Asit Kumar Haldar (1890-1974) is not just a Bengal School artist. Even the 55 items on display at the Victoria Memorial portrait gallery till July 27 give only a glimpse of his varied interests. It does not show him as the nationalist who gifted 200 of his works to the Allahabad Museum, Jawaharlal Nehru’s model Indian museum, in the 1930s. Nothing is said of his interest in folk art and alpana or on how, as director of the All India Handicrafts Board, Bangalore, in 1956, he made traditional crafts like ivory inlay, rosewood items and toys of Channapatna widely known. We are not told how he helped set up Rabindranath Tagore’s Kala Bhavana and planned the curricula for art colleges in Jaipur, Allahabad and Benaras; or how he wrote books on art appreciation for the young.
Rajesh Purohit, director, Allahabad Museum, who has done plenty of research before selecting the exhibits loaned to Victoria from the Haldar bequest, speaks of Asit Kumar Haldar’s long series of historical paintings. The two displayed here feature Hiuen Tsang in the court of Harsha Vardhana and Megasthenes in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, with Chanakya and Chandragupta’s beautiful bride, Helena, Seleucus’ daughter (picture). The Victoria show introduced us to Haldar’s explorations of theme, style and painting media. Born in Jorasanko, and related to Tagore, Haldar joined the Government School of Art at the age of 14. A project to copy the Ajanta murals under Christiana Herringham influenced Haldar deeply, but in Conversation we see the imprint of local popular culture too. The lady in the painting who turns to converse with the priest seems straight out of an Ajanta mural while the leering pot-bellied priest reminds one of pata paintings and Gaganendranath’s cartoons.
Haldar was able to use wash, tempera, lacquer, oil, gouache and pencil. He could at will adopt the style of miniature paintings or an abstract surrealistic style perfect for expressing deeper emotions. The illustrated pages rarely exhibited before date from Haldar’s Kala Bhavana days. Here is poetry written in a stylized hand with tiny pencil drawings. Legend has it that Tagore had once admitted that he had assigned Haldar to paint at his bidding because he was the “poetic one.” There are several small metaphorical pieces perhaps alluding to myths and folktales or to personal experience. The black shape confronting the woman in The Mystery; the fox (not cat, as the caption says) streaking past a dusky sky while a child looks on; the rows of women and riders all faceless and similar as though their movement itself was magical, stay in memory. So do the sketch of Tagore and Abanindranath taking a class at Kala Bhavana, the dusky girl with a tiny green bird, the woman on horseback and Ram’s archery lesson.