Profoundly simple

Different strokes

Profoundly simple

Peerless : Disillusioned with academic style, Jamini Roy turned to tradition.

Among the unfortunate things about Delhi’s Commonwealth Games, the choice of mascot comes after a collapsed bridge, a spot of dengue fever and the schadenfreude of foreign reporters,” bemoaned the editorial of The Guardian (In praise of Jamini Roy / October 4,  2010).

“Even so, something rankles about the organisers’ choice of a cartoon tiger dubbed Shera. This is spray-on Indianness, a national animal that apparently embodies a blend of made-up values. Were the designers to have exercised some imagination, they could have drawn on the work of Jamini Roy. If anyone can be called the father of modern Indian art, it must be Roy.”

The editorial went on to describe how Roy’s depictions of Hindu mythology and especially contemporary peasants and workers retained an unblinking directness that make them powerful 70 years on. “Painted with bold, thick lines and with trademark almond-shaped eyes, his figures could strike a passerby as childlike – but their uprightness and willingness to stare back at the viewer turns them into adults, not to be argued with over trifles.”

The editorial also spoke of Patua, the folk style used for Bengali village paintings and how, Roy himself a village boy, adopted that style for nationalist, leftwing Kolkata. “It marked a rupture in established Indian art, which up till then had been exquisite, courtly, beautiful. As the British Museum’s Datta deftly suggests, Roy took a gamble and broke with that tradition. If only Delhi’s designers had put such thought into their work.”

Life and living

Born in Bankura, a small village in Bengal, Jamini Roy (1887 – 1972) led a long and eventful life. Even as a young boy, he loved to watch and mingle with the village potters and craftsmen.
 
Studying painting at the Government School of Art in Kolkata —  where his precocious talent and wayward ways became well-known — he became a highly successful painter excelling in impressionist portraiture and landscape. After a while, disillusioned with the academic style, he started looking for inspiration from local traditional forms; the search led him the pat painters. 

“The genuinely patua-work had been prevalent in Bengal long before the Englishman came to India and the city of Calcutta came to be,” he wrote later. “It is a wonder to think today of those primitive artists who, after their prolonged efforts, discovered the fundamentals of this art, its form and its content. They seem to have touched the elemental truth in the world of art.”

It is this quest for artistic truth that motivated him to leave Kolkata, undertake a journey into the Bengal hinterland, and learn from the folk painters. As he saw and worked with them, his admiration for them increased manifold. It took no time for Roy to realise that tradition was a collective experience; and that village art stood for the community, as opposed to the individualist aesthetics of urban colonial art. The deep engagement of the folk artist with mythological themes enchanted him. He absorbed the evocative lines and captivating colour schemes of folk art into his own work. 

As he progressed, Roy gave up oils for tempera, made his own colours and canvases, and painted even on packing-case cardboard, soft covers of books, railway timetables and telephone directories. His works began to be marked by bold simplifications, thick outlines, sweeping brushstrokes and brick-red background.

Criticism and recognition

Roy’s first solo exhibition of his original neo-folk paintings in Kolkata in 1929, followed by another one at the Indian Society of Oriental Art (ISOA) in July 1930 showed the domination of folk motifs and language in his art.

Criticism was swift. Scorned, ridiculed and isolated for following the folk tradition and abandoning the revivalist Bengal School and the Western tradition, he scarcely sold a picture, for years, pushing himself and his family to life often in dire straits.

“No painter in India has lived in such concentrated seclusion,” recalled art critic and writer, Shahid Suhrawardy, (1890-1965). “Hardly any patronage came his way during the period of his struggle.  For years he was held to be a crank, a rebel against the traditions of the Bengali revivalist movement, a fanatic in vain pursuit of originality. 

The path he has pursued is that of all great artists in all ages and climes, and the result has been that he has attained a mastery of draughtsmanship which is unrivalled by any painter in India including the best-knowing amongst them.” 

It was only in the mid-1930s that Roy’s strikingly original vision started to penetrate public consciousness. His works started winning awards. His blown-up versions of pats were displayed at the Lucknow Congress of 1936. His exhibitions in the 1940s achieved major critical success.

Jaminida’s rich and inexhaustible choice of subjects, and his decisive line which was taut with power won him a vast number of followers, patrons and admirers which included Austrian critic Rudi von Leyden (who wrote on modern Indian art for three decades); art historian John Irwin (who co-authored Roy’s monograph with Bishnu Dev in 1944); and Stella Kramrisch (scholar and a pioneering interpreter of Indian art).

“The components of Roy’s pictures are few but authentic,” observed Kramrisch. “His work is built on solid ground, open and without pretence; it is based on universals of form which are understood by all who know art. The integrity of his art exists in the sincerity of his craftsmanship. It has a moral value which irritates his detractors, eludes his imitators and makes his work the standard against which contemporary Indian painting is to be measured.”

Even while he faced criticism for mechanical craftsmanship, soulless repetition of original idea, and turning himself into a ‘factory’, there were those who defended him.
“Reproduction and ease of duplication are part of the craft of folk art and amongst the reasons for its simplifications,” said von Leyden. “Whoever accepts the manner must not complain about the practice.” Hailed as the ‘Father of the folk renaissance in India’, Roy was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1954. In 1976, the Government of India declared his works to be national art treasures.

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