Myth and Modernity

Madhubani artist Pushpa Kumari pushes her tradition forward into the realm of modern storytelling

To be recognized as a storyteller is an honor in many cultures. To succeed in capturing audiences across many cultures, like Madhubani painter Pushpa Kumari, is an even greater one.  She comes from an Indian tradition of folk painting that made its way onto paper and into the art world only two generations ago.
 
For centuries, the women of Madhubani, in India’s Mithila district, made beautiful, colorful drawings on the floors and walls of their homes, depicting religious and social themes. Like Medieval Europe’s stained glass windows and church sculptures, these paintings were means of visual education, a way of passing down stories, myths and social values from one generation to another. For example, the Madhubani marriage chamber or kobhar ghar is instructively covered with fertility symbols that seamlessly combine the spiritual with the sexual.  
 
Pushpa grew up in her maternal grandparents’ home, surrounded by beautiful examples of Madhubani painting done by her grandmother, Maha Sundari Devi, one of the foremost Madhubani painters of India.  Devi was among the first women to begin painting on paper as opposed to walls and floors.  This change coincided with a severe drought in Mithila in 1966-67, when the government, in an attempt to generate employment and income, started encouraging the women to sell their work. To do so, the transition to paper was necessary. Along with a handful of other notable Madhubani artists, Devi’s talents contributed tremendously to popularizing this style. 
 
Pushpa imbibed her first lessons in painting unconsciously, watching her grandmother and other relatives work. Growing up in this artistic ambience, it was only natural that she would be a painter, and learn the visual vocabulary of Madhubani art. However, to call Pushpa just a Madhubani artist would not be quite right, as she is unique. Though rooted in centuries of tradition, she has incorporated not only contemporary ideas and subjects, but also a special intensity, an aesthetic ideal, that is truly her own.  Part of this may have its roots in biography, as the disappearance of Pushpa’s father in her early life made her largely responsible for raising her three sisters. Not to mention the travails of life in an impoverished community.
 
Not content with painting familiar pictures of gods and goddesses or placid pastoral village scenes, Pushpa is constantly seeking new subjects, experimenting with new ways to stretch the boundaries of Madhubani art. What sets her apart is that she uses the stylistic devices of Madhubani paintings to sharply focus and at times, even subtly criticize, the subject she has chosen to depict. The search for appropriate subjects is relentless and all consuming. The themes for her drawings are garnered from deep within Hindu epics and holy scriptures, from folk stories heard half-asleep in her grandmother’s lap, from topical discussions swirling around her, fragments of conversations remembered years later, stories of obscure heroes and heroines, long forgotten gods and goddesses. And so you have in her pictures, a wide range of subjects from the mythical all the way to contemporary issues such as the rampant female foeticide prevalent in India. 


 
Whether the subject is dark or light, her skill and perspective work their magic regularly, and it is difficult to look away.  She makes the viewer want to understand the intertwined layers of filigree pattern, and unravel their story from beginning to end.
 
Pushpa Kumari is represented in New York City by Cavin Morris Gallery, at www.cavinmorris.com.
 
 
 

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