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Painting Equality

- Rahul Dhakal, Kathmandu

Jan 18, 2018-

Artist Sunaina Thakur’s solo art exhibition of Mithila paintings is currently being held at the Nepal Art Council. The show, titled Samanata (or equality), began on January 15.

Speaking about the show, artist Thakur said, “This is a special occasion for this venue as it is hosting not just a solo show by a female artist but also one comprised solely of paintings done in the traditional Maithili style. I think it is crucial for the Arts that female artists are seen and promoted and it is equally important that we promote and are able to appreciate the various cultural traditions that exist in the country.”

All 28 paintings at the show, on some level, reflect on the theme of equality—between genders, cultures, and religions. A prominent painting of the Ardhanari (half man and half woman), also titled ‘Samanta’, was perhaps the most blunt statement regarding the equal status of genders but is also a piece that evokes traditional Hindu iconography. Other pieces such as ‘Men and Women are Equal’ and ‘Nari Sakti’ also comment on the theme of gender and utilise traditional motifs and style in order to do so.  Thakur’s paintings often refer to current social and political issues and her use of traditional symbols and motifs ensures the continuity of tradition and the coherence of symbols, old and new.

The painting, ‘Gender, Language and Religions are Equal’, is aptly named as the piece depicts a sprawling Nepali flag within which are set a panoply of scenes pertaining to various cultural and religious practices. “These scenes of people observing their own festivities are meant to represent the diversity of religious traditions in our country. Be they Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, they are all circumscribed by the shape of the flag because they all cohere within in it as one people. Although their trappings might be different, I believe the sentiments behind these diverse practices are the same,” said Thakur.

The Mithila region is well known for its rich culture which had once deeply influence a medieval Kathmandu. Historically, the region has produced numerous poets, scholars, and theologians of renown, but they were all men. For women, it has been a deeply conservative society, and before painting on paper began over 40 years ago, most women were confined to their homes and limited to household chores, the rearing of children and of course,  ritual wall painting. WG Archer, a colonial surveyor who later became the curator of the South Asia wing of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, had ‘discovered’ Mithila Paintings while inspecting damages caused by a 1934 earthquake. He had been the first to compare Maithili Art to the works of European modernist painters such as Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso.

Today, even though Mithila art is known and appreciated across the globe, Maithili artists struggle to find a voice and exert agency within the contemporary art world. Out of poverty, painters tend to comply with the dealers’ demands, and produce the rapid and repetitious images we know as Mithila painting. Nevertheless, with the encouragement of both domestic and foreign patrons, artists like Thakur continue to produce individualistic and innovative work within the Maithili aesthetic tradition. Thakur implored the government to “establish traditional painting styles as academic disciplines as not only would it help provide a foundation for young artists but would also capitalise on the wealth of cultures present here.”

The exhibition will continue through January 20.

Published: 18-01-2018 08:47

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