Chitraniva. The poetic cadence of the name made you wonder who gave it. And sure enough, it was Rabindranath Tagore, in appreciation of the young art student who was training under Nandalal Bose in Santiniketan. Chitraniva Chowdhury (1913-1999) then went on to become the first woman art teacher at Kala Bhavan, imbibing the ethos and style of her gurus.
Among the many names associated with Santiniketan in its early days several were women who exemplified the feminism Tagore came to advocate. Yet few remember Chowdhury today. If she didnít quite reveal a distinctive signature, one must remember the context in which she worked. Not just in terms of the position of women in those days, but also of the very limited exposure to world art possible then.
A recent exhibition held at the Academy of Fine Arts to mark her centenary last year sought to rescue her from undeserved obscurity. She was deft with the pencil, wielded with sure economy to draw the profile of several famous people. Her naturescapes ó such as, A River in Full Moon ó and flower studies in watercolour and pastel, and her village scenes showed both her confident craft and a reflective romanticism. While a Bengal School influence was apparent in Ekalabya, Spring Festival was more complex in design and more fluent in execution. Did that signify a ripening sensibility? Such unanswered questions refer to a period awaiting thorough research.
But the good thing is that the tribute to artists past continues. Aakriti Gallery, for example, remembered 17 of them, from Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) and Jamini Roy (1887-1972) to Bandhan Das (1944-2000) in tracing modernism in Bengal, perhaps guided more by what works were available rather than what was contextually essential. Interestingly, classic Bengal School examples were avoided, underlining the search of the artists for their own voice, although the influence of the two seniors named earlier persisted in the two artists not commonly seen at shows: Sudhir Khastgir (1907-1974) and Indra Dugar (1918-1989).
Dugarís disarming rusticity and dappled colours were clearly inspired by the spirit of Santiniketan (picture). Gobardhan Ash (1907-1996) in his flurry of quick, close strokes and Gopal Ghosh (1913-1980) meditating on dusk with a deepening of mournful silhouettes indicated creative paths that came close at times but diverged. And the mocking squint of Paritosh Sen (1918-2008) contrasted with the overearnest tone of Bijan Chowdhury (1931-2012).
Of the works by the trio that dominated Bengalís art scene for about three decades ó Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013), Dharmanarayan Dasgupta (1939-1997) and Bikash Bhattacharjee (1940-2006) ó the latterís offbeat pastel sketch of his wife evoked an intimate Vermeer moment. The tumultuous horizontal sweep of colours in B.R. Panesar (1927-2014) was as exhilarating as the premonition of dread in Badhan Das, an abstractionist in an overwhelming landscape of figuration.
Sculptures by Ajit Chakravarty (1930-2005), Sarbari Roy Choudhury (1933-2012), Somnath Hore (1921-2006) and the only woman artist of the show, Meera Mukherjee, emphasized the way the exploration of both form and humanist ideals fuelled creativity in the age of classical Indian modernism. Unlike the agenda of a contemporary artist, Debanjan Roy, who asks you to look at, well, things. Just things.
The kind you look at all the time, but donít see. Like the toothbrush and the comb. The kind you use without thinking. Things valued, but not vital, like a choice dress perhaps. Things vital, but not valued, like a saline bottle perhaps. Man-made things that make industrial civilization a market of buyers and sellers, demand and discards. Discards that profile a society and record minute changes, in taste as well as in technology. It is these discards that intrigue and inspire the artist in his show, Waste Side Story, on till April 30 at Akar Prakar.
Waste is not, strictly speaking, always that which is discarded after use, but whatever is unnecessary for existence but critical to consumer culture which thrives on invented needs. Whether Roy thought of the distinction or not, he banters both. Thus, empty non-biodegradable packets of junk food are reborn as colourful haute couture. Water bottles ó carved out of wood ó spill out from a bin. Mosquito repellents, fridge doors, the toilet brush and such are accorded wry recognition.
Because, although he relishes play with form, his primary concern is to critique consumer society. That would take him back to Warhol, though without quotations, but with a wit that can turn casually macabre. As it does when a doll becomes a telling paradigm of consumer waste. Stripped to a strangely raw, disturbing nakedness, itís also stripped of its unspoken symbolism of childhood.