Jamini Roy is probably the only Indian painter of this century who evolved a pictorial idiom of his own based on regional folk arts and gave it through, through the alchemy of his own genius, a universal appeal.
To understand Jamini Roy’s evolution as a painter it is necessary to take a closer look at his roots and sources from which they drew their nourishment. Jamini Roy was born exactly a century ago on April 15 in the village of Beliatore in the Bankura district of Bengal. Industrialisation was still decades away. The traditional village society may have been poor but it still had a social harmony. Craftsmen of all types, potters, weavers, mat and basket weavers, braziers, silversmiths, toy and image-makers and even scroll-painting minstrels, all had their necessary and honoured place in the social structure. They were needed on social occasions like the 13 festivals from simple women’s rituals to the Durga Puja. It was because they served the needs of the people that they did not need to depend on the patronage of the rich.
Jamini Roy as a child had seen these craftsmen at work: the potter at his wheel making pots and pans, the weaver at his loom weaving textiles of variegated colours and design, bamboo-and-cane workers making fine mats and baskets, the toy-makers making terracotta toys and animals, the image-makers making magnificently resplendent images on Durga from their straw foundations.
Similarly, he must have seen women husking paddy at the dhenki, singing to its rhythmic thump, painting alponas and other beautiful ritualistic designs needed for various pujas. All these must have aroused the innate artistic feeling in the youthful Jamini Roy’s heart. As he recalled later: “All children want to model icons. I only did them more.”
Small wonder then that Jamini Roy wanted to be a painter. Eighty or more years ago or even later, a Bengali bhadralok father would have looked askance if his son wanted to paint. But Jamini Roy’s father was a man of surprisingly liberal views. He arranged for his son to learn painting at the Government School of Arts and Crafts.
Jamini Roy enrolled himself in the Western Academic Arts section. The students had to learn figure drawing from models. He did not like this mechanical mode of learning and he attended classes irregularly, finally dropping out before completing the course.
There followed a spell in which he worked at many jobs. These included stints in a popular printing press in Allahabad, a colour lithographic press in north Calcutta and even as a salesman in a clothes store. These various jobs and experiences all left their mark on his development as an artist in their own ways. After all this, he decided to take up painting as a full time job. He began to paint portraits of rich Calcutta baboos in oil in western academic style and also sometimes nudes for their delectation.
These works showed that despite his unfinished training he had acquired a great mastery over the technique of oil painting. Abanindranath Tagore was one of the first to notice his gifts and Atul Bose, his friend and the famed portraitist, has said that in those days Jamini had become known as the most skilful portrait painter of Calcutta. Further evidence of his skill in oil painting is seen in his copy of some Rembrandts and Van Goghs and his still landscapes, still-lifes and nudes.
When he was in his early ‘30s, Jamini Roy found himself at the crossroads of his career. People like Sahid Suhrawardy, John Irwin, Bishnu Dey, William Archer and others have written that he began to feel with increasing intensity that what he was doing was not right; the way he was taking was not his way. His hands worked but his heart and mind were not in it. Bishnu Dey has written that Jamini Roy felt that the effort it took to create a three-dimensional effect in oil on a flat canvas was illusory. And so he decided to take the plunge.
Jamini’s plunge was unique. Before him and in one or two instances after him, many artists to resolve such inner conflicts, did not go for wholesale repudiation of western influences in their search for personal and national identity in their paintings. For instance, Abanindranath Tagore combined in his works the influences of Mughal and Rajput miniatures and borrowed the alien technique of wash from the East.
It is now necessary to find out the implications of Jamini Roy’s decision to abandon western techniques and influences in his paintings. First, it meant a voluntary choice of material hardship for giving up the lucrative commissions for portraits and other oils as well as forsaking his growing artistic reputation. Small wonder, many people thought his decision to eccentric and some thought it mad. Secondly, he had to forgo many of the modern conveniences that artists of his time enjoyed. He had to give up the use of ready-made chemical colours in tubes and had to grind his own paints like the artists of the olden days and the scroll-painters of his native Bankura. More, he had to restrict his palette to seven basic colours. The greys he used came from the clay of the Ganga. The Indian reds, yellow ochres, greens from ground metals, vegetable dyes and stones, blue from indigo, white from lime and black from lampblack, for binding them, he used the gum of the sirish tree.
Let us take up the changes in the themes of his paintings. In the western phase of his career, he painted many European subjects, such as landscapes, portraits, nudes and still lifes. After his change of heart, apart mainly from landscapes, he painted exclusively Indian themes that were portrayed by old village patuas and potuas of Kalighat, the kind of subjects whose stories excited him in boyhood, the life and people that he had seen as a boy in his village home. These included stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharat, events from the legends of Krishna and Radha, gods and goddesses, people of different sects and castes, such as the Vaishnavas, Santhals, villagers at work and play, birds and animals done by the village toy-makers and so on.
Now we come to the nub of the matter: What new technique did he adopt and from where did he gather the inspiration for his artistic identity?
Every student of his work beginning with Sahid Suhrawardy agrees that he turned to the Bengal folk arts and particularly those of Bankura. In 1963, Dr. Mulk Raj Anand wrote in this context in World Window that apparently, this turning away of Jamini Roy, a middle-class educated urban artist, from the then fashionable western art to the folk arts may seem similar to a modern European artist turning primitive and looking for inspiration to the Altamira cave paintings. But the fact of the matter was entirely different.
Quoting Bishnu Dey and John Irwin, Dr. Anand wrote that for Jamini Roy it was like returning home. His childhood upbringing, his experience and his attitude made him an insider notaliento the folk arts. The sources to which he looked for inspiration and his new art idiom were in particular the scroll paintings or pats of Bankura, its coloured terracotta dolls and toys, the engravings on the walls of the famous terracotta temples of Bankura and so on.
All these are acknowledged facts. But one influence about which not many of his critics have been explicit is the influence that the Kalighat pats exerted on him. Right from his early years in Calcutta, Jamini Roy had, apart from Bankura pats and terracotta dolls, been collecting the extremely scarce Kalighat pats and specimens of old Chitpore coloured lithographs and wood-cuts which developed under the influence of the Kalighat pats.
The essence of all pats, whether scrolls painted by village folk artists or the “urban folk artists” of Kalighat, was the utter simplicity of their vigorous, spontaneous lines, their forms and bold colours. It is these characteristics that Jamini Roy adapted in his paintings. Writing as early as 1932, Srimati Shanta Devi was one of the earliest to detect these characteristics and their sources. Commenting on an exhibition of paintings that Jamini Roy held in his residence in Bagh Bazar, in December 1931, Shanta Devi said that apart from his own paintings in two rooms, he displayed in the third his collection of Bankura and Kalighat pats obviously to show their relationships.
Some of his later critics have, however, tried to say that the obvious similarity between the Kalighat pats and some of Jamini Roy’s paintings of Mother and Child and figures of women should not be taken as influence of Kalighat pats on Jamini Roy. According to them, the lines of the Kalighat pats are totally spontaneous, instinctive and calligraphic. But the lines in Jamini Roy’s paintings are architectonic and deliberate, drawn with thought and care.
Such a statement is based on a premise which is not wholly acceptable, namely that Jamini Roy drew the same kinds of lines in all the thousands of paintings that he executed in his lifetime.
Actually, he drew various types of lines in his paintings: those with firm, deliberate lines, those with spontaneous calligraphic lines and those with broken lines.
Another similarity with pats, particularly Kalighat, was that of all modern Indian artists, Jamini Roy was the only one who drew the same painting in an almost unchanged form. He could do it, because his paintings like the pats had that overall simplicity that lent themselves to easy repetition. It was not surprising that many people used to ask Jamini Roy the reason for his repetitiveness and the inexpensiveness of his paintings compared to those by other modern artists. To them, he used to smilingly answer: “Because I am a patua myself.”
Needless to say, this was modesty that behoves the great. If Jamini Roy were a mere patua, his works could never have risen above the skilled craftsmanship of the Kalighat and the scroll pats. He imbibed the essence of their influences and integrated them into his own paintings which he raised to the highest aesthetic level stamped with his own signature.
Many people have said that Jamini Roy became a prisoner of the idiom he evolved and his endless repetitions of the same theme. This is not true as evidenced from the paintings of his Jesus Christ series which he painted in the last phase of his evolution beginning around 1948.
In these paintings, which in many ways, fall among his finest work, the man who repudiated the West again looked to the West for a theme he could identify himself with fierce intensity. Writing in 1962, a critic called Sunanda that with these and with some other pictures, “Jamini Roy establishes himself as modern India’s greatest living painter.” Here, with a technique and vision inspired by the Bengal folk and Romanesque France, Jamini Roy has created a new vision of beauty which is Indian in all its essentials and international in its appeal. It is modern without being Ecole de Paris.
So, after clinging to his native soil, as it were, Jamini Roy had eventually to look beyond for the development of his art. If this leads some people to draw the conclusion that in the modern world it is not possible for an artist to be wholly free of outside influences, one will have to acknowledge the validity of the statement. Jamini Roy was the last pure indigenous artist.
Published in The Times of India, 1987