October 15, 2017



"Each tradition has areas that grew in response to the needs and aspirations of a society, its ideas and sensibilities. Each tradition comes to have an inner code of discipline or grammar which prevents radical extensions. But it will have certain take-off points that accommodate innovation and thus allow a new vision and dimension to its expression. And that is the point where we each read our basic facts differently and invent new devices to represent them" -K.G. Subramanyan.

Avinash Karn is part of a rising generation of young folk artists. Born and brought up in Ranti village of the Madhubani district of Bihar, when this folk art was in its golden period, Avinash Karn is one of a long line of folk artists. However it was one particular incident, which impassioned him to actively pursue a career in this art style, involving an influential broker who used to purchase art works from his family.

The works were being purchased for a very small amount (Rs 100 for an imperial sized painting) and upon going to Delhi Haat to help with sales of the work was shocked to discover the very same work was being sold for as much as Rs 10,000. This massive and unjust difference in the payment of artists and the profit for the broker is something, which stayed in Karns mind. The knowledge of how much folk art is being sold for, and how little the individuals get paid for production influenced him to explore and expand the Madhubani vocabulary. It was also this discovery, which made him take up formal training in art, going on to study Fine Art at Banaras Hindu University, to gain an understanding of the whole scene of art. “The Fine Art course not only helped me to understand the art world but also gave me the idea of exploring the techniques and style as well. After the intense study and experiments, I became aware of the aesthetical aspects Madhubani forms offers.”

Nowadays, Avinash Karn uses the language of Madhubani art to explore society from a new and playful angle. He is one of today’s contemporary Indian folk artists dedicated to bridging the gap between Folk and Contemporary art, instrumental to Folk arts evolving and expanding future, which is unfolding to be as rich as it’s deep history. For Matters of Art (MOA), Indira Lakssmi Prasad speaks with the artist himself, who gives us insight into the resurgence of Folk art in India.

MOA: Where did your interest in visual art begin? And why the Madhubani style?

Avinash Karn: I took visual art as a tool for exploring the vocabulary of Madhubani art. I was determined for it and then joined Fine arts course in Banaras Hindu University.

I was good at Drawings during my school days. But Madhubani art was my family profession. My grandmother was doing Bihari embroidery popularly known as 'Sujani'. My mother, elder sister and aunt were involved in Madhubani Painting and I was assisting them in colour-filling and sometimes lining.

One incident encouraged me to work in the field of Madhubani art. There was an influential broker who used to purchase paintings from us in bulk, at around Rs 100 for an imperial size painting. Once I went to Delhi with him to help him at his stall at Delhi Haat. I was shocked to see he was selling the same pieces for Rs 10, 000. I felt very bad and used to think about how folk artists should get a real amount for their artworks. And then the idea of exploration and expansion of Madhubani vocabulary, emerged inside me. And to know the whole scene of art, I needed to study fine art. The Fine Art course not only helped me to understand the art world but also gave me the idea of exploring the techniques and style as well. After the intense study and experiments, I became aware of the aesthetical aspects of Madhubani forms offers.

I was born and brought up the in Ranti village, in the Madhubani district of Bihar, when this type of folk art was in its golden period. Gradually, the artists either migrated to cities or left art profession. My parents went to Delhi and got private jobs there. Only awarded artists were contacted for government projects. So as I grew up, I was started feeling this sudden change and continuous loss. Nowadays most of our Indian folk and tribal artists are facing the same situation and this hurt me always. This desperation also pushed me more to delve into Madhubani art.

MOA: How does your cultural background relate to your work?

Avinash Karn: I lived in village in my childhood days. But when I grew up, I went to cities, travelled a lot to give Madhubani workshops or to attend art events like camp, residency etc. While being away from my village, I could see the diversities in various cultures of India. Along with this, I saw our culture standing at far. Sometimes, I understand myself with the help of my artworks. In the painting "The Guide & Travellers", I painted many male and female figures, all of them in Bihari attire. It came naturally. Even when I paint a modern lady or a foreigner the costumes became more modern but the innocence and the body posture of the figure looks similar to the people of our culture. So, these smaller things can tell how the culture weaved inside me and how it comes out through an artwork.

MOA: At the moment what is the inspiration behind your work?

Avinash Karn: My works circulates between the idea of life and Death which I have been witness timely and untimely. Most of the child-births in my family happened at my house in our village, where medical facilities were completely inferior and out of reach. I have also been witness to some miscarriages and seen the blood spread in our courtyard. Along with these, there were also successful births and I have seen the growth of a child, passing many age levels from childhood to puberty. In reality, I have been the part of the agony and the ecstasy of the postpartum mother, the innocence and the simplicity of ordinary people, the process of life and death. This became the inspiration for my work. My work expresses the copulation as the first stage of procreation (mostly in drawings), then the feeling of parents for their child (for example ‘A dreaming mother’ and the digital work ‘Munna smile please’).

MOA: Your artist bio mentions the importance of women in your life, how does this manifest in your work?

Avinash Karn: Without a mother, life on earth is not possible. God gifted me three mothers in my life. One gave birth to me and earned bread for me. The second was my grandmother who took care of my every need until I grew up. And third is the co-founder of Loka Foundation, Charlotte Leech, who has been giving me rise in my art career since I joined Loka as an art teacher in 2015.

I have been always cared and supported by several women. There is a long list. I mentioned that I have observed the agony and ecstasy of being a mother very closely and can feel the importance of a female in one's life. There is a popular phrase in Hindi, "Mard ko Dard nahi hota" (which means, Men are strong who never feel pain). So being a man, sometimes, I ask myself; could a man be so strong to face the pain of labor? Or may he be ready for the menstrual cycle every month? And after coming to conclusion, the strong respect for women emerged inside me.

The departure of my grandmother was a huge loss in my life. I was in flight that day and searching her in the sky from my window seat. I was going to attend Piramal residency and once I arrived there, I painted lot of my memories with her. I said thanks for her lunch boxes, apologized for my mistakes, all done through drawing and painting which is now in the collection of Piramal Art Foundation.

I think a man is a real man when he has strength to thank women for their contributions in his life, and if he has the courage to say sorry for disheartening her pure heart.

MOA: And what about the processes you use to create your work?

Avinash Karn: It’s only the drawings I do in a stretch. Line flows naturally. Only the subject matters are intended before starting a drawing on paper. But for painting, I plan everything. Sometimes ideas come naturally like a blowing wave of wind, inspired by the outer world. Certain situations or thoughts emerge randomly in my head, whereas the next steps are well planned. The size, medium, colour palette, compositions, everything needs planning. Many times before starting painting on blank canvas, I need to visualize painting in whole. Like a film director who knows the appearance in which his film will turn out.

MOA: How do you view folk art in our contemporary society?

Avinash Karn: I paint composition to enjoy the playfulness of Madhubani art by looking at the society with new angle. While travelling to Mumbai, I found many interesting things in the city which I had never experienced before. So 'An Ode to Mumbai' was my first composition about a city in which I gathered my observations together and put them in sequence to create a perfect composition. The figures and objects are in Madhubani style with a miniature composition technique.

I also enjoy painting my memories and visualizing these memories. Unclear, faded imagery floats in my head, so it is a real challenge.

'Fair of My Village', is a good example of this. I used to sit over the shoulder of my father when I was very young. The smell of cuisine and the wave of music mix in the air. The 'firki-waalah', my favourite horse toy, and horse-swing, flute seller and the acrobatic rope walker girl... all this faded imagery still floats in my memories. Yet I still manage to paint what I have seen. It took me three months to finish it as I was not ready to compromise my own memories.

MOA: Is there a place for folk art in the current art scene, in India and globally?

Avinash Karn: For the last few years, folk art has been getting space in India Art Fair. Many galleries have opened which display only folk art and there are several museums and galleries for folk and tribal art abroad. Recently, India Festival has celebrated Indian Folk Art on an international platform.

From a global aspect, the interest in folk art among people has been rising upwards day by day. Many of national and international collectors have come forward not only with the intension to preserve age old tradition but also to collect important pieces by folk artists.