Empowerment Through Tradition

The Preservation of Maithil Paintings

“Empowerment through tradition,” a slogan which rings true at the Janakpur Women’s Development Center (JWDC) in Southern Nepal. It is a foundation such as this which has preserved ancient Maithil paintings, rooted in traditions that women have passed down for generations. Thanks to the generosity from various donors and small grants, the JWDC has grown and flourished over the decade and has made Janakpur famous for its colorful paintings on paper.

In 1991, a grant by the Ellen Lyman Cabot trust was given to create a way to preserve this traditional art form and led the idea to transform such images onto lokta paper that has the same rough texture of mud walls and floors, which were traditionally used for painting. The JWDC created both the form and the medium what is now known as “Janakpur Painting” or “Mithila Art.” These paintings often depict scenes of nature and Hindu rituals and deities.

As the center was founded, the chosen women artists travelled from their villages to the center of Janakpur to learn and develop their skills in composition, color, and line. At that time this was a huge step forward because these women come from a culture that prohibits them from leaving their homes or speaking to strangers. This opened a new world since the majority of the women are illiterate and never participated in any kind of organization.

Over the years and thanks to several grants, the center has provided training in literacy, management, planning, and gender awareness. It has also been successful in preserving their traditional arts, generating steady income, creating strong female leaders, promoting education, and self-confidence. The center started with seven members and currently supports over forty-one women village artists and three male staff members. They are also earning recognition as some of the finest contemporary artists in Nepal.

Other small grants with large impacts include the support from Aid to Artisans’grants group, a tradition now being carried on by the HAND/EYE Fund’s small grants program. These grants helped publish and promote the JWDC's book called “The Master Artists of Janakpur." The book enabled JWDC to tell its story to the public and attract prospect buyers and designers. It has also increased awareness about Maithil art, as well as encouraged tourists and designers to visit the center. The book was beautifully thought out and nicely depicts many of the artists, their stories, and their distinctive painting styles. It has been the only quality resource for the center and a steady source of income.

This past spring, I visited the center due to a sighting of this book in Kathmandu. Upon my visit, I was welcomed with open arms and the women at the center were excited by my new design ideas which merge traditional style with a contemporary feel. The center allowed for new ideas to flow and inspired me to work in all departments, including ceramics, sewing, silk screening, and painting.

I started out with the idea to create hand painted bangles, and left with a collection of 100% natural cotton silk screened handbags, hand stitched coin purses and hand painted journals. My inspiration was the women’s creativity and I loved the bright colors and unique style which all they all have grown to develop. These group of women live with so many struggles, but create a truly colorful world within their imagination. You walk in the center and their warmth truly touches your soul. I felt at home.

A second grant was given by Aid to Artisans, which allowed for JWDC to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Market both in 2009 and 2010. This is the second year that artist, Manjula Devi and Bimal Poudel were flown out to represent the center in Santa Fe. The grant supported all expenses to participate as well as the visa fee, shipping costs, and cost of raw materials. Their participation the first year was so successful that it covered the salaries of 39 women for up to 6 months.

Prior to the market in Santa Fe, the artists in the center were receiving less than standard rates and now are receiving fair trade wages that were encouraged by the market. Bimal Poudel adds, “The 2009 participation in the Folk Art Market has helped the center to expand its market and to provide a steady income for the artists and their families. It has also reinvigorated the artists and given them new confidence that the center will continue well into the future”.

These grants are greatly appreciated especially during these times of uncertainty. The political unrest in Nepal, as well as a new form of violent protest emerging particularly in the Terai (southern plains) where the Center is located, has affected tourism in Janakpur and decreased the amount of visitors. The nation’s upheaval as well as the global economic crisis has also affected markets in the capital city of Kathmandu.

During times of uncertainty, the women especially truly appreciate coming to the "office" located in a beautiful and supportive environment, free from the constraints of the village and the political chaos. The women gain social confidence and easily converse with friends from many castes and backgrounds. It is a place to forget about daily worries and hardships.

Within their artwork the women have found a way to promote awareness and expression. They express issues on nutrition, women’s rights, safe sex, drugs, and more. They use their imagination and retell stories that often depict scenes from Hindu folklore including tales from Ramayana and scenes of family, daily life, dreams, animals, tattoo designs, and Maithil rituals. Thanks to continuing support and recognition, they continue to paint with confidence and a sense of freedom.

Annie Waterman is a U.S. based designer and founder of “annie O”, a socially responsible fashion and accessories company.

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