Bal Raj Panesar (1927-2014), the statistician who began his career at a time when Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis held sway at the Indian Statistical Institute, and Shakila (born 1969) shared a relationship that could be compared with that of a guru and shishya, and of father and daughter. Shakila called him Baba, and he had nurtured her native talent so lovingly that she flowered into a mature artist with a worldview all her own. They have some more common traits. Panesarji, as he was known among his friends, was an untrained artist like Shakila.
Panesarji may have been aided and abetted by friends like Dilip Dasgupta, Ganesh Haloi, Lalu Prasad Shaw, Rathin Mitra and other members of the Society of Contemporary Artists of which he was a member, but he had no formal training. Nonetheless, he had evolved a distinctive style of his own in collage and graphics. Panesarji used to get heaps of paper for the child Shakila, who would come to the Taltala market with her mother to sell vegetables. He had initiated her into the art of making collages by tearing paper and creating myriad forms, but she had a technique of her own, and over the years it has evolved to a great extent.
Their individuality as artists and the striking contrast in their styles stand out in CIMA’s exhibition, The Master & His Disciple: Works by B.R. Panesar & Shakila, on till May 17. In the last years of his life, Panesarji used to doodle and draw almost obsessively. In his drawings he often tried to depict speed — boys playing cricket or just running — by representing a body in action through a continuous sequence of brush strokes to create the illusion of movement, much as they did in stop motion animation in films like the 1933 King Kong.
His drawings also remind one of a painting by the Italian Futuristic artist, Giacomo Balla, titled, Dynamism of a Dog on Leash (1912) in which motion is suggested by multiplying to a blur of movement the feet of the woman, the dog and its leash. In this exhibition there is one such drawing on a sheet of white paper. A flurry of strokes — like calligraphy in an unknown language —with a broad flat brush and a suggestion of legs is enough to create an impression of fast movement. A hint of facial features adds a comic touch to this work.
The other works are mostly landscapes. Panesarji had lived for a good part of his life at the YMCA hostel in the concrete jungle of Taltala, but these works using acrylic paint hark back to the vast, harsh, undulating terrain of Bihar dotted with clumps of trees. His early collages were cityscapes but his later work was more idyllic. He used to stay confined to the hostel but his mind wandered elsewhere. His brushstrokes were bold, and stylistically they remind one of Bengal School masters. But one has to look hard to catch the microscopic life teeming in this ochre, red and grey countryside with broad swathes of green.
Shakila, on the other hand, is rooted in the countryside and environment she grew up in. She is alive to the vulnerability of women and this is the strongest theme in her recent works. Here women are being abducted or beaten up by the police. But she is also having fun fishing in a pond or going to the temple for puja. At times Shakila the artist is highly strung and there is a strong note of melodrama in her collages. The woman being carried away on the shoulder of a villain could have emerged from a jatra, not unlikely for someone who had grown up in a remote village, and still lives there, her success notwithstanding.
There is much violence and mayhem in Shakila’s works. A man is beheaded and blood is splattered on the walls. People, perhaps slum-dwellers, are surrounded by the police not in the sweetest of moods. There are many such scenes of social injustice and of man’s cruelty to man. She uses strong and livid colours to heighten the drama. Shakila has an excellent and inborn sense of composition.
At first glance the compositions may seem chaotic but one soon realizes how she easily achieves a sense of order. However, it is impossible to figure out what exactly is at the back of her mind. This adds a sense of mystery to even the most commonplace of Shakila’s village scenes.