‘My Padma Shri Grandma Taught Me’: How Bihar’s Madhubani Artist took Her Art to the US

Pushpa Kumari, a Madhubani artist from Bihar, is among the 20 artists whose work is currently being displayed at JCDecaux bus shelters in New York, Chicago and Boston. She is the only Indian on the list.

Pushpa Kumari was all of 10 when she made a big life decision to pursue Madhubani — folk art that is passed down from one generation to another by women of the household. Though she had inherited the art, and with it the customs depicted in it, she never limited herself to them.

She added her own contemporary flavour and modernised it to be in sync with the changing times. If you look for Madhubani artists in Bihar, chances are you will find one every few kilometres but only a few, like Pushpa, have added a modern spin to it while retaining the cultural essence.

It is no wonder that her style of painting impressed the Public Art Fund, a non-profit in the United States. She was among the 20 artists whose work is currently being displayed at JCDecaux bus shelters in New York, Chicago and Boston.

Interestingly, she is the only Indian on the list.

“It is sort of an art exhibition titled ‘Global Positioning’ that aims to promote hope and sensitivity amidst the pandemic. My painting, ‘Joy of Living’, focussed on masked people trying to be hopeful. You can see two women dancing on the bottom right while holding hands. And the umbrella whose handle is an injection represents successful vaccination drives across the world,” she explains.

‘Joy of Living’ by Pushpa Kumari

This is not the first time her artwork has gone global. Her paintings with their intricate designs and contemporary commentary themes have been displayed at the Queensland Art Gallery Modern Art and the National Museums Liverpool. It has travelled to other countries like Germany, France and Australia too.

‘Art has the power to bring change.’

Pushpa, now in her 50s, has never shied away from expressing her opinions and translating them onto her canvas. The different worlds she captures in each painting are perceived from her eyes and multiple girls who grow up in rural areas.

“My late grandmother, Maha Sundari Devi, was one of the pioneers to bring Madhubani paintings on paper from walls in the 1960s. Her efforts to commercialise the art to be fair towards the artists’ hard work was applauded by many. Her contributions even bagged her a Padma Shri. When I entered the field, I had to live up to her legacy and bring something original to the table. Her glorious legacy inspired me to explore contemporary themes in Madhubani, which is very rare,” says Pushpa.

Pushpa, who is from Ranti village in Madhubani district, has made several feminine paintings on topics like menstruation, puberty, sexuality, fertility through folk tales. She observes the latest events unfolding like tsunamis, earthquakes, demonetisation, the pandemic, etc. around India and paints them.

Some of her paintings are a commentary dialogue on society. For instance, in one painting, she drew potters, metal fabricators and her grandmother practising Madhubani to portray dying art and professions.

She uses a combination of ink (kachni) and colours (bharni) to make the kachni and bharni, two styles of Madhubani. While the former is mostly to depict society and its issues, bharni is mostly for past events, mythology and folk tales.

Here are 10 Madhubani paintings created by Pushpa:

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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