Vibrant Mithila art thrives in Nepal

Centuries-old art form allows female artists to gain international recognition, and income


Janakpur, the birthplace of Sita and the cradle of the Mithila civilisation, is seeing a revival of its heritage, culture and traditional art.

The origin of Mithila art is rooted in the legend of King Janak ordering his subjects to paint walls of homes to welcome Lord Ram when he came to ask for his daughter Sita’s hand in marriage.

Mithila paintings then were done at weddings, festivals and feasts using flour, clay, and cowdung. The artists were mostly the women of the family, who bore the decorative responsibility in their homes. As the art evolved, the paintings became more than a way to beautify homes — they provided women with a creative outlet to tell the stories of their lives.

This centuries-old art form has now gone commercial, enabling female artists to hone skills passed down from one generation of mothers to the next generation of their daughters. This now gives them financial independence, recognition and respect within Nepal and, increasingly, across the world.

Bhaktapur’s Mithila influence, Bhaskar Koirala

Madhumala Mandal was born and raised in Kuwa village near here, where Mithila culture is as ingrained into young girls as household duties and responsibilities. Guided by her grandmother and mother, Mandal would paint pictures of deities to decorate the doors and walls of her house.

But her interest in the traditional draughtsmanship soon stretched beyond the walls of her home, she would make shapes out of clay and paint idols on trips to the village mela. 

“Even while I was out herding cattle and doing farm work, I was always drawing idols and shapes on the ground,” she recalls.

Mandal would eventually have a family of her own, but she retained her passion for Mithila art. She now works at the Women's Development Centre in Janakpur where she creates Mithila paintings on canvas.

“It took many years for me to convince family and friends that I was doing the right thing,” she explains.

Mandal’s four brothers went to school, but as the sole daughter in the family, she was excluded. Having learnt to be independent from a young age and now with income of her own, she supports her own daughter’s education.

"The income and respect I earned through my artwork gave me the courage and the means to support my daughter,” she says. “This is the greatest achievement of my life.”

Her days of drawing shapes in the mud long behind her, Mandal’s art now stays with traditional motifs but is almost impressionistic. Her work has been exhibited in the US and Hong Kong, and accent the walls of many homes across the world.

The ancient Mithila kingdom spanned territory that now lies on both sides of the India Nepal border. Recently, there has been a renaissance of Mithila literature, dance forms and art.

Acclaimed Mithila artist Mithileshwari Devi Karna was born and raised in Bihar’s Madhubani district and settled in Janakpur after marriage, grew up learning the Mithila art form from her mother in India.

Karna used to train artists at the Women's Development Centre and faced similar experiences of societal pressure as many other women like Mandal in the Tarai who have chosen to become artists.

Her community expressed disapproval when she prepared to travel overseas for an exhibition of her art. “People are always going to judge and make comments,” she says dismissively, “but I stood my ground, and went to Japan.”

The steadfast pursuit of her art has earned her respect, financial security, and most importantly, self-satisfaction. Now, the 65, Karna was recently honoured by the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts and now only paints as a hobby. Even so, she is never without a paintbrush and canvas within reach.

The popularity of Mithila art and handicrafts spread across the world after the 1980s due to Professor Rajendra Bimal and American artist Claire Burkert, who meticulously documented all the existing Mithila murals in Janakpur.

Together, they established the Women's Development Center here in 1992 and trained women in Mithila art for the first time in Nepal, making sure that artists were financially independent through their art, and the techniques were preserved.

As a result, the women who have received training and worked in the Centre have played a role in making Mithila art famous not only within Nepal but all over the world.

Modern Mithila art that bares injustice, Nunuta Rai

Sunaina Thakur is among those who institutionalised and promoted Mithila art internationally. Thakur organised Mithila art exhibitions in India, Japan, and the US, and now runs her own art gallery in Janakpur where she employs and trains 30 female artists in the techniques as well as in running an art business.

“I have been constantly trying to mobilise unrecognised talent to empower artists and encourage gender equality, both through recruitment efforts and through the art itself,” says Thakur, “I now want to pass on what I know to the next generation of women.”

Among the artists employed at Thakur’s gallery is Binita Devi Sah, who recently earned her first-ever paycheque through her own Mithila paintings. Family obligations and responsibilities towards her children had confined Sah at home for almost three decades, but when her sons completed their education. It opened the door for her to finally pursue her own interests.

“I stepped out of my house 26 years after getting married and earned Rs12,000 through my work. I have not stopped sharing my happiness with other people even as my sons continue to tease me about it,” smiles a proud Sah. “We never thought that this art, which we learned to make as children, could be a means for earning a livelihood.”

The Mithila museum at the Janaki temple has also played an important role in documenting and conserving Mithila art. The museum, established under the leadership of Mahant Ramat Peshwar Das, houses Mithila paintings, sculptures, murals, decorative items as well as Maithili music and hymns that showcase the rich history of the art form.

Satish Shah, director of the Women's Development Centre, agrees that Mithila art in Nepal has not been able to evolve as much as it has in India where there are more well-equipped institutions. Moreover, the is Center is not as influential as it once was, and has become a cause for concern about the future of Mithila art and artists. The pandemic has made working conditions worse in the last two years, and it is difficult to pay the 40 artists employed.

Yet, even as they hope for support from the local and state governments, Shah and Karna both acknowledge that elected officials in Janakpur and Kathmandu do not understand the importance of Mithila art and culture.

"The government must invest in preserving this institution as well as Mithila art,” says Shah, adding that leaders could start by displaying the paintings in their offices.

Mithila art featured heavily during weddings, festivals and celebrations, and even in items of daily use in Janakpur city until two decades ago. The artwork decorating the streets of the city included depictions of ancient earthen houses, artistic interpretations of the traditional jhizhiya dance, daily household items, and vibrantly painted birds. But with modern life, the practice is slowly fading.

S C Suman, former head of the Department of the Folk Arts at the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts, says the reason is that cement houses have replaced the clay walls where the paintings were done. Nepali galleries now import Indian Mithila paintings and pass them off as originals.

“While commercialisation to a certain extent is necessary, hyper-commercialisation can also make it difficult to preserve Mithila art,” he says. “Nepali art is incomplete without Mithila art.”


Crossborder Mithila civilisation

Mithila art is the cultural heritage of the entire Mithila region, which was a single kingdom before being divided after the 1816 Sugauli Treaty. And while Colonial India got a bigger chunk of the state, Nepal retained 25% of the territory, including the capital of Mithila in Janakpur where the art form originated.

When the state of Mithila was divided, the art form began to be referred to as Madhubani art in India. But Mithila and Madhubani art are one and the same, explains Sunaina Thakur.

“As in Mithila art, Madhubani art, too, depicts the marriage of Sita and Ram, and the two art forms have the same style,” she adds. “The difference is that Madhubani art is more well known internationally than Mithila art.”

Mithila art conservationist and campaigner Sudarshan Lal Karna says that the art form has not developed, or been promoted in Nepal to the extent that it has been in India, where it was first propagated in 1966.

The then Union Minister of Bihar, Lalit Narayan Mishra, who was familiar with the art form, introduced his foreign guests to Mithila paintings. They in turn were amazed how similar they were to Picasso’s paintings.

“That marked the beginning of the institutional development of Madhubani art in India,” says Karna, while there was no progress in Janakpur. The Women's Development Centre is one of very ew Nepali organisations that actively works to promote and nurture Mithila art.

“But although the evolution of the art in Nepal is slower, the quality of the talent with the two nations are at par with each other,” notes Karna, who would like Mithila art to be included in the school curriculum, and not just in Province 2.