How art empowers Nepal’s women


Manjula Thakur was married at age 12. By the time she was 20, she had three children. At 32, she still did not know how to read or write. Her world was limited to the four walls of her house. Instead of taking care of the family, her husband spent the little they had on alcohol.

What kept Manjula going was her love of art. Like generations of Maithili women before, her mother had taught her how to make traditional clay murals and paint the walls of their home. 

Even after getting married, she spent hours painting the walls and floors of her home. What she did not know was that the art she learnt as a child would help her gain fame and independence now in her 50s.

Mithila paintings have taken me not only around the country but also around the world,” says Thakur, who has been to the United States and Spain to exhibit her paintings.

In 1988, when American visual artist Claire Burkert came to Nepal to document Mithila wall paintings, she asked Thakur to paint something for her. She was paid Rs50. That was the first time Thakur realised that despite being illiterate, she could still earn money.

She was then offered a job at the newly established Janakpur Women’s Development Centre (JWDC) which was set up by Burkert, and is still run by women artists. 

“I went from living for my family to contributing towards their livelihood,” says Thakur, who now supports her household with earnings from her art. She has now bought a plot of land in her village and supports her children’s education.

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This economic empowerment has also meant that her role in the household has changed. These days, she makes most of the family decisions, her husband playing a supportive role.

Living in a society where women are usually relegated to household chores and confined within the walls of their homes, it was not always smooth sailing for Thakur. It took her 25 years to change the perception of the society. 

“Although it was difficult initially, I am more confident now and have gained a lot of respect and love because of this art,” she says.

Thakur is in Kathmandu this week with three other women from JWDC to prepare a mural for the Kathmandu Triennale 2077 festival. Just off the busy streets of Boudha, up the entrance of Taragaon Museum, the four women clad in colourful saris and traditional silver jewellery are busy painting and creating murals using a mixture of clay, husk, and flour.

“When we paint, we forget everything. When we travel to new places, we gain more confidence,” says Madhumala Mandal, a part of the art troupe. Mandal’s earnings help pay for care for her son who suffers from spinal chord injury. 

When Sudhira Karn’s husband died 20 years ago, she struggled to raise her only son. She remembers people gossiping when she went to train at JWDC. Today, her son is a graduate and works at a bank. 

These days, Karn spends time with books, some of her favourites being Prem Sagar, Ramayana, Sukha Sagar, Bhagwat Gita, Madhavi and Sitaram. “I get more ideas for painting after reading books,” says Karn. In Kathmandu this time, she wants to spend a part of her earnings to buy more books to take back home to Dhanusa.

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Another artist, 53-year-old Rewati Mandal, is also happy to have pursued Mithila art as a profession. “I earn more through painting than toiling the fields night and day,” says Mandal, who is the sole breadwinner in her family. 

Her sons live separately, but because of her skill, Mandal does not have to ask them for money. “I earn my own keep. I earn up to Rs10,000 per job. That is enough for me to buy groceries for an entire year,” she adds.

All four women believe that opportunities trump luck, and given a break a woman can do as well as, or better than, menfolk in every sphere of life.

Sheelasha Rajbhandary, the curator of Kathmandu Triennale 2077 says that the event will set an example by highlighting traditional women artists. She says: “Traditional art done by women is still not counted as art. That is why we need to highlight art forms like Mithila art. After all, women empowerment begins at home.”

Translated from the original by Sahina Shrestha.

Anita Bhetwal


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