Modern Mithila art that bares injustice

Ranju Yadav’s modern take on traditional art injects progressive messaging into Mithila art adorning households in the Nepal Tarai as she transfers heritage from walls to canvas and easel.

Touching on issues of patriarchy such as women’s empowerment, dowry and foeticide, Yadav’s work stays true to the techniques of Mithila art while communicating the need for reform and social justice.

The folk art uses the traditional sideway faces, elongated almond eyes and traditional attire for her figures — all hallmarks of Mithila art. Geometric borders and vibrant colours also add to the traditional look and feel as well as techniques like Mokh Chitra and Arpan that pay homage to her roots.

Despite the organic style, Yadav does not shy from social commentary. Her piece ‘Disaster Tourism’ makes light of the government’s ineffective response to floods in the Tarai, using satire and irony to show feckless politicians ‘inspecting’ the damage from afar.

Communicating injustice and societal wrongs through art has always been Yadav’s motivation, and she is an advocate of the real-world benefits of Mithila art in a conservative society skewed by gender imbalance. Many of her painting depict emancipation: women flying helicopters, driving cars, being set free from cages.

She says, “I am satisfied if my art manages to enlighten even just one person. Most Mithila women are skilled in traditional art, and if those skills can be applied to canvas, income can be generated, heritage preserved at the same time. The bonus is that they also get to spread message about the need for change.”

Her work has catapulted traditional Mithila art onto the international stage, gathering acclaim for preserving cultural values with a painstaking attention to detail. Just one of her pieces, which can take up to a month-and-half to complete, sell for as high as Rs100,000.

Ranju Yadav was born in Paterawa in Saptari, and was brought up learning to paint scenes from the Ramayana and Krishna-Lila on the walls of her home from her mother, aunts and grandmother – just like the art form has been passed down from one generation of Maithil women to the next in the region of an ancient empire that once spanned today’s India and Nepal and once even included Kathmandu Valley.

Despite personal difficulties like losing her father and failing to clear the Civil Service examinations, Yadav persevered and honed her craft after she moved to Rajbiraj to live with her extended family. There, she was called upon to paint walls during festivals.

But her big break came when Milthila artist Ajit Sah came across her embroidery and artwork. He encouraged Yadav to move to canvas as a medium. “It was then I realised Mithila art can also be a profession. But I struggled initially to adjust from painting walls to painting on canvas. I used a lot of sketch books before finishing my first piece,” she recalls.

Now, her work have been displayed in international and national exhibitions. Her first solo exhibition, Colors of Change, ran last year at the Nepal Art Council, during which she caught the attention of the Swiss Ambassador to Nepal Elisabeth von Capeller. Yadav held her second exhibition in August 2019 in conjunction with the Swiss embassy.

She has also been awarded for her work, winning a national artwork exhibition organised by the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts from the traditional artwork category in April 2019. Yadav’s plans to broaden her artistic horizon have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A weeklong exhibition planned for 7-14 June was postponed indefinitely, while a trip to Europe planned for April was cancelled. Plans to open a Mithila art training workshop in Jhamsikhel in Patan have also been thrown into disarray.

Despite this, Yadav is making the best of the time she has during the lockdowns. She recently welcomed a son to the family, with whom she has got to spend time. She says: “There is no point in distressing about cancelled projects. It is a time for reflection, rebirth and spending quality time with my baby.”

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