Two painters on their journey, the purpose of art and tyranny of the market. 

BY PARTHA CHATTERJEE

The starving artist is an abiding stereotype of the popular imagination but Amitava Das is as far from that image as it is possible to be. He is in fact a retired civil servant. A quiet, self-effacing man of medium height and build, he is not forthcoming unless patiently drawn out. Should you succeed, however, a conversation with him is rewarding.

He talks about all the things that have to coalesce before art can happen. Music, for him, is an abiding love; Hindustani, Carnatic, western classical, et al. Cinema is another constant in his life; Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini, Satyajit Ray. As was common with certain members of his generation he was drawn to post-Tagore poets in Bengali like Jibanananda Das, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Subhash Mukhopadhyay. The Europeans included especially Rainer Maria Rilke and T.S. Eliot. These varied influences helped him become the singular visual artist that he is today.

Then there is Manish Pushkale, slim, dark, sharp-featured, bespectacled and energetic, in his mid-forties. Apart from his passion for visual art, he is a champion of the arts in general—dance, drama, music, literature, cinema and architecture.

Manish and family—father, mother and an elder brother—are from Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. He came to Bhopal as a boy but his true home is the city’s Bharat Bhavan. The first time he visited it he was thrilled.

Aaj mujhe lagta hai jaise Bharat Bhavan mere liye hi bana tha”. (I feel as if Bharat Bhavan was made just for me!). “I owe a huge debt to Bharat Bhavan. I was inspired to become an artist because of my association with it since childhood.”

It is an institution central to Bhopal’s cultural world. A child of the Raza Foundation, of which Manish is a trustee, helmed by Ashok Vajpeyi, a retired IAS officer, Bharat Bhavan encourages all the arts without discrimination. The foundation was set up by S. H. Raza, among the country’s best known artists since Independence. Vajpeyi remains a lifelong poet and writer. Manish is his trusted collaborator in the foundation.

Vajpeyi’s opinion of Manish’s work is worth noting. “Even at the risk of simplification, one could say Manish has a vision where art is a continuum of discovery; the act of discovering in art is an interminable act. For instance, take the area of colour. Manish is hardly ever satisfied with given colours. He is in constant search for colours. He hardly ever allows the colours of the tubes to exist in their original hues. He puts a layer of colour and runs it off taking care that it does not disappear altogether, after layers of doing so, eventually we arrive at an unidentifiable and unusual texture, indefinable by any conventional name.”  It gives the impression of a dynamic, constantly evolving process of discovery whose outcome is uncertain but likely to be noteworthy. It does express his state of constant animation, in a way.

***

Amitava Das, born in 1947, is much the senior, whose work Manish admires and feels it is not appreciated enough. As a Bengali in Delhi Amitava’s upbringing was much like other pravasi children in his time. His father was in government and in the early days worked in Shimla before being transferred to Delhi by the AGPT (Auditor-General Post and Audit), his department. An uncle presented Amitava with an illustrated copy of Sukumar Ray’s children’s classic, Pagla Dashu, little knowing what it would begin.

This was before the future artist had learnt to read. “I made random scribbles in pencil over Sukumar Ray’s drawings!  Those were my first drawings,” he remembers. Though exposed to the Bengal School in his boyhood and the fact that his elder sister learnt wash painting at home, he was not particularly interested. Football was his love and he was good enough to play for Delhi College (later Zakir Hussain College) as a commerce student. He remembers Mr. Baig, the principal, with respect and affection. “He had a fantastic library (which he made accessible to students like Amitava)”.

As a schoolboy he would walk past Galgotia and Sons, a famous bookshop in Connaught Place. The display window had little books on Joan Miro and Picasso’s Blue Period, which he found most attractive. And then walking past Dhoomimal Art Gallery, also in Connaught Place, he first saw Sailoz Mookherjea’s “Three Shehnai Players”. Its vibrant, stylised treatment in line and colour caught his eye.

He also remembers, “A very nice Jamini Roy, which was for 75 Rupees!” Of Jamini Roy, he says, “Although trained in the academic methods and techniques of western art, he chose to go back to his roots. ‘This is not my language,’ Jamini Roy said.”

Bangla was a subsidiary subject and his teacher Mihir Das (brother of the academic Shishir Das), a miser when it came to giving marks, gave him nine out of ten for an essay on Pather Panchali based on Satyajit Ray’s film, not its source, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhya’s novel, Aam Aatir Bhepu. Life was not half-bad. In the meantime he joined the National Cadet Corps and went to Patiala for a camp in 1965. He wanted to join the army.

Things changed when his father died. Amitava got a job in AGPT on compassionate grounds but continued to work on his art in his spare time. He joined a seven-year evening course in the Delhi College of Art. His elder sister passed out from the same institution when it was Delhi Polytechnic, studying applied art. “I followed all the academic instructions diligently in class and did all the required exercises seriously. At the same time I did my own work.” Biswanath Mukherjee, principal of the college, chanced upon his personal sketch book and was taken aback. He called the senior students and showed them Amitava’s work and said, “This is the way to work! These drawings are so imaginative.”

***

Manish, on the other hand, knew what he wanted to be from the beginning. He painted through childhood and adolescence and the desire to become an artist continued to grow. But like a good middle-class boy he respected the wishes of his parents and got a post-graduate degree in geology, specialising in remote sensing. He was also drawn to archaeology and paleontology. Until 1995, he stayed with the profession of his parents’ choice. He couldn’t stand it any longer. On impulse one day he went to Bhopal station.

“I was told that two trains would be arriving shortly. One would take me to Bombay, and the other, Punjab Mail, to Delhi. Maybe it was fate or luck, but Punjab Mail arrived first. So Delhi it was.”

There he stayed with the already famous Manjit Bawa at his studio in the Sujan Singh Park apartments. Bawa took care of Manish, his meals and art materials, for a while. It worked out in a surprisingly short time and he did not look back after this initial period of relative struggle. Much to the relief of his parents his devotion to his true passion has also made Manish one of India’s most commercially successful painters.

He had one great asset in Bharat Bhavan, which exposed him to the other arts, dance, music both vocal and instrumental, theatre and, of course, literature. It was important for a curious young mind to listen to Malikarjun Mansur, an undisputed master of Khayal and a pupil of Ustad Alladiya Khan, doyen of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana; the veena of Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, the Kathak of Pandit Birju Maharaj, plays directed by Habib Tanvir and B. V. Karanth. The guidance he received in art from J. Swaminathan, Raza and others spurred him on.

“My inferiority complex became my strength. Seekhne ki iccha jagi (the desire to learn was awakened). Confidence often results in ahankaar or vanity.” He was inspired by the likes of M.  F. Husain, Raza, Amitava Das and Mona Rai. He feels Amitava and Mona have been grossly underappreciated as artists. Swaminathan was both an inspiration and, in moments of despondence, a source of comfort.

It was Raza, current god of Indian art and, along with V. S. Gaitonde the most expensive Indian artist in the international market, who was most confident of his potential and invited Manish to join the foundation that he created on his return to India after decades in France. Raza wanted to help serious, struggling Indian artists to have some financial respite to work, and also provide facilities to show their creations. In Manish, he found a perfect ally and invited him to join the foundation as a trustee in 2003.

In the catalogue of Manish’s exhibition at Akar Prakar Art Advisory, New Delhi earlier this year, the first quote is from Raza.

“Manish has in a very short span of time, evolved a new kind of visual grammar. Some paintings are illuminated by a certain brightness. The five elements are alive and energised in a unique way in his work. Sometimes they are not five, just two or three, with the others taking smaller subsidiary forms. There are five elements—black, blue, red, yellow and white—and through their conjugation, as created by him, they appear in a distinct manner in his work. In his paintings one will not find a pure red or blue or yellow: what appears is elevated form. The colours emerge in an extremely soft manifestation. A state of transcendent sublimation. … He sees in a way that even the camera doesn’t. This is imagination, the vision of the soul.’’

***

Amitava’s world by contrast has been far more ordered. He did not have a mentor like Raza but as a student of the College of Art he had the satisfaction of seeing all his oils sell out when he exhibited them. As a student he worked a lot on paper—small works due to space constraints at home.  He adapted to each situation that came his way without losing sight of his goal, to become a serious artist.

As a child and adolescent he was exposed to the better side of modern Indian art. Walking past AIFACS (All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society) he saw Ramkinkar Baij working on his monumental Yaksha-Yakshi sculpture commissioned by the government and installed several years later at the Reserve Bank of India on Parliament Street. Ramkinkar’s robust, modern approach greatly impressed young Amitava. Another sculptor who inspired him was Dhanraj Bhagat who would ask students to feel the clay they were preparing to work with.

Though his double-life as art student and government employee continued, Amitava’s aesthetic growth found its own trajectory. He followed the other arts, music, poetry and cinema when he could. A long time member of Delhi Film Society where classics of
world cinema were screened weekly, he also continued his explorations in Bengali poetry and French existential literature which he read in the English translation.

He was as exposed to the schools of Indian miniatures, temple and cave art, namely Ajanta, Ellora, Konark, Khajuraho, Sarnath, as his fellow students. He took note of their aesthetic qualities and brilliance of technique but resolutely chose to follow his own path.

Today his work is known for imaginativeness, depth of thought and feeling. He does not render the physical, material world as it is, or even in a stylised but recognisable form. Rather it is an echo, reminiscent in a quiet way of one of his favourites, the 20th century Swiss-German master Paul Klee. His works invariably deal with an idea to do with the “real” world and may even tell in a flash a story about it, but is certainly not narrative, as the Baroda School of Painters (some of them, at least) in a sense call their work.

His oeuvre is deliberately anti-decorative and has a stark attraction of its own. The eye is directed towards the essence of a visual that may suggest the possibilities of “dhwani” or an aural experience.

Why has he eschewed the two extremes, representation, that is, using various forms of naturalism to depict the world and its denizens, or the other, a 360 degree turn toward non-representation, meaning nothing on the working surface of the canvas, paper etc., having a clearly identifiable image from the physical/material world? He uses, instead the human figure and other recognisable objects from the physical world making distortions in a highly subjective, poetic manner.

As a result the image that emerges has both freshness and uniqueness. To quote from Paul Klee: “The creation of a work of art must of necessity, as a result of entering into the specific dimensions of pictorial art, be accompanied by distortion of the natural form.  For, therein is nature reborn.”

Klee is asking the viewer to see beyond the’’ real’’, physical object being drawn or painted and to feel the “sensation” or “soul” before rendering it on paper or canvas or any other surface. He is suggesting an alternative way of visually depicting the world that is as abstract as music and the polar opposite of a likeness, as found in photography.

***

For Manish personal success is not a given. He is keenly aware of the volatile nature of the Indian art market and its dominance and manipulation by auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. They dictate what will sell and for how much, which artist is “in”, and who is “out”.  According to Manish, the quality of a work is almost redundant. “Ye ek aisi bhayanak rajneeti hai. Bazar banana, girana, beech me kalakar halal hota hai.” (This is a diabolic manipulation of the art market creating artificial highs and lows. It is the artist who gets slaughtered.)

“Think of all the artists who are forgotten in this mad rush for selling and making money! Amba Das, Prabakar Barwe, Eric Bowen, all very good but now forgotten because of this artificially created market for palming off mediocrity at high prices! The artists who have made a serious contribution not only to contemporary Indian art but to international art were pushed aside just like that.

“Why is this so?” Manish asks indignantly. “It is this commodification of all things associated with beauty, from chitr (painting) to chaddar (an elegantly designed bedspread).  Everything that is a creation of beauty is treated as [industrial] production. Why is it there GST (Goods and Service Tax) on works of art but none on performing arts including films produced in Bollywood and the people who work in them? Pop singers whose albums sell in the lakhs, why are they exempt from GST? Dance and theatre personalities too are exempt. Is art produced on an assembly line? Why is it considered an activity of mass production?”

A few artists, most of them dead like Raza, Husain, Souza, Gaitonde, have sold at high prices in the international market. “Remember only Husain and Raza lived long enough to enjoy the wealth that international sales brought in. Gaitonde was in a bad way financially when alive and the same goes for Souza.”

If Raza was the first to show his appreciation by buying one of Manish’s painting in 2001 the cultural inputs he received from his many mentors also enriched Manish. Of the cultural impoverishment in today’s India, he says, “Do people voluntarily visit museums and monument rather than malls? I always make it a point to organise family outings around museums, monuments and in fecund nature.”

***

For Amitava the big change came in 1977, when he joined the Trade Fair Authority of India as an artist-designer. He travelled the world on behalf of TFAI, organising exhibitions as part of the Festival of India. He remembers with fondness Moscow where he did a huge tapestry, for which he received considerable appreciation. His ability to turn his hand to anything made him practically indispensable to his team. He left in 2002, taking voluntary retirement.

On his travels, he collected objects like Metro tickets, or stickers on garments or those endorsing various consumer products or parking slips from nearer home; all turned up in his mixed media works. There were also quotations from various literary sources, ancient and modern. The finished work had a barely discernable human figure within the frame. The visual effect was often intriguing and stimulating, but it was a re-arrangement of seen objects, often fragments, to effect a poetic resonance.

One could surmise that the journey undertaken in this process was both consciously and sub-consciously intellectual. It is both an elaboration and extension of the language mooted by both the Dadaists and the Surrealists in France just after World War I, around 1920.

The almost century long journey western art has undertaken impinged upon the practice of art all over the world thanks to art books, air travel, cultural exchange programmes, and now, unavoidably, satellite television, internet and the mobile phone. The dominant cultural influences of the West first came from France and then, after World War II, the US. Artists in China and Japan took what was in consonance with their native sensibilities. Indian artists, the products of an eclectic culture, absorbed, often subconsciously and at other times in full awareness, influences from various French and American artists.

Amitava remembers with fondness the first exhibition of French art in Delhi covering a period of 400 years. It was an eye-opener for him. The Impressionists and the moderns, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, seen in the original, made a deep impression. The year was 1962; he was all of 15. A few years later there was a big show of the American Moderns in Delhi. Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Bernard Newman were also represented.  He still speaks of the exhibition with the enthusiasm of youth.  Perhaps he realised fleetingly which way the world was headed, and with it, international art.

As a schoolboy, he went to all the art shows within walking distance of his house—Delhi was a small place then; almost all cultural activity related to the visual and performing arts happened around Parliament Street, Connaught Place and Mandi House. Later, as an artist, drawing played a pivotal role in his work. It was, however, a different kind of drawing consisting of lines, curves, dots, squiggles and other devices, highly expressive, entirely personal, but recognisable as Amitava’s.

Like his major inspiration Klee, a fine musician who always cited music as a reliable guide to the formation of his aesthetics, Amitava is indebted to music—Hindustani and western classical. He remembers in his childhood Gopeshwar Bandhopadhyay of the illustrious Bishnupur Gharana of Dhrupadias visiting the family home in Daryaganj, old Delhi.

Intention is synonymous with integrity as far as Carnatic musician T. M. Krishna is concerned. He expressed the idea in a recent conversation with historian Ananya Bajpai. Amitava was in the audience and responded heartily to the thought. As far as his own art goes he has also tried for clarity of expression. It may sound strange to those not in empathy with the constantly shifting meanings and contexts within contemporary world art but he has tried with complete sincerity to understand the ever changing realities of his times and transpose these experiences into his work. Certainly for the last 40 years his images on canvas and paper belong to an imaginary world that a refined process of “indirection” brings to life—ironically.

In his visual explorations Amitava looks for “Duende” or the ability to touch the heart and move the soul. Among the great artists in whom he finds this most essential of qualities are Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso. He quotes with approval the 20th century Spanish poet Lorca who maintained that sometimes a gypsy girl’s song could be more moving because her song had “Duende” (“Asar” in Hindustani) that the best trained soprano with all her technique could not express.

The road Amitava has travelled has always taken him forward. He is willing to examine a new idea an artist may pursue and even appreciate it. The veteran Himmat Shah used burnt paper as a medium and exhibited the works. Asked about the permanence of the works he retorted,’’ Is your life or mine permanent!’’

***

He confesses to an affinity for Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, existentialists both and both French. They provide an explanation for the arbitrary randomness of the world, quite unlike the purposeful processes outlined in scripture. And explanations were needed after Vietnam and the unending violence of Afghanistan and Iraq. At home there was the spectacle of rising anti-Muslim polemic orchestrated by the Hindutva brigade, culminating in the demolition of Babri Masjid (1991) and Gujarat’s post-Godhra killings (2002). He says he is apolitical by nature but quite possibly was affected personally by these events because his works of the time seem to reflect a disturbance. His creations were abstractions, or essences of a particular idea or state of the physical world. They were arresting, even disturbing, perhaps reflecting a reverberation from the pain of his fellow citizens. In this context it worth considering Paul Klee; “The more horrifying the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.”

In the images accompanying this article there is colour, even vibrant colour in some, but are the images happy images? That is a moot point. Experience in all artistic activity, more so in the creation of visuals, is a matter of filtering, selecting, re-arranging felt emotion. What emerges from the exercise is something new and often surprising. This holds good for Amitava as well. In these selected visuals there are bright colours that resonate in their arrangement within the composition. What kind of world have they been painted in? He would be irritated if such observations were presented to him. He might even say people should not look beyond what is on view and feel its sensation and vibration.

Amitava is against the literal depiction of a place. Ram Kumar’s feelings aroused in him by the ancient city of Benaras that resulted in a series of non-naturalistic paintings that somehow caught the “feel”  of the environs, to Amitava is a valid way of rendering an experience of a place rather than literally rendering its physical contours.

***

One thing both Manish and Amitava have in common is their relationship with the late Manjeet Bawa. An old friend of the latter, he introduced Amitava to quick drying acrylic in the 1980s.  He mastered it quickly and used it singly or in mixed media mode combining ink, pasted on collage material collected on his travels, like Metro tickets, garment labels and other kinds of signage.

Acrylic in a sense liberated him. Oils forced Amitava to start on several canvases in short intervals from each other, so that in a given time-frame several paintings were done. He is after the finished work and its impact on himself and the viewer. “I am not conscious of permanence when I work.” He does use permanent glue in his work, though.

He still likes to travel. A recent experience in Paris relates to a small boy walking into an exhibition with his mother. On display was a giant leg by Alberto Giacometti. The tot slowly looked up from toe to the top of the leg, his face wonderstruck. “It was like the Praan sthapana in our ancient sculptures (when they were brought alive by Divine Breath)!”

This was the moment of revelation for Amitava Das. He is back in Delhi energised, ready to start anew.

***

The question that bothers Manish is, “Halaat kaise bigar gaye (How did the situation change for the worse)?” He feels there has been no “mulyayan” or serious appraisal of Indian art in the last 70 years nor have there been truly serious scholars and critics to do it. There were exceptions like Charles Fabri and Krishna Chaitanya and J. Swaminathan, who later became a famous painter and luminary of Bharat Bhavan, setting up the Tribal Art Museum and bringing into the limelight a singular talent like Jangarh Singh Shyam (who committed suicide in Japan, a decision possibly triggered by alienation).  “Jangarh Singh Shyam and I were both made by Bharat Bhavan.  We were both self-taught artists,” remembers Manish.

He feels people are so preoccupied with themselves that they have become alienated from their past, thus depriving themselves of the historical and cultural riches on offer. He finds his fellow artists haunted by “bazar ka bhooth’’ or market forces, unable to communicate with fellow humans or themselves. Perhaps the world of art needs to be shocked out of its current obsessions to rekindle the quest for understanding, as Vajpeyi says of Manish’s work: “He seems to be seeking colour beyond colours; colours which are created by connections with other colours; by intermingling, submerging, inter-penetrating; by overlaying as if it were hiding behind other colours, as if he is trying to discover his own distinctive colours–not one, but many, to embody his pluralistic vision.

“In his paintings you could clearly see that they basically are constituted out of the remains of the wiped off layers of colours. The aesthetics of the work is integrated through the remains of the wiped off. Forms, shapes, colours, textures are all being discovered, and hopefully the meaning too.”

India, Manish feels, needs a hundred Husains and a hundred Razas to capture some of its creative spirit, and a hundred Ashok Vajpeyis to create and sustain cultural movements over a long period of time.

He feels India does have the capacity to fulfill its immense artistic potential provided the collective greed for mammon is held in check and a desire to achieve creative excellence through love and humility is instilled.

 

(Partha Chatterjee is a writer on the arts based in Delhi.)

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