Shyam Kanu Borthakur, the artist from Assam, had made Calcutta his home, but his inspiration was still the hills and jungles of his home state. Borthakur was known for his powerful depictions of the elephants, boars and rhinoceroses that roam the wilds of Assam. The artist died in Calcutta after a prolonged illness on January 31 this year. Ganges Art Gallery held an exhibition of his drawings thereafter.
Borthakur was born at Naharkatiya in Assam in 1954. He graduated from Dibrugarh University, Assam, in 1976, and got a diploma in fine arts from the Indian College of Arts & Draftsmanship, and later studied fine arts at the College of Visual Arts, Calcutta. The primitive world of larger-than-life animals was the fountainhead of his art.
He was particularly good at creating drawings of virile animals in all their fury as a symbol of the untamed powers of nature which civilization has alienated us from. His bulls are huge snorting and hulking forms with humps as large as a mountain and dewlaps almost touching the ground. He managed to catch them when they were charging at their enemies full tilt, with blazing eyes and horns lowered. There is a dynamism in his drawings which turns even smaller animals like the wild boar into great balls of fire. He captured several frames of movement in a single static image, Duchamp style.
Borthakurís sculptures, both big and small, of wild boars and goats using bronze, and in one instance, wood and leather, were packed with power. He exaggerated certain body parts to achieve this effect. The goats with horns larger than their heads and stomachs have a sparkle in their eyes. Like the bulls, some of them are aggressive and ready to butt adversaries with their horns.
By contrast, his elephants are docile and quiet in spite of their mammoth dimensions. They are like shadows in the forest, but are immediately identifiable by virtue of their gigantic forms. Sometimes the calves are accompanied by their mothers although the kids are quite independent minded, probing the world outside security of the maternal embrace, if only with their trunks.
The artist did many satirical drawings. His steaming kettles resembling fat ladies and lugubrious boars are delightful caricatures. None of these works nor his sculptures were displayed at his last exhibition but it is his ability to distort and exaggerate that stood him in good stead when he did the drawings of animals with certain body parts quite out of proportion with the rest of the body.
Borthakur used colours sparingly and this greatly enhanced the sense of animation. Some graceful prancing horses were also displayed in this exhibition. But it was his testosterone-charged creatures that made their mark.