Keywords: Amitava Das, Gayatri Sinha, abstract, modernism

Large and black, Kali towers over space, spanning the expanse from earth to sky. Shiva, the lord who bears the crescent moon in his forehead becomes a plaything in her hand. As the supreme life force, she is dismissive of the differences of gender; Mahakali is also interchangeably Mahakala or the progenitor of all life. “In the Santiparva of the Mahabharata, Ved Vyasa says that it is through Kala that women bear, that birth and death occur, winter, summer and rains come and seed germinates.”[1]

Laterally in Amitava’s thought, there is an interesting relationship between his paintings - and between the part and the whole, between narrative and symbol, between form and its abstractions. In this he allows the mythological referent to create the terms of engagement with form, but swiftly elides towards its negation, in short, an abstracted absorption into the density and power of his image. His impasto forms that are suggestive of human and bestial energies, are thus tantalizingly offset by the reading of Kali, the one that contains or devours all time even as she stands outside it. It is through such mediations, between the passing and the absolute, that bring to these works a quality of enigma, where Kali as an abstraction in herself represents the transition from absolute unity to absolute mutability.


How are these figures with their manifest violence and power, subsumed in nature? I refer here to the images on view, of the dark saturated goddess, of two men in combat like ancient gladiators, or the decapitated figure who continues to stand and press forward, even in his headless unseeing state. What is their context in the cycles of nature, with leaves that bunch up to admit curlicues of sunlight, the patent green that presages the onset of new life in spring, or shards of white that appear like paths strewn with moonlight? Arguably, the paintings through the view of an apolcalypse then gradually tilt in favour of what the artist speaks of as “the other side of life, the simple, generous pleasures”. Amitava believes that with this body of work, he has moved away from an issue based art, of immediate and strong reactions to the inflow of beamed images of violence to works of an empiric reality, of the co-existence of the sun, moon and the seasons in harmonious inter-dependence, of the contemplation of nature in time.

Amitava was born in 1947 to Bengali parents; in the same year his father a government servant left Calcutta to work in the other bastion of colonialism, Simla. The artist spent his first years in this town of Gothic churches, angular sheet line rain, and a near palpable sky. Later in Delhi he began to study commerce and Bengali, and enthusiastically responded to the new wave of writers who heralded a post-Tagore renaissance, such as Jibanananda Das and his influential work, Bonolata Sen. Amitava speaks of responding to Jibanananda’s sense of “universal space and surrealistic imagery, his different kind of symbolism and imagination”, which have in turn influenced his art. The period of the late 1960’s and 70’s was influential in the fervid response they evoked across the nation to the Naxalite movement and the Bangladesh war, in the sharp rupture with established patterns of belief. In particular the decade of the 1960’s had been a historic threshold in Bengali poetry. The emergence of the Hungry Generation of writers, and the corresponding rise of little magazines as multiple points of illumination swept in simultaneous areas of intellectual enquiry. A new intellectual climate of contemporary concerns was wrought by Buddhadev Bose and the Kallol group, as much as contemporary Bengali cinema, with its roots in the literature of the period. In particular Amitava responded to the poets Shakti Chattopadhyay (1933-1995), notably such works as Jamai Rakter Daag and Sunil Gangopadhyay (b. 1934). Gangopadhyay, a close friend of Allen Ginsberg broke new ground in his historical fiction, as in Sei Semoy (Those Days) and Pratham Alo (First Light), which heralded the writer’s ability to collapse the past into the concerns of the present. Amitava’s own response appears to have been a keen sensitivity to new locations and constructed identities that have their roots in other pasts, pasts which carry within them familial and social histories. Encouraged by an older sister, he abandoned the study of commerce and joined the College of Art. During his tutelage at the College of Art, Amitava would create two bodies of work, one for the academic classes, the other for himself, that would explore Gray’s anatomy as source material, and Leonardo’s mechanical drawings, that in fact presage and anticipate his robotic figures of the 1990’s. His essential rendition of the figure has come through a process of discernment and selection that goes back to his student days.

In 1969, when he was still a student, Amitava had his first exhibition with Gallery Kunika Chemould. The 1970’s was a period of intense group activity among Indian artists, groups that rose and declined in sharp bursts of activity. Amitava was part of the New Group (1973) and then Jogen Chowdhury’s led initiative, Gallery 26, which gained its name from its address in Gol Market. Indian artists of the 1970’s tended to explore a modernist language that was based as much in formal concerns as in issues of identity. From the modernist tradition of painting, Amitava Das responded to the Delaunays, particularly the staccato rhythms, with their exemplary entrapment of light in Robert Delaunay’s early works. Equally we see in his work a recollection of the pitted and scarred landscapes of Anselm Kiefer, and references to the art of Tapies. Amitava could respond to what Tapies says of his own art, “to remind man of what in reality he is, to give him a theme for reflection, to shock him in order to rescue him from the madness of inauthenticity and lead him to self discovery.” As the critic Alan Riding wrote of Tapies, the artist seeks to arrive at “an ultimate reality through introspection”. [2]

In this series of works Amitava builds up a pathology of darkness, and its sudden illuminating contrasts. Speaking of his work, he sees a movement away from form and pace towards structure. Selectively he draws on metallic colours to represent the softest of materials, such as fallen leaves, or intangible light falling on the trees. Undoubtedly, the unmitigated darkness of his earlier works is now relieved by some sensuous evocations of nature, and its promise of optimism. These paintings mark the transitions of diurnal time and lunar declensions. Even as Amitava expands man to assume a dominant uncontained form, one that threatens to spill out of the contours of the frame, he restricts the spilling sap of nature into broad vertical bands. In the work ‘A Tree- it doesn’t matterwhere is talking under its breath ‘thedistinction between border, design andemerging tree form is blurred. Primary natural forms with their spontaneous unrestrained growth lend themselves to the making of a rich and immaculate form and design.

The automaton like rendition that we have come to expect from the artist now presents foliage that grow with staccato jerks, and energetic pistons that culminate in rounded nodes. What is interesting is that Amitava imbues every semblance of nature with restraint, paneling in the energetic growth that seems to burst from the root, only to meet a wall of resistance. The effect of tactility is achieved as the artist works towards a palpable dimension, creating on his canvas areas of density and darkness. This is arrived at by use of the thick applications of oil on an acrylic base that thus illuminates the painted forms in relief. Amitava speaks of working from a “position of appreciation, of exploring a visual language that in itself creates another visual language”, one that takes pleasure in the material aspects of trapping and releasing light on canvas.

But the sharpest articulations occur when Amitava plumbs the depths of darkness. The painting ‘You alone know happened in the night’ presents the sensation of beckoning shades, those that are felt rather than seen. Where the caress of blackness can evoke a sense of obliteration and dread, but equally of poetry and beauty. As a tenebrist Amitava evokes multiple associations, of the scorched earth of a Kiefer like wasteland, the thickness of a wooded night, of the palpable darkness and insecurity of introspection. In Amitava black is massive, and it is monumental.

Over the years, the artist has used at least four different tones of black, which have different evocations, from smoke to a hard industrial black. Occasionally, he scorches, chars and sears the surface through the process of fumage, literally trapping the smoke on the surface. The mind plays and shifts with the eye, between the dark black of a dense storm, the black dogs of depression, of suppressed rioting energies, and above all the dark of surrender to the beloved in the moment of self obliteration. Possibly this is also the darkness of the faint, or syncope, the moment when darkness descends on consciousness. This is the black of Kali or chitghara, a massive compact consciousness which is like a black cloud. In this amavasya the artist introduces the moon as an occasional plaything. Kali subsumes all form, all time, yet Amitava in the work ‘If you were a god, why should you have wept and wailed?’ envisages Kali as merging into a bright noonday sun, balancing the forces of darkness with light. In moving from darkness to light, from the guna of tamas to sattva, Kali becomes Savitri “The Matrakabheda Tantra says Savitri the Mother of the Veda was born of the sweat of the body of Kali’s body”.

Figures assume a monumental centrality. In his earlier drawing and paintings of the 1990’s, Amitava had developed a few identifiable essential forms, such as the generic figure of man apparently pitted against an inscrutably threatening landscape. A bull reminiscent of Shiva’s Nandi with its exalted associations or else the blighted Mahishasura appeared in his last series of paintings (2003) with a charged rampant energy, reducing Shiva’s crescent moon to a plaything. In this series of works the forms appear largely opaque, discarding their meccano like construction to assume a massive stolidity. The painting “The perfect miracle may be found only in man” employs Amitava’s preferred palette of red, black and white, the colours of extremity or tamas, which have been affirmed by his recent visit to Spain, and his engagement with Goya and his treatment of the concept of darkness. Spain with “its passion and sunshine, its fire and ashes” evokes the colours of conflict, recalling for him Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to Spain. In this painting the figure is ambiguous in its treatment, rising from the ground into a headless stage, much like a mutilated sculpture from the past. Mutilation as a consequence of conflict or else a self-generated act, as in the severing of the head of Chhinnamasta is accepted in the broad concept of self sacrifice. Here the twin heads appear both separate and related like uncertain markers of cultural identity, dredged up from the past.

The idea of conflict, of a wounded body politic, and acts of resistance is central to Amitava’s work. The psychic state of internal conflict is suggested through massive gladiatorial forms that appear to heavily engage in combat, the odds so evenly matched that no single one can be a winner. In earlier paintings, Amitava’s figures communicated an athletic engagement in the act of hurling a discus, or grasping a molten planet. Against a seething background he now produces emphatic forms: the conflict becomes psychic, and the quest isolated.

Nevertheless, the paintings carry an undesirable aspect of positive assertion. In the Dream of Apasmara the great God of the night, Shiva appears to dance and trample on Apasmara the dwarf that represents sloth, here abstracted into formlessness. The evocation of the dancing god, Nataraja massive and energetic, who appears to toss the cosmos in play, expands into the gestures of a final and complete liberation. There also appears to be a continued conversation between the dominant forms. The Shiva like presence, blazing like an undefined force, Kali who forages in time, and the bull, who appears to rise and rear in energy each appear individually, even though as icons they belong to the same divine family. In separating these forms, in decontextualizing them from myth, Amitava emphasizes the human condition, its loneliness and its splendid power to push and strive even beyond the limits of the self.


The title of the essay draws from an 1897 painting by Paul Gauguin.

[1] From Sakti and Sakta, Sir John Woodroffe, Ganesh & Co., Madras.

[2] Art critic Alan Riding in The New York Times, 1995, on the occasion of Tapies’ retrospective


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