An ode to Mother Ganga
A river seems a magic thing.
A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself
Pushpa Kumari’s monumental work Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganga), 2021 is an ode to the Ganges River, the most sacred of all rivers in India. This exquisitely detailed black and white work on canvas is an impressive horizontal scroll (measuring five feet by fifteen feet) and was specially made for the 23rd Biennale of Sydney (2022), titled “rīvus” with Jose Roca as the artistic director. Kumari’s work in the Madhubani traditional art style was exhibited at the National Art School in partnership with Artspace. Kumari is one of India’s finest contemporary traditional artists who creates Madhubani art, an artform which she learned from her grandmother, the eminent artist Maha Sundari Devi.
Madhubani art, one of India’s best-known folk-art forms, is a traditional style of painting originating from the eastern Indian state of Bihar and from Nepal. This folk art is known both as Madhubani painting and Mithila painting. Madhubani (literally ‘forest of honey’) is the name of the largest town in the region where this art form is practiced, while Mithila is the mythical kingdom of King Janak where this art form is believed to have originated. According to legend, the King asked his subjects to transform his kingdom into paradise for the wedding of his daughter Princess Sita to Lord Rama and thus, when people painted their homes with beautiful images of nature and human life, Mithila art was born.
Ganga Maiya is Kumari’s response to the team of curators developing and realising the Biennale of Sydney—the Curatorium, that described waterways as dynamic living systems with varying degrees of political agency. As per the Curatorium, “Rivers are the sediment of culture. They are givers of life, routes of communication and places of ritual, but also sewers and mass graves. They are silent witnesses and archive our memory. They have also been co-opted as natural avenues for the colonial enterprise, becoming sites of violent conflict driven by greed, exploitation and the thirst to possess. Interestingly, the Latin root rīvus, meaning a brook or stream, is also at the origin of the word ‘rivalry’.”
The Curatorium also noted: ‘Indigenous knowledge has long understood non-human entities as living ancestral beings with a right to life that must be protected. But only recently have some plants, mountains and bodies of water been granted legal personhood. If we can recognise that a river has a voice, what might they say? “Rīvus” will enable aqueous beings – rivers, wetlands and other salt and freshwater ecosystems – to share a dialogue with artists, architects, designers, scientists, and communities. Considering the water ecology’s perspective raises unlikely questions: Can a river take action against over psychoactive sewage? Will oysters grow teeth in aquatic revenge? What do the eels think? Are waves the ocean’s desire?’
In a country where all rivers are considered to be feminine, save for one, (the River Brahmaputra, literally the son of Brahma), and are worshipped as divine entities, River Ganges is of course the most important river, which is why Kumari chose to focus on it as her subject for the Biennale. The river is revered as the earthly form of Goddess Ganga, whose purity washes away the sins of the faithful and ensures salvation for the dead. The River Ganges is not just a water body but is actually a mother in the collective cultural consciousness of India Ganga Maiya who nurtures life and into whose arms the ashes of our mortal bodies are dispersed, closing the cycle of our lives. Yet while her spiritual sanctity remains paramount, the physical form of the River Ganges has been a cause of great concern since the river has been heavily contaminated by human activity and is amongst the most polluted waterways of the world.
This dichotomy between being the most venerated of all rivers in India and yet being so polluted, is what Kumari has explored in her work Ganga Maiya. In her note about her work, Kumari writes “The mineral-rich water from Ganga Maiya is renowned for its curative properties. It makes the soil of India fertile and produces a rich harvest. Hindus and non-Hindus are aware of the value of this great river which serves as a symbol of India. In earlier times, the water of the Ganges could be stored in bottles and cans and lasted forever but today it is so contaminated that one does not want to touch it. Human greed and modern development have put this holy river in danger. The biggest source of contamination is the industrial waste that is dumped in the river. Another is the untreated sewage that flows into the river from the drains as well as the dumping of cadavers, human and animal alike. There are many dairy farms along the river banks that dump their waste in it. The enormous crowds that flock to the fairs along the banks of the Ganges also contribute to the contamination of the holy river. The microbes in the water increase with the advent of pilgrims and affect marine life. My painting depicts the journey of a woman called Ganga, from Gangotri in the Himalayas, to Gangasagar in Kolkata. Inscribed on Ganga’s hand is the legendary poet Vidhyapati’s ode to the River Ganga, which asks for the clean and pure Ganga water of yore.
बड सुख सार पाओल तुअ तीरे .
छोड़इत निकट नयन बह नीरे .
कर जोरि बिनमओ विमल तरंगे .
पुन दरसन होए पुनमति गंगे .
एक अपराध छेमव मोर जानी .
परसल माय पाय तुअ पानी .
कि करब जप तप जोग धेआने
जनम कृतारथ एकहि सनाने .
भनइ विद्यापति समदओं तोंही .
अंत काल जनु बिसरह मोही .
My pleasure knows no bounds on the banks,
Tears come out as I leave, bidding adieu, to you.
With folded hands, I pray to see
The incessant waves once again
But you need to forgive me
For one mistake I made
To touch the water with my feet, o mother!
I need no penance and no meditation
For I saw you and my life is complete
And you should not forget me
Kumari’s work alludes to the beautiful amalgamation of mythology and geography as the mighty Ganges makes its epic 2,725 km journey from the high Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. According to Hindu mythology, Goddess Ganga agreed to come down to earth after years of severe penances by King Bhagiratha whose ancestors, sixty thousand in total, had been burned to ashes in the netherworld by the angry gaze of Sage Kapila, whose meditation they had disturbed. Sage Kapila had declared that only the purifying waters of the Ganga could liberate their souls. When Ganga finally agreed to come down to Dharti or Earth, Lord Shiva caught her in his locks so that the force of her descent from heaven would not shatter Earth. Gangotri, which is where the River Ganges originates in the Himalayas, is where Goddess Ganga descended from Shiva’s knotted hair onto land. Ganga then followed Bhagiratha out of the mountains onto the plains and finally, flowed to the ocean and the netherworld, where she would wash over his ancestors and ensure nirvana or liberation for them. In Kumari’s Ganga Maiya this journey is beautifully delineated left to right across the scroll—with the Ganges originating in the Himalayas, which is shown as the abode for those engaged in spiritual pursuits and penance. The river then flows through the life-sustaining Gangetic plain, one of the most populous places on Earth with over 400 million people. Finally, the figure of the Goddess Ganga merges with the ocean.
Moving beyond mythology and stepping into the present, Kumari does not shy away from presenting the darker side of the Ganga story. Kumari shows in great detail the myriad human activities going on along the riverbanks and in the water that end up polluting this sacred river. Kumari has mentioned all the important towns on the River Ganges in this context such as Haridwar and Varanasi, two of India’s holiest cities and major pilgrimage centres, Kanpur with its industries pouring effluents into the river, Allahabad, and finally the last place in India, Gangasagar from where the river flows into Bangladesh. In personifying the river as a beautiful goddess fleeing towards the sea, Kumari is also making a statement about the paradoxical status of women in Indian society—venerated as goddesses, but also subject to immense overt and covert violence related to dowry demands, bride-burning, domestic violence, and to enforcing patriarchal values. Says Kumari, “We call her mother, but we commit such sins against her. It is not because of our ignorance but because we do not care about the environment. We take her for granted—look at all the detritus we put into her—all our plastic, all our garbage and sewage.”
As an artist working with inherited traditions, Kumari is very aware of the complexities of keeping her legacy relevant in the 21st century. Madhubani art was for many years a private ritualistic art pursued by women from high caste (Brahmin and Kayasth) families for the walls of their homes and fulfilling needs such as the veneration of gods and goddesses, questing for beauty and transmitting the social values and traditions embedded in this highly symbolic art. Paintings were created mostly on the walls, floors and ritual objects during religious festivals and ceremonies, particularly in the kobhar ghar or wedding chamber.
Interestingly, it took two tragedies for Madhubani art to become known to the rest of the world, cloistered as it was in women’s domain in high-caste households. The first was a major earthquake in Bihar in 1934 which allowed WG Archer, a British officer surveying the damage, to view wall paintings in the ruined homes. He and his wife Mildred Archer took several black and white photographs of the paintings they saw, which are the earliest records of this art form. The second tragedy, a drought in the late 1960s, changed forever the nature of this art form. As part of an economic assistance program, the All India Handicraft Board began encouraging high caste women to create art works on paper for sale.
At first, only a handful of women, including Pushpa’s grandmother Maha Sundari Devi, began transferring the traditional wall art forms to paper. Their success, and appreciative response to their artworks, prompted other women, including some Dalit women to create art. Soon, men also began painting. Madhubani art would no longer remain a women’s artform, no longer created in context, in situ for ritual purposes, but designed as artworks for sale. Though initially the transfer of the art from wall to paper resulted in a great efflorescence of talent, over time, as Madhubani art became more commercialised, paintings became generic and lost their individualistic elements.
At present, there are several Madhubani artists, including Kumari, who strive to bring their own perspectives to this ancient artform, incorporating contemporary social issues and drawing on personal pre-occupations. Kumari became her grandmother’s protégé at an early age and was initiated into the aesthetic and contextual aspects of Madhubani painting. Not content to remain within the thematic and stylistic boundaries of tradition, Kumari has been quietly and consistently creating works over the last two decades that have opened new vistas and reinvigorated Madhubani art. She is one of the first artists from the Madhubani tradition to depict feminist issues and environmental themes. Indeed, her works are now part of the permanent collections of several museums across UK, Australia and USA.
Kumari began working on Ganga Maiya, one of her most ambitious works, during the Covid lockdowns in the summer of 2021. In a slow meditative process over four months, she created this masterpiece through extremely fine detailing, especially evident in the figure of the Goddess and her beautiful ornaments. With intense focus, and no preliminary pencil sketches, Kumari draws intuitively, working directly on the canvas with a brush. Line follows line, some ramrod straight dissecting the blank space, some sensuously curved, languorously stretching across the frame, all combining to create outlines that she fills with patterning. There is no room for error – one slip of her brush and the work could be ruined forever. She does considerable research into issues of water pollution and depicts these pictorially – be it plastic packaging that finds its way to the river, or the sewage and effluents released directly into the water. Melding metaphor and meaning, mythology and geography with feminism and environmental ethics in Ganga Maiya, Kumari has established herself as an artist who straddles the modern world and her ancient heritage with ease.
Minhazz Majumdar is a curator, writer and designer who has been involved in preserving and promoting Indian folk and tribal cultural traditions for over two decades. As a curator, Majumdar has worked on major exhibitions on India across the world, which showcased contemporary and traditional Indian culture.
Top Image Caption : Pushpa Kumari, Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganga), 2021. Courtesy the artist. Installation view, 23rd Biennale of Sydney, rīvus, 2022, National Art School. Photography: Jodie Barker.
A river seems a magic thing.A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself Pushpa Kumari’s monumental work Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganga), 2021 is an ode to the Ganges River, the most sacred of all rivers in India. This exquisitely detailed black and white work on canvas is an impressive horizontal scroll (measuring five…