“Our artists are empowered through tradition.”
Manjula Devi Maithil Bahun, one of the master artists at the Janakpur Women’s Development Center in Janakpur, Nepal. The organization, with 39 members and more than 25 associate artists who work from home, promotes painting, ceramics, and textiles of the region, offering women a livelihood in the folk art that has defined Nepal for millennia.
Today, Janakpur’s female artists are famed for their paintings on handmade paper, which also incorporate metal, canvas, silk, and cotton. The painting techniques, named for the Maithili speakers of Nepal, emerged three thousand years ago, when residents of the Himalayan foothills painted mythological images on the walls of their homes and places of worship.
It was Clair Burkett, an American researcher, who conducted a 1989 USAID study and helped to transition the wall art of Janakpur to paper. The resulting paintings sold well, and the United Nations Development Fund for Women offered grants to develop the center.
Manjula, an early member of the center, was born in Bihar, an Indian city close to the Nepalese border. She married at a young age and moved close to Janakpur. There, she met Burkett, who inspired her to learn the skills her ancestors had practiced. Burkett encouraged Manjula to create art in order to elevate her standard of living.
Now, the bustling Janakpur Women’s Development Center features a store and five production wings. The center’s walls are sculpted with clay relief designs by local artists, and the center serves as a testament to the enduring contribution of women in the community. Here, artists have materials and space to paint, papier-mâché, screen-print, embroider, and sculpt.
Manjula explains that the center’s artists draw from their daily lives, from history, and from the natural world to glean inspiration for their work. Motifs examine rituals and festivals, and each piece of art, Manjula says, tells a story. Meanwhile, sales fund schooling for children in the community, and help to put healthful meals on the tables of the artists and their families.
When asked about the most beautiful part of her work Manjula explains, “The most beautiful part of my work is using culture and traditional art to empower illiterate women to support their families.”
These days, the Janakpur Women’s Development Center is a popular tourist destination, and visitors from all over the world come to learn about the women’s work, and to purchase their folk art. The center’s members and artists are grateful for the global attention. “Here at the center, we want to support even more women,” Manjula says. “We want to sustain our communities, and we want to keep our traditions alive.”