As we walk past Tik'e Jhya: Tattoo in Jhochhen of Kathmandu, Dr Ram Dayal Rakesh pauses and says, "Tattoos…tattoos are also a part of the Mithila culture. In fact, tattoos moved to the West from the East."
We make a turn at the lane that meets Dharma Path and stop in the middle of the road to look at the building located next to Snowman, the popular pastry shop. The colorful paintings on the faded yellow walls of the narrow structure are dusty, yet recognizable.
"Yes, these are original Mithila paintings," Rakesh, 68, says and points out, "Some of the key motifs of Mithila art are elephants, horses, fishes, parrots and peacocks, all considered auspicious."Rakesh, a former literature professor, is a key scholar of folk culture in Nepal and is the author of books such as "Folk Festivals of Mithila" (1998) and "Janakpur: The Sacred Jewel of Nepal" (2005).
"Like the Hindu religion, which has no date of origin, Mithila art has existed for ages," he states of the art concentrated in the southeastern Tarai flatlands of Nepal.
The center of Mithila art, however, is Janakpur, the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Mithila. Home to Sita or Janaki, the consort of the Hindu god Ram Chandra, Janakpur is a famous Hindu pilgrimage site for its Janaki Temple and is the district headquarters of Dhanusha in southeastern Nepal.
Mithila art products and paintings, in recent times, have flooded handicrafts shops in Kathmandu and one can find everything from mirrors and ceramic pots to huge intricate paintings on lokta (daphne) paper and hand-embroidered cushion covers, selling anywhere from Rs 150 to Rs 6,000 and above.
This however, is a recent phenomenon and before Mithila art became ubiquitous in Kathmandu's curio shops, it was popularized in countries like USA and the UK by American citizen Claire Burkett, the founder of the Janakpur Women's Development Center (JWDC).
Established in 1989 with the aim of empowering women in the area, the art was taken to another level with the transfer of the floor and wall paintings onto textile, paper, canvas and ceramics. The first exhibition of Mithila paintings was held in Kathmandu in 1990.
"Mithila art is traditionally made during various festivals and religious ceremonies such as Diwali, Chhat and weddings," shares Sudhira Karna, 52, who has been working at JWDC for the past 15 years. Come monsoon, these paintings are washed away by the rains and are repainted during Diwali or Tihar.
"These customs are very much alive even today," she highlights, adding that Mithila art is a skill passed from mother to daughter. It is therefore an art form dominated by the women of the community.
"Oh, the boys, they go to school to get good education," smiles Karna, one of the 40 married women who are currently employed at JWDC. "Paintings on lokta paper are the highest in demand due to their closeness to wall paintings and portability," she says. Thick lokta papers have rough textures that are close to mud walls.
Widely used Mithila images, which are very close to the Madhubani art of India, include deities such as Vishnu, Ganesh, Radha and Krishna, Sita and Ram. Apart from religious subjects, daily life activities carried out by the women, for instance, fetching water, combing hair, taking vegetables to the market and giving birth are also portrayed in these colorful paintings where the figures have simple abstracted physical features, usually depicted in profiles. Besides the above mentioned, creatures that are painted also include tigers, cows, crows and turtles.
"Aripans and Kobohar are two important aspects of Mithila art, which also has tantric influences," explains Rakesh. Aripans are motifs painted on the floor to sanctify the earth at the start of a religious ritual. Depending on the occasion, aripans are of different kinds. On the other hand, Kobohars are images painted on the walls of a newly married couple's room, also known as Kobohar Ghar.
While the traditional style and purposes of the art remain, the natural pigments once used are becoming rare with modern-day acrylic, poster and wall paints cheaply available in numerous colors.
Green beans, different flowers, vermillion powder and soot from oil lamps were mixed in cow milk or dung to create colors that were applied with bare fingers or with a piece of bamboo wrapped with cotton. Now with brushes and six colors – white, yellow, blue, green, black and red – the women of JWDC mix up to 60 different secondary and tertiary colors.
Following in the Center's footsteps there are now two dozen such organizations in Janakpur that employ Maithili women coming from poor economic backgrounds, says one of the few male Mithila artists, Shyam Sundar Yadav. Yadav, from Siraha, is also the curator of the Mithila Yain Art Gallery in Thamel, Kathmandu. ‘Yain' stands for Kathmandu in Newar language.
Mithila art, at this gallery, is promoted as a form of fine art, as opposed to handicraft products. "When we started this gallery, we used to sell paintings for Rs 1,000," he recalls and continues, "Now, with the growing importance and interest, we're able to sell the same works for Rs 12,000."
Yadav is a selective curator and ensures that the paintings are of high standards. Current works at the gallery carry names of artists Babita Shah and Madan Kala Karn, including his own. Yadav believes in creating distinct styles as artists and encouraging creativity, unlike mass producing hand-painted pencil holders and jewelry boxes. Rakesh, on the contrary, is against ‘fusion' forms that are emerging in Mithila paintings from drawing with ball points pens on canvas to using marker pens on white boards.
Not too far from Mithila Yain Gallery is the famous eatery Fire & Ice, at the entrance of Thamel, which has parts of its walls painted with Mithila motifs. However, Bhumi Restro Lounge in Lazimpat has its walls specially designed by six JWDC women with mud brought all the way from Janakpur.
"We had to provide some cow dung," laughs Rinesh Amatya, one of the owners of Bhumi, sharing that several customers inquired about the mud relief and paintings when the restaurant opened some three years back. A pair of elephants, a witch, and once again, plenty of fish flank the walls that face the outdoor patio.
Taking some 22 days, artists Sudhira Karna, Sita Karna and Urmila Yadav climbed up on bamboo scaffolding to paint the walls of Mahaguthi Handicrafts in Kupondole, Patan. Made over two years back, the paintings depict the narrative of Sita and Ram's wedding in Janakpur, along with a huge Ganesh.
Stretching up to two stories high, the indoor painting is indeed a treat for Mithila art lovers. "We've got the entire upper section dedicated to Mithila art," shares Amir Shahi, a staff of 21 years at Mahaguthi. Only a few steps away is Sana Hastakala which also carries Mithila art and craft products as well as Rakesh's books for those who want to know more about Mithila art and culture.
"Apart from promoting our culture, Mithila art is now a huge tool for empowering women," firmly asserts Rakesh of the art which no longer is limited to ceremonial purposes.
The writer is the contributing Arts Editor of The Week.