When Madan Kala Devi Karna was a small girl, it was already clear that she had a special talent for art. She coloured the earthen walls of her tarai home with intricate motifs and striking colours. Like other Maithili girls, Madan Kala learned to paint from her mother, but her interpretation of the traditional art form that depicts daily life, religious figures, mandalas and animals, shone with a vibrant sensitivity seldom seen elsewhere.
Madan Kala's dream of becoming an artist was thwarted when, at the age of 14, she was married off. While that would have quashed the ambition of others less determined, Madan Kala was adamant about earning a living. Three sons later, and with the support of her husband (uncommon among Nepali families even today) she became a health worker with a UNICEF project working with the Maithili community. When she saw how male family members hemmed in the lives of women, she felt an overwhelming desire to help them change their lives.
In 1994, Madan Kala decided to redirect her talent for painting to this end. Her work had taught her that financial independence could be the catalyst for change, so she opened Janakpur Handicraft Centre (JHC) and immediately took on three women as trainees. Today she employs 20 women trained at the centre who render Mithila art on handmade paper, handicrafts, fabric and murals.
Madan Kala took her work with women one step further last year when she established Maithili Women Empowerment Movement (MWEM) based in Janakpur. Eight other women help her teach vocational skills like painting, stitching and basket weaving. She has learnt to work around cultural sensitivities. "I have to work in a way that no one can say anything negative," she says. By ensuring the women learn inside the small hall she had made on her family property, the men are unable to accuse her of "exposing" the women.
What began as an exercise in womens' empowerment has now become an accessible art form that is gaining global exposure. "Mithila art is so appealing because like a tree its roots are deep in tradition while its branches seek new heights," says Madan Kala. Which explains how a grazing cow can share the same stretch of rice paper as a train. Despite the accolades for her July exhibition at Gallery 9, this folk artist remains modest and focused: "My purpose and my art is to uplift the women in my community," she says. (Sraddha Basnyat)