Hindu women of the deeply conservative villages around Janakpur are rarely spared from their household duties, and, once married, are expected to remain veiled and silent before all males but their husbands. Fortunately, their rich tradition of folk art offers them an escape. Set in a walled compound, the nonprofit Janakpur Women’s Development Center (Nari Bikas Kendra) provides a space for women from nearby villages to develop. Founded in 1989, with assistance from several international NGOs, the artists’ cooperative helps its fifty-odd members turn their skills into income – and the fact that some have gone on to start their own companies is a sure sign of the project’s success. But more importantly, the centre empowers women through training in literacy and business skills, and support sessions in which they can share their feelings and discuss their roles in family and society.
Initially specializing in Maithili paper art, the centre now has separate buildings for sewing, screen-printing, ceramics and painting. Visitors are welcome to meet the artists and learn about their work and traditions. A gift shop sells crafts made on the premises, as well as the booklet, Master Artists of Janakpur.
For three thousand years, Hindu women of the region once known as Mithila have maintained a tradition of painting, using techniques and motifs passed from mother to daughter. The colourful images can be viewed as fertility charms, meditation aids or a form of storytelling, embodying millennia of traditional knowledge.
From an early age Brahman girls practice drawing complex symbols derived from Hindu myths and folk tales, which over the course of generations have been reduced to mandala-like abstractions. By the time she is in her teens, a girl will be presenting simple paintings to her arranged fiancé; the courtship culminates with the painting of a kohbar, an elaborate fresco on the wall of the bride’s bedroom, where the newlyweds will spend their first nights. Depicting a stalk of bamboo surrounded by lotus leaves (symbols of male and female sexuality), the kohbar is a powerful celebration of life and creation. Other motifs include footprints and fishes (representing Vishnu), parrots (symbolic of a happy union), Krishna cavorting with his milkmaids, and Surabhi, the Cow of Plenty, who inflames the desire of those who milk her. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the kohbar is that, almost by definition, it is ephemeral: even the most amazing mural will be washed off within a week or two. Painting is seen as a form of prayer or meditation; once completed, the work has achieved its end.
Women of all castes create simpler wall decorations during the autumn festival of Tihaar (Diwali). In the weeks leading up to the festival they apply a new coat of mud mixed with dung and rice chaff to their houses and add relief designs. Just before Lakshmi Puja, the climactic third day of Tihaar, many paint images of peacocks, pregnant elephants and other symbols of prosperity to attract a visit from the goddess of wealth. Until Nepali New Year celebrations in April, the decorations are easily viewable in villages around Janakpur.
Paintings on paper, which traditionally play only a minor part in the culture, have become the most celebrated form of Maithili art – or Madhubani art, as it’s known in India, where a community-development project began turning it into a marketable commodity in the 1960s. More recently, the Janakpur Women’s Development Center has helped do the same in Nepal, making Maithili paintings a staple of Kathmandu tourist gift shops. Many artists concentrate on traditional religious motifs, but a growing number depict people – mainly women and children in domestic scenes, always shown in characteristic doe-eyed profile.