so many orders that I involved other women from the village too, and we all managed to earn a decent income,” she says.
In a region where not every artist is well-versed with technology, like Jha, many women joined hands to help each other out….Sudha Mishra, another Mithila artist in Darbhanga, moved to digital hand-holding when she realised masks could help beat the sale slump for everyone….
“Apart from running a store called Pihu Arts and Crafts, I also train people. Among my students, men are generally employed for outdoor assignments, while women do most of the apparel work. Once I decided we would sell masks, I formed WhatsApp groups of artists I knew and started sharing order details. To help them, I would make my own videos and put on the group. YouTube links also helped,” says Sudha.
For the masks, they stuck to two rules – materials would be cotton and poplin, and motifs would not include gods and goddesses. Sales would be through Facebook and WhatsApp.”
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