Prominent political faces of Bihar including RJD leader Tejasavi Yadav and Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha are turning the compulsory mask-wearing rule into a style statement, donning maks with Mithila art. The hand-painted face masks are not just protecting people from Covid-19. It's creating livelihood for many.
For Madhubani artists of Bihar, these hand-painted masks have become their only way to earn money in the time of the pandemic when migrant workers were forced to return home with the lockdown.
Rajnish, who lives with his parents and three younger sisters in Madhubani, Bihar started making masks to earn their livelihood. “I was amazed to see such a tremendous response for Madhubani art especially for Mithila masks on social media," the 31-year-old who uses social media to promote and sell the masks, said.
It all started when Rajnish shared the mask idea with his sister Mithila who has been making Madhubani art for a decade. The popularity of Mithila masks has increased so much that now it is being sold by e-commerce companies such as Amazon.
The mask-makers also take great care of the quality of fabric and colours used, so that it is completely safe for daily use. “We use good quality fabric and organic colours for masks. Customer safety is our first priority. From painting to packing-- the whole process is done by my sisters and I manage the selling department,” said Rajnish.
It's not just Rajnish. In Madhubani, nearly every home has started painting on masks “to fill empty stomachs and feed their kids as they don't have jobs." Masks, he said, are proving to be a big source of income.
Although masks have become a mode of survival for the artists, the margin of profit is very narrow. The artists have to maintain competitive prices. They sell these masks to their “agents or middle-men” for as low as Rs 50 to Rs 70. The same masks are sold for Rs 200 on e-commerce websites. Rajnish said that the agents and middlemen buy artwork from the artists at a negligible price and sell them at higher prices.
Madhubani requires a lot of hard work and patience. “It’s a very fine art. However, in return, we only make enough money to barely survive. If we would increase the price customer, they may buy it from someone else. As of now, it’s the only medium of our livelihood. We can’t afford to lose our customers,” said Rajnish.
For Rajnish, politicians donning Madhubani masks are not enough. “Local artists are forced to live a miserable life. They are not getting any support from the state government. Administration promotes themselves in front of media but the ground reality is very different," he said.
Narrating the hardships that artists face, Rajnish said that his sister Gudiya who 'got a chance' to paint Madhubani designs at New Delhi railway station in 2019 did not receive her promised payment. "We didn’t even get half the payment for our hard work. We kept asking him (agent) for the payment and he kept delaying, with the excuse that he hasn't received it from the authorities."
India is known for its rich culture. According to an article in The Hindu, handicraft, and handloom is the second most income-generating sector in rural India after Agriculture. Keeping the betterment of local and poor artists in mind, the Indian Government has launched different policies such as ‘Make in India’. And yet, Madhubani artists are struggling to keep this art of Bihar alive.
Mukesh Kumar, a development commissioner of handicraft Madhubani and assistant director of Madhubani Handloom, a body to promote Madhubani artists, said, "We provide a platform for those who want to make their career in the field of art. We examine their skills through a test and those who qualify we send them to our training centers. They get free tool kits and Rs 300 stipend every day. Our main motive behind setting up these centers is polishing their skills and let the best come out. They learn and make art pieces. We also help them in selling their creations on different platforms so that they can get a direct benefit.”
Kumar said there are also loan facilities provided to the artists. In 2019-2020, under the government's ‘Make in India’ policy, 367 artists were sanctioned loans. "Each artist gets 50 to 60 thousand to start their own venture. We provide them with an ID card so they can participate in any event around India like Hastshilp Mela, Dilli Haat, Gandhi Shilp Bazar, and so on,” he said.
While, on paper, it appears that the government is taking care of the artists, many locals contradict such claims. Jitendra, a 25-year-old political science student and an artist, denies the claims. "In the name of policies, these people are filling their pockets. In these centers, artists are not allowed to write his/her name on the painting because the agent adds their name to those paintings to get profit and publicity. Your hard work and someone else reaps the profit," said Jitendra.
Jitendra has been making Mithila paintings since the age of 11. There are now 200 artists training under him. His paintings are now being exported out of India to places like UAE and America. "Being alone managing everything was not easy but I worked hard. My guru helped me to show the path and I took social media’s help. I shared pictures of my paintings on Twitter and Facebook but never imagined that I will get such a massive response from across the world. I have my costumer in America and Dubai as well,” he said.
Jitendra, too, felt it's the middlemen who are stopping Madhubani artists from getting their share of name and fame. "The middlemen are using their proximity to the government and taking advantage of poor artists. Only by getting rid of middlemen can Madhubani artists get full recognition for their labor and art. He suggested that the government should directly buy from local artists. Those who have made their names in Mithila art are getting profit but local artists whose art is far better than the famous artists are struggling to find a platform sell their artwork,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rajnish said he often dreamed of exporting Madhubani artwork around the world but he lamented, "I don't have the money or any support”.