Like many of his contemporaries such as Chittaprosad, Somnath Hore and Zainul Abedin, Gobardhan Ash (1907-1996) will be remembered for his documentation of the manmade Bengal famine of 1943 whose horrors he captured in innumerable paintings and drawings with the poignancy and verity of photographic images. He used watercolour as well as pen and ink to execute these and exhibited them in 1945. That these still have the power to move us was proved anew at the exhibition of his drawings at Aakriti that is on till August 18 (Of many beginnings and no end).
True, there is only one of the famine drawings on display, but it drives home the horror of the devastation that caused the death of thousands of people in villages and on the sidewalks of the city. Without food or nourishment for long periods they were reduced to living skeletons. Their hovels were reduced to rubble and there seemed to be little point in clinging on to life. One of the wraiths — a woman — lay on the ground, while others, including children, surrounded her dying a slow death. They rest their foreheads on their hands in attitudes beyond despair.
The drawing seems to reflect the prevailing mood of gloom and doom in Calcutta’s art market. If galleries are holding any exhibitions at all, they are playing safe and showing old masters whose works we rarely see.
Small and rather haphazard though it is, this exhibition demonstrates what a powerful draughtsman Ash was. He was born in Begumpur in Hooghly district and joined the government art school in Calcutta at 19. After being trained in ‘fine arts’ in this institution, he joined the Madras government art school in 1932, when Debiprasad Roy Choudhury was his mentor.
Thereafter, he landed the job of an artist at the central ordnance department in Agra in 1944 and the Indian Institute of Art in Industry in 1946. He did stints of varying periods of time in several institutions, and won awards for his exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, when it existed in a room located in the Indian Museum. He held his first one-man show at Chowringhee Terrace in January 1950. This was followed by several others in far-flung places like Dehradun.
In 1933, he joined the Art Rebel Centre and became a member of the Calcutta Group in 1950. In keeping with its tenets, he did not baulk at depicting the seamier side of life.
He was a prolific artist and did oil paintings of landscapes and excelled in the academic style in the first phase of his career. His style evolved and he tried his hand at impressionism and expressionism as well as different media.
Ash was a sensitive observer of the ordinary, and he would effortlessly sketch whatever he saw around him. He did several sketches of boats on the river Padma and he delineated in great details the fishing nets and the people surrounding it, some smoking the hookah, while others took a quick dip in the water.
This is a random selection of what remains of Gobardhan Ash’s works, most of them having been acquired by buyers from all over the country. We see a charcoal sketch of a fakir in a contemplative mood, a beggar supporting himself on a stick, and a harsh-faced ‘English lady’ with beady eyes.
There are typical classroom pencil sketches of male nudes in various poses and of some Vaishnavs performing kirtan with drums, breaking into a dance at the same time. At the Indian Institute of Art in Industry in 1946, he had designed several borders and motifs for saris. Some of those are shown here.
There are several small stylised motifs of various animals such as lions, cranes, horses and a dragon. Rendered in black, they resemble the silhouettes of these creatures. He did painstaking, rather decorative, pencil drawings of goddesses like Durga and Kali.
Ash was adept at depicting the expressions of children, and he did several drawings and paintings of fantastic creatures. But the ones shown here of tiny boys at play along with his jottings are quite perplexing. They need explanatory notes for they make little sense without them.
Gobardhan Ash used to make self-portraits with every passing year, and these recorded the subtle changes in his features rendered by the claws of time. There are several self-portraits here, and these are doubtlessly some of the best of Gobardhan Ash’s works. Some are rendered with a few wispy lines, while others are densely cross-hatched. They all have a presence.