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The lively and colorful works of art in this installation were made not in royal courts, but in the villages, bazaars, and pilgrimage centers of eastern India. Known as "popular paintings," they are the work of a diverse group of artists: professional painters who made souvenirs for pilgrims at holy sites; minstrel-painters who walked from place to place singing and selling their wares; painter-magicians who delivered the souls of the dead from the afterworld; village women who decorated the walls of their homes for celebrations and festivals. The subject matter is as varied as the artists themselves, including stories of the hero-gods Krishna and Rama, icons of the great goddess Kali, fertility motifs painted in marriage chambers, and satirical images of spotted cats. Many of the artistic traditions reflected in these nineteenth- and twentieth-century works still thrive today.
All of the paintings were given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by private collectors, who have helped popular painting become recognized as an important aspect of India's artistic heritage. One group of pictures, those made by women in the Madhubani region of Bihar State, represents a pivotal moment in the preservation of this art. Traditionally made as temporary wall decorations for village rituals, the Madhubani paintings (sometimes called Mithila paintings) exhibited are among the first translations of this ephemeral art into works on paper for sale to an urban clientele. In 2000, a group of these Madhubani paintings was given to the Museum by Dr. Jaipaul (1927-2002), who dedicated his life to building bridges of cultural understanding. This exhibition is gratefully dedicated to him.