How a dynamic group is transforming a wall painting tradition
By Claire Burkert, Nepal
In 1988, in a mud and wattle home in Southern Nepal, I photographed a painting of Lord Siva. The artist, an elderly woman named Sita Devi, had chosen to paint Siva in hopes that He would bless the marriage of her nephew and his new wife. The image (see photo on page 51) covered most of one wall in a room that had been converted into a kohbar, a wedding chamber.
What looked like propellers extending from Siva’s head was His flyaway hair. His feet were not crossed in a dance, but rather, she corrected me, were folded in the lotus position: the blue shape between his bent legs defined the empty space there, and the squiggly lines on either side of him were the stripes of the tiger skin on which he was seated. Sita Devi, who learned to paint from her mother, told me wistfully, “The girls don’t give painting attention any more. Their world is very different from my world. To them, how can a triangle be a nose?” Sita Devi foretold what I would later perceive: the wall painting tradition of Maithil women of Nepal was about to disappear.
Mithila was once a kingdom extending over part of southeastern Nepal and India’s state of Bihar. For generations, Maithil women passed from mother to daughter the practice of wall painting, which was often carried out on the occasion of weddings. Perhaps singing devotional songs as they worked, they called upon the Hindu Gods to bless a newly married couple and secure the well-being of their families. The paintings conformed to a shared Maithil style, with figures outlined first with black and then colors filled in later. Faces were often depicted in profile with wide almond-shaped eyes. Frequently, bold geometric or floral patterns bordered windows and the doorway of the house. Lotus flowers, bamboo, turtles and fish, symbolizing fertility and generations to come, were essential elements of a design made in the wedding chamber.
That the women painted out of deep faith and belief and not for personal expression or recognition moved me. I was a young American, not too long out of college art classes with their rigorous critiques and technical exercises. The paintings of Mithila (also known as Madhubani) were undertaken foremost for an audience of Gods. They were not subject to critical reviews and they were ephemeral. If the monsoon rains did not erase them, they were covered over with a mixture of fresh mud, dung and hay for Laxmi puja, the worship of the Goddess of wealth occurring in the autumn, or for Jur Sital, a spring festival of the new year. At these times, women and girls with mud-spattered faces were seen throughout the village, standing on ladders propped against walls and vigorously smearing mud and dung. The villages with their uniform mud and wattle walls and tile roofs looked pristine, gleaming, renewed. The walls were ready for new paintings.
But gradually Hindi movie posters were favored over painted images, and when brick and cement walls replaced the walls of traditional mud and wattle, these seemed to entirely block the inspiration to paint. Moreover, as Sita Devi had pointed out, the young girls were growing interested in different things.
I decided that the art should be documented and based myself in Janakpur, the legendary city of Sita and Ram’s marriage. With the assistance of Professor Rajendra Bimal, a poet and professor of Maithili language, I toured villages in the vicinity of Janakpur. I could not have known then that what had begun as my simple quest to make portraits of the artists with their paintings would evolve into a lifelong commitment to Maithil women and their tradition of making art.
In the early years, on our long hot trips by foot and rickshaw to local villages, Professor Bimal coached me in Hinduism and Maithil culture. I learned there are 40 million Maithil in India and over three million in Nepal where I live. We witnessed the all-night rituals of weddings as well as other rituals related to marriage, such as Dwiragman, when a bride arrives at her new husband’s home to take up life with his family. I first learned about Dwiragaman when I visited the home of ninety-year-old Baachani Devi, who had painted for this occasion the God Dharmaraj. This God who judges one’s destiny based on one’s deeds was a somber choice for a painting to welcome the bride of her great-nephew, and I often wondered how the bride fared in her new home.
And so it was that steadily the paintings on the walls led me behind the walls, to the private lives and concerns of the women artists and their families. I was aware of their poverty, and the strife that a lack of resources caused in the household. There were some women who were too shy to speak: most memorably there was Manjula, who hid from me, speaking in a whisper from behind a door, the edge of her sari pulled over her face, the custom in the presence of strangers. I could not have foreseen that one day Manjula would be calling me on her mobile phone, that she would be manager of a group of women artists from communities all around Janakpur, and that she would have traveled internationally five times to represent works of Maithil art on paper. “If I had not traveled, I couldn’t have become what I am today. Now I am confident and share my thoughts,” she recently explained.
Bimal and I traveled to India where I witnessed what had happened when paper was introduced to the wall painting tradition. In the 1960s, in an effort for draught relief, Pupul Jayakar, chair of the All-India Crafts Board, had the vision to help women earn income by selling their paintings on paper. In the village of Jitwarpur I was lucky to meet the famous Sita Devi, whose son Surya Dev explained to me, “During a terrible draught, artist Bhaskar Kulkani came to the village and at first was giving Mother only a few pieces of paper, then more and more. Soon it was Mother who earned all our money. Now the demand is so high, every day Mother is making lines and I am putting in color.” By 1981, Sita Devi had won great acclaim, including one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri. Her example had inspired hundreds of Maithil women to continue to paint and earn income for their families.
In 1989 I returned to the villages around Janakpur with a grant and my photo-documentation, always delighted when I could locate the artists whose images I’d captured more than a year earlier. In a rented space in Janakpur the artists came together to paint Gods and auspicious animals on paper just as they had been made on village houses. We used Nepali hand-made paper, which had a texture similar to mud walls. Among these first artists was Anuragi Jha, now revered as a master artist of Janakpur. Never in a hurry, Anuragi painted with delight and intensity. I noted how her art was always puja, it was always an act of worship. When she applied color with her brush, it was as if she was applying sindhur and rice paste to an offering. In 1994, after the establishment of the Janakpur Women’s Development Center, Anuragi explained her paintings in this way: “With painting comes faith that there will be no pain. Going to the temple is the most important thing. But since I must work, why not do my worship by painting Gods at the center? The God I love the most is Hanuman. He is the strongest of the Gods. You can identify my paintings because of the Gods, but also because I fill in space completely. I have to concentrate to make sure colors alternate properly. In many paintings I also draw parrots and elephants, because these bring happiness.”
Establishing the Art Center
In 1991 the artists joined together to found a non-governmental organization, the Janakpur Women’s Development Center (JWDC), which would preserve the painting tradition and bring new opportunities to local women. In 1994, the founders bought land and built a beautiful workspace. My journal records the day in 1994 when we conducted a puja to bless the foundation. The potter leaned over a hole with a kailash painted with sindhur and filled with mango leaves. The artists and I pronounced our hopes that their daughters’ daughters’ daughters would work here one day. Manjula’s elderly father-in-law recited mantras in Sanskrit while I showered handfuls of flowers onto a banana leaf over the entombed pot. Her father-in-law ladled water onto the pot with a spoon fashioned from a leaf. With this sprinkling of holy water, the intensity of colors under the hot sky, and each of us holding a handful of flowers, we felt rich. The potter shoveled dirt over the flower-strewn pot and the laborers were fed blessed sweets and pieces of cool cucumbers. We knew a fresh chapter was beginning for us, in a space that was the artists’ own.
The new workplace, designed by the late Australian artist Robert Powell, celebrated the vernacular architectural style of traditional mud houses. The artists coated the brick buildings with mud and dung and sculpted traditional relief designs of Hanuman and Sita, along with auspicious tigers, peacocks and elephants. In time, when scarcely any mud walls could still be found in the villages, the JWDC became a popular destination where visitors could see how buildings in the past were decorated.
The fine art and crafts of the center steadily became recognized within Nepal and then internationally. The artists and craftsmen began to innovate, taking up different themes and experimenting with various media. In 2019, their work was shown at the Welt Museum in Vienna, in conjunction with a major exhibit of contemporary art in Nepal called Nepal Art Now.
That same year, following their involvement in several education and health projects (including a comprehensive diabetes awareness program), the artists were nominated by the International Folk Art Market for a Community Impact Award. Manjula traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, to represent the artists at the awards ceremony, to sell arts and crafts in the Folk Art Market, and to demonstrate her painting skills. She recalls proudly, “Someone asked me to paint Narasimha, the avatar of Vishnu. They were awestruck and asked me how I had memorized the image. When I said I painted out of my imagination, they smiled and told me how they loved my painting of the Lion God.”
Many of the JWDC artists have recently returned to previous practices of making ritual art. Unforeseen at the time the artists first joined together was that one day there would be a new demand for art and objects used in traditional Maithil rituals. In the past the making of paintings and objects had been undertaken by most of the women in a Maithil household, but today many women do not have the time, inclination or knowledge to make paintings for the wedding chamber or to build clay objects such as the small elephants necessary for the bride’s worship of Goddess Gauri. The center, therefore, retains memory and skills for the future.
How It’s Done… See a Documentary, or Two
The artists paint on paper made from the daphne plant. The paper is handmade in workshops in the Kathmandu Valley and in the hills of Nepal. First the women draw an outline, and then they fill in the color. While in the past the paints were made from natural materials, today commercial acrylic paints are commonly used. The arts and crafts produced here have become known as “Janakpur Art.” Currently the center trains and employs 40 women who work at the center to produce fine art, textile (silkscreen and embroidery), ceramics and paper mache crafts.
They have become project oriented as well. Among their projects is one called Smoke Pollution Awareness. Many rural households in Nepal still use firewood and animal dung for cooking. These have had a detrimental health affects on the lives of children and especially women, who are in the kitchen the most. To raise awareness, JWDC engaged and paid rural women artists to make traditional style sketches that depicted smoke’s problems and solutions. These art pieces are on prominent displays in selected communities.
The JWDC has adapted the traditional imagery from their paintings to other crafts. They make and sell painted masks, children’s books, mirror frames, trays, buckets and even watering cans. The sewing section makes embroidered toys and ornaments inspired by the Gods, auspicious animals, vegetables and fruits. The printing section screen-prints traditional designs and patterns onto table covers, greeting cards, posters and bags. Special orders are also possible. The adaptable artists have painted on commission myriad subjects from personal portraits to instructive infographics for NGOs and UN projects that are concerned with disaster management, health education and meeting millennium goals.
Their wide-ranging products can be seen in the JWDC’s catalogue, available on request. You can write to: Janakpur Women’s Development Center, Kuwa Village, Ward #12, District Dhanusha, Nepal
For information on purchasing, please reach out to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Satish Kumar Sah, Manager, (977) 9800803040. Website: jwdcnepal.org Facebook: Janakpur Women’s Development Center @jwdcnepal; Instagram: jwdcnepal
Numerous documentaries can be found on YouTube. These include:
Janakpur Art and Faith Today
I miss the villages painted as they once were. I miss the paintings for their aesthetic beauty and for the faith they represented. Painting the walls requisitioned the Gods to look after the welfare of women’s families. I have worried that as the women no longer paint on the walls, a vital connection to the Gods may have been interrupted. Indeed, much in the world has changed. Has their faith changed? Were paintings made on paper disconnected from religious belief?
One early morning when I woke in artist Manjula’s village, she and two neighbor women were gathered on the clay floor of her kitchen, rolling little pieces of clay. It was an intimate scene, this early meeting in darkness, as the women huddled and whispered prayers to Siva and sang:
Mahadev goes to Himavan’s (King of the Himalayas) palace on His bull to woo a daughter of Himavan. He marries one and then goes again on His bull to woo another daughter.
Each little roll of clay represented Mahadev (Siva) and was joined with others to make clumps of 100, and then these were joined to make 1,000 and sometimes they would make even 11,000, 15,000 and 25,000.
When the sun rose, Manjula and the two other artists walked to the nearby Lingam bringing the clumps of clay formed by joining the little rolls to make offerings to Siva. The clumps were scattered with jasmine flowers, and they took as well the leaves of a bael tree, the sacred tree whose leaves and fruit Siva is known to be fond of. When Manjula finished her worship, Mahadev was hidden in a corner of a storage room.
An additional large wedge of clay she called “Old Mahadev.” To this wedge she added a pair of eyes. To me, these abstract objects created to represent and worship Siva required imagination as well as faith. How different they were than the paintings the artists had made of Him. Even elderly Sita Devi’s loose depiction of Siva on her kohbar wall had looked more to me like how I had imagined Siva to look than these clumps of clay.
And so I asked Manjula about painting for income at the JWDC. Did it require faith—or was it now just a job? Was the image of a God that she painted on paper for sale at the JWDC as meaningful as a God represented in a lump of clay that she made at home in a ritual?
She answered obliquely by showing me a painting of Meera Bhagwati, surrounded by images of Krishna playing His flute to please Her. “Before making this image, I had so many troubles in my house,” Manjula explained. “The environment in my house was so bad that sometimes I did not eat in the evening. So I prayed to Goddess Meera Bhagwati and then I thought to paint her. When I was painting Her image I was not only painting but also praying to Her to solve my problems. My prayers were listened to and She brought peace into my life at home.
“It is the same when I paint God Ganesh,” Manjula continued. “I think of the well-being of my family. Ganesh has always helped me. And tales of the Ramayana are very important for me. Ram, Sita and Lakshman faced problems in their lives just like we face in our lives. It gives me satisfaction that my problems are no different than the problems faced by Gods and Goddesses in the Ramayana. “When I paint the Gods,” Manjula added, “I know they will be happy to see their images.”
I asked other artists about their relationship to the Gods when painting at the JWDC. Sudhira is an artist of the Kayastha caste who knows well the auspicious imagery of the kohbar and can make different aripana (rice paste designs) for at least eight occasions. She likes to paint Krishna, she explains, as He brought peace to every era. “I cannot paint until I feel God,” Sudhira told me. “Painting images of God is like worshiping. I am grateful to the Gods that they gave me a chance to make Their images. I feel someday God may appear to me out of my painting. And I think it is important that I am working as per Their wish.”
Artist Amrita Dutta made a distinction between paintings made for rituals and the paintings made at the center: “We do not paint on the ground as carefully as we paint on paper. Before I paint on paper I know I must make my painting saleable, so I take extra care when painting images of Gods or rituals. And when I paint Gods, I know that they will be happy that I remember them by painting their images.”
The artists often like to turn the lens on themselves, illustrating scenes of the rituals that they perform at home or in sacred spaces. Amrita explained that when she paints rituals, she imagines enacting each step so as to accurately evoke every detail. Popular amongst the artists are paintings of Chhait puja, during which women worship the Sun God, Surya, and Chauchan, when they worship the moon. Janakpur is renowned for the worship of these two deities.
During the spectacular Chhait puja, the banks of Janakpur’s ponds are lined with baskets of colorful offerings. Wading into the pond at sunset and dawn, women hold the offerings up to the sun and pray for the well-being of their families. According to artist Madhumala Mandal, “When I make a painting about Chhait puja, I feel as if I were standing in the pond and offering fruit to the Sun God. It is important to me to paint rituals, as they are part of my life.” When the artists paint Chhait puja, they paint a square in the center, which is the pond, containing worshipers holding baskets of fruit. They are often surrounded by fish and turtles, Mithila’s symbols of fecundity. The square pond is lined with ceramic pots decorated with rice paste and red powder, as well as ceramic elephants that hold oil lights, stalks of bananas, and platters of sweets such as thekuwa, the special cookies made for this occasion using a mold the shape of a leaf.
What the artists have told me is that God is everywhere, and He is also invoked in multiple forms. In the ritual for Mahadev, He is invoked in a clump of clay. At the center, where they paint for income, He is invoked in a way that from mother to daughter they have learned to paint Him. Painting a God on paper can also be an act of worship.
Today the artists also paint scenes of the life they observe around them. For instance, they have made detailed paintings of vehicles, roadwork and brick kilns, subjects reflecting changes in the landscape and the city. Lately many paintings are themed around Covid-19, showing families being tested for Covid, a relief plane arriving with food during the lockdown, and masked travelers on buses. I asked the artists, where are the Gods in this tumultuous time?
Rebti answered my question with a painting of people she’s observed in her village, sitting in a rice field to worship Bhagwati with kheer and other sweets, thanking the Goddess for Her care in the time of Covid. Sudhira answered that it is Adi Shakti, with Her supreme power, who is keeping people safe from the virus. Her painting shows Janaki with protective arms spread wide.
Author Claire Burkert, the founder of the Janakpur Women’s Development Center, is an American based in Kathmandu. For over 30 years she has worked with artists in Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, Tibet, Gaza and Turkey. Her articles and publications, including Himalayan Style (Roli, 2014), focus on indigenous traditions of architecture, craft and design.Author Claire Burkert, the founder of the Janakpur Women’s Development Center, is an American based in Kathmandu. For over 30 years she has worked with artists in Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, Tibet, Gaza and Turkey. Her articles and publications, including Himalayan Style (Roli, 2014), focus on indigenous traditions of architecture, craft and design.