Partha Pratim Deb is a rare artist — a free spirit who never cared much for the market. That was quite obvious from his exhibition, Play for Joy of Seeing, held at Aakriti Art Gallery from December 25 to January 19. This exhibition was quite exceptional because for once there were neither paintings nor sculptures on display. Instead there was a colourful medley of strange — even bizarre — objects displayed not on the walls or on the floor but on small tables covered with tiny white pebbles that highlighted the chromatic brilliance of these works. The material used was also varied — from terracotta to scraps of leather, paper pulp, sand dust, a bottlebrush, a urinal, old newspapers and stuff that we would rather throw away than preserve.
One did not have to look too closely at them to gather that some of these assemblages were composed mostly of things used in everyday life that are discarded after these have lost their utility as a consequence of wear and tear. This apart, the most remarkable thing about Deb’s work is how the alchemy of his imagination has turned these objects, which are in actuality pieces of junk, into things that exude joy — fun even. They easily communicate the joy that the artist must have felt while creating them, and the viewer too is not deprived for s/he is allowed to share this feeling of elation.
The joy may spring from the unlikely, whimsical and idiosyncratic manner in which he defamiliarizes objects that are taken for granted. Deb takes these out of context, when they shed their workaday garb, and take on, as it were, a guise that gives them an altogether new identity that is often at conflict with their earlier ones. Shape shifting is one expression that comes immediately to mind on viewing his art. He has an eye for identifying the unfamiliar in the most commonplace of objects and works on them accordingly.
A pressure cooker, a hotwater bottle, a kadhai, a bottlebrush, a kerosene lamp, an old telephone —Deb spares nothing. A bright splash of enamel paint, perhaps a pinch of sawdust, an arrangement with other objects — and voila! — another creation is ready. Deb had been trained in Santiniketan and he began his career as an art teacher in a girls’ school in Agartala in 1969, where art material was not easily available. So he had no choice but to start experimenting in other media.
Rivalry with the students of the Government College of Art & Craft, whose training was (and still is) basically academic, also pushed Deb into using unconventional materials and methods to create an unending stream of works never meant to be exhibited. After he joined Rabindra Bharati University in 1972, he would work in the classroom itself, exposing his students to his unorthodox process. This was before the University Grants Commission had prescribed a rigid syllabus for the university.
It is easy to trace the artists who may have influenced Deb. While he shares the playfulness of a K.G. Subramanyan and the whimsies of Sukumar Ray, Deb’s humour is not without a critical edge communicated through the human figures, who, like the ones of indeterminate identity (in every way) in his drawings, seem to be caught in rather awkward situations of which they cannot make much sense. The simplicity of these figures underlines this existentialist dilemma. Everything is uncertain about them save their humanness. The bottles hanging casually have labels that are anything but playful. But these can be missed easily.
Think of the figure sitting atop a colourful hurricane lantern, its hands tied with a piece of string, or the pensive one on the lid of a pressure cooker, springing out like a Jack in the Box, herded on a springboard, dangling from a chain or lying supine inside a newspaper folder (picture). Even the cat made of bottlebrushes has a human face.
Deb’s whimsicality is expressed best in his anthropomorphic garments with drawings tailored from old newspapers, painted canvas strips and leather, the pot on a battered kerosene stove spewing forth froth of coloured thread (all in brilliant yellow enamel paint), and the ‘insects’ made of paper pulp and sawdust. He has mastered the art of trompe l’oeil as well. His sea creatures and slugs with their slimy textures are actually made of terracotta painted over. The tables laid out with ‘food’ look scrumptious. But what are they save paper pulp and enamel paint? He easily deceives the eye.