When the nationwide lockdown was extended in India earlier this week, artist Sangeeta Jha was intently listening to the Prime Minister. “It is important for everyone in the country to safeguard themselves,” says Jha. The Jitwarpur-based Madhubani artist has been following the pandemic closely since the first case was reported in India in January. With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rising in the country, two weeks back she reached out to fellow artists in the neighbourhood and urged them to make face masks from old cotton clothes at home for their families. “The onus is on all of us to protect ourselves. We need to take action at an individual level,” says Jha, who has reached out to over 50 artists, several of whom, she says, have been sending her photographs of homemade masks, most of which are painted in Madhubani patterns — carrying motifs of birds, fish and floral designs. Mythological figures, Jha says, are not painted, since the masks are to be worn on the mouth. “Our art gives us a distinct identity and recognition,” she adds.
With shortage of masks making it difficult to follow the latest directive on the need to wear one when stepping out of the house, artists in Madhubani are attempting to make a contribution. “We would be happy if we can be of any help,” says artist Rita Devi. She has sown masks for her family, including her husband and son who go out for farming everyday. Guiding her on the technique of sewing masks is a video shared by Ihitashri Shandilya, founder of MITHILAsmita, a Delhi-based organisation that works with folk artists. “After the lockdown I realised there was no way for me to reach these artists and help them. I could only advice what precautions they should be taking. The only way for them to have masks probably is to make it themselves,” says Shendilya.
Over the last few weeks, Shandilya has shared the video — with step-wise instructions — in English, Hindi and Maithili with artists in Madhubani, Gond artists in Madhya Pradesh and Banarasi weavers. “It is important for us to reach out to as many. We are encouraging the artists to also make masks for those providing essential services, such as doctors, police and security personnel,” adds Shandilya.
Artist Remant Kumar Mishra agrees that self-help is crucial. In early March, he and his wife Usha, along with 12 other artists in Jitwarpur painted on over 250 masks — purchased from medical stores and made at home with Khadi cloth — and distributed them in the surrounding areas, especially to those providing essential services. Sporting slogans such as ‘Save Humanity, Get Rid of Corona’, ‘Go Corona Go’ alongside patterns from the Madhubani tradition, the project was aimed at raising awareness. “We wanted to inform people about the life-threatening infection. Through slogans we also promoted social distancing,” says Mishra, adding that the masks were painted with natural dyes. To ensure that the village remains corona-free, the State Awardee adds that migrants arriving from other places are being asked to get a fitness certificate.
Meanwhile, with paucity of masks in urban areas as well, Delhi Street Art too is collaborating with its artists to make masks at their homes. “We conducted virtual meetings to discuss what we can possibly do in the current situation, and making masks was one of the ideas. We aim to make around 300 masks. Some have already been donated to CanSupport that works with cancer patients,” says Yogesh Saini, founder of Delhi Street Art. He adds, “The masks are sanitised and have also been appreciated for the bright colours and designs.”
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