Between the monied patron and the learned pundit there is, sometimes, a tightrope the arts have to tread, especially in the modern age. Wooing one, it’s felt, may well alienate the other. Yet that need not be so. After all, the commissioned portrait of a burgher’s wife in the 16th century became the most famous image in the world. On the other hand, the mercurial van Gogh’s paintings hardly sold during his lifetime. This dichotomy between quality and commerce quite naturally bothers artists — particularly struggling exponents — who play it safe, either by following successful examples or by adhering to art that doesn’t overawe the uninitiated.
Dhiren Sasmal , whose paintings were recently exhibited by Tejas Gallery at ICCR, is no struggling tyro, of course. Indeed, he can even be deemed fairly successful with, we are told, works in the galleries and collections of several countries. And his craft, it must be said, is assured. This was seen quite clearly in both his drawing and his brushwork. However, this assured craft has been harnessed in the cause of colourful ‘wall art’ that apparently has its own collectors, particularly in Delhi and elsewhere in North India.
The fact that Sasmal has been a designer and an illustrator is evident in his style, which has two assertive elements: decorative, winsome motifs often deployed as fillers ,and lyrical, even feminine, lines that go back to the Bengal School, though what he uses isn’t wash but acrylic often stippled with ink. So what the viewer saw were dainty girls, loving couples, quaintly toy-like animals, frisky horses and such, embellished with intricate, high-toned patterns against floral, avian or geometric backgrounds. More, in other words, is the mantra here. This decorative excess appeared to be seeking the viewer’s endorsement for its Fantasia — which is what the show was called — because fantasy can be promiscuously multicoloured and sucrose.
The artist himself seemed to sense the inevitable fatigue of prettified images. For there were a few works which indicated his urge to break free of old moulds in search of new expressions that largely discard lilting forms and ornamentation. One of them was an owl bristling with ragged Expressionist strokes. Despite its recall of a senior contemporary’s trademark imagery, the blend of power and vulnerability lent personality to the bird. Another example of setting form free of melodious lines had a girl with a bird where the strokes were broad, brusque and breezy. Some of his small works caught the eye for their fetching simplicity, with strong, quick lines and grounds of mottled paint seen, particularly, in the paintings of a boy with a sling and of a seated girl.