It is our great pleasure to be present here. We would like to thank World Pulse for creating this kind of platform where the women's voices are being shared.
The JWDC is a non-profit organization that initiated in 1989 as a movement for Maithili women with their artistic tradition of Mithila Paintings. It has now become the source of income and recognition for many of the finest traditional women artists of Janakpur. The paintings are rooted in traditions that Maithil women have passed down through generations. On the occasion of marriage or for festivals such as Deepawali, Maithil women paint lively designs on the mud walls of their houses. During Deepawali, in order to attract Laxmi the goddess of wealth, they paint designs for elephants and peacocks which symbolize prosperity, as well as images of tigers, birds, and other animals. In monsoon season the paintings fade or wash away.
Janakpur is now famous for its colorful paintings on paper, yet this "tradition" began in the first days of the JWDC when a number of talented women learned how to transfer their wall designs to paper. They traveled from their villages to the Center in Janakpur, defying a culture that prohibits women leaving their homes or speaking with strangers. Gradually, the Center became their second home where, without losing their individual styles, they developed skills in composition as well as in the use of color and line.
After various experiments in Janakpur, it was decided to paint on Nepali handmade Lokta (daphne) paper which had the rough texture of mud walls. Then, after trying pens and sticks, the women decided on brushes. After experimenting with their own dyes and pigments, which they mixed with milk, they found that acrylic paint worked best on Nepali paper and could be used as spontaneously as the dyes and home-made paints commonly applied to house walls. And so it was that the JWDC created both the form and medium of what is known today as “Janakpur Painting” or “Mithila Art”.
There was by then a strong group of women, most of whom were illiterate, and who had never taken part in any kind of organization. They loved coming to the "office" in Janakpur, a beautifully designed and supportive environment with women of many backgrounds, free, from the constraints of the village. Through being associated with a development project they were soon making paintings promoting Vitamin A, the chance to vote, safe sex and saying "no" to drugs. Proud of their traditional culture, they continued to illustrate Maithil rituals or to make paintings of gods Ram and Sita who, according to legend, married in Janakpur. And in the "office" where they sang songs or told tales of the Hindu gods, they naturally painted scenes from the Ramayana or from Maithil songs and folktales. Many women have enjoyed painting the Maithil tale of Anjur, a tale in which a new bride is made to do impossible tasks by her jealous sister-in-law, and each time is helped by sympathetic birds or snakes. They often mix images of other tales in with Anjur's tale, and similarly gods will appear in scenes of family planning. This mixing of themes is a reflection of the real world of the Janakpur artists today.
Many of the Brahmin (upper caste) artists paint traditional images of gods who are placed in the middle of the page and convey great power. Other more contemporary paintings mix images of gods with scenes from daily life, and the page is filled with the intensity of a mandala. In contrast, lower caste artists have created a repertoire of lively images that have included a peacock who smokes a water pipe, a smiling tiger with scales, and a pair of pregnant elephants. Artists of the Kayastha caste paint the same images found in specially-decorated Kayastha wedding chambers: the sun and moon, parrots, fish, bamboo and lotus. But 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. For instance, Suhagbati paints sturdy people who look like herself, and her paintings are well-constructed, with boxlike houses, ponds and buses, and bold colors filling in areas of space. Phulaba’s paintings are more ethereal and show a lively imagination, as exemplified by her range of fantastical birds whose feathers sometimes become chains of ceramic pots.
The artists now work daily at the Janakpur Women's Development Center. It is a beautiful complex, which the artists have decorated with traditional mud relief designs. The painters share ideas and images with the women who produce ceramics, textile, and papier maché in other sections of the Center. Over the years the JWDC artists have also received training in literacy, management, planning, gender awareness, health and child care. For them, painting is synonymous with a new social life with women friends from different villages and castes.
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 hence the Center now receives few visitors.