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THE MISSING CORE OF THE ART

That Prodosh Dasgupta (1912-1991) belonged to a specific phase of the history of Indian contemporary art becomes clear from his current exhibition at the Victoria Memorial Hall. As a sculptor he could not have belonged to any other period of time. This is the first time in a long while that his work is being displayed in the city where he taught at the Government College of Art & Craft and worked as a sculptor. And what becomes quite clear is the overwhelming impact that the modernist art of the West had on Indian artists who were exposed to it first hand — that is, to those who had travelled abroad, as opposed to those who savoured it through the more circuitous route of illustrations in magazines and journals.

The shock of the new perhaps had such a mind-altering effect that they found it difficult to absorb it. Somehow, Amrita Shergil (1913-1941) — who was at the epicentre of the art movement that had erupted in the West, changing forever the way we look at the world and our inner lives — seemed to have been immune to its allure and chose to revert to Paul Gauguin and the Ajanta frescoes. Not everybody could be so resistant.

And not everybody could be as independent-minded as Constantin Brancusi, one of Dasgupta’s major inspirations, who had rejected Auguste Rodin’s offer to work under the great French master because the Romanian sculptor had resolved to hold his own.

In his centennial year, it is important to remember Dasgupta’s great contribution as a teacher, who had among his pupils the likes of Sarbari Roy Choudhury, Bipin Goswami and Uma Siddhanta. The bare facts of his life bear repetition. Dasgupta was born in Dhaka, and after graduating from Calcutta University, he joined Madras School of Art to be trained under the sculptor, Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, like his contemporary Paritosh Sen (1918-2008). On the strength of a scholarship, he joined the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and then the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, which encouraged progressive views. Dasgupta was a prolific writer both in English and the vernacular and a poet as well. He often laid out his opinions on various issues such as education. Having moved to Delhi, he was director of the National Gallery of Modern Art in its formative years.

It is quite clear from his work that he tried to integrate Indian and Western traditions of sculpture but the Indianness seems to be overshadowed by the towering genius of Rodin and definitely Jacob Epstein, Brancusi, Henry Moore, Jean Arp and pre-Columbian art as well. All this has, no doubt, been pointed out before, but what I would like to stress is that the ideas and forms he derived from the greats of the West, who were at their peak then, were not just undercurrents but formed the core of his art. Which is why Dasgupta’s art may seem somewhat enervated and dated to eyes exposed to the fantastic and bizarre array of images and forms served up by the internet. With improved access to state-of-the-art globalized art, it is possible to keep abreast of latest developments with a click of the mouse.

One of Dasgupta’s finest works here is the Egg Bird, with the perfect smooth-as-satin skin. It combines both wit and concision. With its two halves locked in an inseparable embrace, from a distance the marble piece could be mistaken for a turtle trying in vain to defy gravity and take wing. While one admires it, one cannot help thinking of Brancusi’s primordial egg.

One enjoys Ramkinkar Baij’s sculpture even today because it is so apparent that in his domain, Western and Indian traditions never give up their wrestling match to dominate and subdue each other. His works radiate such rude vitality and vigour that viewers are overpowered by their kineticism akin to dance. It is this exuberance that Dasgupta’s works lack.

Even in the works where the extremities of the limbs are not depicted as in Broken Idol, perhaps as a throwback to our folk toy traditions, it seems to be a half-hearted effort. Strange but true, the artists of Bengal who never left the shores of this country, had experimented with much greater boldness and panache and had taken much greater liberties with our traditions and theirs.

The current exhibition is organized by the Lalit Kala Akademi and the sculptor’s son, Pradeep Dasgupta, and is coordinated by Reena Lath of Akar Prakar. It is on till August 12.