Bold, Bright, and Off the Wall

Kataria and Khazana co-owner Sher Singh pose with examples of Madhubani painting
Courtesy of Khazana

Anju Kataria is visibly--and audibly--elated. "It's so nice to see so many familiar faces at once," the curator of Madhubani: Art Without Walls enthuses. In her red kurta and orange churidar, the petite woman blends perfectly with the vibrant watercolors, all created by women from the Indian subcontinent's Mithila region, that dominate Khazana's first gallery show. "I'm keeping myself color-coordinated," she notes.

Dashing around the long, narrow shop at near-roadrunner velocity, answering questions and making sales, Kataria seems just slightly less whimsical than much of the exhibition's art. In fact, star painter Baua Devi's depiction of Hindu monkey god Hanuman could easily pass for Bart Simpson's older brother.

"This is a scene from the Ramayana," Khazana's laid-back, mustachioed owner Ashu Kataria explains, gesturing toward the work. Like his wife, he wears a traditional costume of sorts--the blue oxford button-down and pleated slacks of casual workday culture. "Hanuman is very devoted to Rama. Here, he's building a stone causeway from India to Sri Lanka so Rama can rescue his wife, Sita, who has been kidnapped."

Despite the daunting task and choppy black waters before him, the elegantly dressed deity looks happy, as do most of the gods, goddesses, and animals represented in the works. Even popular subject Kali, necklace of skulls and all, seems more delighted than bloodthirsty as she tramples Shiva, whose expression suggests that he's having the time of his life.

A folk art form historically used to enhance entryways and bridal chambers, Madhubani has always been sunny, even if its circumstances haven't. Transmitted from mother to daughter for centuries, the style's expansion beyond Mithila's borders began in the '60s, when drought and famine ravaged the district. "Before then, women had always painted directly onto the walls of their homes," Anju offers. "The government suggested that they start selling their work and provided them with paper and paint."

Anju fears that success is quickly spoiling the tradition. "As it becomes popular, Madhubani is becoming an assembly-line thing," she says, frowning. "And now men are doing it, too. Plus, whenever a painter becomes popular, suddenly her husband becomes her 'agent.' How much money actually makes it to the artist then, I wonder?"

Baua Devi is lucky. The abusive husband and mother-in-law who made off with the better part of her earnings for years have left life's frame. While she still lives simply in Mithila, the painter's big-eyed creations have traveled internationally, looming large in recent group exhibitions at UC Berkeley and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Fame and an award from India's president notwithstanding, her watercolors are still steals. A good-sized watercolor depicting Krishna and a many-headed serpent in bright reds and yellow--the Khazana show's most expensive piece--is priced at $425.

According to the shop's website, Khazana's new mission is "to create a home for South Asian culture in the heart of downtown Minneapolis." This can only benefit the Twin Cities' culturally active Indian community, which Ashu ballparks at 30,000. "Last week, we had a special preview for PIC (Parents of Indian Children)," Anju recalls. "It went beautifully. Not only are most kids unaware of Madhubani; a lot of Indian adults don't know about it."

A drought of sorts brought the Katarias into the gallery racket. When it relocated to the 1000 block of Marquette after the Target Corporation's expansion drove it off Nicollet Mall in 1999, Khazana's foot traffic dried up. Healthy online sales have buoyed the operation more than walk-in business ever did, but as Ashu notes: "We have the space, we might as well do something worthwhile with it. Something like 60 people have showed up tonight. As a rule, we see six in a week."

The dearth of dirtworld trade he cites is anything but unique. As rents and office towers rise, Minneapolis's former retail hub feels increasingly like downtown Peoria--hardly an incentive for prospective shoppers. Still, the Katarias refuse to leave for greener pastures. "We're staying downtown," Anju asserts, "no matter what."

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