Fieldwork in India

The research project on the cultural industries in India took me to the east of the country in November 2016. The case study of Mithila (or Madhubani) painting allows us to get a better sense of how globalization is impacting a traditional art form. Mithila art dates back to at least the fourteenth century and consists in its original form of wall or floor paintings made for certain rites of passage (births, marriages, etc) in remote villages in the state of Bihar. For centuries, it was an art form exclusively practiced by women. Interestingly, it was only in the late 1960s that these colorful compositions laden with Hindu symbolism were transferred to paper, and offered for sale.

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These days, Mithila art enjoys national and increasingly international renown, and these images – now on various supports including saris, ceramics and notebooks – can readily be bought in the major cities and online (including via Amazon). The art form has been subject to commercialization, and I have been wondering what drives this market and to what extent the artists are actually benefiting from this surge in popularity.

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So I set out with former Erasmus student Bhagyalaksmhi Daga to the Madhubani district to interview as many stakeholders as possible. As a native Hindi speaker, Bhagyalaksmhi was instrumental in establishing a connection with these painters. We managed to interview 16 artists which yielded a wealth of information.

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The transcripts and personal observation will allow me to get a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges of the Madhubani art community, but there is little doubt that many families in these remote villages depend on their art for their livelihoods. One could argue that globalization and the establishment of a modern style market for the visual arts in India have transformed a folk art into a marketable fine art. On the other hand, the engulfing process of commercialization may be eroding the traditional meanings of this unique expression of Indian folk art and culture. More on this later…