© Claire Burkert
Mithila was once a kingdom that spread between the eastern Terai-madesh (the southern plains of Nepal) and the Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand. Janakpur, a Hindu pilgrimage site, is said as the birthplace of Sita and Ram from the epic Ramayana. Mithila has its own language (Maithili) and rich artistic traditions. In the past, women painted lively paintings of gods, people, plants and auspicious animals the mud walls of their homes. Paintings were made on the occasion of weddings or for festivals such as Deepawali, when Goddess Laxmi is worshipped. For many rituals, women made elaborate rice paste designs (aripana) on the ground. They made mud relief designs on the walls and columns of their houses and sculpted storage vessels called kothi. For various rituals they made images with clay, such as elephants for the worship of Gauri, goddess of fertility and love. These traditions were passed down through generations of Maithil women.
Today few homes have mud walls, and with the popularity of modern houses in brick and cement, the wall painting tradition has not carried on. The Maithil culture remains rich, however, in its festivals and rituals, songs and folktales, which are reflected in new paintings on paper and in crafts. In 1988 Claire Burkert began documenting artists and their wall paintings and in 1989, with a grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust, prepared groundwork for the JWDC with the help of professor of Maithili, Rajendra Prasad Bimal. Women who painted on the walls of their houses began to paint on paper and held their first exhibition at the American Library in Kathmandu in 1990. In 1992 the JWDC was established as an NGO and in 1994 completed construction of its Handicraft Center.
Remembered with gratitude for aiding the initial establishment of the JWDC are the Australian Embassy, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, The Embassy of Japan, Danida, USAID,UNIFEM, DED, UNICEF, Redd Barna and Save the Children Japan. In 2019-2020 the Embassy of Japan generously contributed to the restoration of the JWDC’s handicraft center.