In Janakpur, Nepal, steeped in long-held devotional practice, Maithili women painted their mud houses with colorful, life-sized depictions of Hindu gods, animals, festivals, and daily life on the occasions of weddings and the worship of goddess Laxmi. Each year after monsoon season, they would cover over their natural dyes with a fresh coating of mud and dung and create a clean canvas for the next year's creations. Recently, however, young women, busy with other pursuits, have lost interest in the tradition; families favor brick homes; the practice is almost extinct.
Thirty-four years ago, my friend Claire Burkert, living in Nepal, was taken by this work and the women who have carried on its deep symbolic and spiritual meaning among the 40 million Maithili, even as she watched the decline in painting. In 1991, Claire moved to the region to find a way to preserve and elevate these women's skills from which an income might be gained; founding, with them, the Janakpur Women's Development Center.
What was once painted on mud walls the women transferred to handmade textured paper, a new art form which enchanted customers. Claire and the women artists then took it a step further and brought the paintings to life in three-dimensional stuffed and embroidered creatures. Claire asked textile artist, Susie Vickery, to help the artisans translate their magical perspective to this new dimension—seeing baby elephants grow within mother elephants; goats and cows in profile looking back at you with both eyes—and in the same bright colors.
When I wrote Claire, wanting to offer these extraordinary creatures and their stories at Ibu, she let me know that the Janakpur Center had just lost their manager, that none of the women are literate and able to handle orders on the computer, and that she now lived a seven hour drive away in Katmandu. But, she said, giving us hope, one of the artists' sons, a math teacher, had offered to help out and could possibly decipher an order from Ibu and see it through. We bit. These storied animals had already won us over.
After over two years of pursuing these beasts, I am thrilled to see them grazing in our showroom and website—each one, reminding me not only of the imagination, but also the persistence, of these women. Against constant pressure from their families to stop this work outside the home, to not travel internationally, the women of Janakpur persevered in creating art and livelihood.
Madhumala Mandal, for instance, had four brothers sent to school, but as the sole daughter in the family, she was not educated. Now with income of her own, she supports her own daughter’s education.
Claire tells of one woman she met on her first visit, her sari lifted to cover her face as tradition dictates, her voice so shyly quiet from behind a door that Claire could barely make out her words. Today, Manjula is overseeing the painting department (among other areas of expertise including screen printing, embroidery, ceramics, and paper mache), has traveled internationally five times, and calls Claire confidently on her mobile phone to discuss next moves.
With growing interest in this art of Maithili women—exhibits in Japan, Hong Kong, and the US plus international sales—young women have a renewed interest in this tradition of painting. Through the work of the Center, the community has gained pride in Maithil traditions and the wider world has come to appreciate their strength, humor, and beauty.
Said another Maithili artist, In a society that continues to limit our freedom as women, we are stitching our place in history, in full color.
All the Best,