“The journey of an artist should evolve in time, with time.”
Paresh Maity says this while sitting a few feet away from City of Energy – a stunning work of oil and acrylic on canvas that seems to echo his words. Measuring 48 inches by 60 inches, and mounted at Kolkata’s CIMA Art Gallery as one part of a four-city solo exhibition titled Infinite Light, the painting bears testament to the roles played by scale and command in Maity’s stunning oeuvre. For he translates the complexities of his artistic vision as skilfully in an impressionistic miniature as he does in oils or watercolours measuring several feet.
This is but one of many defining factors that make Infinite Light a landmark event in the history of Indian art – featuring 450 works that include paintings, drawings, installations, sculptures, films and ceramics (the last-mentioned having never been displayed to the public before), it spans close to four decades of Maity’s illustrious career, and is the largest solo exhibition of an artist’s work the country has witnessed thus far.
‘Infinite Light’, featuring Paresh Maity's work across several media, spans close to four decades of the artist’s illustrious career
Indeed, what has been on display across the cities of Kolkata (CIMA), Delhi (Art Alive) and Mumbai (Art Musings) — the Bangalore leg of the exhibition, at Gallery Sumukha, is set to open in February 2023 — draws an intricate, intensely visual map of Maity’s journey from the 1990s to the present day. At CIMA, the manner in which the meticulously curated exhibition is mounted invites the viewer to trace the artist’s footsteps, but without following a linear path; it suggests the shaping of a young boy of seven in rural Bengal, fascinated with clay modelling, into a consummate, travelling artist whose command over even the most capricious and whimsical of media – watercolour – is rivalled by very few.
This is evident in every facet of the work displayed, and the progression it points to — from the oil and acrylic miniatures of variable dimensions conjuring up the transcendental colours of Varanasi, to the exquisite wash of hues, both subtle and flaming, in Venetian Melody and Stope (watercolours); from the Dadaist appeal of Expression and Primordial (bronze sculptures), to the monochromatic, shapely beauty of the ceramics.
The exhibition also features Paresh Maity’s work with ceramics for the first time
Everything, from the mind-boggling scale of the sculptures to the minute perfection of the tendrils of paint in Quietude, indicate not just the boundlessness of an artistic vision, but also that of artistic capability. Indeed, as the poet, art critic and curatorial adviser for Infinite Light, Ranjit Hoskote, says in his book that shares its name with the exhibition, “Maity does not work from exploratory sketches or preparatory drawings; nor are his images mediated through a photograph or reproduction. He maintains an unswerving responsiveness to the haptic immediacy of the medium as well as its ability to evoke plangent emotional associations. The artist insists, however, that while his paintings appear ‘spontaneous, delivered in an instant’, they are in fact sustained by a long period of gestation. ‘Images remain in my consciousness for a long time’, he says. ‘And they emerge, sometimes after years, taking different shapes.’”
The artist’s gaze is not his own
Of particular note in this expansive body of work is the artist’s gaze; not his own, but the gaze that he draws. Be it the intimacy and playful mischief (in medium, colour and mood) in Lovers, The Admiration and Gossip, or the wide-eyed wonder depicted on the ceramics, Maity’s creative negotiation with faces, eyes and the roles they play in his art is unique. As Hoskote says, “The face can also be a token of mystery: it can confront us with the knowledge that we can never fully know, or fully sense, the enigmatic alterity of another person, another form of being.”
The artist with a bronze sculpture titled ‘The Balance’
Alongside that, the act of viewing an exhibition of this calibre is as much an exercise in joy and pleasure as it is an act of political and social engagement — for what is art if not an expression of who an artist is? In this regard, Maity’s placement of the human form as an observer and a partaker in his own creative journey, and not just a subject to be looked at, is remarkable: it echoes the evolution he speaks of, and, in its dignity and consciousness, truly sets an example for other artists to follow.
Most significant, however, is that ephemeral presence that runs as the narrative thread through each one of Maity’s works — the light in Infinite Light. As the director of CIMA, Rakhi Sarkar, says, “Light is the essence of life; so is darkness. One exists for the other. They are inseparable. In Infinite Light, Paresh Maity makes the subtle interplay of illumination and darkness the core premise of his art… he veers through the infinite shadows hidden within the winding lanes of Varanasi; he throws light on the ageless cracks and crevices of light itself, rendering a subtext that is mystical, magical and eternally mysterious.”
Paresh Maity’s pen-and-ink drawings as well as his oils and watercolours on display at CIMA
And what Maity achieves is both mysterious and crystal-clear – the fine balance between making the viewer wonder, and telling them exactly what his perception of light is without saying a word. This balance lies in the light that slowly peeps through in the skies of Venice and Varanasi, as the night loosens its grip; it lies in the blood-ruby tones seeping into the horizon where the mountain meets the skyline; it finds its way through closely-packed houses that jostle for space; it is even evident in the sparkle in the eyes of lovers gazing at each other.
‘The light is me, and I am light’
The artist at CIMA Art Gallery
“Light plays the most vital role for the artist,” says Maity. “That’s why I paint during the day, to capture every moment of light properly.” Light, thus, becomes the gossamer thread that binds the cities, the mountains, the faces, the eyes, the lovers and the artist together. Light doesn’t just remain a tool; it becomes a medium in itself — a stupendous feat, but logical for one such as Maity, whose artistic life has been closely entwined with the lushness and boundlessness of the natural world, from Bengal’s floodplains to the waters and skies of Kerala, the Himalayas, and beyond.
In 2021, when CIMA hosted Noise of Many Waters, an exhibition of Maity’s watercolours, the artist had said, “Water is me, and I am water.… You cannot take out the water from me and you cannot take me out of the water.” When reminded of this, Maity smiles. “It is the same with light for me,” he says. “The light is me, and I am light. You cannot take the light out of me, and you cannot take me away from the light.”
Infinite Light is on display at CIMA Art Gallery till January 28, 2023