Within Avinash Karn’s Madhubani cow rests the chaos of Varanasi – narrow streets shared by humans, traffic and animals – and a metaphor. It is the artist’s reaction to the urban squalor that is home to revered bovines in the ancient city in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in India. Although Karn lost the painting after a show in Varanasi two years ago, the Madhubani cow remains one of his favourites.

Born to a family of Madhubani painters in Ranti, a village in Bihar, Karn has practised the art form almost his entire life. As a child, he would help his family fill colours in the traditional motifs of trees, birds, flowers, images of gods. Later, he started painting on his own.

Madhubani art has been practiced by the women of Mithila region for decades. The paintings, typically drawn on the walls of homes, depict societal structures, cultural events, nature, daily lives and rituals. Most contemporary Madhubani artists use paper and other mediums to sell their works.

“I have grown up observing the Madhubani art done by my mother, elder sister and aunt,” said Karn. “Even my grandmother was known for her Madhubani figures, that she would embroider on pieces of cloth using the Bihari Sujani embroidery method. I eventually started helping them. We painted whatever subject was demanded by the clients, mostly traditional themes that Madhubani paintings are famous for – Ramayana episodes, images of gods and goddesses, scenes from festivals, idyllic village life and folklore.”

As the years passed, Karn went on to study fine arts at the Benares Hindu University and increasingly found himself growing disenchanted with reproducing the same themes. Traditions were changing, so why shouldn’t traditional art?

'I get bored of repetition very quickly,' said Karn. 'As a folk artist, I had to come up with new ways to pursue the art form.' Above: Fair of My Village, by Avinash Karn.
'I get bored of repetition very quickly,' said Karn. 'As a folk artist, I had to come up with new ways to pursue the art form.' Above: Fair of My Village, by Avinash Karn.

While his aesthetic still adheres to the folk form, the paintings themselves are inspired by the world around him. The 26-year-old has discarded traditions like the double lines, used to separate the human figures from the background, the characteristic big eyes that stretch from the nose till the ears and the pointed nose shown in side profile.

“All Madhubani artists have their own style,” said Karn, who occasionally uses digital backgrounds for his paintings. “I too like to experiment with traditional elements. I also enjoy the freedom of keeping or removing borders, decorations, and playing with the colour palette to give a new appearance to my art work while maintaining the delicacy seen in the old works.”

In 'An Ode to Mumbai', Karn has replicated his experience of the city. The upper half of the painting is dedicated to the Arabian Sea and the rest of the canvas shows the city – a couple on a date on Marine Drive, a brothel within a slum, the iconic Church Gate, a pink (not the official red) BEST bus with commuter eyes staring out of every bus window, dabbawalas and, of course, a vada pav stall.
In 'An Ode to Mumbai', Karn has replicated his experience of the city. The upper half of the painting is dedicated to the Arabian Sea and the rest of the canvas shows the city – a couple on a date on Marine Drive, a brothel within a slum, the iconic Church Gate, a pink (not the official red) BEST bus with commuter eyes staring out of every bus window, dabbawalas and, of course, a vada pav stall.

As a child, Karn worked on Madhubani greeting cards that fetched his family Rs 5 for each card. A few years later, he started selling his earlier paintings for Rs 200. The first time he received a considerable sum of money for his work was in 2014, when a painting depicting the life of an Indian woman fetched him Rs 40,000.

Raised in a household of women, Karn is very aware of the feminine energy in his house and his works demonstrate his understanding of the inseparability of femininity and creation. Above: 'In her Dream', by Avinash Karn.
Raised in a household of women, Karn is very aware of the feminine energy in his house and his works demonstrate his understanding of the inseparability of femininity and creation. Above: 'In her Dream', by Avinash Karn.

“Is it possible to visualise life without a woman?” asked Karn, whose works have focused on sensuality, puberty, childbirth, life and death. He draws images of the female body, of women giving birth and in one painting, titled Invitation, he endows a phallus with a vagina.

'Invitation', by Avinash Karn.
'Invitation', by Avinash Karn.

Another Madhubani artist who found inspiration in the feminine is Santosh Kumar Das. In his latest book, Black: An Artist’s Tribute, published by Tara Books, Das experiments with the darkest colour. “The rightful place for an artist, his real world, is a pot of black ink,” he said. “I believe it contains all the magic, all the forms, everything that human beings can imagine and render. It hides inside itself the seeds of creation.”

The book will be launched on August 10 at Artisans’ Gallery in Mumbai. In the past, Das has drawn inspiration from popular culture, news, music, and Bollywood, but Black is a personal book about his journey as an artist and his relationship with his mother.

A page from 'Black: An Artist's Tribute', by Santosh Das Gupta (Image courtesy: Artisans').
A page from 'Black: An Artist's Tribute', by Santosh Das Gupta (Image courtesy: Artisans').

The heavy use of the colour black is a tribute to his mother’s preference for the colour. She would use the soot collected from a lamp to paint. In one painting he draws his mother suffering an asthmatic attack at night. “It seems ironic that the darkness which she suffered gave her a colour – and with it, a new life. It provided inspiration for her painting.”

A page from 'Black: An Artist's Tribute', by Santosh Das Gupta (Image courtesy: Artisans').
A page from 'Black: An Artist's Tribute', by Santosh Das Gupta (Image courtesy: Artisans').

Rani Jha uses her folk art to explore the lives of women of Madhubani district in Bihar, where she lives. Her paintings have depicted the loneliness of wives of migrant husbands, women rebelling against old traditions and the rampant sex selective abortions in Madhubani. In these, Jha has depicted the doctors as venomous snakes.

Art work by Rani Jha. Image courtesy: Sahapedia.org.
Art work by Rani Jha. Image courtesy: Sahapedia.org.

A desire for social change appears to bind these folk artists together. In 2016, Karn spent a year in Jharkhand’s Chandidih village, working with the locals on a community art project. In collaboration with Artreach India, he covered the walls of houses with murals drawn in the style of Sohrai art from Jharkhand, decorated with Madhubani designs. Some murals depict local festivals, but many highlight the issues faced by the villagers – the lack of water, healthcare and forests.

In one particularly poignant mural, four tribal women walk in a line with earthen pots full of water on their heads. Three of them have brought their children along for the long walk, while the fourth is pregnant – the child in her belly visible to the viewer. Karn was inspired by an eight-months-pregnant woman he saw walking several kilometres to fetch water for her home. The painting is beautiful, and its message strong – the lack of basic necessities in a village is the hardest on its women.