Madhubani Art UnMasked

The Coronavirus pandemic has upended life like nothing else I have experienced before. In different ways, it has hit us all. The government was in a dilemma – how to save both lives and livelihoods. To make matters worse, the GDP sank by a precipitous 23.9 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

The economy suddenly going into a coma was a shock that affected different people differently. I want to narrate a story that relates how the pandemic has affected the most marginalized hardest, and how a bit of hope and a helping hand can make a world of difference.

In the middle of the pandemic, Bipush, a Madhubani art painter had reached out to me – “Bhaiyya, Hamara Dhanda bilkul thap hoi gawa. Corona se nahi, lagh raha hai bhukhmari se marenge!”. (Brother, our business has gone for a toss. Not COVID-19, it looks like we will die of unemployment!)

Bipush was the sole breadwinner of his family of six. With markets shut, there was no way he could sell his artisanal products to earn a living. I realized that mere sympathy and platitudes would not help Bipush survive. I offered to send him some money. But he wanted help with running his business, not charity. Bipush was one among the 84 per cent self-employed in India reported having lost their livelihood due to the pandemic.

Where will they sell their products?

What steps would support their endeavour to lead a dignified life?

How could we help them?

At KARFA, we scratched our heads. We have been working with artisans like Bipush. They keep our traditional arts alive, but they themselves are barely able to keep their heart and souls together. We had to help. We realized that the sale of their regular items would not be possible, as the purchase of artisanal products were the least of the priorities in the pandemic. But what could they make that would sell?

Cloth masks were the obvious answer. There was a big demand for home-made masks – the government had mandated the wearing of masks as a preventive measure. I suggested that he make 3-ply cloth masks. But Bipush was sceptical. He said he didn’t know how to make the mask. Moreover, he was not sure that people would buy. In his village, residents largely did not follow the rules. Even if they did, they would simply wrap their gamcha around their face. So who would buy it?

Bipush was morose – not only was he struggling, he also did not see any light at the end of the struggle. I tried to cheer Bipush up, shared some videos of mask making over WhatsApp, and then assured him that the sales would be taken care of by KARFA. Bipush now saw a ray of hope. I told him that if he could paint some Madhubani Art motifs on the masks, then we could sell it at a premium of at least 50 per cent. He was ecstatic.     

Ultimately, when the lockdown lifted, and e-commerce started, we put these masks on sale. We were lucky to get some bulk orders from customers (Leela Kempinski was one of them), and very soon these Madhubani masks became our hot selling product.

This incident taught me the importance of spreading good cheer and hope in these dark times. The pandemic has hit many of our brothers and sisters very hard. Let us be empathetic and non-judgmental as we reflect on the words in the viral poem “We are not in the same boat.”

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