Flourishing art, fading smiles

Flourishing art, fading smiles

The famed Madhubani artists of Bihar are facing several challenges and badly need the  infrastructure for their survival

The Mithalanchal region in Bihar is known for producing one of the finest folk art forms--Madhubani paintings which have brought glory to the state. The internationally-known paintings even impressed the first lady of the US Michelle Obama during her shopping spree in Delhi during her visit to India in November 2010. Japan was so impressed with the paintings that it even pitched in to dedicate a museum for preserving the art form.

However, nothing can be more ironic than this--there is no museum to preserve or display the folk art form in the Madhubani district, the place of its origin. During his sevayatra in January this year, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar met  artists and announced the setting-up of a museum and an institute entirely dedicated to the folk art. But this is one promise which every political party and all local leaders have been making since India’s independence.

Though the paintings have brought recognition to the state at the global level, artists continue to struggle for existence and eke out a decent living. The art form appears to be in danger, close to being slowly disappearing, as artists do not get encouragement and their earnings are not sufficient for sustenance. Upset with the state of affairs, the new generation hardly seems to be interested in taking it up as a profession.

Reasons are many for such a scenario. Due to lack of organised and proper marketing system,  artists are compelled to sell their work at throwaway prices to middlemen. They exploit these gullible and helpless artists and make a killing by selling the work at
fancy prices at big stores or galleries.

“Many a time, middlemen buy paintings and give us peanuts, that too, after repeated requests. My husband works as a labourer in New Delhi and earns too less to support the family. Hence, I had decided to take up the brush. But unfortunately my fate seems to be not changing at all. Instead, I have incurred huge losses during recent times, and now I am left with no other option but to give up the art,” rues Leela Devi, adding that middlemen only take advantage of their illiteracy and poverty to mint money.

“We do not even have a place to paint. Rainy season only brings more trouble for us. The government gives Rs 11,000 to build a workshed, but with that much money, even the base of a building cannot be completed. The authorities concerned are neglecting the real artists and are promoting those having proximity with the middlemen and officials,” alleges Binda  

Mohli Devi, whose husband too works as a labourer, adds: “Only rich artists can afford to visit Saras, Gramshri, Dilli Haat, Surajkund (Haryana), Hyderabad Haat, Orissa Haat, Chandigarh Haat, and other stalls and exhibitions.”

The government albeit pays Rs 100 a day to the artists to participate in the Gram Shri Mela, to showcase the paintings. But how can one survive in metros and big cities with Rs 100 per day, she questions. Banks, too, do not care for the welfare of the artists. Out of more than 5,000 applications submitted by the Department of Handicrafts, Ministry of Textiles, only around 500 artists got “Artisans Credit Card”, reveals Sunil Kumar Choudhary, secretary, Mithila Seva Samiti, an NGO working for the welfare of the artists.

“Mushrooming of fake artists has also made the life of talented and trained artists miserable. ID cards are being distributed without proper inquiry and verification,” Sunil alleges. All the rules are flouted in the distribution of the state awards. Those who grease the palms, walk away with prizes, he alleges.

Original art under threat“Original paintings’ existence is getting marred by excessive use of artificial colours. Instead of using natural colours (which distinguish Madhubani paintings from the rest), the beginners depend on artificial colours to save money and labour. However, this will undoubtedly lead to gradual decrease in the aesthetic appeal of the paintings,” says veteran artist Urmila Devi. In 2008, illiterate Urmila was even
invited to teach the budding artists at NIFT, Ahmedabad.

“Entrenchment by fine art has also threatened the real essence of Madhubani paintings in the past one decade. Content is being played with recklessly, and distorted to suit the market needs. The theme-based art earlier included the pictures of god or
derived inspirations from nature and mythology. But these days, one can even find a painting with nothing except lines drawn without any proper thought.

Kohber, jaimal, raas, aripan, Arjun-Krishna dialogue, Ramayana, culture of Mithila region and other themes are gradually losing their presence in the paintings, which is a dangerous trend,” warns Kamal Narayan Lal Karn, technical assistant, District office of Handicrafts, Ministry of Textiles.

Narendra Narayan Singh “Nirala”,  an art academician and the head of the PG Department of History, RK College, Madhubani, albeit holds an optimistic view. According to him, the popularity of Madhubani paintings is here to stay, though with certain changes and modifications in its themes and forms. However, he sees nothing wrong in it as he feels that tradition must be modified to cater to the demands of changing times. What is wrong if contemporary subjects share the canvas with the history, he asks.

While the whole world looks towards India for its folk-painting, the Madhubani paintings describe the history, culture and tradition of the Mithilanchal region in the best possible manner, he points out.

Sadly very few paintings of the doyens are left to conduct exhibitions, he adds.Courses in Madhubani painting should be introduced at some level, either in the school or college
syllabus, he advises.  However, when contacted, the officials tried to portray that everything was up to scratch. BK Das, Carpet Training Officer, Marketing and Service  Extension Centre, Madhubani district, said: “Workshops are held for people of various
age-groups and sex. Plans are also being chalked out to conduct more special camps for schoolchildren in future. Various  insurance schemes are available for the artists. Under the Ambedkar and Hasta Shilpa Vikas Yojana, the government was providing
Rs 20,000 per artist.”

The beauty of the Madhubani painting might have brought smiles on the face of Michelle Obama, but will the smiles ever be back on the artists’ wrinkled faces? Nitish-led government, politicians and the officials concerned must try to find an answer.

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