Four years ago – on December 18, 2006 - when Bikash Bhattacharjee breathed his last at Kolkata’s Belle Vue Nursing Home, he was 66. Sadly, the Bengali painter whose works struck a chord with the viewers, had been confined to a wheelchair for the last six years of his life.
Bikash had a very fruitful artistic career spanning more than four decades, during which he produced some of the most compelling images of his time. He was often credited for bringing realism back to Indian art in an era when artists were moving away from it and embracing abstraction. His celebrated series including Dolls (1970s), Boy (1990), Browns (1992-93) and King (1994) catapulted him into the higher echelons of Indian art, before a paralytic stroke in 2000 tragically incapacitated him for life.
As a young boy who lost his father when he was hardly six, Bikash came to experience poverty, loneliness, shame and insecurity from close quarters. He developed empathy for the needy and compassion for the underprivileged from a very early age. His lonely treks through desolate streets of his hometown Calcutta were to have a profound impact on him and his art in later years. Silent alleys, crumbling walls and structures, as well as the pathetic living conditions of the city’s inhabitants were to find expression in many of his evocative paintings.
Bikash, who graduated from the Indian College of Art and Draftsmanship in 1963, became known for his precious talent even as a student. His first solo exhibition at Kolkata in 1965 was followed by many others within the country and outside in later years. While his initial shows came in for criticism for moving against the tide, his work, slowly but surely, gained wide acceptance. He also taught and inspired a whole set of artists belonging to the younger generation.
Calcutta (now Kolkata) remained Bikash’s karma-bhoomi throughout his life. According to critics who closely followed his works, few artists knew Calcutta as well as Bikash. The master draughtsman and colourist utilised his knowledge and experience of the city to bring alive on his canvases its lanes and bylanes, towers and terraces, crumbling buildings and decrepit structures. He did not forget its local residents – be they the aimless streetwalkers, orphaned kids, misled youths, languishing mothers, homeless beggars, prostitutes, slum dwellers, rickshaw pullers, and child labourers …all part of Calcutta’s dark underbelly.
His gripping canvases had a direct reference in some way or the other to the chaotic life around him, and to the human condition. His images often presented juxtaposition of unrelated objects, and included headless figures, dangling dolls, sightless faces, and impoverished monarchs. “The scene in front is always part of a larger one,” he would say. “You know that something has just happened and that there is more to follow.”
Bikash depicted the joys and sorrows of average Bengalis, their difficult times and painful circumstances through earthly symbols and meaningful metaphors. He saw the horrors of war and bloodshed and their effect was clearly seen on his canvases. “I see myself as a sort of painter journalist, using paint and canvas as a photo-journalist might use his camera,” he said. “What I have to say is right there on the canvas.”
Real and surreal
Bikash’s works came to be known for exceptional technical excellence as well as powerful imagery which often combined elements of realism and fantasy. They carried complex multi-layered subtexts and provoked the viewer. “The touch of Bikash’s deft brush, guided by his faculties of imagination and intellect, often succeeds in transforming the reality of the visible world into another in which the element of unexpectedness creates as much mystery and surprise as they disturb us and which, over the years, has become the hallmark of his prolific output,” observed Paritosh Sen, himself an accomplished artist. “Decadence seems to have engulfed his world in which plaster has peeled off the walls revealing huge cracks in them; the doors and windows or the beams seem slowly to have been hollowed out by woodworm.”
From the early stages of his artistic career, Bikash effortlessly and intelligently switched between realism and surrealism. He was influenced by the works of Salvador Dali, René Magritte, Andrew Wyeth, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico and Edgar Degas, among others; he also nurtured a life-long obsession for cinema. Drawn to communism, he saw in it a repository of humanistic ideas and objectives.
“Whether I am realistic, naturalistic or surreal, I do not know,” said Bikash, who was at ease working with oils, crayons, watercolours, gouche, pastels and charcoal. “It may be a combination of attitudes and techniques… Whatever else I feel obligated to by my conscience, I follow.”
Bikash won several prestigious awards including the Academy of Fine Arts Award, Calcutta (1962), National Award, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi (1971 & 72), Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Calcutta, National Award, and Banga Ratna (1987). He received Padma Shri (1988), Shiromani Purashkar (1989), Nivedita Purashkar, Ramkrishna Vivekananda Ashram (1990) and Lalit Kala Akademi Fellowship (2003).
Admired by his peers and appreciated by critics, Bikash’s canvases became a rage and were always sought after by collectors. “Bikash has painted compulsive images of our familiar reality, the faces of our time, portals of life lived in the last few decades since Independence, but seen with a discreet probing eye,” observes Manasij Majumder in his book titled ‘Close to Events: Works of Bikash Bhattacharjee’ (Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2007). “As a result, each frame he paints contains a rich, complex, critiquing, and sometimes hermetic text that needs close reading. His works engage the viewer in an inexhaustible aesthetic tension stimulated by the intriguing forms inalienable from their intellectual and emotional content. In the process, however, he has remained, in his own words: true to the events.”
In his foreword to the book, M F Husain wrote: “Bikash is a painter of our time, whose browns are burnt like in Rembrandt.”