Ground Reports

Less Demand And A Market Full of Rip Offs: Madhubani Art & It’s Struggle For Relevance

Once overly demanded, this ancient art now stands at the end of shutting its shutters.

By Sanjana Chawla, 15 May 2023

India’s oldest art form—Madhubani—is said to have its origins in the time of the ancient city of Mithila. Now found on walls, palaces, forts, caves, and as decorative hangings in every household, Madhubani was in its initial time considered the ‘art of the purest’. The origin of this art form dates back about 2500 years or in the 8th or the 7th century BC and is linked to the Indian epic Ramayana. This is also why most of these Madhubani paintings boast faces and darbars of Lord Ram and Sita along with the caricatures of Lord Krishna and Radha.

The designs mostly revolve around the themes of plants, wildlife, abstract creatures, women caricatures and deities.

This art form is purely a creative one. The artists say that they don’t copy the designs or replicate somebody else’s work. Vindesvar Paswan, a fifth-generation Madhubani artist from  Jitwarpur district of Bihar, shares, “We sketch and paint whatever comes to our minds and that is what makes this a free-flowing and a free-hand art. We keep on building the designs as and when we sketch them on the paper”.

For most of the Madhubani artists of the country, it is an art form offered in inheritance. Paswan, who is 32 right now, shares, “I have grown up seeing my great grandparents, grandparents, and my parents make and sell Madhubani paintings and this is what I am doing today too. My mother has received many national and state awards, so I am trying to continue the legacy”.

Currently, Paswan, along with his wife and brother, is trying to keep the art alive.

Shila Devi, Paswan's wife, says that the paper they use is so good that even if it is crushed or gets wet, it won’t lose its essence for years.

Madhubani is a tedious art. Shila explains that it takes four to five days to complete a small or medium-sized painting. A large size painting takes somewhere between a month or two.

There is no rough work in Madhubani art.Artists go in with the black paint and draw free-handed. After one round of sketching, they go in with the paint again to overline and beautify it and add final touches to their creation.

Some prefer to leave it monochromatic -- an appreciation for the design.

Shila says that all the Madhubani artists use natural colours derived from the extracts of leaves and vegetables.

Shila shares, “The red colour is made using powdered hibiscus; yellow made from raw turmeric; blue is made from the fruit of sikar tree; green is made from leaves; orange is made by boiling the barks of the peepal tree in an earthen pot and by using the stem of the jasmine flower”.

The black paint that they use to outline and make monochrome Madhubani paintings is made of raakh or soot (a black powdery substance derived from a diya or an earthen oil lamp).

The Madhubani art has a lot of importance and is revered worldwide but with the onset of online availability of traditional art forms, the demand and sales of the original products has gone for a toss.

Online printed art doesn’t hold the same importance and it’s machine-made and that is why it is sold at throwaway prices for as low as INR 500. Shila also adds that people just come and ask for rates, click photos, and then wither away.

Justifying the high rates of the art, Shila Devi says that this handwork incorporates a lot of effort, resources, and labour so they can’t sell it for Rs 500. She adds, “We make it using our hands and imagination, so these paintings range from INR 1000 to INR 1 - 2 lakhs. It’s expensive because it has intricate detailing and work, and there’s no substitute for it”.

Humans are wired to run after the cheapest goods available in the market and they get happy thinking that they have bought four paintings online for the price of one Madhubani painting. Shila continues, “These cheaper prints won’t last long and will fade & lose the colours within months because they are machine-made. But the real hand-made Madhubani art that we are curating is eternal and will last & stay the same for decades since we use organic materials”.

Shila and Vindesvar are now experiencing a slump in their sales owing to online replications, a lack of government patronage, and a lack of awareness amongst the buyers. From her in-laws to her husband and now even her children, everyone is working towards saving this art.

The couple also adds that while their sales and demand for the painting have gotten hit because of online replication, “people who want real and original will always come back to us and buy from us”. They continue, “We can’t neglect our tradition and choose to leave the art just because of no sales and demand. It is our ‘parampara’ (legacy) and we won’t ever betray it for money”.