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Ancient Nepali art on display

The intricate Mithila art is made up of hundreds, maybe thousands, of fine lines and details, depicting human figures with proportionately large eyes and noses, telling the stories of the rituals, customs and everyday life in the ancient Mithila region.

The art form is named for its birthplace — the ancient city of Mithila, known as modern-day Janakpur in Nepal — and was on display this month at the Aripan Art Exhibit at the Janakpur Handicraft Center in Pasadena as part of a series continuing throughout the year. The small center, tucked away in a small alley near Old Town, is the U.S. branch of the operation in Kathmandu, Nepal, where they train women from rural villages to do arts and crafts, then promote and sell their work to give them a form of income, according to Seema Parween, a volunteer with the center.

"Mithila art is about the lifestyle of people — how they live, especially in villages in India and Nepal — so it's all about what they do every day," Parween said. "Whatever the women see, they just put that in their art."

Tradtionally, Mithila art was used to commemorate religious occasions, when Mithila art would be drawn on the walls or on the floors of homes — the latter known as Aripan art. While the art form has been done by pen for the last 50 or 60 years, according to Parween, the Jhanakpur Handicraft Center in India has been training its artists to use acrylic paint and brushes in order to adapt their work to canvas — a form that is now referred to as Madhubhani art.

The center has trained hundreds of women over the years, although Parween said they have to push their artists to branch out beyond the basics they teach.

"We want the women to explore what they're doing, to make it more different, not of the same tradition," she said. "We want to change into modern art, so that people who like modern art will appreciate it, too."

Empowering women

Producing the art pieces gives the women a job on a salary basis that provides them livelihood, Parween said. Once they've been trained, the artists can paint from home, which helps those women who have to tend to their home and care for their children. That flexibility is key, particularly in rural areas of India and Nepal where women have less freedom to work, Parween said.

"They have to listen to their society's customs," she said. "I have noticed, there have been so many times when their husbands say, you can't go to work, you have to leave your job. It has happened to so many women, and they're not able to make their living."

While many artists have come in and out of the center, there are six 'master artists' who have been with the center for 20 years. In the past four years, about 14 new artists have joined.

The Pasadena branch was opened in 2010 by Ranjit Saxena, son of Madan Kala Devi, who founded the center in India. They hosted their first gallery in May 2013, with two others that year and one on March 8, 2014 in honor of International Women's Day.

A new exhibit will be on display during August of Mithila art with the theme "Celebrations," though dates are not yet set. Aside from exhibits, the center also offers art classes to the public.

"When they started 20 years ago, [the women] lived in mud houses and didn't have even a bed, they used to sleep on floor," said Parween. "Now, fortunately, after working hard for a long time, they have brick houses, they have roofs — their roofs used to leak water — their kids got an education in school, and they were able to get their daughters' marriages done."

"This is something that encourages us to work for them, helping women out and doing something completely for women."

What: Mithila Art on display at the Janakpur Handicraft Center

Where: 465 Converse Alley, Pasadena

Hours: Weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: Free

More info: (626) 844-9010, www.janakpurhandicraftcenter.com

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