There are innumerable stories one can spin around the paintings of Dharmanarayan Dasgupta. Stories of corpulent babus and buxom bhadramahilas who defy the laws of gravity to go freewheeling in mid air. There are stories also of turtles and tigers, giant insects and butterflies, and a range of half-bird, half-women mythical creatures who take to the air with the same abandon and gusto, jumping, jostling or fighting mock battles with their human counterparts. In these tales, nothing remains static or tied to the ground - even the objects have the power to fly, whether they be clocks, chairs, wardrobes or vintage cars, or whether they be ghostly kurtas where the human figures they once clothed have gone missing. The scenarios keep changing at a tantalising pace, from moments of mirth or intimacy to specters of solitude, alienation and death. Dhoti-clad babus flaunt walking sticks and box cameras; a mischievous woman offers her binoculars to a leaping tiger; dreamy-eyed damsels soar above the earth on moonlit skies; while couples, young and middle-aged come flying towards each other. Somewhere down the line, the mood turns blue, often macabre. A winged tortoise pulls on a string a pale and frozen figure; curvaceous female figures take on beastly faces; a blood-stained kurta stands pinned against a wall; heads and limbs come apart from bodies to take on lives of their own; decapitated torsos and severed arms assume the form of inanimate tubes and vessels, spouting smoke or growing out of boxes and vases. Occasionally, even the gods are tempted to throw in an appearance. Krishna emerges as if out of a jatra performance to rest on a bench and smoke a cigarette or floats like a puppet with a stick and a begging bowl, while a ten-armed deity holds out a series of masks ranging from Ravana to Buddha and Chaitanya.
It is from the late 1970s that we see Dharmanarayan Dasgupta arriving at what comes to he recognized as his fully evolved and mature style: a style that was to become his trademark on the contemporary art scene of Bengal. The prime medium he had chosen to work with was a particular genre of tempera on canvas or cellular cloth, where the cloth stretched out on a thick drawing board would be treated to coatings of primer (using mixtures of stone or zinc white, egg emulsion and homemade glue), and the ground carefully dried before the drawing was made and semi-transparent layers of water colour applied to create effects of both translucence and density. A mouth spray was frequently used to produce special tonal effects of colour on the cloth texture, sometimes also to apply a final coating of egg emulsion on the finished painting. All along, he experimented with a range of other media, like gouache on Nepalese paper, acrylic on canvas and transparent sheet, linocuts, lithographs and etchings, and with the most basic of all techniques, line drawings. Over the 1980s and 90s, however, the style, like the body of images they crafted, had a distinct and definable unity. They seemed to grow and converge around a solid core. What constituted this core was a typical repertoire of characters and scenes that animate his compositions - the mustachioed gentlemen in dhotis, the ladies draped in striped Bengali handloom saris, the acrobatic tigers, the grimacing beasts, the run-away clocks and chairs, or the mask-like heads and tubular limbs that get mixed up with a variety of still-life objects. These are what keep appearing in new permutations and combinations throughout his paintings, prints and drawings.
The interpretations we bring to bear on these pictures can be as mind-boggling as the images themselves. As with all works of art, there is the inevitable tendency to seek psychological explanations - to invest each complex of motifs with hidden allusions and references ferreted out of the artist's personal life. Equally compelling is the search for literary and artistic antecedents - Dharmanarayan Dasgupta's imagery can be seen to resonate will) Bengali literary symbolisms, and with a medley of influences as much of European modern masters as of Indian art traditions. Bui (he more we scour these paintings for clues to their 'true' artistic intention, the more they tease and baffle - and the more they recede into a kind of opacity, holding tight to the secrets of the loves and fears, the inspirations and fantasies that lie at their source. And we are left trying to release ourselves from the chains of our own unanswerable questions. Today, the artist is no longer present to act as the interlocutor of these images. But even if he was around, knowing the way he was, he could well have clung to his prerogative of reticence, to his right never to have to articulate the meanings of the visual world he created.
To say that an artist's images must speak for themselves has become a truism in the field of art-production and art-writing. Every artist seems to stand by it, just as every critic and writer takes pride in repeating it. Yet, it also goes without saying that modern art images do not speak for any and every body, that they can only reach out to a desired body of viewers and connoisseurs through a series of mediations of those who produce, promote and interpret 'art', that their eloquence and aura are always enmeshed in the larger history of modern art activity of a particular place and period. Let us ask, then, what is this specific history which frames the work of an artist like Dharmanarayan Dasgupta? For, his paintings, if at all they 'speak for themselves', speak from within the deep recesses and niches of the particular history that we need to piece together for the struggling world of modern art in Calcutta in the post-Independence years. They also necessarily speak to a whole history of images that precede and surround them images which the artist strategically selected to construe his own modernist legacy and his unique Indian and Bengali heritage. It is essential, then, to locate the artist within this art-historical context - to identify the broad community of artists and imagery of the past and the present that he reached out to in defining his vocation as a modern Bengali painter.
Dharmanarayan Dasgupta, I would argue, stands archetypal of the time and the place to which he belonged, and of its distinctive ambience of a regional modernism. Let us try and grasp snatches of this history through the trajectory of his own education, career and artistic evolution. Side by side, with the pictures that chart the course of his work from the 1960s to the 1990s, there is also a life history to reconstruct in each phase. And we find this individual life history repeatedly opening out to a wider social milieu, reflecting what it entailed to survive as a professional artist for members of a non-affluent Bengali middle class during these decades. There were in Calcutta during these years few opportunities and openings, few secure avenues of livelihood, and even fewer promotional platforms that could sustain a professional artistic life. Following a certified art college diploma, a job as an art teacher in a school was often the best that was available for an aspirant in the profession. Whatever jobs came by had to be taken up, whether it was school teaching or signboard painting, for hardly any among them could choose to remain a 'free-lance artist' and fall back on a long probationary period of family support. A couple of group shows in Calcutta and other parts of India, perhaps a rare solo exhibition (when a single painting sold for a few hundred rupees would be a cause of elation), and occasional commissions for commercial design-work or illustrations were what mapped out an average art career in Calcutta through the 1960s and 70s and well into the 80s.
The situation has not changed a great deal even today, as will be borne out by the fate of the bulk of those trying to make their grade as artists in the city. The last two decades - the sudden boom in art galleries, exhibitions, sales and publications, and with it, the soaring prices and prestige of modern Indian art - came to dramatically alter the fortunes of only a handful of the city's young and senior artists. Even in the last years of his career, an artist like Dharmanarayan Dasgupta never fully entered this upper layer. In his life and in his untimely death, he remained a part of an anterior world where the entity of modern art was still to acquire the glamour, wealth and stature that it now enjoys in certain circles. Removed from national and international limelight, it was a world which fed into itself, into its own local milieu of Bengali intellectuals, writers, poets and artists, and into its in-grown avant-garde culture. In many senses, what best defined this milieu was an unremitting sense of struggle, marginalization and economic hardship. The sense resounded and repeated itself across a spectrum of the most gifted artists who worked in the city through the 60s and 70s: across most of those who came to form Calcutta's premier art group of those years, the Society of Contemporary Artists, Dharmanarayan Dasgupta thus spoke for many of his creed when he recounted the 'battle' that was his life as an artist.
The 'battle' often had to be fought out from the very point of time one opted to enter an school. For, to middle class professional families, art remained one of the most insecure and inhospitable of careers. Dharmanarayan was born and brought up in a joint family in Tripura, where his father was in government service. Alter he finished his Intermediate degree from Agartala, his desire to join an art college met with the familiar dismay and resistance of family members. Nonetheless, with the financial assistance of his elder brothers and a Tripura government scholarship, he joined the Santiniketan Kala Bhavan in 1957. This is where, he recalled, a provincial small-town boy entered a wholly different universe. This is where we must also mark the beginnings of his artistic biography.
Among his later group of fellow-artists in Calcutta, Dharamanarayan was unusual in being a product not of the city's Government College of Art, but of Kala Bhavan. The Santiniketan training then still carried certain different markers. In contrast to an academic curriculum, the emphasis was on 'sketching' (i.e. quick free-hand drawing, outdoors and indoors) rather than on step-by-step life and model studies; it was also on indigenous painting techniques like egg tempera and freso, and on a composite four-year training that covered painting, sculpture, graphics and various handicrafts. Most striking of all was the lingering taboo on the use and practice of oil painting, a hangover of Santiniketan's non-Western modernist legacy. Dharmanarayan came to a Kala Bhavan where Nandalal Bose (master-mashay) had been reduced to a complete invalid, but where his artistic canons survived as a pedagogic formula perpetuated by his son (Biswarup Bose) and other disciples who succeeded him to the helm. At the end of the 50s, Benodebehari Mukherjee returned to Santiniketan, by then fully blind, and began for the first time his informal lectures on art history and aesthetics that were gradually incorporated within the Kala Bhavan curriculum. This is also the time when Ramkinkar Baij would be working away day and night on the famous 'Yaksha-Yakshi' sculptures for the Reserve Bank building in New Delhi. To watch him work, to be taught and rebuked by him, to experience his warmth, unruly impulses and his total unworldliness would be one of the greatest boons of these student years. Ramkinkar's little house was where some of the students would secretly congregate, risking the displeasure of the Kala Bhavan authorities, to do oil painting, nude model study and other experimental work. As with generations of students, Dharmanarayan would look back on these Kala Bhavan days - on his friends and fellow-students, on a unique ambience of freedom and creativity, on his few direct encounters with Benodebehari, and most of all, on the singular presence of Ramkinkar - as the most formative influence on his career.
The move out of his sheltered enclave would always be a jolt. This is when the 'battle' to earn and survive began in full swing. Dharmanarayan left Santiniketan in 1961 to briefly return to the family fold in Tripura, but where he quickly dispensed with the prospects of a government job to come away to an uncertain future in Calcutta. The choice, as he had rightly gauged, was to get sucked into the obscurity of a secure provincial existence, or to stake his place in a metropolitan world of modern art activity. Calcutta offered a string of school teaching jobs - first in a Gujarati school in Pollock Street, then in St. Thomas' Church School in Howrah, where he was to stay on for a long thirteen years, from 1966 to 1979. In the meantime, the artist began his married and family life and moved between several residences - from an old house in Bhowanipur to a one room mezzanine flat in Jodhpur Park and then on to a small flat in Howrah, when his two sons began to go to the school where he taught. This cramped Howrah residence (which he later substituted for a slightly larger one) ended up being his home-cum-studio for most of his working life. This is where he painted whenever he found time outside his school hours, wherever he could grab some space: on the dining table, in the verandah, often just sitting up in bed late at night. All along, it was a struggle to make ends meet on a single school teaching income, with hardly any additional earnings from sale of paintings through the 60s and 70s. The crisis deepened in 1979 when, following a major altercation with the school authorities, he resigned along with many of his colleagues and set up an alternative school at Dasnagar, Howrah: a school that had to wait some anxious years to get government recognition and sanction to conduct the board examinations. The artist recalls how he risked the future of his sons by tying their education with the fate of this fledgling institution, and the final sense of relief when his son along with other students of the school sat for his school-leaving examinations.
For one who had for several years then been serving more as a Bengali than as an art teacher in the schools, a long over-due professional break came in 1985. After 23 years of school teaching, Dharmanarayan joined the Department of Painting of the Faculty of Visual Arts at Rabindra Bharati University. The 1970s and 80s brought a similar swing in the careers of some of his peers and contemporaries, by virtue of a new trend of drawing eminent non-alumni artists into university art faculties. In 1969, Somenath More, after a long association with the Graphics department first of the Indian Art College, Calcutta and then of the Delhi Art College, had been drawn to Kala Bhavan to receive its defunct print-making studios. Closer to Dharmanarayan's time, in the late 1970s, the print-maker Sanat Kar moved from his job as an art teacher at Calcutta Boys' School to the same Graphics department at Kala Bhavan. A decade later, Jogen Chowdhury came out of his myriad employments as designer in the Weavers' Service Centre and Regional Handloom Boards at Calcutta and Madras, and curator of the Rashtrapati Bhavan art collection in New Delhi, to join the Kala Bhavan painting department. A Rabindra Bharati faculty position carried probably neither the same aura nor the work- opportunities of a Santiniketan job. But it did bring Dharmanarayan Dasgupta more directly into i lie pedagogic stream of modern art, into the training of students aspiring for an art career, and certainly into greater economic security. Colleagues in the department remember his unfailingly affable and accessible personality, even when the status and responsibilities of the Dean of the Faculty and Curator of the University Museum converged on him in his last years, causing tremendous pressure on what was already a frail constitution. In the 90s, what also took an immense toll on his health was his long-drawn effort to push to completion the artists' cooperative apartment block in Salt Lake. His immense need for a comfortable, spacious home of his own was finally met in 1996. In a life of struggle, the cruelest twist lies in that he should have succumbed to a fatal attack of Hepatitis barely a year after he moved to this apartment.
It is time we moved from the history of the life back to the history of the artist's work. This other history proceeds partly in tandem, partly on its own groove, forging its larger links and breaks with a rich art-historical inheritance. For an artist emerging out of Calcutta in the post-Independence decades, there were many nuances to the charge of being both 'Indian' and 'modern'. One had to avoid, first and foremost, the trap of falling into the mould of Indian-style painting of the ‘Bengal School’ or the Santiniketan variety, even as one selectively drew on the legacy of masters like Abanindranath, Nandalal or Benodebehari. At the same time, one had to negotiate the complex route of an indigenous modernism, where the example of the 20th century European artists and movements competed with avenues opened up by earlier generations of Indian modernists. Modernity, for Bengali artists of this period, had shed much of its international Western associations to re-assert its claims to a national and regional history. Western modern and contemporary art would always leave its marks, but only through the thick filter of India's own modernisms.
We could describe the Calcutta art scene of the 60s as one that was post-Calcutta Group and post-Jamini Roy, but where traces of both trends lingered in many forms. On the one hand, we see a spillover from the 1940s of the iconography of death, starvation and suffering, a continuing artistic obsession with the poverty, squalor and violence that epitomized Calcutta. The prints and sculptures of Somenath Hore best encapsulate this trend. On the other hand, we can unearth a persisting line of engagement with primitivism, folk art idioms and ornate stylizations in several artists, whether they be emerging sculptors like Meera Mukherjee, or painters of the dispensation of Rabin Mondal or Prokash Karmakar. In the 70s and 80s, we can see the city's art emerging out of these flows to acquire a distinct shape that was imparted to it by the work of one dominant group, the Society of Contemporary Artists, that had been formed in I960. It is in these decades that the members of the group evolved to a new maturity and confidence - when two among them, Ganesh Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharya, hit their singularly high profiles, laying out what became the famous twin poles of Bengali contemporary art, when a host of others - like Ganesh Haloi, Amitabha Banerjee, Lalu Prasad Shaw, Shyamal Dutta Roy or Sunil Das - participated in the shaping of an identifiable idiom of Bengali modernism. That modernism also found in these same years a parallel direction in the works of another contemporary group, formed in 1970, who called themselves the Calcutta Painters, where senior stalwarts like Prokash Karmakar, Rabin Mondal, Bijon Chowdhury and Bipin Goswami (some of whom had broken away from the Society of Contemporary Artists) came together with younger painters like Jogen Chowdhury and Shuvaprasanna. This was the mixed milieu in which Dharmanarayan Dasgupta grew, experimented and came into his own.
When he came to Calcutta, he remembered how Santiniketan students were seen to be still trapped in the niceties of 'Indian' painting and not quite attuned to 'modern' art. It was under the shadow of such a stigma that he held his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the city's then most prestigious art gallery, Artistry House on Park Street, to prove his 'modern' credentials, and to find his first buyers and patrons. In the 60s, we see the artist working with a variety of genres: pen and ink and coloured drawings, watercolours on paper, and occasionally oils on masonite and plyboard. Large numbers of these paintings remain in the family collection, and can be placed in three broad groups. Carrying the earliest date of 1962-63 is a series of pen and inks of grotesque faces, figures and forms, done in dense squiggles and specks of colour - a beast-like face with a pipe, a monster with a wine glass, a gigantic woman preening before a mirror, or a host of convoluted female and animal torsos. Laden with associations of the strange apparitions which inhabit the world of Bengali children's stories - reminiscent especially of the characters from Sukumar Ray's Abol-Tabol - these drawings anticipate the artist's keen eye for satire and his continuing output of half-human, half-animal creatures. Next in date (mainly from 1964-65) is a body of abstract colourful compositions, often centred around trees and landscapes. What these seem to do is to draw on the Santiniketan tradition of landscapes, say of Rabindranath and Benodebehari, and infuse with it new flurry and shock of colour. Then, from the end of the decade, comes a few 'Tantrik' style compositions in oil, where we see him playing primarily on the element of ornate design and cultic motifs, delving, in one case, into the effects of burning a dark hole into the centre of the plyboard. What appears most important about these paintings now is the way they mark a break towards a new tightness, detail and intricacy of forms that would be the hallmark of all of Dharmanarayan's subsequent work.
The next decade is when we begin to encounter the more familiar corpus of the artist's imagery alongside the first specialised traits of his genre of tempera paintings. His evolution over the 70s and HOs has been tracked largely in terms of two central influences on his work - first, his fascination with the narrative and decorative idioms of early Indian miniature painting, and then his increasing play with the visual vocabulary and subversive potential of Bengali folk art, especially the paintings of Kalighat. In between, there would also be a continuous dialogue with the works of a selection of European painters, spanning a range from Henri Douanier-Kousseau and Marc Chagall to Rene Magritte and Paul Klee. In every case, what Dharmanarayan was discovering were new worlds of fantasy, each with their own visual props and devices. The rise of the miniaturist trend in his paintings in the 70s coincided with the fine-tuning of his elaborate tempera technique. The time and patience invested in the completion of each small painting (from the preparation of the ground primer to the final drying of the surface varnish) went hand in hand with the ornamental delicacy and detail he brought to his treatment of trees, flowers and foliage. These effects are writ large across several of his important tempera compositions of this first phase - in the scene of a forest grove, where a little boy with a butterfly stands balanced on the enormous hood of a serpent; in the little butterflies and moths that flit around his flying vintage cars; in the flowers that lie strewn around a ghostly Charlie Chaplin in his grave; or in the hundreds of tiny plants that regularly sprout beneath the feet his walking babus, floating ladies, his headless 'Ruler' with a looking glass, or his 'Leader' with his many masks.
Many of these same paintings are also embedded in what I see as a surrealistic ambience, where the hand of the miniaturist lends itself to strange eerie visions. Its best examples are to b seen in his series of paintings centred around the motif of a kurta (or Panjabi, as it is called in Bengali) - where he implant the spatial miniature setting of courtyards, walls and decorative patterned trees into a new surreal genre of compositions that show figureless kurtas standing atop a terrace, flying in the da… with a pendant, or lying blood-stained among trees. Although painted in the 80s, this 'Panjabi' series was, for the artist, deep steeped in memories of the political turmoil and violence the engulfed Calcutta in the wake of the Naxalite movement. Tha.. element of political allegory informs many earlier paintings to - most notably his masterpiece of 1978 of the ten-armed Lead who can don one mask after another. A number of intricate p and ink compositions from the late 70s throw up a similar amalgam of curious motifs that veer between grim irony and somnambular fantasies. We see a skeletal ribbed torso wearing a medal, a conical body with butterfly wings, a sword plunged into an egg. The same years, however, also mark a sharply differs direction as the artist turned to a new media, using acrylic pa on plexiglass. A flying woman in a red and yellow sari and a greed faced woman with blue tresses look forward to the more folkish and jocular world of images that became typical of the latter-day artist.
The mid and late 80s saw a distinct lightening of the mood a content of Dharmanarayan Dasgupta's compositions. A new sp of joviality and satire become germane to his pictorial narrative encoded in a raw brightness of palette, a greater voluptuousness and girth of figures and a more mischievous repertoire of human and animal characters. While the temperas become more bristle and colourful, a restless amalgam of tones, shapes, objects a creatures characterise his compositions in acrylic or gouache, the Bengali babu and bibi become the signatorial motifs of the years, the lost world of Kalighat paintings of colonial Calcutta is brought home to roost in Dharmanarayan's own middle cl.. milieu, to mock at its new duplicities, frustrations and sex libido. Earlier, it may have been a Douanier-Rousseau wh.. inspired his own tropical forests, animals and savages o Magritte which led him to conceive of his surrealist image two female legs hanging out of a wardrobe in mid-air. Now seems to have been Chagall's paintings which underwrite many of his images of pink and purple nudes, flying lovers and upside-down women who suddenly come upon their partners. There was also a recognisable code of tropes of Kalighat painting that he activated in these scenarios of debauchery or seduction - is for instance, the trope of a woman's hands blindfolding a man. The motif would in time take on an autobiographical note, as those anonymous hands trap his own eyes in a later self-portrait sketch.
Dharmanarayan Dasgupta found his main artistic and intellectual community when he joined the Society of Contemporary Artists in 1970. Inducted into their famous addas at Dharmatala's 'Soda Fountain', he was also drawn into their annual exhibiting activities in and outside Calcutta. Through the 70s and 80s, he participated regularly in the Society's yearly exhibitions at Calcutta's Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Bombay's Jehangir Art Gallery, and Delhi's Rabindra Bhavan and AIFACS galleries. His work of these years thus naturally demands to be placed within the larger corpus of works of this group that defined, in turn, the period's dominant idiom of Bengali modernism. Within this changing and expanding group, a set of clear affinities and contrasts between artists marked out the main stylistic trends. Dharmanarayan I Dasgupta's paintings, for instance, have little in common with the uncanny hyper-real figures that stare out of the canvases of Bikash Bhattacharya, or with the fragments of skulls, faces and bodies that become a regular feature of Sunil Das’ compositions. They have their closest kin, instead, in the temperas created by Ganesh Pyne: temperas which resonate with the same dense under layers of colour and even denser visual allegories. They also find themselves most easily at home among the derelict buildings, faces and objects that float out of the watercolours of Shyamal Dutta Roy, the streamlined still lives and figures that inhabit the temperas of Lalu Prasad Shaw, or even among the abstract gouache colourscapes of Ganesh Haloi.
Undoubtedly, as connoisseurs will hasten to point out, there were marked individualities in colour technique, form and a imposition that make a Dharmanarayan Dasgupta painting stand and apart and quite on its own. The closer we look into these paintings, the more aware we become of their fine stylistic distinctions. The difference which strikes me as most pertinent, though, is the note of jocularity and satire that he alone seems to bring to the unrelenting scenarios of gloom, despair and melancholy that envelop the pictorial universe of most around him. Amidst the starved urchins and broken bowls of a Shyamal Dutta Roy or the deeply brooding and introspective faces that haunt a Ganesh Pyne, Dharamanarayan Dasgupta's imagery -his gentlemen, ladies, animals, and even his chairs, tables and clocks - provides a refreshing break. They float, dance, pirouette and masquerade, refusing to be weighed down by the troubles that burdened the life of their creator. They pull us out of our everyday lives into realms of unending fantasy. And they never fail to remind us of the importance of being able to laugh at ourselves.
Yet, in Dharmanarayan's life as in his pictures, the darkness always seemed to be lurking just around the corner. Latent in the black humour that resides deep within his images, that darkness is suddenly resurrected in the mid 90s in the shadow of the artist's impending death. Ironically, his works of these years reflect an even greater lightness and buoyancy, as they discard with the laborious medium of tempera and switch to the spontaneity of water colours and line drawings. The lightness this time comes to involve the shedding of dark, dense colours, the leaving of empty spaces and the plain white of the paper in the background, also by a new airiness in compositional structure. This is most evident in the series of watercolours he painted in 1994, where he frames his levitating figures and animals with stage curtains or a flowing river or intersperses them with newly patterned clumps of trees and clouds against empty backgrounds. There is an easy flow from these watercolours, with their light touches of pastel shades, to the prolific output of his brush and ink drawings of 1996-97, where the artist gives himself over to the challenge of pure neat lines, unencumbered by even the smallest trace of tone or colour.
These drawings, in my opinion, show the artist at his best. It seems he knew that his time and energy were fast running out. So he concentrated his resources on his simplest, least taxing, yet immensely productive medium of the line drawing, allowing his imagination to run riot with his severed heads, limbs, bowls, boxes and mirrors. He may have conceived many of these as the basis for subsequent paintings - one of the drawings, for instance, clearly leads to the last acrylic painting he completed at the Tata Art Camp at jamshedpur in June 1997, where a loose hand emitting a gory red outpour rests in an intricately designed blue bowl, next to which lies a woman's head. A recurrent motif in these drawings is of Jaipur pottery: of floral bowls and vases from which spring out a tiger's head, a leaping turtle, or hands dangling clocks and keys. Some of the pieces even have columns of writing in Bengali (bits of rhyme or snatches of morose thoughts) forming a border or running like a thin frame in the picture. It is somehow inevitable that these remarkable drawings - sparse, tight, yet bursting with the energy of their objects - will always be couched for us in the pall of Dharmanarayan's illness and approaching end. They stand now as the artist's last works, done in what turned out to be the last months of his suddenly truncated career. We can now only read them in terms of the restlessness, pain and premonition of death in a life that was about to be cut short in its prime.
Dharmanarayan Dasgupta in his lifetime remained almost entirely within the fold of the Calcutta art world. This is where he found his foothold, his small circle of fellow artists with whom he worked and exhibited and, from the 80s, a small group of admirers and buyers who eagerly acquired his works, though often at throw-away prices. Whatever honours or recognition he earned stayed largely confined to this milieu. Neither the artist, nor his works or reputation circulated to any significant effect outside its ken. This current exhibition will hopefully help bring him the larger national exposure he has long deserved. There is always a case to be made for the uniquely Bengali character of Dharmanarayan's art. But to stress this point does not mean consigning the artist to a purely provincial history, and to the regional sidelines of contemporary Indian art. There is an increasing need, at this juncture, to question the existing artistic canon of post-Independence India and look beyond what is presented as its key centres and protagonists. If we recognize that the canon of contemporary Indian art, which has been nationally and internationally propagated over the last decades, is a product of a particular historical intervention of some artists and critics, we also realise that this canon can (and must) always be rewritten. Our sense of the national modern can only be vastly enriched if the likes of Dharmanarayan Dasgupta can in time also claim their place within its history.
This essay was first published in 'Dharmanarayan Dasgupta, 1939-1997: Representing the Bengali Modern' by Galerie 88.