Avinash Karn’s Madhubani paintings are aimed at changing the dynamics of this folk form that originated in the Mithila region in Bihar. Unlike the common Madhubani motifs—like plants, animals, deities, forests—Karn’s paintings use the Madhubani style to depict urban life. In one of his works, entitled At the End of the Day, the artist paints a typical contemporary scene which might be unfolding in any modern city. A woman is seen lying on the bed while reading a book. She is surrounded by several objects in her room—a phone, a computer and a lamp. At the foot of the bed, there’s a sleeping dog. This image is an unusual and a fine addition to the Madhubani canon. In his work, the artist also uses acrylic colour, and not raw pigments in the classic Madhubani style.
In another painting of his, entitled In Her Dreams, Karn has depicted a woman connected to her newborn with an umbilical cord, and the frame is populated by objects like a paper boat, a milk bottle, a tricycle and a school bus—spelling out the itinerary of our passage through childhood.
While the artist has diverged from the classic Madhubani rulebook, he has remained cautious in operating within the formal boundaries of this folk art. For instance, in At the End of the Day, Karn uses primary colours—an indispensable feature of Madhubani art. And even in In Her Dreams, the artist has created a pointed nose and sharp-angled eyes. He says, “In all such paintings where I have taken the leap from the traditional subjects, I paint within the boundaries of Madhubani art.”
Karn, like any other Madhubani artists, started with painting in the usual way, but after a while this formulaic approach bored him. “I felt there was something missing from the artwork of the region,” says Karn. “People were only copying their previous designs and I felt we are capable of doing much more than that. I have been an innovative kind of boy in my childhood, always searching for individuality. So, I can’t paint the same kind of paintings again and again as folk artists do. I also believe that my own style will also develop from time to time.”
The artist is in awe by clear rhythmic lines. He believes that this element makes his art more refined. “The use of definite lines in Madhubani paintings is an unusual feature for the traditional artists of the Mithila region.”
He seeks inspiration from the works of the renowned Madhubani artist Ganga Devi. “I have been fascinated by the work of Ganga Devi. She has done paintings with very clear and sophisticated lines. And I chose to develop my own style, just like Ganga Devi had her own. But it took a lot of practice, study and definitely my art course at the Banaras Hindu University helped me too.”
A bachelor’s degree in sculpture also led him to pay attention to his figures. In this course, the artist was taught about dimensions, form and volume of the human figures. According to him, “Most of the traditional Madhubani artists are not trained in art, so they don’t apply the principles of rhythm in their art.”
It was not easy for Karn to develop his personal style, and to stick to it in his work. He often faced discouragement from the community. “I have been coming across some people who don’t accept my style. They don’t consider it Madhubani art. I have been criticised on social media, and I was surprised that even in the present times, people are still not able to accept my art.”
Still, Karn feels that the younger generations are always to open to experimenting with and reinventing old ideas. “I feel that the younger generations are interested in learning and developing their own style. So, whenever I go to Madhubani and meet the students, they always want me to give them some sort of techniques having to do with my contemporary style of Madhubani art. So many artists these days are trying to be more innovative than before.”
Karn also continues his work with the Kailash Satyarthi Children Foundation in Jharkhand. The artist will be making 60 murals in the villages of the state on the theme of “Child Rights and Awareness”. The artist is also actively working on designing a research project to help document an art form of mud murals fast disappearing from north India.
“I imagine the final outcome of my work in advance, which fills me with excitement. It is the best part of my work. Sometimes, the life of an artist is not so easy because of the challenges they have to undergo. But when the final result appears, nothing else matters.” says Karn.