First published on May 4. 2010 on Asia Inch.
Pushpa Kumari belongs to the flourishing tradition of Madhubani painting which she learnt from her grandmother, Maha Sundari Devi, one of the pioneering Madhubani artists to work on paper.
Selling from age 12, Pushpa’s uniqueness lies in her desire to experiment and develop new themes and treatments. She has pursued an artistic vision that derives greatly from the Madhubani tradition but which over the years, has been personalized with her own private preoccupations and quests.
At first glance, Pushpa Kumari looks like any other woman on the street, clad in a simple outfit, quiet and soft-spoken. Pause for a minute, look into her intense eyes and listen to her speak – suddenly you realize you are talking to someone exceptional, someone with deep spiritual moorings and immense artistic fervour. She has a strong and sure sense of herself, both as an artist and a person. Steal a glance at her intricate paintings and chances are that for a long, long time, you will not be able to take your eyes off her mesmerizing works of art. Her extremely fine black and white drawings are breathtaking, extremely detailed, mind-boggling in the complexity of line and form and yet beautiful and graceful in totality.
|Life as a tree:- as it grows it also dries up and dies. Similarly as a human being attains another year in age, he loses that much of his life. Like the smoke disappearing into air, life also vaporizes. When the flames is put out only smoke is left.|
Born in 1969 in Madhubani, Bihar, Pushpa grew up in her maternal grandmother’s home, sent there to assuage the loneliness of her grandparents after their children had grown up. Her grandmother, Maha Sundari Devi, one of the pioneering Madhubani artists to work on paper, soon became a major influence in her life. Traditionally, Madhubani paintings from Bihar, North India are drawn by women on walls and floors of their homes. These ceremonial paintings depicting religious and social themes were a means of visual education, a way of passing down stories, myths and social values from one generation to another. The kobhar ghar or marriage chamber paintings are the most elaborate, filled with fertility symbols and other auspicious drawings to bless and instruct the newly married couple. After a severe drought in Mithila in 1966-67, the government, in an attempt to generate income from non-agricultural activities, encouraged the women to paint on paper and then sell these paintings. Maha Sundari Devi, along with Ganga Devi, Sita Devi and a few others heralded to the world the existence of this genre of painting.
|The toddy palm gathers:- The life cycle of the Pasi caste Tapping the toddy tree.|
Growing up in this artistic ambience, Pushpa began painting seriously at a very young age. By 12, she was producing works for sale, doing extremely fine work within the stylistic parameters of traditional Madhubani painting. Soon she began experimenting with different themes and treatments, coming up with stunning results, each work a visual masterpiece. This constant wish to create exquisite pieces and the desire to take to new artistic heights an already established tradition is what makes Pushpa different from other folk artists in India. Despite economic compulsions, she has never been part of the large market for cheap knock-offs sold as “authentic Madhubani paintings”, which are a pale shadow of this elegant tradition. Quietly and consistently, she has pursued an artistic vision, a vision that derives greatly from the Madhubani tradition but which over the years, has been personalized with her own private preoccupations and quests.
Pushpa’s paintings and drawings stand apart largely because she does not merely lay out a representation of a particular object, deity or scenery but uses her painting and the stylistic devices of Madhubani art to focus, question and at times even subvert her subject. She exhibits finesse and a level of sophistication, not commonly seen in Madhubani paintings. Her compositions alternate between extreme drama and tremendous subtlety. Like her, at first glance, some of her paintings seem innocuous and straightforward – take a second look and you will be drawn into an exquisite symphony of content and contour, of line, form and colour. Chances are that at first, you might miss the deeper philosophical core that lies at the heart of some of the painting. A deeper scrutiny will reveal a meaningful essence, powerful and beautiful.
Pushpa is constantly pushing the boundaries of her art both in theme and treatment. With equal dexterity, she depicts a singular character (a god, goddess, mythological hero or heroine), an entire scene (a village celebrating Diwali) or a mystical philosophical concept (the notion of death as pruning, the first human birth). However, instead of pursuing the hackneyed themes of village scenes and a few popular gods and goddesses, Pushpa is constantly searching, in the holy epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Vedas and Puranas, remembering stories told by her grandmother in her childhood, or fragments of tales overheard elsewhere – all for something different and deeper to represent in her paintings. Even conventional village scenes appear differently – in a painting depicting Diwali celebrations in different homes, every person’s attire has something associated with this special festival of lights – thus, one woman’s sari is covered with little firecrackers while other garments have little oil lamps or rockets.
Fine black and white drawings, highlighted with occasional dots and dashes of red and orange are her forte. Be it a small sketch or a large poster-sized sheet of paper, her lines are consistent, all drawn freehand with no prior measurement or rough pencil sketch. What makes this task an amazing feat is that she works with a nib affixed to a piece of bamboo, repeatedly dipping the nib in ink and moving it fluidly across the paper. To see her drawing is to imbibe unconscious lessons in symmetry, scale and perspective, her hands moving steadfastly as she transfers her cerebral imagery onto paper. Her mind’s eye, her constant companion, is her guide, compelling her to scroll intensely in one particular area, draw languid lines elsewhere or ornament a specific part of the picture.
|Cow & Bull being Mated|
This wealth of talent and the abiding desire to excel, however, has not served Pushpa well, in terms of economic returns. Though some of her pieces exist in the collection of the Mithila Museum, Japan, she is not able to sell work on a regular and sustained basis. Patrons for her work are few and hard to access, given the total lack of any opportunity or forums for her to meet and interact with potential buyers. The craft bazaars held all over India are not the ideal venue as most buyers visit looking for maximum VFM (value for money) and are of the view that crafts and folk arts by their very classification should be low in cost. Also, at such venues, copious amounts of inferior Madhubani art are available cheaply. There is also the danger that her painstakingly researched themes will get copied and be produced poorly to sell at lower prices.
Art galleries in India (with a few exceptions) on the other hand have not yet positioned themselves as viable custodians/promoters of folk art, unlike Australia or Africa and thus are viewed as pretty unapproachable by most folk artists including Pushpa. Her unfamiliarity with computers and the lack of access to web selling hinders her from selling her art through the Internet, an ideal means to reach out to ever-expanding audiences.
Making palm sugar (gur):- Women of the Pasi caste engaged in making sugar from the sap of the palm tree.
The scenario for gifted artists like Pushpa who are pushing the boundaries and opening new vistas, sadly remains quite disappointing. In more than one way, innovative and talented folk artists face many roadblocks as far as profiting from their art is concerned. There is a great need to usher in fresh ways of seeing artists like Pushpa, of validating their search for new ways to ensure the continuity of their traditions and to enable them to benefit from their creative talent. Pushpa, whose name means “flower” in Hindi is waiting for her moment in the sun, to blossom fully.