Re-Imagining Cultural Barriers with Avinash Karn

The Mithila or Madhubani Art Form: The Story…

The Mithila region of Bihar, claimed to be the birthplace of Goddess Sita, is also the birthplace of the Mithila or Madhubani art form.  The art traditionally created and practiced by women, is made with a mixture of a variety of tools and natural products like twigs, matchsticks, and natural dyes. Originally made for celebrations, like birth, marriage, festivals, evolved to become wall paintings and home decor. Like many crafts of its time and stature, it depicts people in various engagements with nature, depiction of lifestyles, mythology, and folktales, and is most popularly known for depictions of Lord Krishna and his gopis. The stylistics of the Mithila painting is part of the systemic divide and oppression the craft elucidates. It has five major variants or styles, Bharni, Katchni, Tantrik, Godna, and Kohbar; Bharni & Tantrik is majorly done by Brahmin women, or UC women, about gods and goddesses and mythology; while others are done by LC women about mundane everyday lives. 

Avinash Karn: Breaking Barriers 

An artist, from a small village called Ranti in Madhubani, Bihar, Karn is a man who breaks many cultural barriers by taking up the Madhubani art form. Predominantly practiced by upper-caste women, he uses this overtly UC Hindu art form to break barriers of caste and religion. He also transforms the classical Madhubani style to incorporate social commentary in his own art, blending many other themes and concepts into it. Karn himself reimagines Madhubani style in his paintings, merging the classical traditional imagery and patterns with more abstract – westernized art forms and using various alternative mediums, like ink, canvas, etc., while also practicing traditional murals. He also overlooks the cultural divide between the art styles and themes, choosing to incorporate all stories/ideologies/mythologies – regardless of its strata. The above painting titled ‘Kalpvrikhsa’ is a story that re-appears in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – he uses it to merge cultures. 

The above picture, titled Womanhood reimagines the ideas and representation of women in Madhubani art. The Madhubani art form often reduces women, subjecting them to the male gaze, an appeal to a certain ideology, and policing of women in order to maintain the hierarchy. Karn, raised in a household of women, uses his art to divert this ideology and commits to the representation of women and ideas of women that aren’t victims to the male gaze, painting them in a more understanding and divergent light. In this painting he also indulges in a more abstract style, diverging from the classical style and incorporating westernized styles – in hopes of evolving and preserving the art form. 

He also reimagines the ideas of women in classical mythology and folklore, giving them more agency. The above painting titled Rukmini’s letter to Krishna shows a divergent view of Rukmini, other than the dutiful wife who is always by his side. Though writing to him, it is mostly about her and her surroundings, giving her the agency and power that is often deprived of her, like most representations of women in mythology – especially when they are associated with or devotees of Krishna. 

The Need for Breaking Barriers…

For centuries Mithila paintings were ritualistic and conformed within a structure and ideology, limited to a certain caste. The commercialization and advertising of these art forms as from the birthplace of Sita, added the additional tag of sacred, further isolating the craft to those of a certain caste and religion. This reiterates the caste divide of who has legitimacy over shared religion and mythological beliefs, denying the subaltern this right. This not only perpetuates a certain hegemony and oppression on the subaltern, but it also kills the art that is rigid and unmoving while the world continues to evolve. It should be noted that while it is promoted by India for women empowerment, who are these women who get empowered? Is women empowerment only for the UC women?

Karn breaks and bends these restrictive rules of Madhubani style, reimagining classical mythology and incorporating more social issues into his art. He is also known for teaching subaltern women and people (of different caste and religion) this art, further reimagining who gets to use this art as a medium of social discourse. By introducing other religions, subaltern women and people, and divergent themes rooted in social issues, one not only breaks many cultural hierarchies by putting divergent people on the same stage but also encourages the art form to stay relevant in times of ancient arts and crafts of India’s disappearance. In times of Indian crafts grappling to survive, he popularized it, reimagined it, and opened the platform up for many others. Don’t forget to buy his artwork and support him!

Author: Arpita Sk

3rd-year student studying in Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, majoring in Literary Studies and Sociology. Summer Intern at Kala Chaupal Trust.

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