Artists

An artist, to my mind, needs no introduction. No amount of writing can introduce him better than his own work. Not even Ananda Coomaraswamy's rhetoric, for instance, can add to what the rhythm of the Nataraja bronze has to say. But still, "the Lord made critics as well as artists", as Coomaraswamy himself tells us, "and they feel bound to get justice done for the works that have touched them most : this necessity which they feel may be the means of creating beauty in their own work"[1].

Let us look at a canvas by Sailoz Mookherjea. What do we find there? Emaciated yet elegant men and women caught in moods as familiar to us as the colours and patterns of their costumes and set against a landscape full of light and air. A dog here or a child there to add to the animation. Not that Sailoz cannot paint a classical subject. Far from it. But certainly not in a classical manner. (Kiss Plate 10), for example, which in spite of its stylistic affinities with the Ecole de Paris is actually based on the exquisite erotic sculpture at Konarak. Kiss is a very happy example of what happens when there is a living contact between a 'modernist and his own heritage and here we have the key to an understanding of Sailoz, who is as much a product of his time as of his tradition.

Sailoz is, perhaps, not a great artist, because he is not old enough-he is only 44. How can he be great in a country where greatness is measured in terms of age? I sometimes wonder what would have happened to Masaccio, Raphael, Seurat and Modigliani, if they were born in India. What would have happened? What happened to Amrita Sher Gil would have happened to them too. In 1940, a year before her death, she writes: "I am starving for appreciation, literally famished. My work is understood and liked less and less, as time goes on".

Sailoz is a great artist all the same. It is a pity that he has not had a fair assessment in his own country. He is great for many reasons. He is great, for instance, because he is sincere. He is great, because he is master of his technique. He is great, because he is intensely aware of a sense of tradition as well as freedom. He is great, because he understands the full significance of modern movement which has been in progress since the latter half of the last century. But-let us remember-when he paints, what he attempts to do is not to demonstrate an abstract theory but to present, like Amrita Sher Gil, his own country and his own people as he sees them. The India that emerges in his hands is as intimately Indian as the India we all love, whatever be the forms to which he may reduce her.

The comparison between Sailoz Mookherjea and Amrita Sher Gil is appropriate. Both the artists have drawn their inspiration, not from the mere externals of our great masterpieces of the past, to which the Bengal School has unfortunately confined itself, but from the spirit behind them. Both have painted the India throbbing around them. Both have resorted to emotive distortion in order to emphasize the essentially romantic element in their subjects. The difference between the two artists is the same as that between Modigliani and Matisse. Sher Gil is sombre and serene and Sailoz sweet and suave.

Sailoz has learnt much from Matisse, indeed, but more, much more, from Kangra Kalam and folk art. To Matisse, he owes his crispness, to Kangra Kalam, his lyricism and to folk art, his directness, all seen to very good effect in Blossoms .

Sailoz has very few equals in India in his handling of oil medium and here lies the secret of his lucidity and luminosity, to which even his earliest work reproduced in this monograph, Village Puja bears eloquent testimony. Note also the white horse in Market Place against white background which experts consider a tour de force. One of Sailoz’s pet preoccupations, as in Siesta and Balcony , is with perspective. Balcony is, incidentally, a typical example of a familiar theme in an unfamiliar treatment - Kiss, as has already been mentioned, is another---. Balcony depicting the familiar Nayika motif is, in its spirits, at once reminiscent of a Rajput miniature. But its language is different. Its landscape and figures are not, as in a Rajput miniature, stylized. Stylization is one of the most serious defects of the Bengal School. Not that stylization is bad in itself. But whatever could be said on it had been said and, most eloquently at that, long before the Bengal School was thought of. An artist who settles down to facile formulas and comfortable moulds is as good as dead. No form is final for him and no colour. His is an eternal quest.

To Sailoz, landscape, still life and portraiture are not ends in themselves. But, at the same time, he has an instinct for all these. The landscape in his pictures has an almost impressionistic freshness and vibrancy that is irresistible. As regards his figures, Dutch Girl, Homeward and Return are among the finest examples of modelling I have ever seen, subtle and sensitive. The jug in Dream is an excellent still life. It has a character of its own.

A little known fact about Sailoz Mookherjea is his masterly compilation of the Orissan, Banaras and other forms of folk art under the somewhat ambitious title, Folk Art of India[2], from which a Banaras toy is reproduced. Before I conclude, I may perhaps answer a few criticisms which are generally made against Sailoz. One is that he is `derivative of the French moderns'. `Derivative' is a very convenient term. You can apply it to any artist you do not like. To quote George Keyt, "About my being 'derivative'? The same then could be said of Matisse. Picasso, (particularly Picasso!) Braque, and even the old boys like Raphael, Rubens, El Greco, etc., and Indian sculptors and painters -- heavens! ---`derivative’ would be far too mild a term to use"[3].

Another criticism is that Sailoz distorts. Our ancestors also distorted. While every `modernist' distorts, every distortionist is not a `modernist'. Bad drawing also results in distortion. And Sailoz knows his drawing. Example: Lost Face.

The criticism that Sailoz's work lacks intellect is, I am afraid, difficult to answer. This much is, however, certain: Sailoz is not an artist who will rest content with obsolete mannerisms and convenient clichés, though he may not have the intellectual curiosity which we associate with the Ecole de Paris. After all Paris is Paris and India is India.

Based on my articles in various journals, Indian as well as foreign, and my thanks are due to the editors of these.

Notes

[1] From his letter to Sir William Rothenstein, dated December 29, 1914.

[2] Folk Art of India, Dhoomi Mal Dharam Das, Rs. 25

[3] From a letter to the author
Published by Dhoomi Mal Dharam Das.
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