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THE QUEST FOR PURE FORM

At a time when the chief minister’s ‘masterpieces’ are fetching crores — easy pickings of sycophancy, some would say — it is not surprising that Rajya Charukala Parshad’s celebration of Jamini Roy’s 125th birth anniversary at Gaganendra Shilpa Pradarshashala (April 20-28) came almost as an afterthought. It is a pity that culture is used as a political tool in this country, and being under the state government, the Parishad and similar such organizations are more often than not headed by those in the good books of the administration. Its two current heads came into power only a little more than two months ago, soon after relations soured with the former incumbent.

So the exhibition was put together in a hurry, and only 35 of the 272 Jamini Roy paintings in the Parshad’s collection were on display, with not even a folder on this remarkable artist produced for the occasion. Promises were made of bringing out books on and prints of his work, but such promises ring hollow, particularly in an impoverished state where culture has, for over three and a half decades, become a plaything of politics.

The impact of seeing so many original works together, however, was outstanding. But the credit for that cannot go to the Parishad, for many of these are in urgent need of restoration. Jamini Roy’s two-dimensional paintings with their bright colours and simple, graceful forms, their curvilinear contours defined by flowing lines are reminiscent of the pats produced by unnamed and unsung village artisans. But many of Roy’s paintings, in spite of their decorative elements, have a monumentality which common or garden pats lack. They are naïve/primitive by design. It is true that Roy wanted to delete the stamp of individuality, which was a colonial inheritance, and wanted to revert to the times when paintings were the product of communal participation. So he had chosen as his matrix the folk art of Bengal as a radical statement of protest against the naturalistic academic art practised in the institutions of Calcutta and the airy fairy concoctions of Bengal School and Oriental revivalism.

Jamini Roy’s family belonged to the landed gentry of Bankura, and from childhood he had watched with fascination the artisans, craftsmen and toymakers at work. His father was understanding enough to allow his son to hobnob with them, class and caste barriers notwithstanding, and Jamini Roy finally joined the Government School of Art. He was capable of producing brilliant pastiches of Van Gogh, the Impressionists and the Chinese as well. A few paintings of this period were on display at the exhibition — Gandhi with Rabindranath in various shades of grey, an alley in north Calcutta, and the radiant woman in a pink sari rendered with undulating lines. He went through very hard times then, and painted portraits and theatre sets for a living.

It took 34 years for him to reject that phase and realize that the folk art of Bengal could be the wellspring of his creativity. He did not approach it as an outsider would, but embraced it with the confidence of an insider. He was not attempting to revive it as even in his time it was showing signs of decay. But it was still a living tradition and it was its vitality that attracted him.

Jamini Roy’s was quest for pure form, the quintessence. He chiselled out all superfluities and redundancies to reveal the core within. Yet more than being sculpturesque, his works had painterly virtues. This quality is revealed in such works as the little boy blue, the seated woman (Upabishtha), the performing Vaishnavs and the tender-eyed Jesus Christ icons in their Byzantine grandeur but without the severity of the Pantocrator. Curiously, Roy had excised the breasts of his dancers and nude gopinis, although his Santhal women are well-endowed. He disliked Kalighat pats for their coarseness. Many of his images were stippled, which gave them the character of mosaics. Roy chose his themes from the immense storehouse of Hindu myths and the life he saw in villages, although his studio was in Baghbazar, and later in Ballygunge, where he had a house of his own.

He was a reclusive artist and although the poets, Sudhindranath Datta and Bishnu Dey, were his friends, he had a detractor in Buddhadeb Basu, who took issue with Jamini Roy’s rejection of miniatures, temple architecture and the frescoes of Ajanta, which, Roy asserted, were not Indian. Ironically, Jamini Roy’s British and American admirers used to snap up his ‘rustic’ paintings, of which he made several copies assisted by his son and another young man in keeping with his artisanal aims. Such was the paradox of this modernist who went back to the Bengal village.