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Beyond the canvas: With Ankit Jha

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: December 15, 2015, 12:52 PM IST
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I had fallen in love with Madhubani paintings right since the time I got married to a Bihari and had been researching more about the traditions and culture of that part of India. My first introduction with Madhubani though happened with the artists sitting at Dilli Haat, Delhi and churning out masterpieces one after the other. But it was only later, that my interest in the art form grew more intense and my own canvases picked up massive inspiration from there. I started looking for Madhubani painters, interacting with them and hearing out their stories – of art, prejudices and unfair trade practices – till one day I stumbled upon a software engineer who has created an entire system to benefit the folk artists and to ensure that their work is systematically managed, bringing them fair returns!

'eMithilaHaat', a temple of sorts for Madhubani practitioners and buyers, had been set up with an aim to help the artisans of Mithilanchal by connecting them with the huge market outside their villages, where they can exhibit and sell their work of art. Mithila Painting, also known as Madhubani Painting, is a folk art of Mithilanchal which finds its origin in the ancient ages of Hindu calendars. The paintings usually involve birds, animals, fish, humans, Gods and all other forms of life along with various elements of nature like the sun, moon, rain, and others. The paintings are dense in format, philosophically summarizing that life should be full and active with the blessings of Gods and Nature. In rural areas of Bihar, Madhubani is still used to decorate the rooms of the newly-weds with the belief that the bride will be blessed with enhanced fertility and prosperity.

Like many other folk arts of India, Madhubani too faces the threat of extinction because the artisans can’t seem to strike the perfect business model which can help their art to sustain along with themselves. That’s exactly where 'eMithilaHaat' comes in, dedicated to support the artists and connect them to buyers.

Ankit Jha, the founder of 'eMithilaHaat', always had an entrepreneurial bent. He wished he could secure admission in one of the prestigious engineering colleges of India where the best minds are shaped and moulded, and the best brains of the country come together to train on how to take calculated risks and pick up the confidence to challenge the regular way of doing things. When that didn’t happen, he started losing faith. But during his 3rd year in college, he came in touch with Mr. Kumar Gaurav who was an alumni of the same school, worked for a reputed IT firm and was simultaneously establishing his business worldwide. Gaurav suggested books like “The Magic Of Thinking Big” by David J Schwartz, “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne and “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyoskai. Jha also started blogging around this time.

Finally when he passed out of the engineering college, he had no job as there were very few companies who visited the college for Campus interview. “It was really hard to digest that we had a degree but no job. Now however, I can understand why we did not have jobs. We had degrees but no skills! I with my friends used to get 40-50 copies of our resume each day and went from company to company handing over resume to employees and sometimes even security guards who cooperated most of the times. And at night, I worked to increase my skills. I started my own website and blogged there. After few months I got a job but was certainly not done with myself, neither was I happy. One day when I was talking to my cousin in village, I casually inquired him about an aunty who used to create beautiful Madhubani paintings.”

Ankit fondly remembered the lady in her thirties sitting on the portico with a mat and pots of colours around her, forming a perfect rainbow on the mat and doing Mithila Paintings with pens made of bamboo sticks. She used to offer snacks and home-made drinks to the kids who came to watch her work. The kids kept bombarding her with lot of questions. “Aunty, this does not look like deer”, they would say. She laughed and challenged back. “Wait for few more days and then you say which deer is beautiful. The real one or the one which I paint.” Ankit was shocked to know that the aunty paints no more because of her pitiable financial conditions. She loved painting more than her life.

In fact, this was the story of almost every artist; not only this aunty. The conversation with his cousin triggered some kind of responsibility that Ankit may have felt towards the childhood memories he still cherishes. “I thought of transferring some money to her,” he says. “But, I knew that was a bad idea as she might feel humiliated; moreover it will not solve the main problem. For the next few days I researched about this art and the fact that it has won 4 Padmashree, numerous national awards, state awards, Guru Shreshtha Shilpa and Bihar Ratna made my decision firm that I am going to help these artists. I resigned from my company. My then Vice President Mr Gurmeet Singh Ahuja also got excited about the project and extended his support both financially and strategically. After this I had to convince my dad, who was unaware of ecommerce business model. And soon 'eMithilaHaat' was born.”

The institution was supported by friends and family members initially. Soon many others joined hands, helping them with time, money and advice. The business model of 'eMithilaHaat' is very simple. They make an inventory of paintings by paying the artists more than any other middlemen to keep the exploiters of art at bay. At every quarter, a portion of profits are shared with the artists encouraging them to remain in business. A portion from the rest of the earnings is invested back into the organization for operations and marketing.

How is the relationship equation between the artists and the management? Doesn’t it ever create an owner-worker friction? Says Ankit, “We have never treated ourselves as owners. We are promoters and supporters of their artwork. And this is the reason that I personally talk to each one of them. We have friendly relation with all of our artists.”

But this is not enough. The artists still deserve more. Ankit feels eMithilaHaat has been able to do a little for them given their limitations in resources. “I would like to appeal to the corporates to support this art through their CSR activities. 'eMithilaHaat' has conceptualized an event called ‘Anukriti’ where our artists in coordination with our fashion designer organize a workshop to teach people paint their t-shirts which they can take home after the event. This is to spread awareness about this one of the ancient and classical art form of India. We appeal to corporates to sponsor Anukriti during festive periods and encourage their employees to participate. Also, we would like to collaborate with the interior designers to work on this art and make their next project on Mithila Theme. We have established one more company “TechTwigs Technologies Private Limited” which is bringing a very innovative product very soon. This is to support our 'eMithilaHaat' project. Soon, we would like to bring other dying art and crafts online which will die if not given proper attention,” he says.

Probably that is how Ankit juggles between difficult computer languages and a keen sense of art, putting the knowledge of both into application. Art and science being diverse concepts catering to two different horizons, very few would plunge in to make the twain meet! “Art and Science might be different subjects when taught in schools.” He says. “But in real life, I think science too is an art. The expression or application of our creative skills and imagination that helps produce emotionally powerful and beautiful things is art. And it is science as well. I have always believed in searching beauty in even the worst things around you.”

Having taken up Science for his academic pursuits, Ankit didn’t lose touch from all those areas that ignites his passion. And that’s exactly what sets apart an entrepreneur from a herd of mechanical nerds.

“In India, Ghar Ki Murgi Daal Barabar”, opines Ankit. “Self-possessions are always undermined and other’s possessions seem better. We celebrate world art but don’t quite value our own. Same happens with the folk art of India. Art is mostly treated as a commodity. Majority of people buy artworks to match their interiors but often they do not appreciate the efforts what has been put in it. I would like to put a very crucial point here which I have observed very keenly with my past experiences. People leave their native and go to metros in search of better opportunity. No offence. They marry and have kids. People talk to their kids in English, send them to take badminton and guitar tuition. And here happens the commoditization of culture and arts. If we are not passing on our culture and art down to our coming generations, how will we preserve them? The culture of visiting grandparents is coming down. When the kids are of the age when they should be listening stories from grandparents, they listen to ‘One Direction’ and ‘Justin Bieber’. I don’t say there is any wrong in learning about different cultures, music, art and language. But it should never be at the cost of leaving our own culture. It’s high time that we inherit our culture, arts, music and all good things we can inherit from our elders even now and pass on to the coming generation. Spreading awareness about our arts is the only way we can preserve it.”

Hailing from Darbhanga which is a part of ancient Mithilanchal, his maternal place being Madhubani, Ankit has come a long way giving back its worth to his roots. This young entrepreneur has sustained lives and art in some remote areas of India, connecting two disparate worlds and relentlessly servicing some talented souls saving them from the suicidal surrender of all their creative pursuits! His achievements are paranormal and yet he looks up to a long way ahead. Today, over 90 families devoted to Mabhubani art are engaged with 'eMithilaHaat', which numbers to over 550 artists. Not a single artist has relocated from their place. They work from the comfort of their ancestral places and keep glorifying the culture. The aunty Ankit had referred to earlier has now returned to her canvas. “I can see her again with the mat and colour pots around her. The only change in her being some wrinkles on her face, which disappear in her smiles every time she paints.” He smiles in satisfaction.
First Published: December 15, 2015, 12:52 PM IST
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