Arts and Entertainment

How one artist is using Mithila painting to challenge social norms

  • Ranju Yadav’s paintings mock and satires what are considered society’s norms: gender inequality and the caste system
- Tsering Ngodup Lama, Kathmandu

Apr 12, 2019-

When Ranju Yadav was a ninth grade student in Rajbiraj, an incident from a nearby village made a lasting impression on her. A woman was murdered by her in-laws because her parents had not paid enough of a dowry.

“I cried when I heard that news. It disturbed me so much,” says Yadav. “I remember wondering what could be done to stop such murders.”

In 2013, 27-year-old Yadav completed her first-ever professional Mithila painting. In the middle of the painting is a man on a scale being weighed against several boxes, a car, a motorcycle, and jewelry--things that are normally given as part of a dowry. In the four corners of the painting are four more illustrations--a woman getting ready for marriage; her marriage ceremony; her in-laws demanding more dowry; then torturing her and then setting her on fire. Yadav named the painting ‘Dowry Killing’, and put it up as part of her first exhibition, in 2017. The painting, Yadav says, depicts a reality that’s prevalent in many parts of the country.

Born in Thalha village in Saptari district, Yadav spent her childhood watching her grandmother, mother and aunt do Mithila painting. “They would paint on the walls and floors of our house,” she says. “When I was old enough, I started painting with them.”

When Yadav was 12, she moved to Rajbiraj to live with her uncle and aunt--their house was made of concrete.

Ranju Yadav’s paintings being exhibited during her first solo exhibition ‘The colours of change’ held at Nepal Art Council from March 30 to April 5. [All Photos: Anish Regmi]

“I was used to painting on mud walls and floors, and my uncle’s city house had no mud walls,” she says.  “Luckily, the house’s front area had a small mud-plastered section, and that was where I would paint. I would make colours from tree leaves, cow and buffalo dung, and coal. I would also decorate my school copies with elaborate Mithila drawings.”

Every time she started painting, Yadav says, she would lose track of time.

But despite her interest in painting, she had never imagined that she’d become a painter later in life. “I wanted to become a singer/dancer. I loved watching dancing and singing reality shows, and I wanted the life of the participants I saw on TV,” she says.

As Yadav grew older, she outgrew her fascination with reality shows. She studied to become a teacher and got a bachelor’s degree in education in 2012, and in 2016, she completed her Master’s in Arts, specialising in Maithili.

“What I wanted out of my life kept changing, but one thing that remained constant through all these years was my love for painting,” says Yadav.

In 2010, Yadav got married and moved to Kathmandu. “I had started making Mithila paintings on cloth, and when I moved to Kathmandu, I brought them with me,” she says. She placed one of her paintings on the TV table in her new home in Kathmandu.

“Even in Kathmandu, I continued painting, but even then I never really thought about pursuing painting as a career. It was something I loved doing during my leisure hours,” she says.

But things changed when she met Ajit Sah, a senior Mithila artist, in 2013. “Ajit Sah visited my family, and when he saw the tablecloth on the TV table, he was very impressed. He encouraged me to pursue art seriously and even agreed to guide me,” she says. That year, she finally started painting on paper.

Under Sah’ mentorship, Yadav started to improve. “When Ajit moved to the US, he would teach and train me via Skype. I would show him my work and he would suggest where I needed to make improvements. I owe a lot to him,” says Yadav.

When Yadav had her first group exhibition in 2017, where she exhibited her ‘Dowry Killing’, Mithila painting had already become hugely popular. But she was the first Mithila painter to use the artform to comment on a prevalent social reality.

“As a 16-year-old girl in Rajbiraj, I cried feeling helpless when I heard about a dowry killing. Almost 16 years after that incident, I was using an artform that I loved to spread awareness about an issue that I feel strongly about,” says Yadav.

In 2018, she was part of a group of Nepali artists who travelled to Dhaka, Bangladesh to take part in a Nepal Art Fair. That year, she became the first person from her village to travel abroad.

“Many in the village asked me how I had travelled so far without my husband,” says Yadav. “Even in 2018, for many in my village, it was unthinkable for a woman to go abroad without being accompanied by a male member of the family.”

In many of her paintings, Yadav mocks and satires what are considered society’s norms: gender inequality and the caste system.

Yadav's painting on display during exhibition.

“Having grown up in Rajbiraj, I have heard deeply upsetting stories of girls’ parents being forced to spend huge amounts of money on dowries, dowry killings and sex-selective abortion,” says Yadav. “Through my paintings, I raise awareness against these practices.”

One of the paintings in her first solo exhibition, which was recently held from March 30 to April 5, was titled ‘Confronting Challenge’. In the painting, a woman wearing a bright red sari is stopping a bull by grabbing its horns. The painting, Yadav says, shows a woman’s strength--physical and psychological.

In another painting titled, ‘Education is Power’, there are four illustrations of a woman working in an office, using a telescope, piloting an airplane, and giving a speech. The centre of the painting is a woman reading a book.

“If you provide girls with an education, they, too, can become officers, scientists, pilots, and politicians,” says Yadav.

Another painting titled ‘Disaster Tourism’ mocks the government’s indifference towards those whose daily lives are upended by natural disasters. In the painting, several helicopters hover above a flooded village where people are shown sitting on the roofs of houses inundated with water, livestock and people are wading in the depths. The people in the helicopters, says Yadav, represent politicians who visit disaster sites but don’t actually do enough to help the victims.

The paintings that Yadav exhibited in her solo exhibition were all made in the last three years. “I have spent 12 to 15 hours a day just painting, and one painting takes me anywhere between two weeks to a month to finish,” says Yadav. “To be able to raise awareness against issues that you strongly believe in and also have an audience is empowering. More women should have such platforms.”

Published: 13-04-2019 07:00

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