This article is part of Inc42’s latest series — Women in Leadership — where we will be featuring stories of women who have not only excelled in their chosen field but also empowered and inspired other women to go beyond their limitations and boundaries. Read more stories here.
Last year in July, in an attempt to promote local art and culture, express trains such as Rajdhani Express and Sampark Kranti Express, originating from Bihar were decorated with Madhubani paintings. Around 22 coaches of the Patna Rajdhani express were covered inside out with the intricate patterns and soft pastels of the traditional art form originating from the Mithila region of Bihar. The result was so breathtaking that Japan, which is working closely the Indian Railways on a bullet train, requested the Piyush Goyal-led Railway Ministry of India to send a group of artisans who could recreate the art on the Japanese public trains.
Since the 20th century, Indian heritage and art forms have been popular with collectors and art lovers worldwide. With its ethnically-diverse history, India has been a melting pot for not just cultures but also various schools of art, music and architecture.
Being kept alive by traditional artisans across villages and towns, few in India’s cities know about the hardships that these artists endure. With incomes too meagre to sustain their lives, avenues to their work are limited and the prospect of penury as the only reward for their dedication, more often than not, Indian artisans lead thankless lives.
Of late though, more and more individuals, government bodies and social organisations are trying to give these artisans a platform. And one such art form which is getting a boost from the governments and startups alike is Madhubani.
The 2,500 year old Madhubani or Mithila paintings find their origin in the Mithila region of Bihar, Although the art form was discovered in the 1930’s. It was recognised formally in 1969 when Sita Devi, a legendary Madhubani artist, received the state award by Government of Bihar. In fact, she is one of the foremost reviver’s of the Madhubani school.
The art-form is created using fingers, twigs, matchsticks, pen nibs, natural dyes, and pigments. Some of the initial references to this art-form can be found in the Ramayana. Folklore has it that Sita’s father, asked his painters to create Madhubani paintings for his daughter’s wedding.
One such female-duo who are giving the Madhubani artisans, especially women in Bihar a platform, are Ruchi Jha and Renuka Kumari with their startup — iMithila.
Founded in 2016, iMithila in name and vision works for ‘innovation in Mithila’. The startup is giving a modern rendition to the art-from which was once popular as murals, wall hangings and pots by bringing it to everyday products such as sarees, bags, clocks, coasters, etc.
Madhubani art was re-discovered in 1934 after an earthquake hit Bihar. Among the debris lay a relic of the beautiful Madhubani art which was discovered by a British colonial officer, William G. Archer, in the Madhubani District. And, as they say rest is history.
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The knowledge of the art form was passed down to generations and women became its biggest contributors, using it to paint walls of homes on festivals. Just like most art forms, the women practicing Madhubani art have found solace in silence and used the medium to bring awareness to the stigma surrounding them. The startup is committed to giving artisans associated with it, a platform for their creative, and financial needs. And a key mission for iMithila is putting the power back in the hands of its original artists — the women.
Today, the iMithila team has a unique blend of woman folk artisans spread in over twenty villages of Mithilanchal. Interestingly, 80% of the artisans on the platform are women.
How The Canvas At iMithla Is Painted
With the plethora of choices available to customers today, the only way to succeed, generate revenues, and stay ahead in the game for an upcoming startup is by giving a twist to hitherto unknown products. In the same vein, iMithila has gone beyond the usual products associated with Madhubani paintings to grab a larger pool of customers.
The iMithila products are priced between $10 (INR 700) to $214 (INR 15,000) and the company has witnessed a consistent 200% growth Y-O-Y with a team of 10 who work out of Noida and 100 artisans based out of Bihar. The maximum orders come in from the states of Kolkata and Madhya Pradesh.
Getting into unique products has been both rewarding and challenging for iMithila, “Since, most of our products are innovative with out of the box designs and thinking, the biggest challenge that we’ve faced is to work on product management. It is about making the choice on which product categories to enter into and at what price points,’’ said Jha.
This situation for iMithila has been tackled by its internal team and business advisors. Before entering into any category, the startup conducts a thorough research of the scope of the products in the market. From inception to entering a new category, their time cycle is six to nine months.
Initially the company started as an ecommerce brand and spent a lot of time and resources on marketing. Ecommerce allowed it to reach different customers quickly as compared to any other channel. Now the company is in the process of opening Madhubani art galleries in different cities in India. “The fact that we are a design led innovative brand working only in Mithila art form makes us stand out from the crowd,’’ said Jha.
Today, iMithila ships globally, and is present on various marketplaces. It is also making its presence felt offline in different promotional exhibitions and their first brick and mortar in Delhi – NCR.
Although iMithila has a first-mover advantage in the space, Madhubani art has long been sold offline in exhibitions, handicraft stores and galleries. More recently online marketplaces such as Pepperfry, Amazon, Flipkart, Mojarto, etc are inundated with a variety of Madhubani products.
Helping the Artisans At iMithila
All the products by iMithila are manufactured in the painting’s homeland Bihar by the artisans and partners of iMithila. The company aims to develop the ecosystem of the Tier 3 & 4 cities in Bihar.
iMithila provides the necessary skill and development training to its partners. Since the quantum of work is high, it also works on the skill enhancement of its partners and artisans. “Earlier, since there was no automated facilities available in Bihar, partners had to either hand stitch them or we were procuring them from outside the state. The idea was to have everything made in Bihar. Hence, we first identified our partners and then helped them setup automated facilities to get these products manufactured locally,” emphasised Jha.
The higher sales at iMithila transpires to higher work and income for the 100 plus artists associated with the company. With a strong on the artisans, the company has zero attrition rate and consider its artisans as part of its internal team.
iMithila makes all the payments digitally to the artisans making them a part of Digital India, and claims to have helped their artisans enrol in various government programs which benefit them a lot.
Keeping Madhubani Art Alive: The Mission for iMithila
The startup also runs an on-campus program — Campus Connect where it conducts workshops on Mithila art in different educational institutes in cities across the world.
The company also runs a sub-program — Startup Mithila to spread awareness among the students and aspiring entrepreneurs about startups and all the related aspects in Tier 3 & 4 cities of the country, inspiring more and more students and people to take entrepreneurship as a career.
In today’s increasingly westernised culture it is rare for Indian heritage to find commercial acceptance outside the flea markets visited mostly by tourists. By promoting Madhubani paintings in a contemporary way, iMithila has not only helped local artisans make a living but also breathed a lease of life into a once forgotten part of India’s invaluable heritage.
iMithila was a Gifting Partner At Inc42’s flagship conference — The Ecosystem Summit.