Mahalaxmi Karn was born in the village of Ranti, in northern Bihar, just across the border from Nepal. She has been painting for the last 20 years. She started to paint as a “hobby” but subsequently trained with the esteemed painter Santosh Kumar Das. In 2013 she was awarded a scholarship by the Ministry of Culture. In 2016 she received the prestigious Ojas award in India, and in 2019 she was selected to represent the art of Mithila at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, NM. Her work is in private and public collections in India as well as abroad.
Mahalaxmi Karn is notable among a young generation of Indian artists who have revolutionized and feminized the traditional folk genre known as Mithila or Madhubani painting. The art has been practiced in the Madhubani district of the Mithila region of Bihar for many generations. But until the 1960’s it was almost entirely an art practiced by women on the interior mud walls of their homes. For centuries the women of Mithila have decorated the walls of their houses with intricate, linear designs on the occasion of marriages and other ceremonies, Painting is a key part of the education of Mithila women, culminating in the painting of the walls of the kohbar, or nuptial chamber on the occasion of a wedding. The kohbar ghar paintings are based on mythological, folk themes and tantric symbolism, though the central theme is invariably love and fertility.
The contemporary art of Mithila painting was born in the early 1960’s, following the terrible Bihar famine. The women of Mithila applied their painting skills to paper as a means of supplementing their meager incomes. Once applied to a portable and thus more visible medium, the work was enthusiastically bought by tourists and folk art collectors alike. As with the wall paintings, these individual works were initially painted with natural plant and mineral-derived colors, using bamboo twigs in lieu of brush or pen.
Over the ensuing forty years a wide range of styles and qualities of Mithila art have evolved, with styles differentiated by region and caste – particularly the Brahmin, Kayastha and Harijan castes. Many individual artists have emerged with distinctive individual styles. Among the best known early Brahmin artists have been the late Ganga Devi (1928-1991), Baua Devi (b. Late 1940s), Sita Devi, Karpoori Devi and Mahasundari Devi(1922-2013). Baua Devi was the only woman artist from India to show at the groundbreaking Magiciens de la Terre exhibit in 1989 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Mahalaxmi paints both solo and in collaboration with her husband, Shantanu Das. Sometimes they sign the work as Mahalaxmi Das. Most of her work is acrylic on paper, but she also paints on canvas and on murals. When most Madhubani painters tended to reprise the tried and true images of religious deities and Hindu mythology, Mahalaxmi “decided to break away and include subjects that were more unusual, like portraits of everyday people and even visual depictions of Hindi poems.” Many of her works have a strong feminist theme. A series called, “Household Diaries,” depicts women in their “various incarnations”— wives, mothers, workers and painters. She depicts a modern Indian woman caring for a baby, taking a child to school, tending to crops, picking flowers and taking selfies on her phone. In a wry commentary on the patriarchy, a woman massages her husband’s feet while he reads the paper, with the flat screen TV watching over the scene.
For more information on how to view this exhibit, check out the Indigo Arts Gallery website!
Exhibition running from May 2, 2021 to June 30, 2021!