Bengal master Jamini Roy’s creative canvas unveiled for Generation Next (REVIEW OF SHOW AT NGMA, Delhi)
By Madhusree Chatterjee
Many years ago, Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel wrote a paean to the artistic genius of the Bengali icon of modern Indian art Jamini Roy: “An urban artist found the law/To make its spirit sing and dance”. Nearly a century and a quarter later- 125 years after his death – Jamini Roy still remains the mystical guru of the stylized Bengal school of art that scaled its pinnacle of aesthetic finesse in the 20th century.
For thousands of Jamini Roy loyalists, who still look for an authentic Roy art work to carry home at any price- and the legions of emerging art lovers of the Generation Next fed on a diet of cutting edge contemporary and new media art, it is time to reconnect to the roots of the country’s modern art at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA-Delhi) which is celebrating 125 years of Jamini Roy with a retrospective, “Jamini Roy: Journey to the Roots”. The retrospective opened on June 24.
On display are nearly 200 of Roy’s art that include pen and ink sketches, oil paintings, figures and landscapes in tempera sourced from the gallery’s archive and donated by private collectors like Abhisekh Poddar and A. Ramachandran.
Roy’s oeuvre- a eclectic and diverse cachet of expressions - differs from the legends of his era, elitist poet-painter Rabindranath Tagore in the sense that the artist (Roy) carved a rather lonely and salt of the earth road for himself rejecting European modernism of his time to seek inspirations from Oriental art practices and the local Kolkata graphic art genres to portray the lives of the common people around him, the lush Bengal countryside and the religious influences of his native turf Bankura – a Vaishnavite (Vishnu) stronghold – where he was born and nurtured as a child. Tagore’s canvas was one of refined semi-abstract expressionism and complex shapes. Roy on his part was almost childlike in his realistic creative energy.
A skilled portrait artist in the European tradition trained at the Government School if Art (Kolkata- he graduated in 1916 ), Roy’s constant quest for a personal idiom led him to spurn sophisticated iconography. Jamini Roy looked for techniques from traditions as opposed to each other like East Asian brushstroke calligraphy, terracotta temple friezes, pen, ink, Indian folk art and landscapes.
The collection exhibited at NGMA spreads across like snapshots capturing the artist’s evolution as a basic portrait painter to a stylized figurative artist probing the soul of his subjects to capture their emotional and spiritual essence. Some of his paintings show a Chinese flat-tone monochrome format of execution where the figures are almost one-dimensional, zen-like, plastered on to the canvas.
His motifs are typical- characterized by ovoid and elongated compositions in long fluid strokes on surfaces as varied as cloth, plyboard and paper.
In the end of 1920s, Roy stopped using oil as a medium of painting and make traditional natural pigments from vegetable extracts and mineral sources. Consequently, the pigments that held fast even in the tempera style became a trademark of the artist, a skill that he handed over to his son and students.
The exhibits have been strung together in a kind of chronological order by curator Ela Dutta beginning with a series of pen and ink miniature sketches like animation sequences, calligraphic brush paintings, mother and child compositions , village life, life of Jesus Christ, epics and myths.
A rare series of portraits of icons like Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Van Gogh document the artist’s mastery over profiles and facial drawings.
In the 1940s, Roy painted one of his most powerful series of images around the life if Jesus Christ. Although, he painted occasional images of Christ in his early phases, he developed the visual idea of Christ more lyrically later. Critics say what was most thought provoking about his Biblical paintings was his flair to adapt to the stories from alien cultures and “give them an appearance as if they were from our own villages. Christ is portrayed as a fair wise man with a goatee and a cross- very Indian profile.
According to poet-critic Vishnu Dey and John Irwin, “Why should an orthodox poet who had never read the New Testament should be interested in Christ? Jamini Roy gave several reasons. He wanted to find out if this new technique could be applied with equal effort to a subject removed from his personal life. And for this purpose, the Christian myth seemed to be a suitable choice.
His portraits of Christ are homely- the Christian deity has a next door quality to him that no early Christian or Byzantine artist could evber capture.
In the first few years of 1920s, Jamini Roy painted a series of series of Santhal women in what he called the flat Chinese technique. He invested the peasants, the women and children with dignity. According to Partha Mitter (Triumph of Modernism in 2007), Roy used the notion of village community as a weapon of resistance against the colonial rule.
Economist, writer and critic Ashok Mitra says the decade of the 1920s was wholly engrossed in the national movement during his Jamini Roy drew his strength from the involvement of the common man. It was the beginning of his odyssey back to his roots as a Kolkatan and as a Bengali villager from Beliatore in Bankura where he was born in 1887. Roy graduated from the Government School of Art in Kolkata as a portrait artist and made money from commissions.
The artist who showed his works all over world achieved iconic status for his lyricism and use of colours. He was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1955. He passed away in 1972.
Curator Ela Dutta says Roy found simplification in form unlike Tagore. “He works were full of wonder. There was strength in his village community, Krishna Leela, Christ and mother and child paintings,” Dutta told this correspondent.
Dutta says Roy was different from his peers in many ways. “He was pne of the early pioneers who allowed his associates and students to complete his unfinished works in the traditions of the great ateliers and studios of 20th century Europe”. The result has a steady inflow of “Roy reproductions” in the market some of which are difficult to tell apart from the originals.
Collector and connoisseur A. Ramachandran of Bengaluru says unlike many Bengali artists like Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Bihari Mukherjee, who worked in isolation, Jamini Roy was “commercially oriented like Raja Ravi Varma and M.F. Husain”.
The artist often said he wanted to his art affordable to every middle class household in Bengal. Hence he produced en masse – carrying art out of its
ivory tower to the man on the street.
- New Delhi