“I do not care whether my paintings are good or bad. I want its appearance to be different.”
~ Jamini Roy
And different it is. Not different for the sake of being different, but different as in an expression of his authentic self. Jamini Roy (1887-1972), popularly conferred with the title of father of Modern Indian Art was from Beliatore village in Bankura, West Bengal. His art is his revisits to the simplicity and purity of his rural roots. He is not an outsider here ‘looking into’ rural India. He is the insider, painting his own familiar, much-loved world.
Powerful brush strokes enclose the human form in a swoop while mineral and vegetable colours, at times gay and vibrant and at others sombre and reflective, sheath his compositions. The landscape often amounts to a mere leaf or a sketchy hut. His hallmark elongated eyes, in frontal and profile alike, string together his career spanning five decades.
Roy’s mastery and motivation lay in the diminution of form to its bare minimum—the unembellished, uncluttered absolute truth in it. And he found this in West Bengal’s folk art. The ongoing exhibition of his work at NGMA, Mumbai, as part of his birth anniversary celebrations, is a testimony to this journey.
The resolution to “find my way within myself”
Year 1903. Seeing his son’s bent towards art, Roy’s father sent him to the Government School of Arts and Crafts, Calcutta to pursue a Diploma in Fine Art. A student of Abanindranath Tagore, the founder of the Bengal school of art, Roy studied in the customary academic tradition, painting in oils and drawing Classical nudes, graduating in 1916. But he was quick to reject both, the European and Bengal school, and commenced on his personal creative peregrination.
After a brief, albeit successful, sojourn in portraiture in the post-impressionist style after college, he returned to his childhood village for inspiration. Roy explains, “I find I can not take the path of Europe, China or Tibet. I cannot follow Persian or Mughal painting because I do not live in those circumstances, so I tried to find my way within myself. I do not care whether my paintings are good or bad. I want its appearance to be different.”
The then ongoing Swadesh movement was perhaps just the apt backdrop for this work. Not necessarily as a source of motivation for him to turn as an artist to rural India, but rather an incentive for the popularization of his art.
Roy was determined his work be affordable and accessible to all. The native content in his art, drawing upon indigenous themes and materials was a major draw card to the Indian buyer, as well as international art connoisseurs who were starting to see Indian art with renewed respect. In the same vein, he was able to add folk art as a new dimension to the movement itself.
Journey to the Roots
The Santhals, one of the largest tribal communities in India, and native to West Bengal among other states, were Roy’s first experiment (early-1920s). Painting their community life, he gave the tribes people engaged in everyday chores and celebrations a quiet dignity. The lines at this point are angular, rigid with tucked in waists; the palette grave. Stylization, which would in due course bloom into its full-fledged form, is hinted at. Overlapping figures relieve otherwise uni-dimensional forms.
A few years later Roy deviated to another visual language. He rid his art of all semblance of colour and started creating monochromatic images with sweeping, calligraphic lines inspired by East Asian art and Kalighat paintings. The all-powerful line reached new heights in strength and grace during this period in his mother and child figures, women and portraits.
By the end of the 1920s this too was left behind and Roy now turned to the folk art and craft traditions of Bankura. The subjects were rural people, scenes from Hindu mythology and epics, in particular the Krishna-leela, and quirky pictures of animals. He embraced colour once again but this time it is a more vibrant, dazzling palette enveloped in his recently acquired commanding, minimalist stroke. The figures are bent at the axis; clothes and hair seem to swirl. Flowers, animals and idyllic landscapes portray a rural utopia.
Reinventing folk art. Krishna and Balarama swaying to the rhythms of music and song in a rural utopia
Quirky representations of birds and beasts. Cat with lobster and a trefoil tail
Culminating masterpieces. Left: Mother and child; Right: Three pujaris
Back in his childhood village he proceeded to re-learn art from the local patuas, Bengal’s folk art and craft custodians, along with the use of natural colours they painted in. Indigo for blue, vermillion for red and clay from the Ganges for grey became his medium. Cloth, wood, handmade paper and mat replaced the canvases.
Rural Bengal, a region rich in folk art and crafts, was a place steeped in innocence and romanticism in Roy’s memories. For the artist in him it was parallel to a return to his innate self. His endeavours could easily have dissipated into a series of shallow, naive imitations of rural art. But that was not the case. Roy prepared for every work with detailed studies and infused them with joy and elegance.
In the 1940s he carried out his boldest and most imaginative experiment—the Life of Christ—an alien theme which he painted in his signature, folk, minimalist style understood by the Bengali villager. The Last Supper, Crucifixion, Christ with Cross and Flight to Egypt are imbued with tenderness, human simplicity and a rich iconography echoing the early Santhal series.
Life of Christ experiment: Roy paints scenes from Jesus’ life in his indigenous folk art style
His stint at painting theatre sets while in college resurfaces in his art as decorative borders, stage curtains and props; Flight to Egypt, tempera on cloth
My favourite. Last Supper
National Treasures and Commodification
Unlike most artists Roy, based in Calcutta, achieved substantial success in his lifetime. Awards, national and global recognition, and critical acclaim feted his achievements over and over again. In 1946 he exhibited in London and in 1953, in New York City. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1955 and made the first Fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi the following year. In 1976, the Archaeological Survey of India declared his works part of the nine masters and national treasures for their artistic and aesthetic value.
This journey, however, was not free of controversy. Roy’s quest to make his art reach the populace led to mass production and repetition of his works. His associates filled inside the outlines and finished the paintings before he put in his signature. His work was extensively copied as well, making it difficult to distinguish between the originals and replicas. Lastly, Roy did not date his work nor keep any track of them and painted different artworks in different styles simultaneously, making it even more difficult to establish any chronology.
Despite all this, his art still stands out, in depth and maturity. I first met Jamini Roy as part of my Bachelors degree course work many years ago. I met him again this afternoon—the Bengali village boy beneath the mantle of the celebrated artist who dared to go back to his rural roots and raised it to an exalted, flawless form. The collection of nearly 200 works, including paintings, sketches, drawings and sculptures on display helped me, I believe, understand him and his work better today. And maybe myself too. 🙂
Jamini Roy 1887-1972: Journey to the Roots is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Fort, Mumbai, 5 June to 12 July, 2015 from 11 am to 6 pm. The exhibition has been conceptualised by Professor Rajeev Lochan, NGMA New Delhi, and curated by Ella Datta.
[Images courtesy National Gallery of Modern Art and Rama Arya]