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Master reunites with his disciple

The undulating countryside by BR Panesar.

It is one of those classic tales of the gentle master discovering his disciple in a tiny village kid who flowers into a refined collage artist. It is a story known to the Indian art world, and CIMA Gallery has organised The Master & His Disciple: Works by B.R. Panesar & Shakila opening on Friday evening to commemorate that touching relationship.

For the first time, the works of both the late Panesarji, as the statistician-turned-artist was better known, and Shakila, whom he had nurtured and groomed as a collage artist from the time he encountered her in the Taltala area where he lived, will be exhibited together.

At one time Panesarji would make it a point to be present at all art exhibitions held in Calcutta, and he would encourage all artists, however obscure, never to stop working. Later in life his movement became restricted and most of the time he would remain confined to the Taltala YMCA, where he lived for a good part of his life post-retirement.

Yet he never stopped painting. With paintbrush and acrylic paint he turned out many views of the undulating countryside. His brushstrokes had become swift, broad and bold, and although at times sameness would creep in, there was no doubt about his spontaneity.

Kali distributing sweets by Shakila.

He seemed to have freed himself from the shackles of convention. The green and ochre landscapes were often dotted with microscopic squiggles, which, if one looked carefully, were either human beings or beasts of the field. These strokes of pen and ink, impart a certain strangeness to Panesarji’s later works.

There is a single precious collage by Panesar here done way back in 1990. It is of a city whose skyline is jostling with highrise buildings. Perhaps the prescient artist had visions of New Town that would come up in Rajarhat. Panesar gave up collage, once Shakila started doing these herself, and excelled in it too.

Panesarji did a series of human beings moving rapidly a la Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Panesar kept it simple. He depicted motion through a series of swift, calligraphic brushstrokes, rendering some facial features thereafter. Quite a unique and sophisticated form of expression.

Shakila has been a practising artist for close to two decades, and even after all these years she does not to cease to surprise. Kali has been a recurring image in her oeuvre.

With the sad smile that she always smiles, Shakila says hesitantly: “Both Kali and Durga can take on different forms. I cannot explain the meaning of these pictures. I just do them.”

She has an uncanny gift for choosing just the right snippet of paper to depict the faces and hands of the characters she depicts in her work. In her latest work, a girl is merrily angling. She has caught a fish. A single arm stretches out towards her. She keeps it ambiguous.

In a more direct depiction of violence, a beautiful woman is being carried away by a man, his hair resembling an alligator’s tail. Her feet are perfectly manicured.

Even when it is a field of graded colour, Shakila does not go wrong. In a large work, the warm red is uniformly shaded with grey and brown, giving the impression of the artist happily slapping her canvas with paint.

In a fearsome work, a black furry creature peers at the viewer, its tongue sticking out. The menace is perceptible and she depicts its glistening coat to perfection.

In a pretty picture, pink LED lights twinkle merrily against a backdrop of grey satin. It could be from any puja or wedding pandal. Yet, like her master, she never received any formal training and she has a mind of her own.

“Baba (as she called Panesarji) used to give me many catalogues. He would say: ‘Look at all of them but never copy them,’” says Shakila.

Violence in rural Bengal is a recurring theme of her collages — policemen gunning down innocents, torturing them in thanas, slumdwellers being evicted by force (it could be a scene from a favela). But at the same time she leaves much room for ambiguity, for the inexplicable. It is as if she has entered the world of dreams where she does not need to rein in her imagination.