Photos by Prabhat R Jha | Text by Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

When Manjula was 12, her grandfather had invited a visitor to come and meet her. Her mother combed her hair and coached her to give the guest water to wash his feet. The guest was pleased with Manjula, and so her marriage to a boy her age was fixed in a distant village.

"After my third son, I myself decided to have a family planning operation... It was painful... I didn't want the 100 rupees the doctor gave me. At that time, I didn't know what I would do to educate my sons so I bought 15 hens and began selling the eggs. Then everyone forgave me for having the operation because I was so industrious. Still, we didn't have rice," she remembers the days of her past.

Today, Manjula Thakur paints for a living; she is the manager in the painting section of the Janakpur Women's Development Centre (JWDC) in central Nepal. She learnt painting from her mother who would paint gods on the pavilions that local Brahmins would make for their boys' sacred thread ceremonies.

"I am moving ahead," she says. "I know how to talk on the phone. Once, I spoke to my husband's elder brother and people were shocked since this is something we cannot do. People may criticise me, but I know that if people don't understand my life today, they will understand tomorrow."

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This isn't a story in isolation. Like Manjula, a lot of women in Janakpur have found a new lease of life, full of hope, optimism and self-worth, by taking to the region's ancient traditional art of Mithila painting.

Geographically, Mithila region lies majorly in the Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand. A part of it also extends to the Terai of Nepal. Mithila is a place not unknown to the subcontinent: it is the birthplace of Sita, one of the most pivotal characters from the epic Ramayana. The city of Janakpur (in southern Nepal) itself is named after Sita's father King Janak. Locals believe it is in this very place where Lord Rama and Sita got married. Owing to its mythological legacy, the art form derived out of this region bears a very strong bond to the Ramayana, Sita and narratives from her life.

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The very practice of this art form has been passed down through generations, mostly women. However, the form in which the art is known of today is more nuanced, sophisticated and enterprising as compared to what it was nearly thirty years ago. Traditionally, during festivals like Diwali or Dussehra women of Mithila (or Maithil women) would paint the mud walls of their houses using home-made paints and dyes which consisted of materials available readily in homes such as cow dung, rice etc. These wall paintings would be symbolic of the respective festivities, for instance during Diwali the paintings would bear designs of elephants, peacocks, tigers etc to represent prosperity that comes in with Goddess Lakshmi. However, these paintings wouldn't last longer than 4-5 months and would eventually be washed off during the monsoons.

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Today, Mithila paintings are painted on a variety of surfaces — from its more standard form on paper to clay/ceramic pots, T-shirts, cloth etc. The art form's journey in this region of Nepal, really and metaphorically, is both intriguing and inspiring.

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Janakpur-based photojournalist Prabhat R Jha has been actively documenting the growth of Mithila art in the region for a while now. Having seen and known most of the people associated with the art form in Janakpur, Jha says while the art itself is very old, it got its structured form only after the JWDC started. Before that, Mithila art was confined within four walls of the Maithil households. "It was one of those things which the groom's family would judge a prospective bride on, when the families would visit each other with a marriage proposal. The bride's family would try to convince the groom’s family telling them that ‘the girl can paint', and that would be enough," Jha says.

It was in the year 1988 when the New England researcher Claire Burkert came to Janakpur on a field recce for a documentary film that she was introduced to Mithila art and the Maithil home-artists. She was immediately taken by the aesthetics of the devotional art of Mithila and subsequently made several trips all through the villages around Janakpur and also in India's Mithila region which is known by the name of Madhubani. While her primary interest was in making portraits of women with their wall paintings and to write about their lives, she began delving deeper into the women narratives of Mithila after she saw they were making an income from their art in Madhubani.

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"I read a report titled Status of Women in Nepal, published in 1980 by USAID and written by Meena Acharya and Lynn Bennett. It ranked the status of Maithil women the lowest in all of Nepal. Women there were married very early; had little education, and even little access to the outside world because of the purdah system. I thought if Maithil women in India were making art for income, there surely must be an interest locally and an opportunity for Maithil women in Nepal to do that as well," Burkert says.

In 1989, Burkert applied for and received a grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust to test the feasibility for women to earn income from their art. The grant allowed her to locate the women she had photographed earlier and to work with them on transferring their wall images onto paper. "We had our first exhibition of the work at the American Library in 1990, not long after democracy in Nepal was declared," Burkert recalls and adds further, "There was huge interest in the women and their art, in part perhaps because the new mood of the time was somewhat inclusive, celebrating Nepal as one democratic nation."

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Eventually, various organisations wanted to continue to support the effort in Janakpur, and even the families of the locals Janakpur showed a lot of interest in promoting the art. Burkert continued to work with the women to make paintings and then to apply imagery to other crafts such as pottery and papier-mâché with the support of UNIFEM, Redd Barna and Save the Children-Japan. Finally, with the help from the Australian ambassador and a few international donors, the JWDC was established in 1989 and in 1992 it was registered as an NGO.

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JWDC in a way marked a new phase in the socio-cultural history of Janakpur where women could go out for work. "It became one of the very first places where women worked in an organised firm; the very idea of women going to an 'office' was very appealing to them," Jha says stressing on how the 'organised' structure helped the JWDC to function steadily well from the get-go which further helped it make a reputation of its own and hence made it easier for other women to join later.

The Mithila region of southern Nepal, including Janakpur, has always been plagued by poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Hence, a place like the JWDC came about also because of the very need of the time — as a means of survival and sustainability — especially for the women of Janakpur.

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For many, it was an opportunity, for some perhaps the only opportunity to go beyond their socio-economic barriers and hope for a better future — for themselves as well as their families. In the initial phase, most of these women became the sole earning member of their families. Many of them were widows, some single mothers. They wanted to go out and do something. Staying at home was not an option for them as money was a dire need of the time. While all other doors seemed locked for them, women of Janakpur found a silver lining in the form of their expertise in their traditional art form of Mithila painting. Their art didn't just get them some economic relief but more importantly equipped them with a huge share of self-worth and confidence.

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"It was the first time we could see women ride bicycles here in Janakpur; it was a kind of revolution," Jha recalls. Corroborating this momentous feat, Burkert says those bicycles, like the very symbolic nature of Mithila paintings, somehow represented these women's new-found independence and freedom. In fact, working in the JWDC also opened their horizons which reflected in their art. Burkert says, "I had always thought that the JWDC would simply reproduce the same images as on the walls. When I began to hand out paper [as their canvass instead of the usual wall surface], women were excited to try. They were proud to show what they could make and wanted to do better and better. I began to see the act of painting as a kind of voice. Naturally, as the women began to paint they wanted to paint about their lives and tell stories."

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As mentioned earlier, Mithila paintings today have metamorphosed into a hybrid form wherein the motifs and designs of the traditional style have been kept intact but the tools and themes have become contemporary, driven mainly by lived experiences, imaginations and societal reflections.

For instance, these women would earlier use their fingers or bamboo sticks draped with a piece of cotton fabric to paint (the walls). Now they use sophisticated fur paintbrushes to draw intricate patterns on local Nepali handmade paper known as 'loktha' (daphne) which has a texture similar to the mud walls. The ancient form of mud painting (on the walls) would use either the brown colour of clay mud or another shade of colour using cow dung as the base on the walls, while for colours they would make dyes out of plants and flowers such as the beans leaves, dahlia, turmeric etc mixed with either milk or water. On paper, the artists have realised that acrylic paints work much better as compared to the homemade paints.

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Thematically, a lot is derived from the traditional format: be it scenes from the Ramayana, Hindu gods and goddesses like Ganesha, Vishnu, Krishna etc to the sun, the moon, birds, animals, fields, rivers, flowers, fruits etc. Fish, which is considered to be very auspicious in Nepal's Mithila region, also appears as a recurring motif. Along with these, the women also draw a lot of designs from Maithil rituals, songs and folktales, such as the tale of Anjur where a newly-wed bride is made to do impossible tasks by her jealous sister-in-law. While the bride grapples with challenges ahead of her, birds and snakes come to her aid. However, today a lot of these themes are fused with independent, personal narratives or issues that affect the society — health and hygiene, women empowerment, fight against discrimination, to name a few.

"The art form started with traditional formats, but with time the artists started incorporating their own imaginations in their art which resulted in something very different from what was done before. It really evolved over the years," mentions Jha. Adding to this observation, Burkert says, "There are artists who have been painting at the JWDC for 25-30 years. I see that many of them have developed as contemporary artists in their own right. I think they realised they are accomplished, and they are proud of their work."

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She further points out how this fusion of themes is a reflection of Janakpur's society. While the Brahmin and Kayastha artists mainly paint images of Hindu gods and goddesses usually placed in the centre surrounded by either mandala paintings or illustrations of Janakpur's everyday lives, artists from the 'lower castes' paint more lively and otherworldly illustrations ranging from smiling tigers, smoking peacocks to pregnant elephants. Having said that, Burkert remarks, "What distinguishes the master artists of the JWDC is their individuality: when you become familiar with the paintings, you do not have to see the signature to identify the artist."

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"Typically my pictures show people doing farm work. You can tell which are my paintings because they often have parrots, crows and squirrels that you see in the mango groves near my village," says 50-something Remani Mandal who paints at the JWDC. Considerably younger, Madhumala Mandal prefers to paint daily life situations and tattoos. "Tattoos are very important in our culture. If you do not have tattoos, people will not accept you as a member of society. For example, no one will touch your food because they will think it is not tasty."

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While this cultural art renaissance of sorts did change a lot of lives in and around Janakpur, much recently it seems to have fallen prey to the changing times and demands. From its starting days in the 1990s, the women in the JWDC created masterpieces of Mithila art which got sold in Kathmandu and were exported abroad in the USA, Japan and parts of Europe. Around 2007-08 when the recession hit the markets, their production sales flapped down from 100 to 10-15 pieces. To cope with the low business, they resorted to mass production and bulk exports. It came with its own pros and cons: while it did help them make money, the novelty factor of individual masterpieces went missing. Also, there are other organisations across Nepal where Mithila paintings are made and sold, hence there are competitors in the market. With low prices of artworks and consequentially low salary appreciation, a lot of artists have either discontinued or have taken to other jobs.

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"Today, there is a bit of suffering around this art form," Jha points out. "The state or the government has not been able to recognise this art form as heritage or preserve it by including it as a subject in the curriculum of schools etc. In that sense, it is dying," he explains, further adding that many have not been able to contemporise themselves due to lack of exposure, lack of knowledge of other art forms that people like. "There are only a few artists today who are well versed with the technology and changing trends and thus have brought in styles of surrealism and modernism in the Mithila art form. They have been able to find more jobs than the ones who are still doing the traditional way."

Some artists have also tried fusing the two schools of art — Madhubani (India) and Mithila (Nepal) — into their designs. They have been able to gauge clients' tastes and demands and hence been able to travel more and show their talent widely. Artists like Sunaina Thakur, Ajit Shah, Vijay Dutta Mani and SC Suman have made a mark of their own and found success not just in Nepal but also globally. It is rather ironic that an art form which is usually identified with women has three men in the list of its four most accomplished faces.

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"There have been a few men who have been doing this art form for a while now. In the Mithila society, whenever the art form needed to be done at public platforms, say a temple or a street wall, the painting would typically be done by the men," Jha mentions. Of course, as men they had more exposure and opportunity to talk about this art form: they could travel with the art, learn new methods, use different forms and contemporise it. Jha says this exposure and freedom gave them an edge over the women. The male artists could understand the very marketing of it and hence used it to their very best.

As for the JWDC and the women artists, Burkert remains optimistic and says, "Now we not only need artists, but we also need young women who have computer expertise and who can communicate with the world outside of Janakpur." She hopes to see the centre, which is built in the traditional style of the area and decorated with mud relief designs, inspiring future design and decoration of houses and buildings. "Perhaps this will come about when women have a say in the development of Janakpur and its surrounding villages," concludes Burkert.

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— All photographs by © Prabhat R Jha for Firstpost

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