When we think about Janakpur, apart from Janaki Mandir, Mithila painting is something that strikes our mind. As the former capital of the kingdom of Mithila, Janakpur today has emerged as the center for both preserving and promoting this ancient art. Traditionally, Mithila paintings were made as an act of worship and to ask for the blessing from the gods during festivals and special occasions such as marriage. The mud walls of village houses were painted with images of the gods or auspicious symbols such as peacocks and elephants.
In the present time, not only are Mithila paintings exhibited in galleries across the world, but more importantly the art has become a means for women in rural communities to become financially independent. Working with the mission to promote Mithila arts and empower Maithil women through the generation of income from their skills, is an NGO, Janakpur Women’s Development Center that is three decades old.
We got into an interesting conversation with Satish Kumar Sah, General Manager at JWDC to know more about this organization and its contribution towards the financial and social upliftment of women from Janakpur.
Read on to know more!
When and how was JWDC established?
Traditionally, paintings were made on mud wall and seldom on paper. In the 1960s, in an effort to create income during a terrible draught, women in Bihar, India, were taught to put the paintings on paper. 30 years ago, an American living in Nepal, Claire Burkert, visited Janakpur and was captivated by the paintings she saw on the walls of houses. She documented the artists with their wall paintings and then returned to Janakpur with a grant to field-test an art-for-income project such as she had witnessed in India. She used her photos to re-locate the finest artists. After an exhibition of the art in 1990, international organizations were interested to support the development of a women’s art project. The Janakpur Women’s Development Center was established in 1991.
Since then we have been working with a number of international organizations like UNDP, UNICEF, WHO and WFP to empower the women by helping them find new markets that recognize their skills. In addition, we also work with foreign artists. Last year we worked with a British fashion designer and in 2018 we worked with Australian textile designer. Recently we illustrated the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals in the traditional Mithila style.
Can you tell us more about JWDC?
The Janakpur Women’s Development Center is a women’s-run NGO, established with the mission of promoting Mithila arts and empowering Maithil women. The center is based in Kuwa village in southeastern Nepal. To date, the center has trained hundreds of women. Currently the women work in five sections at the center to produce fine art, textile (silkscreen and embroidery), ceramics and paper mache crafts. The Mithila paintings by the women are popular with buyers who come to the JWDC and are also exported to Europe, American and the UK.
Are the paintings and other products only for export or do you have a domestic market too?
We have targeted both the markets but our major focus is the foreign market. This is because people here sadly do not value these products and secondly the products are quite expensive for the domestic people. However, we do have products that are affordable which are again created with the domestic people and their income level in mind.
To be specific, I’d say 20% of our sales come from export and the remaining 80% is the domestic market-tourists buy directly from the arts and crafts center in Janakpur.
Where can people find the products?
We directly sell from the arts and crafts center located in Kuwa village, Janakpur in order to mitigate the cost of middlemen. People wanting to buy our products, can also contact us via Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram whichever is convenient for them. We then get their products delivered in a day within Nepal.
What is the business model of JWDC? Is it a donor dependent organization or is it working with a self sufficiency model?
We are a 100% self-sufficient organization. We often do not accept donations from individuals. For instance if you want to give us Rs.10,000 then we make sure that we give you back one of our products that is worth the same amount. This is because we believe that accepting donations will hamper our vision of being a sustainable organization. But we do take grants. Recently in 2018 we took a grant from the embassy of Switzerland which was used to train and teach young women to sew and paint.
Also like I mentioned earlier, we work with a number of international organizations and individuals on different projects. Out of the total income generated from those projects, 80% goes to the women and 20% is reserved for administrative expenses. So despite being an NGO, we are a self sustaining organization rather than donor dependent.
What does the training programs at JWDC incorporate and how has the training programs impacted the lives of women?
Mithila painting is an indigenous art form that is mainly practiced by women from Janakpur. However despite the skills, these women are often not financially empowered because they are not able to market what they possess. And that is where JWDC comes in; we train women in polishing their skills as well as promoting their skills. In addition, we work with other organizations to train the women. Last year we worked with World Education International to train 500 mother and daughter groups from 4 different districts-Rautahat, Dhanusha, Mahottari and Sarlahi. The major aim of the project was to help women earn through their traditional art.
Most women after training work with us. The majority has been working with us for more than 25 years now and their painting skill has become a source of financial independence for them.
How has the current COVID situation affected the operation of the venture?
Due to the crisis we had to close our center. We did adopt new practice though. Twelve-thirteen women involved in paintings are now working from home. Whereas other women who are working in mirror art or pottery do not have the flexibility of working from home. So we have not been able to produce as much as we would like.
In addition, our sales dropped by almost 80%, so whatever we are earning we are distributing to the women.
What are the challenges running JWDC?
Many people are copying our products and selling them at a cheaper price. We do put all our paintings online, on our social media handles and website because we want people to use our paintings for learning purposes. But some people are actually copying and selling them and dealing with this has become a major challenge for us.
Have you taken any initiative to overcome this?
We have signed a contract with UNDP stating that no one can use our paintings without our permission. We have spread the word via our website and social media handles that copying violates cultural property rights.
In addition to this, we have also started using stickers on the back side of our paintings and have asked our loyal customers to inform us if they come across paintings similar to ours without the stickers. These initiatives have helped control this issue to some extent.
What makes JWDC unique?
There is a difference between our paintings, sometimes called Janakpur paintings, and the paintings that come from Madhubani. They both have the same point of origin but the style is different. Madhubani paintings are fine-lined paintings whereas the paintings we developed are directly inspired by the paintings on the mud walls. This is why we use acrylic paint on Nepali paper, a paper made from the daphne plant that has a similar rough texture to mud walls. I also believe our paintings are more infused with imagination. Each artist has her own style and is constantly developing new imagery. Each of our paintings is truly unique.
How many people are working here at JWDC?
We have 40 women working with us, 2 staff including me, at JWDC. So we have 42 people in total.
Is there anything you’d like to share with us?
There is something I’d like to mention. We have started taking free 1 hour online classes for students all over Nepal. Any educational institution can contact us, there is no restriction or criteria. In addition we also provide free sketches to anyone and everyone interested in learning Mithila art. We have taken this initiative to promote Mithila Art across Nepal.
Lastly, I request everyone not to copy our products for selling purposes.
Check out the beautiful works from the women of JWDC here!!