Folk artist Pushpa Kumari’s Madhubani work exhibited as part of Global Positioning, a public art show in the US

Titled ‘Joy of Living’, the painting is a nuanced representation of hope, particularly in light of the last two years that were taken over by the fear of the pandemic
Folk artist Pushpa Kumari
Folk artist Pushpa Kumari

At the bus shelter on Manhattan’s 86 street, right between the Broadway and West End Avenue, is exhibited a unique and unexpected work of art. Unexpected because it is not a work by a celebrated impressionist or an avant-garde contemporary artist as one would expect it to be in the heart of New York City. Instead, it is the work of Pushpa Kumari, a third-generation Madhubani artist from a small town in Bihar.

 Titled ‘Joy of Living’, the painting is a nuanced representation of hope, particularly in light of the last two years that were taken over by the fear of the pandemic. Kumari’s work is being exhibited as part of Global Positioning, an art show by the Public Art Fund, a non-profit in the United States of America. 

Madhubani or Mithila is an age-old Indian art form. Often characterised by complex geometrical patterns, these paintings have traditionally been depictions of religious rituals. But Kumari uses the intricacy of this timeless folk art to address issues of the current times.

“It is important to be in sync with time. We must evolve as the time changes. I too have embraced these changes in my work, and people have liked it, which is what I ultimately want,” says the 53-year-old artist.
Her work for Global Positioning is no different. At the centre of the painting is a woman holding an umbrella—a symbol of protection. Kumari has wittily transformed the umbrella rod into a vaccination syringe that is inoculating people before they step out of their quarantined spaces.

All the subjects in her painting are masked. The work is focused on people being hopeful with all the right precautions in place. “‘Joy of Living’ is a drawing composed in the traditional Madhubani style, which I learned from my grandmother. According to the Sanskrit phrase, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the world is one family. We are all united in the fight against the pandemic, with vaccines and masks becoming an important part of daily life. We had to illustrate a common impulse to create, communicate, and imagine a future of possibility while traversing boundaries of culture, language, history, and politics,” she says.

Kumari is among 20 artists whose works are currently being displayed at JCDecaux bus shelters in New York, Boston and Chicago. She is the only Indian on the list. The curators of the show reached out to her last year. Along with Minhazz Majumdar, a Delhi-based designer, writer, and curator specialising in Indian traditional arts, who has been working with her for almost 20 years now, Kumari got down to conceptualising the artwork.

“The first thing that became clear was that the work has to be a positive statement about a difficult, unprecedented situation. Secondly, it has to use symbols readily understood. We arrived at the symbol of the umbrella which is all about protection––from rain, from heat. And the handle of the umbrella is the vaccine... something that will protect us from the virus. Further discussions led to the idea of celebrating the resilience of human beings,” says Majumdar. ‘Joy of Living’ is also displayed at three other bus shelters across New York City, including Jackson Heights.

The artist says she has always tried to be vocal about the social ills prevalent in society, and tries to mirror these realities with a critically commentating eye, all using the Madhubani style. “I think about all the unique things I can bring to the table. I have worked on many feminist themes ranging from menstruation to sexuality through folk tales,” she says.

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