The dreamscape of Mithila art
‘Colors of Shared Dreams’ at Nepal Art Council is an act of transference, most notably of the millennia-old traditions of Mithila art and artists, their heritage, to paper.
The key theme here is the dreaming, and 51 women artists give voice to the vision of their lives, trials and tribulations, and dreams.
Mithila art is most recognisable by its traditionally drawn, two-dimensional figures adorning the walls of homes in the ancient Mithila kingdom that spans present day southern Nepal and northern India.
The origin of this singular art form is rooted in the legend of King Janak who had his subjects paint the walls of their 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, and as the art evolved, the paintings became more than a way to beautify homes — they provided women a creative outlet to tell stories of their lives.
Then, 30 years ago, the Janakpur Women’s Development Center helped to introduce a new medium for this art — paper — in a drive to keep this tradition alive and also encourage women to gain financial independence through Mithila art.
Now, ‘Colors of Shared Dreams’ traces this movement in history and form, keeping intact the core values, style and aesthetics of Mithila art, to also include ceramics, mirrors and woolen figures.
In sections, ‘Colors of Shared Dreams’ showcases the personal stories of the artists with the dance of the natural life, elephants, bulls, fish and peacocks, adorning the geometric frames. It also serves as a commentary on society, like its reflection were mirrored on a canvas.
Bhaktapur’s Mithila influence, Bhaskar Koirala
Mythic Mithila, CK Lal
This transition, or progress, is perhaps more conspicuous in contemporary and experimental feel of the later pieces that still stay true to the unique style and technique of Mithila art: characters facing sideways, elongated almond eyes, expressive hands and the tiered canvas.
By depicting the many aspects of daily life, from taking care of children to cooking, cleaning, looking after older family members, the paintings bear the hallmark of the heavy workloads imposed on women — work that is often neglected and undervalued by men.
For instance, the ghumto in one artwork seems to represent the restriction on a woman to only perform her household duties. Another painfully highlights the abuse in relationships. How may a caged bird still sing?
However, dreams are boundless and in the art one finds comfort, inspiration, drive, and the promise for a better future — both for the artist and viewer.
The artists see themselves not just as being confined to the house but in powerful positions, women taking control of their lives and destinies.
One painting depicts a woman raising her children independently, another shows a working professional. Migration has led all the men out of their homes to the Gulf or elsewhere, and in one painting, women break out of the domestic drudgery to learn and express their skills.
They drive tractors and are literal breadwinners now, while others pilot airplanes and spaceships. The sky is no longer the limit.
Yet, there is still that haunting voice lingering, one that pauses and reminds us that while it is not all gloom and dark, it is not all sunshine and rainbows either.
What makes the artworks distinct is that very voice trying to bridge the vast realm of possibilities with the much harsher reality. Where does tradition fit in the belief systems of today? Can we be truly modern and progressive unless we ditch all that tethers us to the past? The voice prods and ponders.
In their frank depictions of the struggles in a patriarchal society, the paintings are relatable and striking. Here is the struggle shared collectively by the artists, women and dreamers trying to break the mould. The art highlights the problems, but it also shows the resilience to fight.
Says Sheelasha Rajbhandari, coordinator of the exhibition: “It is very empowering to see all these women coming together and working together. Mithila artists do not get the acknowledgement they deserve, especially individual contributions by women.”
Colours of Shared Dreams
Nepal Art Council, Babar Mahal
2 – 5 September 2022
10AM – 6PM