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A sinking feeling every time

The picture of a doll sinking (in despair) into the murky depths of a looking-glass encapsulates the turmoil and the groundswell of discontent in the years between 1955 and 1975 that CIMA Gallery has sought to capture in its ambitious exhibition, titled Art of Bengal, a vision defined.

Executed in 1971, Bikash Bhattacharjee’s work has a glossy black skin up to about a quarter of the vertical space. Against this is etched a cute doll’s foot. Each area is clearly demarcated. The rest is lightly sprayed with black. This section of the paper has been folded horizontally to indicate the dividing line between the real and the reflected image, which is the suggestion of a dimpled hand.

The vortex of the work, so to speak, is a salmon pink semicircle practically at its centre, which shatters any watertight distinction between the real and the illusory. It could be an actual doll going down the drain, or it could chillingly suggest that sinking feeling that all sensitive people are supposed to experience in troubled times. So, this mixed media is by extension also perhaps about the dilemma of artists at such times, at all times.

These were the two decades which saw the food riots in Calcutta, the efflorescence of Satyajit Ray’s genius, the apogee of group theatre, and the Naxalites.

Ten artists have been chosen to represent those turbulent times, which also witnessed a creative ferment in the arts in Bengal. The artists are, apart from Bhattacharjee, Arun Bose, Jogen Chowdhury, Somnath Hore, Meera Mukherjee, Ganesh Pyne, Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, Lalu Prosad Shaw, Arpita Singh, K.G. Subramanyan. All of them are not Bengalis. Nor do all of them work in Bengal. Arun Bose has lived for the past 30 years in New York and Arpita Singh happily works in Delhi. But, as the foreword of a book of the same title as the exhibition and published by CIMA says, they were among those many artists who spearheaded the movement to forge a creative language of their own with greater clarity.

Many of these works are rarely seen. They belong to private collections. Like Bhattacharjee’s epical triptych of the Calvary. It a dark vision of lacerated bodies with eyes gouged out, the wretched of the earth reflecting the artist’s despairing thoughts on political unrest.

Death, dreams, the passage of time, memories and the self are the recurrent images in Ganesh Pyne’s twilight world. Pyne articulates his thoughts through paintings, as carefully executed as miniatures. This exhibition reminds us again that in the beginning, Pyne had worked as a cartoonist. Even at his poetic best, he shows traces of this.

Jogen Chowdhury wields the rapier of satire to deflate eggheads, politicians and the carnal desires of the loose of flesh. In the 60s, he painted nudes with sagging bodies which developed into complex studies of moral turpitude and the corruption of flesh.

Large monochromatic areas inset with a minuscule motif characterise the best of Arun Bose’s prints. K.G. Subramanyan’s reverse paintings in gouache and oils on thin plastic sheets are colourful celebrations of the movable feast that is life.

Deft calligraphic gestures in black mark Lalu Prosad Shaw’s etchings and lithographs. They branch out or appear to be a tangle of limbs. Arpita Singh may take off on Gujarat violence but she goes back to kantha and pata for inspiration.

The three sculptors are masters and pathbreakers who turned to indigenous forms and techniques discarding their early training. The energy latent in Meera Mukherjee breaks forth in her Cosmic Dancer.

Sarbari Roy Chowdhury experiments with form in his nudes. The agony of those times finds tortured expression in Somnath Hore’s eloquent forms. The show is open till March 29.

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