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Muni Khatun: Muslim widow who finds new role in Mithila art

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Lahan, May 11, 2016: When she lost her husband to some illness 19 years ago, the responsibility of raising their five daughters and a son fell solely on her shoulders. In those days, the hope for a better future turned bleak for Muni Khatun of Janakpur -4. However, despite being an illiterate she somehow got connected to art which carved a promising future for her family.

“After my husband died, I was very nervous not knowing how to raise my kids. I tried manual labor but that couldn’t go long due to my weak health,” said Khatun. “But fortunately, something led to me new life,” she added.

Her neighbor Ajit Sah was managing director of Janakpur Art and Craft. Though Hindu, the Muslim family of Khatun had good rapport with the Sah family. Since the two families would celebrate each other’s festivals with equal fervor, they were quite familiar with each other’s culture, language, art and lifestyles.

Khatun was looking for ideas to generate income. The neighbor’s profession could be of help, she thought. That turned out to be her family’s turning point.

“I found a new lease of life with this art,” said Khatun on Sunday who was present at the Mithila art exhibition organized by the Lalitkala Academy. “I would not come this long if Muna Bauwa (Ajit) had not guided me. My children would have been living a miserable life in that case,” she said.

According to Khatun, who’s counted as one of the finest Mithila artist today, lack of education and her fragile health would not let her get any other job easily. Had there been no connection with art, she would hardly be able to claim a dignified life.

Reflecting back now, Khatun says the new journey was not easy either. Since she was not even literate, learning to write was the first challenge. “Even holding the brush straight was not that easy in the beginning. But, I had huge responsibility on my shoulders and this kept me pushing my limits,” Khatun said.

Mithila art would fascinate her. But creating it was equally tough. The lines and details were complex and hard to handle. Every time she would sit down with courage to turn out victorious, art would get spoiled. “But I was supported by everyone. I was told that practice makes us perfect,” said Khatun. “It took me a tedious 15 days to come up with a lively image of Mithila art.”

After consistent struggle in the initial days, Khatun felt she could really do it. She was euphoric. She had little realization creating the lively art like that of Mithila is actually prohibited in Muslim community. Tougher challenge lied ahead.

“I did not think about it earlier. Actually, such art is not practiced in our community,” she said.

With Khatun becoming a better Mithila artist, alarms began to ring in her community circles. The community objected against one of their women members taking on art and challenging its tenets. She was pressurized to give up. But then, Khatun pleaded that the art was the only way she could ensure good future of her children. She tried to convince stakeholders that it was not free choice for her. She succeeded. “I shared my condition with the Maulana and I am grateful that it was considered in positive spirit,” reported Khatun.

“I argued if it was a sin to work for feeding your kids, to give them better life. This helped me convincing them that I was not sinner but working and caring mother,” she narrated.

The go ahead from her community members gave new spirit to move ahead. The profession that she adopted 19 years ago has given her prosperity and satisfaction. “It gave me enough money to organize marriage of my daughters. Now, art is not only my savior but my passion,” she said.

Today Khatun’s paintings are demanded not only within the country but beyond national frontiers. “Actually, art bridges the gap between people of different faith and communities, that’s the real strength and beauty of any form of art,” she added.

New practice in Mithila Art

According to Ajit Sah, Mithila art has great cultural heritage. Earlier, they were painted on walls and open spaces at home basically for functions. However with the years, the art has now adopted a movable format. Over the years it has spread to cloths, Nepali paper or canvas. “After adopting movable features, it has now become a possibility to sell the art,” Sah said.

He said that women would be more involved in the art than men in the past. After the art started earning money, participation of both genders has been equal in the recent years. This had led to the introduction of new visions and techniques.

Sah’s organization has been employing 34 women whose creation, besides domestic consumption, are exported to countries like Japan and America, among other countries.