Monday, August 31, 2020

The Importance of Being Avinash Karn, the Contemporary Madhubani Artist

(Avinash Karn, artist)

An earthquake in Bihar in 1934 did cause a great damage. But it brought something unexpected to the fore. Hidden inside the homes where the public couldn’t get any access, but now lay opened in devastation before the prying eyes of the rehabilitators were some beautiful paintings done in a peculiar style on the walls hitherto unknown to the world. Those were done by the Brahmin ladies as a part of their religious and daily rituals. As its origin was religious and caste oriented and heavily ridden by gender restrictions none knew about the existence of such exquisite paintings. The scholars among the rehabilitators called it ‘Madhubani’ style of painting. Madhubani, a district in Bihar in Mithila region which is famed to be the birth place of Sita, the epic heroine, lent its name to the painting style not only because of the location of its origin but also because of the honey like sweetness of its rendition. It took a few socio-cultural and caste meanderings before it became a world renowned folk painting style, bringing several nuanced expressions and styles within that umbrella term. Avinash Karn, a young contemporary artist comes from this region and his fame is heavily depended on the ‘Madhubani’ style.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

Graduated from the Department of Sculpture, Banaras Hindu University, Uttar Pradesh, Avinash Karn, towards the end of his education had recognized the mission of his life; to become an artist who did all what he could towards propagating the homegrown Madhubani style all over the world, but with a difference. Madhubani paintings have been a staple in most of the India International Festivals, folk and tribal expos and emporium based markets. Traditional Madhubani paintings have found their way to rich home across the world and in some international museums that catered to the global folk and tribal aesthetics. This was a sort of sampling that reduced a vibrant art form into a souvenir product if not a museum piece. Madhubani style, over the years also has become a painting mode of the ‘self-taught’ women artists in urban India who often painted in various styles as they thought art was a safety valve and it could be done in any style they fancied good and practical.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

Avinash Karn left his sculptural ambitions for taking up the Madhubani style, which in fact is still seen as a feminine mode of making art due to its homely ritualistic origins. Before him another artist, Santhosh Kumar Das, a veteran from the Fine Arts Faculty, MS University, Baroda, again a native of Mithila region had taken up this mission. Das maintained a track of Madhubani style purely in black and white, infusing it with contemporary narratives, giving an edge to the graphic quality thereby making it a story telling interface while keeping the painterly form intact. He has been successful in doing and is now recognized for his very personal(ized) Madhubani style of paintings. The refinement that the contemporary artists bring to the traditional style of painting is what makes it more dynamic and saves them from becoming a stagnant pool of traditional patterns and repeatable stories and formats. Even the illiterate women artists from the same region, who have picked up the art through apprenticeship under master women artists and transcended both economic and caste barriers, are now capable of expanding the traditional repertoire of images and making way to more contemporary imageries and familial narratives. Perhaps, an artist like Avinash Karn stands as a link between these illiterate women artists from the region and the more refined and sophisticated versions of Madhubani style as practiced by artists like him, facilitating the journey of the art form in a more dignified course that now ekes out not only aesthetic attention but also academic interests at various levels of its reception.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

The glossy super-flat surfaces that once beckoned the young artists to create more contemporary art in a homogenized visual cultural approach in order to gain quick traction among the buying class and recognition in the international art market manipulated by the local cartels of galleries somehow did not appeal to Avinash Karn who had experienced the aesthetic finesse of Madhubani art and its inherent ability to move people visually. What he wanted to do was to make himself a sophisticated medium so that he could not only paint in the chosen style but also could articulate his concerns regarding the style before an interested public and aestheticians. He did achieve that feat and could take his art to various national and international platforms, all this while incorporating the new locales that he found himself in in the process. This enriched the visual ensemble of his paintings and the scope of manipulating the images which were traditionally not there in the ‘original’ Madhubani paintings. For example, the traditional women painters knew how to portray godheads and village life in tiered narratives, using adequate distortions and abstractions through spatial arrangements whereas they were not sure how a television set or a gas cylinder was brought into the painting. The major achievement that Avinash Karn made in his works and also contributed to the stylistic repertoire of Madhubani paintings is this that he could bring in anything that he saw around him, be it Qutub Minar, metro trains, Victoria Terminus, Writer’s Building, Gateway of India and so on.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

So long as a traditional artistic style remains within the confines of its origin in terms of geographical territory or variable aesthetical grammar maintaining a visual cohesiveness, contemporary urban (read modern) art does not feel any threat from it. It could always be treated as a country cousin of the mainstream art however it tries to be a coat-tie wearing urban lad. The comic interludes may be expected out of such art but not a regular lead. Avinash Karn brought his style and pivoted it right in the middle of the urban contemporary art almost shaking up the claims of modernism upheld by the urban art (especially the ones that came out of the famed art colleges). Here was a new and curious body of works that almost looked folkish but a closer look thwarted such comforts for it was showing all what an urban narrative could do in its modern painterly style. It was both awe-inspiring and moving, and perhaps evoked a discourse more vigorous than the former one could have done. Writing in past tense does not make Avinash Karn’s works a thing of past but my intention is to say that this was what he did to the art world, in the meanwhile smiling all the way to the bank.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

By now Avinash Karn has achieved such felicity and skill that he could handle paper, canvas and walls alike. He has also forayed into digital production of his works, not as a copying methodology but the digital technology as a method to enhance the possibilities of the style that he has been instrumental in making and propagating. Interested in local histories, his research has taken him to the history of production of images through crude photographic methods and he has even experimented with a body of works that made use of the paraphernalia of the older traditions of local photography. He travels a lot these days and each sojourn adds to the visual coffer that he gleefully flaunts in his works. Looking carefully at his works, one could see that the traditional hues of Madhubani are no longer there in his works but an aesthetical recalling of them through synthetic colors that allows the artist to go for bigger formats and surfaces. The intimate scale of traditional Madhubani style has been bartered for experimentations, which in fact has become a habit even of the traditional artists from various parts of India as they have started attending national and international art symposiums and camps where they are expected to use modern canvases and synthetic colors. Avinash Karn’s works are a bold intervention in the contemporary scenario of art where the artist’s modern education becomes a tool for him to further his regional art style while taking a great care not to fall into the trap of becoming an internal colonizer of tastes.


1 comment:

Mahesh Kummar said...

A very beautifully written article.Congratulations to Avinash.