For forty years, with unfailing zeal, Jamini Roy has explored the problems of plastic form and colour, tirelessly seeking new and even more powerful means of expression.
The problems of colour and line, their dynamics and intensity, their expressive force and their relation to plastic form have been so clearly and uncompromisingly stated in his art -- and so often convincingly and originally solved -- that his work, while transcending his own time and country by its power, has busied itself with pictorial design of all time, and earned the respect of artists and critics throughout the world.
The peculiar excellence of Jamini Roy’s art is also common to eastern philosophy and civilization. It finds expression in the soothing calm and tranquillity of his pictures. However warm the colour, however complex the line, they radiate almost a physical coolness, a calm, comforting peace, undisturbed by the storms and stresses of modern life, the fruit of contemplation and distilled emotion. Secondly, every picture reflects bright, even light, unencumbered by chiaroscuro or realistic modelling, wholly concerned with the realization of pure form. Thirdly, his pictures tell no story. He prefers the particular moment when nothing seems to move and distils it the timeless moment. This gives his pictures their quality of timelessness. Fourthly, his work is rich in true pictorial form and unity of design, which holds everything together in a single pervasive rhythm and creates a world of pure painting. It is this search for unity of rhythm and design, this compulsive need to invest form with spirit that gives him no peace until he succeeds in reconstructing his theme wholly in terms of line and colour.
Jamini Roy has endowed his complete mastery of the Indian pictorial tradition with a new richness and rare worth. By severely limiting himself to the bare, unadorned and utterly economical use of the basic elements he has gone into the very roots of painting. After many years spent in practicing in the academic style, he has at last realised the futility of it all and applied himself fresh to the restoration of drawing. Working by slow and patient degrees he stripped his work of all superfluity and placed his figure with unerring judgement on white ground, the figure itself contoured in coloured bands. The vitality and tradition of our folk toys and folk painting helped him greatly in this regard. He discarded all ornament and distracting decorative frill, all semblance of representation, and made the painted line terse and vibrant with restrained energy. His line was so bare and unadorned that it served to bring out the essential geometric structure of an object with the merest suggestion of organic form which set the imagination free, but reminded us all the same of the reality of the original. But despite the painted contour which gave his drawing essential purity, the absence of colour still left his drawing with a certain lyrical quality. In spite of the supple fullness of his line, his drawing was linear. This was because he concerned himself a little too much with contour and the enclosing of space alone, to the comparative neglect of colour, light and deep space. He achieved all the effects of modelling through the skilful employment of a wide range of coloured bands of varying thickness. Nevertheless, colour was lacking at this stage and so was light. He, therefore, proceeded to put a thin coat of lampblack paper. Then he drew his figure again with lamp black on this ground of lampblack. This contrivance served to force the light out of the white paper within the spaces enclosed by contour bands through the thin, and unevenly black, ground coat. This served very well indeed. The figure seemed as though sculpted out of grey sandstone, fully modelled despite the utmost company of means. It acquired an adequacy of deep space and was of a grey that seemed to bring the essential colour of all created matter. Later on he achieved this sense of deep space and was of a grey that seemed to bring out the essential colour of all created matter. Later on he achieved this sense of deep space in still another way by placing an ovoid across a larger ovoid, and putting on a second coat of lampblack on the picture, or, by an arrangement of large reddish brown spots on a ground of the same colour, strangely reminiscent of the red soil of Bankura, his home. What is more, his figures achieved an astonishing monumentality. But that essential creative reality that comes only through the perfect synthesis of colour, line, light and space, still escaped him. His work lacking as it was in light and colour, was still partial; his line and contour were much too dominant. Under the compelling need to restore colour to its rightful place, he laid on masses of large, bright even colours to heighten his contours, as in his Krishna Balaram, Gopini or Ramayana sequences. He made the light settle on yellow band or thick lines or the whites of eyes. At the same time he made his line and contour serve to the utmost. This not only gave his line great strength but also a very convincing emotional tension to the enclosed spaces. He has of course painted landscapes all his life, in which his use of colour, light, line and space has been very successful indeed. Nevertheless he still felt the urge to set his pictorial design free by breaking through the walls of line and contour. His choice at this juncture of the squarely woven palm leaf mat to serve as canvas appears to have been no accident or personal fad at all. On the contrary, it had an element of inevitability, as it were. The very weave of the mat broke up his contour and produced areas of colour and which often leaped over his bands, melted and got lost in each other. The interstices of the mat themselves reflected a myriad points of light which gave his pictures a new richness.
This will perhaps bear a little more elaboration. We may first discuss his line and then his colour and then his form and rhythm, if only to lend a little tidiness to the discourse.
When he first started his famous ‘line’ drawings, he would begin by putting a coat of plain lampblack on the paper. He would not mix it with whiting: the result would thus be a brownish grey. The purity of his line was not the purity of calligraphy. His line was not limited to a twist of the finger or a pen around the wrist: it always looked like the draw of a brush. We shall appreciate this much more if we remember that his line began by being a coloured line, and further, quite often as a bunch of two or three coloured lines together. These pains to suggest three-dimensionality and depth. It suggested volume and avoided the flatness of traditional scroll painting. Modelling and foreshortening were very much in evidence, particularly when he attempted a group of figures. One of the early paintings shows a large Krishna playing the flute, a peacock by his side, the feet apart, placed sideways,yet the soles not showing, nor the toes, almost a profile: which proves that he still clung to modelling and perspective that his flat picture was still in search of a certain pictorial philosophy. His colours of this period were often dissonant. For dissonance served to introduce conflict, heighten the line and project the form. For instance, it was mostly all red and blue to start with, where even yellow was rare. The line was black, reinforced sometimes with another coloured band above or underneath. Greens came much later.
His use of colour in the first period, therefore, suggests that his quest was first and foremost to get the uncompromising, clear, hard image right and establish it as convincingly as possible. Under the circumstances colour was natural forced back to second place. By the same token he deliberately chose harsh, dissonant colours and put them alongside (the red with the blue) with the object of drawing the spectator’s eye away from the enjoyment of colour to the undistracted contemplation of the form or image itself. It follows therefore, that in the first period he sought to establish the full image in space, leaving plenty of open spaces all around; and then the frame. The image was inviolate; it never overreached the frame. The relationship between line and image was all that mattered at this time.
He put the line to even more striking use in the next period. But at no time ever did his line approach calligraphy. It always remained the painted band. The calligraphic line is unique, it cannot be repeated, the first stroke is also the final stroke. But Jamini Roy’s line architectonic, self-conscious, deliberately realized, never a first rapture of the inspiration. He has many drawings to his credit, of course, that have a clear, hard, slender, wire like quality, which bears witness to his mastery of the calligraphic technique. Nonetheless, there is little real enthusiasm for it in his painted pictures or pen and ink drawings.
We have already seen how he began by placing the entire figure four-square in his canvas, leaving plenty of space all around. This at once gave his figure a sculpturesque quality which he also achieved in his clay toys and woodcarving. But this arrangement lacked architectural stature. It had the virtue of sculpture. It was monumental. It could be magnified at will to several times the original size to better advantage. It was sculpture without the support of architecture, although shortly thereafter he created groups that looked like friezes. His figures now almost touched the frame. In the next stage, he reaffirmed his frame: the frame became a vital participant in the picture itself and fixed it. This is why his most successful pictures of this period are his groups of narrow-waisted Gopinis which had their originals in the terracotta tiles of the Jorebangla temple of Vishnupur and the sculptured Krishnas of Dainhat.
If only Jamini Roy had stopped here and gone no further, he would still be regarded as a master, a supreme exponent of the authentic Bengal tradition, but not quite a creative genius. But he did not. Instead what he now proceeded to do was possible only to a creative genius. In the first place he placed the image right in the middle of empty space leaving plenty of room all round. This served to create such a tension between the image and the surrounding space that the slightest displacement of the figure was enough to bring the whole edifice down. This period had all the attributes of modelling and sculpture. But in the next, he made the figure reach out to the frame with the result that the frame became part of the picture, which gave his work the quality of architecture that holds a sculpture in place. Still later, he allowed the figure or image to overreach the frame and even walk out of it: the frame was unable to hold all of the image within it. This spelt instant revolution.
It also spelt the end of symmetry and affirmed the need to organise a proper balance between asymmetrical masses around a vital dynamic point. No sooner did Jamini Roy discover and establish this active, dynamic point than his incomplete figure, interrupted by the frame, attained immense possibilities. Line attained its freedom and set out to play. From now on he pressed into service resources of the pictorial traditions of many countries. He even employed perspective and foreshortening to strengthen his flat two-dimensional image. There was no longer any question about his place as a modern and original painter as soon as he established this dynamic point. It was no longer any question about his place as a modern and original painter as soon as he established this dynamic point. It was now a comparatively simple affair for him to take his stages logically and tackle a variety of techniques. Needless to say, this search for and mastery over the dynamic point came neither from the Kalighat and Vishnupur Pats nor the native pictorial scrolls but from his ceaseless search for a personal idiom.
After 1938 his work browsed in many fields and went on many journeys. His pictures became a synthesis, a meeting ground, of sculpture on the one hand and flat decorative design on the other, which time and again, went back to the terracotta tiles of his own Vishnupur. He ‘copied’ diverse techniques in an effort to learn, pull apart to pieces and reconstruct. Consequently his pictures never were copies but reconstructions of his vision. He has a way of returning to techniques left behind fifteen or twenty years before. For example, his panels of dancing Santhals with their swinging drums, their heads in profile set on frontal torsos. These recall the Egyptian technique and were painted at least twenty years before 1955 when he painted his Egyptians over again.
It would perhaps be an exaggeration to give pride of place to Jamini Royas a colourist. Neither can he be regarded as indifferent to colour. It is difficult to put him under any one label. Even as on the one hand he is the first modern Indian painter to reaffirm the Indian pictorial language, his work in the European technique is equally worthy of mention. For example, a few years ago he painted quite a few mountain landscapes; which were indeed marvellous for their view of distant mountains through the clear light and the vibrant, thin air. He had preceded them by his copies of Tibetan Tangkas. Yet he has never been in his life within as much as two hundred miles of the Himalayas. This is enough to make one marvel as to how it was at all possible for him to perceive so well the quality of the mountain air, to judge how colour and light would behave in that altitude. But Jamini Roy himself would not rate these landscapes high. In spite of their imaginative skill their speech is mainly European, not Indian. Benode Behari Mukherjee on the other hand, by the same reckoning, has probably used the Indian speech the most in landscapes.
He has used colourboth for decoration and narration: for example, his blue Taraka set beside the blue tri-foliate -- painted the self-same blue -- and the three dotted with red flowers. The use of colour in all his early pictures was dissonant, confined to contrasting colour surfaces. Very rarely would he use complementary colours to create harmony. His preference was precisely for those colours which guided the eye to a contemplation of the line, the design, the image. There was a Lakshmi in the Samabaya Mansion Exhibition (1937), in which the background was deep red, the goddess’s sari deep blue, her complexion a matt yellow, a measuring bowl in one hand, her eyes narrow and elongated. All the colours in this life-size picture were dissonant. Yet they joined hands to create a particular mood of blessedness, of placid fullness: the kind of mood that came naturally to the Lakshmi images of ancient sutradhars. Even as in the case of a sculpture, light is something outside of it and yet essential, so too, in his picture colour is something which heightens the image, the inner form, that itself is bare, unadorned, seamless design like a Dainhat sculpture.
It will be pertinent, in this context, to refer to his clay toys and wood carvings. His early clay toys have great plastic value: they are of a piece with his single figures placed in the centre of the ground. His wood-carvings came much later. His way of revealing the image through the grain of the wood by hacking off the surplus material with the minimum of chisel strokes placed on the front rank of our sculptors also. Some time ago quarried some stone clay in the building site of his house at Dihi Serampore Lane. He set to work on I and produced a number of marvellous figurines. One is reminded in this connexion of Matisse’s statement to Fels: “The means in painting do not play the great role that they are usually supposed to. I am not bound to what I do. Without the slightest hesitation I would discontinue painted if I could express myself more completely in any other medium. And so in order to express form, I sometimes take to sculpture, which allows right around the object and study it better, instead of standing before a flat surface."
One sees, however, a renewed feeling for colour in his recent work: a strange longing for light and colour. Faces and limbs recur: his own, his wife's, his daughter's, his son Patal's. His enthusiasm for the integrated, seamless design is evident in the way he has designed his house, in his arrangement of pictures in the rooms, the constant renovations in his astonishing Dihi Serampore Lane house. Incidentally, he is the only artist who takes the trouble to paint completely new pictures to fit into empty spaces in his exhibition in order that the exhibition itself may achieve unity of design.
I am greatly indebted to Prithwish Neogy for a certain observation. It seems Jamini Roy sets no store by the unique signed work. People have been heard to complain that he has seldom any original: there are so many 'copies'. According to Prithwish Neogy this is but proof of his Vaishnava roots, where the repetition of the seed word is of supreme importance. The same word, Krishna or Hari, repeated a thousand times over creates an ever-widening circle of ripples. The image, the design, the form are by the same token all important. For once they come true, their endless repetition sets ever-widening waves in motion and enhances the value of the original image, ends up by being a potent ethical force. This perhaps explains the limited range of his themes. Incidentally, it is possibly this regard for Vaishnavism that gave birth to his Christ themes.
His work is too varied and extensive to lend itself to a brief survey. Any statement, however circumspect, is bound to be one-sided and cries out for a counter-balancing observation. He freed his work from disturbing subject matter; he was even indifferent to it. The essential significance of his formula of tranquillity lies in the self-sufficiency of the picture within its frame, self-evident, divided into bright coloured areas and contrasting surfaces bound by pulsating, dynamic contours. Even when he is painting human types, the emphasis is not so much on the unique expression but the overall decorative design, suggestive of greater interest in inanimate objects. His wide ranging, restless hand and eye are constantly engaged in dissecting the pictorial techniques of various cultures for the purpose of restatement and reconstruction. His zest for drawing is un-ending. He is undoubtedly one of our greatest draughtsmen. His unique skill is evident in every sketch, as vital as it is dynamic, threatening to rush out of the paper as it were, the figures placed with unerring judgment. Even his slightest sketches are like full compositions. He picks up an object and restates it in terms of a decorative rhythm which seems to enhance its dynamic quality. Peeling off all superfluous detail he seizes upon the central dynamic point and very skilfully brings out its essential form through a fusion of drawing and construction. The firm, winding contour travels from end to end, pulsating with life and strength. Jamini Roy's drawings are so daring, dynamic, simple, and succinct; their plastic quality is so original, that they have hardly any equal in Indian painting. At the same time they are by no means based on mere technical agility or a predilection for effective flourishes. They are constructive in the real meaning of the word, for their depiction of plastic form is completely convincing. In his search for unity of design he has introduced novel distortions that are unique to his painting. He needs them to transport himself and the observer out of everyday reality, out of real life, into an abstract, self-sufficient world.
I have said before that Jamini Roy is the first modern painter who has reaffirmed the authentic Indian pictorial language which one instantly recognises and acclaims. In his quest for pure painting he finds it necessary to deny certain aspects of modern life. He asserts that he does not recognise the contemporary social or political structure, its torn, formless, amorphous existence, devoid of unity and design. He has the courage, too, to hold firmly to his beliefs. He does not mind either, in holding fast to the Bengal that is gone for ever. One is rewarded in his pictures with a sufficiency of locale but time seems to stand still and hesitant, inarticulate. The great throbbing, vital city of Calcutta does not seem to exist for him, neither do its industries, its port, commerce and trade. There are no crowds in the streets, no factories, no machinery, no accidents, nor the modern man. If ever he has gone in for such subjects, his language has been frankly non-Indian. For instance, when he paints his own Baghbazar house, where he has lived all his life, he does so with much hesitancy. He depicts none of the cramped untidinessof Ananda Chatterjee Lane but a certain sombre, faded beauty. One does not cease to wonder, for instance, why in spite of his rich personal idiom and adequate pictorial language, so movingly demonstrated in his Last Suppers and Crucifixions, he has not felt interested enough to tell of Gandhi's Martyrdom• It seems as if all the catastrophic and tragic events of the last few decades have passed him by without a trace and left him unchanged. The thirty-five years that have passed since his first stage have been filled with wars and revolutions, misery and joy, utter destruction and unprecedented triumphs of the human spirit. But all this has not made him review his principles. It has merely served to confirm them and helped him to withdraw his self-created world.
This is why people from all lands have come to him in search of quiet and rest, tranquillity, calm and absolute repose, being themselves unquiet, restless, torn, in dread of the impending doom. They find in his pictures great repose and joy, forgetfulness of the social dangers of modern life, whispers of eternal well-being meet in his pictures that India which they have read and dreamt of in books but of which they find no They trace here and now. Even those who have themselves lived through war and revolution and have waged bloody strife to be able to create conditions for a new, beautiful, strong and happy world come to him in search of a universal, unifying design and feel well rewarded. But in his own country-in Bengal and India-where life is so torn, shapeless and unlovely, where everything seems so poor, ugly, cramped and uncomfortable, his painted world of beauty fails to sustain as enduringly as one would wish it would. The reason seems to be that while the West would give anything today for peace and repose, to escape from the present, India is equally anxious to be both disturbed and confirmed in the present. His own countrymen do not find themselves ready to acclaim Jamini Roy's supple, universal design that only a beautiful, strong, simple, tidy social and political existence can ensure. In the result, therefore, we are unable to accept Jamini Roy wholly or without reservation. We shall no doubt turn to him when we are able to recover our strength and enriching unity of rhythm. We shall then return to him in search of those qualities that are so abundant in his work: his powerful line and deep, intensive colour, his daring and dynamic treatment of form, mastery of the laws of decorative rhythm, and his unity of design, so important for a courteous and civilized existence.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1964