Tall, fair, somewhat plumpish, baby-faced and just out of teens, Bikash Bhattacharjee was the most noticeable among the batch of students, mostly girls, the much sought after teacher Arun Bose (then) of the Dharamtalla art school (as Indian College of Art and Draughtsmanship was generally known) routinely took out on 'outdoor study', meaning sketching expeditions. The other prominent member of the batch was that short, pinkish and bubbly Parsee girl with a head full curly hair, Katayun Saklat. The two had one remarkable similarity. Their large eyes would continually rove with curiosity. Unlike other such study groups under other teachers from Calcutta's two art schools: then, this group rarely went to usual locations like, the zoo, the botanies or the Gangar ghats. Instead, they roamed through lanes and by-lanes of the older parts of the city, looking at uncared for decaying buildings or sat at railway station platforms teeming with people. The choice of locations was consensual, perhaps on Arun's suggestion.
The activity of the group continued even after Bikash and his batch mates had finished their art school stints Arun's association with the core group became closer. On Katy's (i.e., Katayun Saklat) finding a place in a massive crumbling old building, crowded with small servicing establishment-cum-camping residences, in a narrow by-lane off central -administrative borough of Calcutta, Bikash and his friends started what they named, the Grant Lane Studio. The Studio, its interiors, .and surroundings survive in many early sketches of Bikash and Katy. Although I came to know-Bikash and Katy through Arun when they were still in art school, the Grant Lane Studio literally, brought them hear me. The Studio was barely ten minutes walk from the office I then attended. Bikash would often drop in for a cup of tea and chat. I too, occasionally visited their studio to see what they were doing and had long chats on everything under the sun. Art naturally would be the main area of freewheeling conversations but would never be the exclusive subject of discussion. Arun would occasionally join in. but he, unlike Bikash and Katy, had little interest in anything but technology of art and a peripheral interest in the visual language of representation of visible phenomenon. Arun however, was leaving for Paris, for two years, on a French Government scholarship. But before he left, some of us - having been convinced about Bikash's future as an artist - asked Arun whether we should take him into the Society of Contemporary Artist as a member, at that point of time. To. which Arun's reply was that we should wait and watch Bikash grow further till he came back. Arun was not only a founder member and pillar of the Society but was also Bikash's friend, philosopher and guide. So, in deference to his wishes we postponed Bikash's inclusion in the group.
In so far as I was personally concerned, my desire for Bikash's inclusion in the brotherhood, without delay was prompted as much by the wish to augment the Society's tally of talents, as by the apprehension that the delay might help Society's perceived rivals to wean Bikash away. Meanwhile, I had the opportunity of knowing Bikash's mother and how the young widow had brought the two sons up through poverty. I considered it my moral responsibility to render whatever help I could, to nurture the talent that flourished under such a circumstance. My assessment of Bikash's talent was not only based upon the dexterity he was showing in his work, in creating illusions of reality. The potentials of greatness which I detected in his early works lay in his ability to vivify (and not just indicate, suggest or evoke) uncommon and un-expected in the most commonplace and un-exceptional. Bikash was then doing common enough scenes of narrow old Calcutta streets, with cheek by jowl houses in various states of decay, leaning against each other (he in fact grew up and lived in one such, on Raja Nabakrishna Street, before moving over to newer north-east part of the city), linearly emphasizing verticality of the structures looming over human heads, in representation. The o compositions would fall short of landscape-derived geometric abstract composition. The imagery, instead, would speak of a ghost city, totally devoid of any living presence. He would do similar things with old architectural structures, especially interiors, later with much more eerie effects, one-and-a-half decade hence. Teacher Arun Bose's penchant for formal clarity arid balanced composition, through emphasizing latent geometry, was given a twist by Bikash to impregnate form with content. So early, so significantly.
The melodic mode of narration tends to bypass significant sub-plots. To avoid that pitfall, a symphonic structure of narration with occasional digressions to second and third dealings, and moving back and forth to from the main narrative - is a structure I am adopting for this text. It seems, at this point of the narrative, it is necessary to digress a bit on my reading of Arun-Bikash relationship. Bikash had, time and again, stated that for whatever he had learnt about the vocation of a painter, he owed no debt to any institution or a person, apart from Arun Base (long after that, when he was illustrating Samaresh Basu's novel on the life of Ramkinkar Baij, Bikash made a remark to the effect that his close study of Ramkinkar had taught him much about artist-life relationship. He did not elaborate). Having known both Arun and Bikash, in institutional setting and outside, I can vouch for the veracity of the statement. Although they were the teacher and the taught, Arun was only six year senior to Bikash. They came to the vocation with almost similar backgrounds. Both their families were immigrants from rurban east Bengal (erstwhile East Pakistan) struggling to settle down in the more traditional older areas of this metropolis. Bikash 'had the additional handicap of being the elder son of a widow whose husband died early, leaving behind two toddlers and no means. The micro-family had to take shelter in the family of the widow's not too well off brothers. Living was demonstratively deprived. Under the circumstances, Bikash had an indifferent _ school education, much like Arun's. But again like Arun, Bikash himself having found out, in his adolescence, that he had a natural gift of drawing and painting, persuaded his mother to let him go for art education, after secondary school. Getting a friendly guide like Arun and a rich in ideas, reading comrade like Katy, at the start of career, who would encourage and appreciate Bikash's every little accomplishment, helped him to gain self-confidence. The confidence gave him the courage to develop his own personality. He would not hesitate to differ from his mentor (and also go beyond learned suggestions of Katy). Although the necessity of clear, to the point of being geometric,in thearticulation of form and composition on the surface, was instilled by Arun in Bikash's mind, Bikash could hardly ever think of form without content, composition without substantive relationships. And in all his thinking, human import of everything - form and composition, would be important. During Arun's stay in France, this concern of Bikash grew around social-pathological conditions affecting individual social beings. Arun saw these on his return. He would not yet approve of Bikash's inclusion in the Society which, however, he finally did just before immigrating to the USA - little over two years from his return from France.
Inspite of tremendous respect Bikash always had for his mentor, he never shied away from giving his views on Arun's art attitude, albeit not in public. At a period of time when the artists of the Indian diaspora were all adopting Tantric motifs in their work, Arun too went into it. In one of his home visits from the US, he showed slides of such work to some friends. For some reason Bikash could not attend the exposition. Next day when on being enquired by him, I told about what I saw, Bikash responded by saying that it was wrong on my part to expect any discourse on tantric symbology or its human relevance from Arun, as his interest was likely to be around the design aspects of the motifs and their placements on two-dimensional surface. I-.wondered how right he was.
As for what Arun thought of Bikash's art attitude, I remember an incident that was quite revealing. Much later, during another visit from the States, Arun chanced to see an exhibition of paintings Bikash was then doing. The exhibits included, conjured up narratives of absurd events with ludicrous power players, pathetic marionettes and impassive observers. Turning towards me while seeing the exhibits, Arun asked, "why" do you not tell him that what he is doing is illustration and not painting". In the high-Modernist lexicon 'illustration' was an adjective of derision. I responded by saying that Bikash was not visually translating any written or oral story, but was visualizing a narrative which he himself had conjured up. By that time, Bikash indeed had established himself as a masterly visual conjurer of events and situations which could be tell-tale surrogates of dumb real life happenings and situations. But to arrive at that state of his art, so to say, Bikash had taken a long time, from where we digressed from our main narrative, to delve into the guru-sishya parampara.
Bikash was already attracting attention of art watchers for his dexterity in representation of illusion of reality and courage to tread a path -r different from currently trodden ones, and considered as obsolete, when he joined the Society of Contemporary Artists. For a young man with a deprived childhood and an indifferent secondary education, it was an achievement, for the fact that the Society had come to be recognized as an association of most creative artists of Bengal, then. Soon after, Bikash was taken in as a teacher of painting, in the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta. His appointment was ad-hoc and temporary, to fill in the vacancy caused by Arun's leaving. As Bikash's appointment was not regularized years after successful teaching stint, he left that shaky job in disgust, and started earning several times more immediately thereafter as a freelance painter. Right from the time I met him as a young apprentice, just out of teens, I would wonder as to what gave him the self-confidence he exuded. I would often think that the self-confidence and courage to be different were perhaps borne out of an innocence bordering on ignorance. But no, he would not spare any effort to visually educate himself where textual self-education would fail him, apart from Katy's friendly help. Although Bikash was a great cultivator of skill, his belief in his ability to accomplish any kind of self-assigned task was enormous. When Bikash was in the process of giving up his Govt. Art College job in disgust, his alarmed mother sent for me and asked me to dissuade him from plunging the whole family, into grave uncertainties. Bikash, however, was convinced that a full-time devotion to the vocation, at that point, would bring him professional success. How right he was. But this was to happen much later.
From the time Bikash joined the Society, to about three-four years after that, Bikash's interests alternated between visionary expositions of the presence of the macabre and the grotesque in condition L'humane, as he perceived. Like a whole range of predecessors from Hieronymous Bosch to Max Ernst, he would distort human features and combine them with the caricatured representation of animals to critique the posturing of social types. Or he would posit less metamorphosed socially atypical or deviant characters in unusual settings viewed from; unusual angles. It is in this period that he developed his stylistically characteristic mode of chiaroscuro application of color tonalities for effects beyond creation of illusion of reality. All these concerns earned for him, I think wrongly, the sobriquet of being a 'surrealist', even if it was for-a short period of time: A couple of years from joining the Society, something happened to Bikash that took his reputation far and wide.
It was at this time that the Government of India accepted a proposal, initiated by Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, then Chairman, Lalit Kala Akademi, for holding the first of the New Delhi Triennale of World Art. Pradosh Dasgupta and Krishen Khanna were appointed the Commissioners for compiling the Indian Section. Having had spent a fortnight with them, the previous year, at the Indian Institute of Advance Study, in Shimla, I volunteered to take them round to artists' studios and residences in Calcutta, for facilitating them to take their pick. Apart from taking them to the Calcutta artists like Nirode Mazumdar, Gopal Ghosh and Paritosh Sen whom they knew well, my natural destination was the Society of Contemporary Artists studio where our friends had gathered their best. The two Commissioners unhesitatingly chose Ganesh Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharjee, none of whose works they had seen before, as none till then had exhibited their work in either Delhi or Bombay. Though I pleaded for the inclusion of a couple of more artists, they told me, as they had already included Somnath Hore (already a several time winner of the National Award) and Sarbari Roychaudhury, they were unable to accommodate any more. Ganesh and Bikash exhibited. Both their works were noticed and received critical appreciation, albeit for totally different reasons-as it should have been. Both of them suddenly became much sought after painters. Then came the two outstation exhibitions of the Society of Contemporary Artists. The Bombay show was held at the very beginning and the Delhi exposition at the fag end of theyear 1970.The exhibitions firmed up the qualitative reputations of Ganesh and Bikash.
Bikash and Katy, as we have already seen, were contemporaries and worked together in the same studio, the space for which was managed by Katy. There were enough internal evidences in the works of Bikash and Katy - up to the end of the seventies -pointing to much sharing of ideas and creative collaboration between the two, unlike the creative collaboration of Picasso and Braque in their adventure with cubism. Bikash in his early penetrating character studies in interior spaces - with narrative suggestions derived from old photo albums of Parsee families. Looks of the interiors of old mansions, including furniture and drapery came both from actual locations as well as from photographs. After the First Triennale participation, when Bikash started painting large canvases in series, Katy found for him a large studio on the first floor of the Olphadwalla mansion at 52 Chowringhee, under demolition order. The mansion, its interiors and exteriors, feature animatedly in a number of Bikash's paintings of the seventies and the eighties. Most remarkable, however, was a girl child doll in frock. The doll, in actuality, belonged to a niece of Katy. It triggered the imaginations of both Bikash and Katy. Both must have discussed about the possibility of the use of the doll image. Katy did a painting of a doll-like lonely girl child in the seclusion of her home. Bikash, on the other hand, in his remarkable doll series paintings, would posit the innocent and vulnerable looking girl child doll, performing wiley acts, alone, in familiar settings - viewed from unexpected angles: The survival instincts of an adult... individual is driven by this innocent looking girl child) apparently apprehended : in a near-normal appearance, that made Bikash's doll series of paintings, richly ambiguous with layers and layers of meanings. The surrogate nature of the settings and the situational configurations of imagery, left room for no doubt that Bikash was, in fact, responding to the volatile political situation and what it meant to individual beings, by conjuring up thin allegorical visual narratives. The vision that got vivified in the best of the doll series of paintings, had its beginning in his earlier She series of paintings, to which belongs that masterpiece, Deathless Antique. In these paintings reference to political situation were less palpable. Nevertheless, he would create imageries and configurate them as narratives of states of social pathology. There would also be an ubiquitous presence of an enigmatic being- a metallic icon like extremely well-endowed female observer of life-in-death and death-in-life situations. She, unlike the wiley doll-child, is wise and aloof observer of the situation, the participants' in which fail to comprehend (is she the artist's alter-ego?). Although the phases, Katy would not only provide Bikash with creative and intellectual comradeship, but would also help him to establish himself in the profession. Katy was instrumental in the mounting of their first two-person show in Jamshedpur. A majority of Bikash's earliest collectors were Katy's relatives and family friends.
After the First Triennale, and especially after the Bombay and Delhi exhibitions of 1970, Bikash's reputation peaked. His works were being sought all over the country. Observing events, absorbing reflexions, getting to know people from diverse walks of life, getting acquainted with ideas, painting feverishly and responding to the calls of exhibition were putting pressure on his time. Family responsibilities too were mounting. He was slowly but surely drifting away from his early associates and from mid-eighties on, he would reduce his wanderings and non-professional public relations, leading to drying up of his primary sources of inspiration. One has to believe in the old adage that everything good comes to an end. The earliest of Bikash's wholesome contacts, that was with Katy, got snapped the earliest. Another such relationship of Bikash that too came to a sad end, in more silent acrimony, was that with Ganesh Pyne.
No two highly gifted creative individuals, in the same profession simultaneously and belonging to the same milieu and ethos, could be as different as Ganesh Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharjee (Bikash was three-and-a-half year junior to Ganesh). The overall feeling of death-threatening uncertainty, looming presence of evil power over good and fragile life forces, perilous attractions of life-abnegating phenomena and noumena and deceptive chimera of better life that one perceives as permeating as deep themes, inspite of a thousand sensuous differences on the surfaces of Ganesh's and Bikash's work, are pointers enough to indicate that both of them have been objectifying their responses to similar kind of experience of the here-and-now reality. But their individual mental make ups made difference in resultant conceptualizations. While Ganesh's imagination would lead him to construction of elaborate visual allegories with mythic stances to indicate the core themes, Bikash would travel the exactly opposite path. Bikash, in his work? would construct surrogate images of experienced reality, as a measure of tearing off the veil of appearance to reveal the stark truth, as he conceived. The duo represented two of the many faces of the modern Indian art of the seventies, when the artists of the generation came to believe in' objectifying.. their individual responses to the here-and-now reality, in individual idioms , made out through well adopted eclectically absorbed visualinguistic elements. Thus both, in their individual ways represented the spirit of modern Indian art with an identity, gained through reference to here-and-now reality. Both Ganesh and Bikash, initially, understood that they had the rightful roles to play in the development of Indian Modern art. They not only cooperated with each other on the platform provided by the Society of Contemporary Artist. They together formed the nucleus of the evening-into-night adda at the tea shop named New York Soda Fountain (closed down towards the end of the seventies) on Dharamtalla Street (renamed, Lenin Sarani, around the time), only a few blocks from the Society's studio, and walking distances away from Ganesh's home and Bikash's place of employment. Tea-shop adda was the great Calcutta institution that socially connected non sanguineous persons, in the greater part of the twentieth century. Adda, became a democratically levelling secondary community. So much for the adda factor in their friendship. Ganesh and Bikash together became best appreciated exponents from Calcutta of a modern Indian art taking off from individual comprehension of here-and-now. There was absolutely no reason for the two to be competitive and all the reasons to remain in co-operative union. But that was not to be. Lure of greater share offame and market started givingrise to jealousies. But more than these manageable factors, it were the coteries of cronies and relatives around the two personalities who spared no effort to stoke the fires of animosity between the two. To my mind, the unnecessary snapping of ties have been baneful to both their art.
All through this reminiscence, I have been speaking about people and places. It is simply because in Bikash's art, experience of relation with particular persons, specific places and happened events have been the take off points of visualized conceptual generalizations. In fact, late into his successful professional career when he started losing touch with these, his work began to be adversely affected. But this bit of digression from the main narrative should not detain us. Let us, therefore, go back to the main discussion. Throughout his career, except at the very beginning, Bikash displayed a concern with representation of womanhood. This concern deepened and became overwhelming with passage of time. His images would be of lonely woman, of all ages, from girl child to old in firms and of all states of male-relationships, from unmarried under-cares to independent adults to married homemakers to widows, from a variety of walks of life He would represent women in groups, but much less than woman alone. Although Bikash had occasionally painted undraped women, they would be clothed in enigma; there would be some ambiguity regarding the intention of the artist; one would fail to come to conclusion whether the intention ever was representation of the nude female body of male gaze. In fact, Bikash did not seem to be interested so much in depiction of women as in the representation of womanhood. In so far as his idea of womanhood was concerned, his standard of judgment was provided by his mother, the self-effacing and self-denying widow, who would bend her back to protect and take care of her children. The faceless mother Teresa image, with her drapery playing the role of an instrument of protection, that Bikash painted over and over again surely was modeled on the mental image of his own mother. Another role model of womanhood for Bikash was the stern and disciplinarian Indira Gandhi, destined to die violently for, principles. Any deviation from these models of womanhood would meet Bikash's visualized disapproval. But in his visualizations of disapproval, sympathy, for the women forced to perform deviant roles, would not be missing. His idea about womanhood was undoubtedly conservative but he- was no misogynist; the ambiguity weapon in his repertoire saved him from being labeled a male chauvinist.
Bikash's modernity was not the modernity of an alienated individual, an outsider, an exiled or a disinherited mind for the reason of his lifelong .attachment to the family, the basic social unit. We have seen how protectively his mother had groomed him up for travelling the-path he had chosen for himself. By the time he married, Bikash was already a much acclaimed young painter. On gradually taking up the task of management of the household affairs, with mother-in-laws support, Parbatj never let Bikash bother too much with household chores, so that he could give to creative work full time devotion. However Bikash never abjured all his family responsibilities. Decisions on family affairs would be taken by the mother, wife and himself jointly. With Bikash's support Parbati took care of bringing up and then grooming first their daughter Balaka and then the son Bibhas. Both their names spelt with an initial B, after their father. Both of them have made their father their model for professional roles. Balaka has after taking her. master degree in literature, taken up painting as her profession. Bibhas has become a professional non- commercial photographer, after doing his graduation in general course. The brother and the sister together helped Parbati to cope with Bikash's rather long period of debilitating sickness. Bikash's mother fell ill and passed away before Bikash in that period. Parbati, Bikash had to bear with that too.
Mounting material demands of life, from around the middle of the eighties were taking him away from emotion generating life at its raw, and making him less judgmental in his visual statements. His painting was becoming more and more passively descriptive, before a debilitating illness struck him and robbed him off his capacity to draw and paint. Then another illness, a number of years after the first, felled him; yes, prematurely. I personally, had to mourn the passing away of a friend - six year junior to me - whom I had known, along with other members" of his family, for around forty years.
Pranab Ranjan Ray