On a mission to bring hand-painted Madhubani works to the global market

On a mission to bring hand-painted Madhubani works to the global market

Arising from the ancient kingdom of Madhubani in the Mithila region of Bihar in India, Madhubani paintings have travelled across oceans to the United Kingdom with an engineer by profession and art lover by choice, Ihitashri Shandilya.

After laying the foundation of Mithilasmita to back the women with exceptional talent in Madhubani painting, the team’s contributions have won numerous accolades. From being honoured by UN Women, receiving recognition from the British and Australian governments to organising the Traditional Art Entrepreneurship Summit funded by the Indian Ministry of Textiles at the National Crafts Museum.

Kingdoms have fallen, generations have come and gone, yet Madhubani paintings have survived with us as a world heritage. Pouring out her heart and soul into the enterprise, the CEO paints a mural of the art form for the iGlobal readers.

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Ancient traditions

Archaeologists have reported the art to be 3000 years old nonetheless the Maithals belief dates it back to 15,000 years ago. Hand-painted by the women of the household on walls and floors of mud houses in ancient India, Maithila painting emerged as a compulsory tradition that sanctified the house to welcome the deities. Indeed, this is now transformed onto fabric- sarees and scarfs.

“It was renamed to Madhubani painting to distinguish it from the similar Mithila painting done in Nepal.”

Following a natural calamity in 1966 that led to the inundating of the river Kosi in the agrarian state of Bihar, the Government of India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi endorsed the artistic talent of the region. The All-India Handicrafts Association began working in tandem with SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) Mithila, the first official NGO to promote Madhubani paintings.

The core characteristics of the craft are the free-hand, sketch-free and stencil-less style originally painted with homemade dyes from vegetables, leaves, petals and spices later switched to artificial colours for producing longer-lasting merchandise.

Ihitashri recalls, “Maa didn’t allow stencils to be used. It had to be free hand.”

True boss lady

Her grandfather, a well-known doctor in Dharbanga and her grandmother whom she dearly called Maa, a noted art activist in Madhubani, since childhood Ihitashri oscillated between the two Bihari towns forming a strong familial bond with the local community.

Despite belonging to one of the underdeveloped states of India, she explains her family’s progressiveness to have come from the grandfather’s supportive nature of Maa’s endeavours.

“Maa was highly educated and she worked for the socio-economic empowerment of women while running an NGO.”

Ihitashri goes on to elaborate, “it was the best environment we were brought up in compared to what we saw around us. My weekends and evenings used to be with the children of those women working in the NGO.”

A true working woman and a feminist always on the move to serve her kind in the community, such was Maa’s personality.

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Working women of rural India

While lecturing at a local college, Maa got introduced to Erica Moser Smith, a German Anthropologist from Heidelberg who was extensively researching Madhubani paintings.

Over this period, in around 1972, Maa could see before her eyes that her community which was so artistically skilled lacked the support and guidance to advance. “These women were never brought to the forefront. They were still living in the shackles of patriarchy, not recognised and respected”, says the grandchild.

In association with an American scholar named Raymond Owen, Maa became the Secretary of the Master Craftsman Association of Mithila. However, upon its establishment, Erica insisted that this art should be purely devoted to womankind.

Along with Ela Bhatt and other leading women of India, Maa was elected the first President of SEWA Bharat. Later realising that she should rather focus regionally on the backward women in her town, Maa dedicated SEWA Mithila to the women who were financially challenged.

“I used to see the women carrying their jholas (bags), tiffin, colours and nibs, rushing to enter the office. I learned the first concept of a working woman in real India through SEWA Mithila which had its own day-care for working parents.”

With immense support from the United Nations, Oxfam and other international funding agencies, SEWA Mithila was able to introduce schemes to encourage more young women.

Branding the community pride

While revisiting her childhood at her native place, Ihitashri learned of SEWA Mithila’s closure: “There was no sustainability mechanism because of its charitable model. Four decades of work had shut down.”

She was taken aback when she saw the world of the artists falling apart due to unemployment. The women in the village were incredibly proud of her, referring to her as their ‘engineer beti (daughter)’. “This disturbed me as I was doing nothing for them and still, they were proud of me. I thought my savings from my job at IBM could help these women.”

Utilising her corporate connections and relying on her communication skills, the entrepreneur created her brand of authentic Madhubani Art calling it Mithilasmita: ‘Mithila’, the ancient kingdom from where it originates and ‘Asmita’ signifies pride.

“Let this brand be the pride of the community. We present the best of Madhubani art heritage to the world.”

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Current pursuits

As a recipient of the renowned Chevening Clore Leadership Fellowship, Ihitashri proudly shares: “It is one of the greatest honours where I get to represent my country in the UK. As a fellow, I bring so many things as part of our bilateral relationship. I have undergone multiple lectures during my secondment.”

With cultural institutions in the UK, leaders and experts from the field, the UK is a cultural powerhouse that promotes art from all over the world. “I feel it is my responsibility to educate the people and spread awareness about the Madhubani and the women artists who practise it.”

Currently, in talks with world-class universities and prestigious museums about promoting the merchandise and about hosting cultural exchange and seminars with the artists themselves in the villages, Ihita believes that “the diaspora in the UK is going to benefit from real authentic artwork and will be able to contribute to the lives of artisans back home.”

The domestic market: ‘Vocal for Local’ campaign has awakened the mass about supporting local products back home, in India. “We have worked with corporates that believe in sustainable gifts like Tata, Asian Paints and National Museum of New Delhi.”

Ihitashri opens up about the hardships: “Sustainability has been a difficult journey. Funding for a woman-led venture is still poor especially in the arts sector.”

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Pandemic and beyond

During the pandemic, Ihitashri reached out to the artisans from various clusters, self-help groups and her own NGO workers to make cotton masks that then had Madhubani paintings on them.

“I learned to sew and make masks myself to make an explanatory video in the local languages for the artists.”

“We started identifying the local slum women in Delhi because their husbands were laid-off, daily wage workers. We started collecting funds to buy materials to produce masks that were then distributed in surrounding neighbourhoods and to healthcare professionals.”

Mithilasmita’s social contribution was honoured by the UN Women. Ihitashri had the opportunity to deliver a talk with Niti Aayog, a government think tank about mask-making that benefited various Self Help Groups across the nation.

She notes: “It is like meditation for the artists. It has to come from within… Sometimes we don’t realise the importance of some sectors. It took me an Engineering Degree and 10 years of corporate experience to realise that.

“Be surrounded by like-minded individuals and look out for role models to understand the challenges and rewards of the sector.

“Be open and receptive. The world has a lot to offer.”

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