Neelkant Choudhary grew up seeing his mother envelop the walls of the house with Madhubani paintings. As a self-taught artist, he too would be invited to paint for weddings and other auspicious occasions. Often the motifs of the paintings were handpicked from Hindu mythology; there would be gods and goddesses such as Durga, Parvati, Laxmi or Vishnu. Over the years, Choudhary developed a contemporary language for the artform. In his latest solo “Feminine Divine” at Gallerie Ganesha, Delhi, he paints fruit sellers, opera dancers, and sweepers through the ancient art form, adorning them in bright colourful dresses. There are women cleaners, who maintain the interiors of a Jaipur palace, standing with brooms like film stars in his frame titled Char Women. There’s a pumpkin seller in the company of myriad pumpkins.
Leaning in closely towards his 25 Madhubani paintings on display and carefully introspecting his subjects, Choudhary reveals that divinity does not merely lie in goddesses, and rather pinpoints to how a woman is divine in all the characters she inhabits, be it as a housewife, a worker or a daughter. It is no surprise then that he finds the living goddesses of Nepal an inspiration for one of his frames. “These girls, aged between 6 to 13, sit in the temple like goddesses, and people worship them there,” he says.
The 56-year-old, Vadodara-based artist is quick to highlight the art form’s long history, which finds a mention in the pages of The Ramayana. King Janaka orders the creation of the paintings during his daughter Sita’s wedding to Rama. Choudhary has come a long way, following an initial push by well-known Madhubani painter Chandrakala Devi to continue with his craft after initial rejections from art galleries.
His work Peacock Woman is a result of watching a stranger in his neighbourhood in Jaipur, in the late ’90s. He was amused by the peacocks that flocked around her as she fed them. He decided to paint her in the form of the peacock. Another painting features men wearing the pink paag, a headdress integral to the Mithila region and culture, surrounding his young relative’s wedding celebrations. In Solidarity, he shows women decked in gold jewellery attending a marriage, and engrossed in conversation, bearing a resemblance to noted artist Thota Vaikuntam’s creations. He says, “To me, women are beautiful. I see a woman as a creative being that god has made.”
Choudhary has continued to paint the various manifestations of Durga and Parvati in his other frames, some replete with a contemporary idiom. Goddess in the Making serves as a reminder of Durga Puja, where a lady in a purple sari-like attire gives finishing touches to idols. “I cannot paint gods and goddesses all the time. As an artist, it suffocates me. If one is a writer and has to write only one kind of story, he or she will get bored soon. We need different engagements to keep us motivated,” he says.
He says his canvases merge the traditional and the modern, with motifs deriving as much from the streets of New Delhi as the traditional Madhubani templates. “My medium varies from vegetable dyes to watercolour, oils and inks. If Madhubani has to survive, it has to adapt to the times without necessarily deserting its traditional essentials.”
The exhibition is at Gallerie Ganesha, Greater Kailash II, Delhi, till December 3