PROFILE: Avinash Karn / The Evolving Visage of Culture / Sushma Sabnis
Artist Avinash Karn, in his determined way sets out to repair the tear in the fabric of culture with the kachni-bharni of Madhubani art, while allowing the artist within himself to create contemporary visual languages of fusion, observes Sushma Sabnis.
Wall art is considered to be a significant contributor to the visual culture of a place, be it urban spaces where structures, high rises and gated premises are embellished by graffiti and murals, or in rural scenarios where wall art develops as part of the day to day living, as a means to document and carry forward traditional and moral messages. While in an urban scenario a mural on the facade of a structure inadvertently becomes a ‘visage’ of the cultural and social identity, the wall art which occupies the walls in a rural setting often gets classified as a folk or tribal expression/ tradition. This either becomes an exotic art form or a mere craft based art form, depending on the whim of auction houses who dictate the trends of a fluctuating global art market.
In India, wall based tribal and folk art has been a regular feature on the dwellings, as a reflection of a lifestyle. Evidences show that these practices originated during the prehistoric era and as time passed they evolved to a degree of refinement. The narratives held together the life and times of the people, using simplistic forms of depiction. The subjects portrayed have varied from simple hunting scenes to customs, celebrations, religion, environment and every other aspect of human engagement in life.
Wall based works become an illustrated document of the living and an important section in the book of Culture of a people. While these numerous narratives relay the customs and relevant events in the lives of the people, they could also become political in nature, they could offer solutions or urge silent revolutions for change. The exquisite folk art Madhubani from Bihar has had a similar journey and today, despite its popularity as an art form, the awareness of its nuances escape the random replication of the simple art style. But there are some, like artist Avinash Karn from Madhubani, who have chosen to take this eloquent art form to greater heights in all diligence and determination.
Originally from Ranti village in Madhubani, Bihar, Avinash is now Delhi based and has had an interesting journey as a Madhubani painter. He has apprenticed with traditional Madhubani painters like Santosh Kumar and Ganga Devi, and later acquired a BFA degree in sculpture from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. Raised in a household of many women, this young artist realised early on the true basis of his art practices is Nature. He depicts women in his works more from an understanding of the inseparability of femininity and creation than that of a male gaze which reduces it to a mere sensorial interpretation of a group of women. He has been a witness to the miracle of birth and death, timely and untimely and it has instilled a kind of continuous narrative evident in most of his works.
In some of his works, the pictorial surface is filled to the brim with motifs and symbols, which form the fine lined vocabulary of the Madhubani paintings, yet the narratives which are simultaneously happening in the image take the viewer’s eye all over the events to relay the whole story which is a technique employed by miniaturists to ensure continuity. The artist adopts this style in his compositions. Avinash paints on canvas, paper and clay walls. The medium he has come to prefer over the traditional natural pigments is acrylics as they offer a flexibility and durability over a range of surfaces.
In traditional Madhubani art, the narratives are often conservative in nature and stick to strict, socially accepted depictions with limited motifs and vocabulary. Hence as one goes through the whole works by the artist, one finds a fork in the road of his art practice. Without any sense of dichotomy, the artist reveals his exploratory side in some of his ink on paper works which were made during his residency at Piramal Art Foundation, where the simplicity of the Madhubani line is used to portray nude figures. These figures overlap and form layered narratives, which could be erotic or sensual as per the artist’s directive, yet, the forms recognizable as Madhubani, seem liberated and free. This artistic license taken has not met with complete acceptance among the traditional Madhubani painters and he reveals that it is quite a divergent step taken in a different direction. While this does not hamper his visual language as a Madhubani painter, it liberates the artist in him to experiment on possible synergetic visual amalgamations.
Some of the works like the large canvas on Mumbai (3ft x 4 ft), painted during the residency program, depicts the city through the eyes of the artist in the traditional style but without compromising on the content of his observations. So where one could find the Worli sea link and the dhobhi ghat placed along side the Thane station, one would also find a depiction of the red light area and the courting couples on Marine Drive overlooking the sea. This work as one would see is not a touristy interpretation of the city of dreams. It is an honest and a clear picture of the places the artist came into contact with during his sojourn at Mumbai. Such unbiased visual depictions of a city could become part of a broader cultural narrative in future.
Avinash is also a part of a collective cofounded by him and like minded Madhubani artists, called, ‘Kachni-Bharni’(line/ filling). The title refers to the techniques used in the art form and this collective takes up projects of painting murals in urban spaces and metros, while travelling to remote areas and villages to conduct workshops for women and children about the art form. While the large murals created in urban spaces like the LOKA Art Foundation, Bihar and the 41ft x 12 ft mural at iLodge in Gurgaon monetize the group’s ventures, the outreach programs aim to bring a social change and empower the indigenous communities which exist undetected by the radar of the state government. Avinash and his team also conducts workshops for tribals who are already known for their unique tribal art such as the Sohrai tribals. He believes that Madhubani and Sohrai art, though stylistically very different, could combine to create a fresh style which possibly could get government support to create tourism opportunities to sustain the village economy.
We live in an age where culture, visual or otherwise invites heated debates and arguments between countries/ continents. We witness certain factions of people debate endlessly to bring back artifacts, totems and relics to the places of origin, which were once stolen or lost by colonial or other ruling forces of some era, as a forceful reclamation/ restoration of their diminishing culture or heritage. And then we see an artist like Avinash Karn who along with his friends and fellow artists, demolish the debate by silently and meaningfully working to reclaim, resurrect and restore a dwindling visual culture from extinction by teaching it generously to those who are willing to carry it forward.
Both methods employed, however different, aim to restore/ repair a rip in the fabric of culture. But as planets are the markers of ambient forces in Einstein’s fabric of the universe, so are the artifacts and relics only markers of a culture of an era. Culture in itself is a permeable, evolving, layered continuum, which seeps in and oozes out, absorbs and exudes seamlessly through time. The only way this fabric could be restored is when one contributes meaningfully to it, by becoming a part of it while being inclusive of all those who support it, like artist Avinash Karn’s does through his works.
The artist lives and works in Varanasi.