Obsessed with its mega gods, amnesiac about lesser achievers, Calcutta is only now being nudged into remembrances of artists past who were devotees of modernism also. One such was Gopal Ghose, virtually rediscovered by the cognoscenti at his retrospective just three months ago. Another awaits his due. He is Gobardhan Ash (1907-1996), whose landscapes are on view in Galerie 88 till September 28.
The 33 landscapes are part of the works that had been lying with the artist’s sons in Begumpur, Hooghly, where Ash was born and where the family still lives. The dates begin in 1931. That is, just a year after he left the Government School of Art, dissatisfied, and a year before he went to Madras to join the art school there during Deviprasad Roychowdhury’s tenure as principal but left that, too, within a year. He was obviously restless — for such was the crossroads climate then — and clearly groping, like others of his generation, for a modern idiom that would be distinctive as much in its Indianness as in its individuality.
Going by this modest body of works — which excludes a focus on both foreground figures and what could be called abstractions — you can identify a few accents, if not phases, in their creative structuring. To begin with, there seems to have been a basic template he followed: sky, ground, trees and, at times, rivers and receding vistas that are woven into sensitive permutations. The human presence, reduced to muffled specks, is inserted as a low-decibel counterpoint to Nature, perhaps to better evoke its scale and vastness — the atmosphere.
Then there are the subtle shifts within his chosen syntax. For example, three small wash landscapes (1931), tinted with a feather touch, reveal the inescapable spell of East Asian traditions and wash even on those post-Bengal School artists who had rejected the revivalist principles of its legacy. Another work, dated 1938, is like an academic exercise emphasizing breezy outlines, though outlines are dispensed with in his later landscapes as definitions of form are muted into pervious colours.
Like they are in the three that come from 1950-51, with a rich palette and a fitful, skipping brush for close stippling. Somewhat like Jamini Roy’s early post-Impressionist manner. But the gouache is more liquid than is usual and the colours blur, blend and overlap to stoke a sense of continual motion and change.
To go by this show, gouache seems to have been his favourite medium, though there are several oils as well, both on board and on canvas and a very fine, fluent watercolour. In one gouache dated 1940, he applies the paint in viscous smudges that look like oil. Its lone, attenuated tree trunk and the hint of tiny figures in the far distance trapped in writhing paint intimate the thrust of powerful, disturbed emotions. Without more works from this period it’s difficult to say whether Pilgrim — for that’s the title — reflects his early struggle, but it could indicate so.
Yet in the paintings of the 1990s, the gouache is thinner and the touch lighter, although the sweep of the brush is as sinuous and swift. But earth tones seem to be edging out the reds and blues. The one work that deserves mention because it’s different is Basanta (picture), where lithe, calligraphic lines in black surge and sway among pale, dappled colours.
When Ash used boards as surface, the oil is denser, darker, leaning on greens and browns with horizontal strokes and impasto trails and squiggles, especially in two early landscapes, Old Botanical Garden-l (1940) and Out of the Village (1954). Those from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, however, merge the strokes and colours to envelop form into a glistening patina that stresses a Turneresque approach. Intriguingly, though, the canvases of the 1990s return to a clearer articulation even as the palette shifts to an autumnal spectrum. Landscape V (1995), with its understated ground tones against which spry bands flow, leap and pirouette, is one oil that must be cited. It recalls his contemporary, Gopal Ghose, as do several others. Like the watercolour, Cool Breeze (1995), with its pulsating anxiety. Equally captivating is an abstract landscape (1993) in oil — the only one of the show — with a neutral backdrop and an exhilarating chaos of strokes.
Since this show isn’t comprehensive, an attempt to assess where Gobardhan Ash stands in modern Indian art would be misplaced. But what remains with the viewer is his infectious romanticism, which is most refreshing. Like a cool bath in summer.