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Shalini Karn

Madhubani Painting: From the Forest of Honey to the Modern World

According to Hindu legend, Madhubani painting originated during the wedding of the divine couple at the heart of the Ramayana, Lord Rama and Sita, daughter of King Janaka of Mithila. In celebration, the king asked his people to create heaven on earth, and they did so by painting murals on their homes. Today, these paintings are commonly created on fabric or paper. The word Madhubani translates to “forest of honey,” which conjures the artform’s otherworldly origin.

Shalini Karn’s family has practiced Madhubani art for generations. At a young age, she learned painting techniques from her grandmother, who had learned from her ancestors. Shalini’s talent and dedication earned her a scholarship to university where she honed her skills. Now a master of the craft, she combines traditional techniques with mythological and contemporary ideas to create narrative works that examine the world around her. Her recent work reflects on social issues including the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Shalini combines two Madhubani art styles: kachni and bharni. The kachni style features intricately detailed, fine-line black and white drawings. Then, working in the more colorful bharni style, Shalini selectively adds color to areas of her compositions. The resulting works are crisp and high-contrast, highlighting both styles and featuring rich textures and vibratory patterns.

An important aspect of Karn’s identity as an artist is her stewardship of traditional Madhubani painting, and also giving back to her community. “I have been running workshops for underprivileged young girls,” explains Karn, adding that she hopes “students from across the country will one day be contributing to this tradition.”