Birds have dominated human imagination ever since pterodactyls winged across Jurassic skies, and in later ages were perhaps transmogrified into the Garuda, Jatayu, Roc, the giant avian species from The Arabian Nights, not to speak of the death-defying phoenix that Rowling has invoked. Besides our rich miniature tradition in which peacocks played a stellar role, our feathered friends or fiends — depending on how one would care to see them — have figured prominently in ancient Japanese and Chinese paintings, and in the works of the great Katsushika Hokusai, who had executed some truly amazing representations. It is fashionable among Japanese youth to wear Hokusai cranes on their skin in the form of tattoos. Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine is a delightful and charming example of how a modernist artist can can their chorus in a drawing. Peacocks, ducks and parrots as motifs in Indian textiles speak of our fascination with them. Rabindranath Tagore turned them into fantastic creatures round about the time when ornithologists like Salim Ali and Pradyot Kumar Sengupta used to prop up dead birds for their pictures to be painted by young art college students.
Ganges Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, The Aviary (till June 30), showcases birds painted by various artists, known and unknown. These include Debabrata Hazra’s phantasmagoric portraits of a few avian species, Puran Singh Jhala’s dazzling parrots, Jogen Chowdhury’s simple swans, which are not, perhaps, as harmless as they look, and Jayashree Chakravarty’s splendid birds with an ecological message embedded in them. The inclusion of the works of Mahajabin Majumdar and Avijit Mukherjee, in which the presence of birds is only incidental, is difficult to explain. The symbolism of the birds, if any, in their paintings, may be lost on many viewers. Shuvaprasanna’s crows and owl belong to an earlier era, a time when he had done a series of city rooftops. Sunil Das’s black-and-white songbirds on a narrow strip of paper are a welcome change from his horses and bulls.
Sagar Bhowmick’s dead sparrow is evidence enough of his skill, but it looks too much like a work one has seen before. Atin Basak’s skill as a printmaker is not too much in evidence in his two paintings.
Mithu Sen’s bird in flight on a piece of stark white paper bursts into a stream of blood and entrails, midair. The blood and the innards flow out in curlicues and fade out like ink leaking out of a fountain pen dipped in water. The bird could have been shot with a bullet or lancinated by some other means. Or did it implode on its own while striking a high note? Perhaps it was on a suicide mission, like the Jatinga birds. Debabrata Hazra’s birds with huge beaks and wings emerge from waves of psychedelic hues in his arresting paintings. These colours and forms seem to have emerged from dreams induced by hallucinogens.
Jogen Chowdhury’s simple line drawings of swans are intriguing. They may have long elegant necks, but one cannot miss the sharpness of their talons and beaks — birds of prey in a swan’s clothing. These two are slight works, and the third, representing Bakasur, was displayed earlier in another gallery. Katayun Saklat is more adept at painting flowers and magical visions than cockerels at war. These fowl with bright plumage and raised hackles fly at each other, but they seem to lack the killer instinct that makes them fight to death. They are too scrawny anyway, all feather and little weight. Think of the cocks spoiling for a fight in the presence of Claude Martin in Zoffany’s painting, a print of which once used to hang in the chapel of the eponymous school founded in Calcutta by the French adventurer.
It is difficult to miss Puran Singh Jhala’s vibrant acrylic paintings in strikingly contrasting shades of red and green. The flock of parrots invading a field with brilliant green and red pepper strewn all around is a remarkable composition. But what the birds are up to in the presence of the giant Shivaling in the second picture remains a mystery.
Jayashree Chakravarty has, in the recent past, addressed ecological issues through her paintings. She does so brilliantly in the two medium-sized works displayed here. A sandpiper and a duck (picture), victims of an eco disaster, are the protagonists of these two paintings. These richly-textured monochromatic works with highlights of silver and patches of black are more eloquent than an entire photographic show could have been.