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February 7, 2020

Madhubani art matters. Let’s save it.

Tishya Khanna ’23

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The summer I learned to say “dhanyawaad” instead of “thank you” ended up defining three years of my life. 

I found myself in the Indian village of Bihar — the heart of Indigenous Madhubani art, an ancient painting style practiced by the region’s rural women — without much more than my journals and camera equipment. But these items, along with my love for art and my interest in economics, enabled me to start an independent nonprofit to revive the art form and empower its artisans. I named it The Mithilaki Project.

Artisans and friends and the art we love: Madhubani painting
Artisans and friends and the art we love: Madhubani painting

I was motivated as much by knowledge as by fear. To know that an art form with such deep meaning was on the verge of dying was enraging. None of my friends even knew about it. I pledged to combat this ignorance and give a voice to Madhubani art (the technique is also known as Mithila painting). 

My big goals: to spread awareness and build a feasible business model for the artisans. Along the way, I shot a documentary and held art exhibitions.

Though I had read voraciously about Madhubani art — the skills passed down through centuries of families, the intricate geometric patterns, the tools, the natural dyes and pigments — there is no substitute for the power of action. Going out in the field was essential. 

New vehicles for an ancient art form: coasters, candle holders, pencil holders and more
New vehicles for an ancient art form: coasters, candle holders, pencil holders and more

Spending time in the endlessly evocative village of Bihar — the smell of the earth from the pond, the heat of the mud-made houses with thatched roofs, the art adorning the walls and homes — I saw problems and knew I had the power to fix them. I focused on product development and came up with quirky ways to make the art more approachable to my generation and yet retain its core. At its core is a canon of resilient yet largely voiceless women, going back generations, immersed in self-expression and identity. At its core are the region’s rituals and traditions. At its core is my country, India. 

My love for what I set out to accomplish made the work itself therapeutic. Strategizing to find the balance between art and commercialization was empowering. Brainstorming with the talented artisans sparked new ideas. Seeking out collaborations with like-minded organizations to boost product sales was inspiring. Even the long Metro rides across the city every day became comforting. 

The detail of Madhubani-embellished dish and kettle
The detail of Madhubani-embellished dish and kettle

The money we earned was given directly to the artisans, giving them financial independence. For women coming from a small village where patriarchy dominates each household, this source of income was a prime act of establishing themselves as people with equal value. 

The more I engaged with the artisans, the better I could empathize with their stories. Brought together by our shared love for Madhubani painting, we built an enduring sisterhood. In a very difficult time of my life, during which I battled depression, this art and the women I worked with became my saving grace. Art empowered me as it empowered them. They (and I) had become so one with the art that every brush stroke, every color, was the truest expression — almost as an act of rebellion, of saying, “I am here. I exist, and I will not waver.”

Tishya Khanna ’23Tishya Khanna ’23 in the Fimbel Maker & Innovation Lab

Just as I needed somebody to simply see and accept me for who I was, the women I worked with needed the same. I learned that true empowerment comes from embracing identities instead of molding things in another — seemingly better — way. Acceptance was the first step to empowerment. And our diverse perspectives allowed for more creativity, depth and all-round better engagement. 

In looking for a college, I wanted to find a similar sense of community. Where perspectives different from mine would open doors to new avenues and unlock previously unseen answers. Mount Holyoke, I quickly realized, offers all of this and more. 

Blog_Khanna_cardsNotecards, pen holders, and trays — accessible ways for consumers to connect with Madhubani painting
Notecards, pen holders, and trays — accessible ways for consumers to connect with Madhubani painting

Here at Mount Holyoke, each day is made up of conversations. There’s always something new to learn. I have mentors from different backgrounds who guide my interests. There’s an unshakeable sense of belonging — I never feel out of place. The folks are vibrant and carry insights from all around the world. I learn from them just as I had learned from the women I worked with. 

Each day on campus, I’m taken back to the time when I was leaving an artist’s home after shooting the film, when I took my things, looked at the women, bowed and said, “dhanyawaad.”

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Tishya Khanna ’23 is from New Delhi, India (or “Dilli,” as she calls it). She intends to major in computer science and math, and may pursue the dual-degree engineering program. She envisions her future job to be at the intersection of multiple interests in art, computer science and math. She writes for the Mount Holyoke News and works for AWAZ, the College’s South Asian Students Association. A true Delhiite with a love for big cities, Khanna is currently immersing herself in rural Massachusetts. She has an odd fascination for maps and an endearing love for her favorite writers and artists. In her free time, you can find her napping in odd spots around the campus, listening to indie music or writing. Her favorite quote is by Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
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