An engineering degree from a premier Indian technical institute, working with a globally renowned technology multi-national, living the American dream…life was all hunky and dory for Ihitashri Mishra Borundiya and her husband Amit. Yet, there was some inexplicable pull from her roots that led to the conviction that her dreams were meant to be realized back home. It was during her maternity break that she pondered over the plight of Madhubani paintings, an ancient Indian ethnic art, which is as much part of her own family’s heritage as of the nation at large. Ihitashri decided to focus her attention on the troubles of rural Mithila artists and Madhubani folk art, which was getting lost in the quagmire of cheap imitations and blatant profiteering motives.
Research by many scholars has suggested that the origins of Madhubani or Mithila paintings trace their origins 3,000 years ago. As is true for any anthropologically significant art, it was traditionally passed down from one generation to another — in this case almost exclusively by women in a family. The Vedas and Puranas also mention this art being practiced in Mithilanchal, the rural hinterland of northern Bihar considered to be the birthplace of Madhubani paintings. Through a distinctive use of bright colours together with intentionally surreal shapes and forms, Madhubani paintings usually depict mythological stories or serve to sanctify household rituals with sacred symbolisms. The uniqueness of the art, coupled with the clearly defined geographical boundary of its practice, has led it to being given its own Geographical Identification or GI tag by the Indian government.
Yet in recent times, this priceless art and its practitioners have been undermined by mass produced imitations, sold at throwaway prices to ignorant customers. The artists were not only deprived of their dues, but also led to a decline in the traditional styles of painting, as practiced by the early masters. Authenticity and true artistic value were being pushed out, thanks to customers’ considerations.
During her field study along with her mother Sarita Mishra, Ihitashri discovered that an increasing number of Madhubani artists are becoming middlemen, as they can earn more by selling others’ work at a commission than investing time and dedication needed to actually create the art themselves. Usage of pencils and artificial colours, as opposed to traditional materials, has become commonplace in the villages of Madhubani as nobody considers this unacceptable any more. Using folk stories as themes is no longer a necessity either. If it vaguely resembles Mithila art, it sells – that is all that matters. As the legendary Mithila artist Lalita Devi put it, “The traditional themes of Mithila are now broken up into fragments to make it more sellable. Those pieces don’t make any sense, no stories in them, meanings are lost, but they still sell.”
Strangely, the middlemen problem has its roots in an event of great human suffering. The drought of 1966 brought untold misery on the people of Bihar. The government, on the advice of aid worker Bhaskar Kulkarni, allowed the commercialization of Mithila art, so that families could earn extra money. Taking advantage of the relaxation of rules, middlemen churned profit out of the scheme, setting a trend that has continued ever since. In the absence of proper marketing, grading and pricing, the folk artists were not encouraged to paint in their tradition style, but rather to create commercial calendar-worthy ‘bulk quantity’ art, as instructed by the middlemen. Then there were some organizations trying to twist the age old art to create a new market for Madhubani paintings, selling it in the name of contemporary art. The result:- a heritage art getting lost in the process of commercialization. Reflecting on this plight, Gauri Mishra, the ‘Mother Teresa of Mithila’ and the founder of SEWA Mithila, the first NGO to bring Mithila paintings to the international platform, said, “Preserving the traditional themes is the next big challenge for today’s era.”
Ihitashri decided to take on this challenge. In 2010, she established MITHILAsmita, an organization dedicated to the traditional art and artists of Mithila, with the aim to rekindle the authentic folk art of Mithilanchal. The organization strives to preserve and promote the traditional themes of Madhubani paintings in its original centuries old style — free hand, without pencils, thematic, and with a lot of soul. The opening of its first unique ‘folk art gallery’ in Bangalore was a major milestone in their short and noble journey. Ihitashri divides her time and attention between the gallery, home, and her little daughter Asmita, whose name graces that of the organization. Her mother and husband help out whenever they can. The gallery is focused on traditional Madhubani paintings by artists from Mithila, along with a range of dress materials featuring Mithila art. To ensure authenticity, every piece of art on display or sale is created by rural artists in Madhubani and the surrounding villages, and brought to the gallery periodically. To create awareness about their cause, every visitor is briefly educated about the history of Madhubani art, and its significance vis-à-vis the products they purchase. The organization has also taken their message of conservation and heritage preservation to the worldwide web, with blogs, social media pages and websites disseminating information about Madhubani art and the gallery itself.
Ihitashri and her small team consisting mostly of supportive family members understand the importance of bringing true value to customers. She leveraged her experience during illustrious careers at corporate behemoths like IBM and SAP to streamline the supply chain process for the gallery, and put in place stringent quality and authenticity checks. She takes special care to ensure that the artists get the right price for their work. At times, the organization pays the artists the maintenance charges for the painting, holding it till the right price can be obtained.
Research scholars, art enthusiasts and fashion interns have come calling at the door of the gallery to study this marriage of heritage preservation and economic sustainability. One such scholar, Alexandria Chapman from Brooklyn University New York writes, “The items in this gallery are beyond beautiful. This gallery’s mission is the most admirable I have ever encountered.”
A process of constant improvement is pursued at MITHILAsmita, with inputs from Madhubani art stalwarts like Gauri Mishra, Lalita Devi, Mahasundari Devi, Godavari Dutta and Baua Devi to shape their mission and chart the course ahead. One of the principal aims, to spread awareness about this art, was aided greatly in January, when news agency, Press Trust of India, featured MITHILAsmita in several leading Hindi newspapers of the country. In the same year, the organization reached another milestone when their online store www.madhubanifolkgallery.com was launched.
MITHILAsmita is a tale of preservation – of a priceless folk art, of heritage, and of the livelihood of gifted artists. The organization welcomes the support of individuals and corporations to help popularize and broaden the model they have created, whereby the irreplaceable traditions of India are safeguarded, as are the people upholding them. When Madhubani art is successfully preserved for posterity in its authentic form, and the continuance of its practice is ensured within a financially viable model, MITHILAsmita’s and indeed Ihitashri’s dream would have been truly realized.