Unlike well-curated art galleries, painting stores in Dhaka's New Market area are almost similar to clothing stores. There are a range of paintings hanging haphazardly on the shop walls in normal lighting, and the floors are congested with piles of frames.
The shop attendants try to draw people's attention by shouting out: "Come and get any kind of painting you want."
Customers usually ask for 'sceneries', which essentially translates to village landscapes with cottages, greeneries and traditional boats on river water. Shopkeepers pull out different varieties from stock.
The price of such paintings can start as low as Tk500 and are usually between Tk2,000 to Tk3,000. Essentially, the shopkeepers extract whatever they can from a customer. A painting that is sold at Tk3,000 to an experienced local buyer can suddenly become Tk10,000 for an enthusiastic foreigner.
Describing the market for such paintings, Mohammad Ilias, owner of Art Gallery at Chandrima Super Market, said, "More sales, less profit – this is the motto we follow to run this business."
He compared the sales of paintings in Gulshan-based art galleries with that in the New Market area. "If the galleries there sell 10 paintings in a month, we sell 100."
Recently, I met artist Sagar Ahmed at the very shop. He introduced himself as one of the pioneers in establishing the painting business in the New Market area. His personal story is tied to the growth of the affordable, decorative paintings market centred around New Market.
In 1987, Sagar got admitted to the chemistry department of the University of Dhaka as well the fine arts department of the University of Chattogram. As the young man had greater interest in art, he finally decided to study in Chattogram.
Two years later, his father died. As the elder among four siblings, Sagar could have taken charge of the family business in Narsingdi. But business did not interest him.
Following the advice of his father's friend, Sagar migrated to Dhaka and offered private tuition to earn his daily bread. However, he never stopped drawing and painting.
In 1992, the aspiring artist tried to sell his paintings at some Gulshan-based stores, but they paid him irregularly. Soon, he realised that he could not survive in the slow-turnover market.
"My paintings were left unsold even for two or three months. How could I survive in that hard time when I had to live from hand to mouth?" Sagar said.
While running several errands at New Market the following year, he discovered some handicraft shops selling paintings done on wood or metal. He thought he could make paintings like those and sell them.
Initially, the handicraft sellers paid little interest.
"I asked them to pay me when my products were sold. I provided a shop with 10 pieces of paintings at a cheap rate. After two or three days, they paid me in full, meaning all the paintings had been sold. They then asked me to supply 50 more paintings and gave me an advance payment. That was the beginning," Sagar recollected.
That quick payment from New Market left Sagar indifferent to the Gulshan-based market. Within a few days, more orders came from other shop owners. Once, he got orders to supply 100 paintings in a day.
Sagar became so busy that he had to bring his two younger brothers – Zaman and Masum, who could paint too – to support him. At that time, the painter brothers used to sell watercolour paintings.
At present, there are around 30 such professional painters regularly supplying paintings to the shops in New Market area. The painters mostly use modified acrylic colours that are of low quality, compared to the exported ones, which are expensive.
"We have to sell the paintings at the cheapest price. So, we use cheap colours. There is no customer of paintings worth Tk20,000," Sagar said.
However, he does not describe the New Market paintings as artwork, because quality matters. Artists maintain grammar strictly for expensive artworks, but the New Market-based shops sell raw paintings. Only painting sellers and art enthusiasts who collect excellent paintings can understand the difference in quality.
Sagar explained further, "I can paint 100 pieces of raw paintings a day. But if I paint for the Gulshan customers, I can paint merely 10 in a week."
According to Ilias, who joined the wholesale business in the pre-independence period, construction of buildings increased aggressively in Dhaka since 1990. Building owners wanted to decorate their new accommodations with European-style paintings.
"The demand for paintings, thus, boosted the sales of cheap paintings from the New Market area. Now, Chattogram New Market and Rajshahi New Market are also involved in the painting business," he said.
Moreover, painting sellers now have a wide customer base. Many corporate houses purchase New Market paintings as gift items for their clients. Wedding party guests, too, give such paintings as tokens of appreciation.
When he was younger, Sagar felt ashamed selling paintings from shop to shop, walking on foot. But now he feels proud that the market is helping emerging artists who survive on painting.
Currently, more than 200 people, including sellers and painting framers are engaged in this business in Dhaka's New Market area.
When asked how much a painter could earn from the New Market-based trade of paintings, Sagar said, "It depends on the quality of the painters and how much time they can manage for painting."
He added, "When I was a full-time painter, I could earn more. For example, I purchased a piece of land in Uttara with the money I had earned in 1997."
Currently, Sagar works at a design firm. He can spend merely two to three hours at night on painting. He paints at his house in Banasree.
He said a skilled and full-time artist can earn over Tk20,000 by selling paintings in the New Market area.