Tall like the Arjuna tree

Rich Legacy

Tall like the Arjuna tree

Classic modern : Paritosh Sen painted a contemporary timelessness that defies lables. When I was approached to profile and ‘shoot’ Paritosh Sen for a children’s magazine, I was curious  if he would agree to an interview, in the first place. Not only did the maestro acquiesce, but he was brilliant through the interview and the shoot with a demanding photographer.

She turned his face this way and that and the master painter did not mind in the least. A true artist, he respected her dedication to her art. In fact, he began to doodle to make the shoot realistic and the result was a brilliant self-portrait, minimalist, gaunt, bold, very Paritosh Sen. 

Brilliance was certainly something you’d expect from Paritosh Sen, born into the family of a Dhaka Ayurved in 1918. Sen’s childhood was charmed, in the land of verdure. That was probably when Nature made its first and most profound impact on him because I could never get over the respect he gave to creatures big and small, from a crow to a goat. He observed insects, animals, birds and took in their colour, gait, eccentricities and even their expressions that make up their distinct personality.

By the time he was done with school, Paritosh was convinced about art. He ran away from home to join the Madras Art School headed by the legendary Devi Prosad Roy Chowdhury, graduating from there in 1939. That is where he met and interacted with students who later turned art stalwarts like KCS. Panicker, Prodosh Dasgupta and Gopal Ghosh.

In 1943, he and his friends formed the Calcutta Group, to reflect contemporary reality and shed the stereotype of the Bengal School. This was also the time when printing technology was opening up fascinating aspects of European modern art for art students in distant Kolkata and works like the Third Class Compartment are proof of the European influence on the artist in Asia. In 1949, Sen left for Europe. 

In Paris, he studied the history of painting at Andre Lhote’s school, Academie Grand Chaumier, Ecole des Beaux Arts and Ecole des Louvre, returning to a new home in post independence India, Kolkata, in 1954.

He joined the School of Printing Technology as professor of design and layout. In 1960, he earned a rare honour when he was appointed by the French government to design Bengali typography based on the script of Rabindranath Tagore. That explains his interest in calligraphy.

In the early 1970s, he received the Rockefeller Grant and went to New York. Widely travelled, he was amongst the very few young Indian artists to have had the opportunity to meet and spend time with great modern masters of our time, like Pablo Picasso and Brancusi, experiences which deeply influenced him.

This period saw the emergence of a bolder Sen, where both line and colour were pure and from the heart. Consider, The Bird Seller and Boy Floating Paper Boats, for shades of Picasso’s obvious inspiration.

A retrospective and introspective artist, Paritosh Sen was a brilliant teacher. In 1981-82, he was Artist-in-Residence at Maryland Institute of Art, Baltimore and was invited by the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad to be an artist-in-residence in 1985 where he taught illustration. Earlier, he worked as an art teacher at Daly College, Indore, for 10 years. From 1956 to 1979, he taught at the Regional Institute of Printing Technology, Jadavpur.

With such varied experiences and exposure, Sen’s style changed several times. From the stylised to the voluminous, expressionist figures, he traversed a long way. Sen was not just one of India’s most prominent and highly-valued artists but an eminent art scholar who has written and debated extensively in leading English and Bengali journals and at art gatherings. In 1986, he wrote and illustrated a story in English, published by NID, Ahmedabad.

In 1998, a biographical film, One Day in the Life of a Celebrity, was broadcast on Doordarshan, Kolkata. He was a simple man, evident from his book, A Tree in my Village where the hero is a gigantic Arjuna tree, while the other players are the birds and other animals that had made it their home.

The illustrations are also by Paritosh Sen. His observation of minute detail is acute and made without any malice, whether it be the ants on the Arjuna tree or the resident ghost. Of all the influence Sen’s work has undergone, the earliest was the folk art simplicity, the rural touch and the women with “slit potol” eyes of the Bengal School. A thinking and intelligent artist, he was never a slave to inspiration.

Instead, he went beyond it to leave his own signature. His early work was certainly inspired by the life he saw around him, whether it was Bengal Village and Watering a Tulsi Plant or the rather obvious Bengali Wedding Scene, to which he gave a twist with somber colours. Mughal miniatures fascinated him for a while, specially in their fine detailing, something to which he had not been exposed to as a child.

At the end of the day, most of us remember Sen for his bold lines that are economical even as they lionize the subject, whether it be a goat or a crow. The eyes were important to Sen, expressing an inner soul, a wit and an intelligence that not many artists have been capable of doing.

He reacted to the disturbing events around the world in the 1960s with typical, savagely expressionistic works that broke several disciplines. They cover a range of subjects from animals and birds to the human figure, the most charming being The Pregnant Lady (1978) brushed in with grey ink on rough sepia paper, the pure black of her sari border giving it the feel of a Chinese brush painting. By the ‘80s, he was back to Cubist refractions, and the playfulness and innate irony indicate that this has been a period he has truly enjoyed being himself.

A self-effacing man, he was deeply aware of the transience of all things, and painted clocks specially in self portraits like Self-Portrait with Grandfather Clock. Revered today as the grand old man of Indian art’s modernism, even in his twilight years, the hands are strong, and the will stronger to execute his trademark strong lines and robust strokes making him a figurative painter whose works are highly cherished by galleries.

Sen was blessed with a phenomenal memory and empathy for even when I called him years later for an interview, he would cut short my introduction to remind me of the brilliant shoot in a Delhi village gallery!

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