Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, no. 6 April 1967, pp. 28-30
Biren De creates a new reality distilled from life and experience. His art is a passion, a religion, an action, a leela. The art is not dependent on meaning for it exists not being read. Whatever needs to be said finds an inevitable expression in the language of paint, because this is its most congenial form of taking life. The techniques of art have posed no great problem for him, since he has had a mastery of its means for many years, but expression is difficult and purposeful, each phase has slowly emerged bearing its thrones and flowers in an incredibly sure determined form.
Such works seem to take birth from a mind-life-feeling matrix and appear, become or happen with a finality and earthy profundity. Biren De’s work is unfamiliar and unique, it stands apart from the art that is popular today.
Biren De is a rugged individualist. His personality is one that is buoyant, impetuous and proud. He combines in himself paradoxically opposed traits being conventional and unconventional, ascetic and mundane, sensitive and rough, idealistic and partaker of the epicurean pleasures of life. His art as much as his conversation or tastes conveys a natural exuberance and a deep attachment to the earth.
In his work these contradictory forces of his temperament are gathered and put to disciplined uses. Biren De has always known his vocation as an artist because for him there was no other choice. As an adolescent he left the Medical College (opposing his father’s wishes) and joined the Art School. He learned the techniques of art very rapidly, exhausting the classroom studies and becoming a first rate portrait painter and draughtsman. As a student of the third year he had already started an independent kind of composition - which was in fact the prologue of the later development. De was not consciously being a rebel, he was simply pursuing impulses and pressures to which he was committed.
In 1949, just before acquiring an art school diploma, Biren suddenly left Calcutta for Delhi. It was a momentous decision and perhaps a right one since the new currents and challenges for Delhi proved more stimulating than the heavy traditions of Calcutta. He plunged into life in Delhi first as a portrait painter. Biren De’s style or portraiture shows his adherence to the conventional and the discipline of study. His knowledge of drawing and vigorous painterly craftsmanship permit him to transcend the delineation of fact and to take interest in the sitter and in painting as a work of art.
Biren’s portraiture becomes monumental painting; notable subjects range from regal figure of the Archbishop of Delhi and the austere First Governor General to very spontaneous works as for example, the scintillating portrait of Sir Maurice Gwyer. By spontaneous here I mean casually built, but leading to a sure result. These were years of exploration in Delhi.
As a young artist, aged 29, his first big commission was to paint a mural at the Convocation Hall, Delhi University. This mural is important as a document in the development of the painter. It shows a strong linearity which was characteristic of the period as a whole, an interest in rhythm and large free wheeling shapes. His stylisations, and improvisations had movement and spaciousness though the aim of the mural was that of architectural decoration; the year was 1950.
These qualities are seen in his compositions of the early 1950s in a more intense way. The paintings are of stylized figures in a compressed space. The figures and the environment are bound together by a strong grid of black lines, the colours, which are filled in are militant and cannot be ignored. They are either somber or luminous; the figures are sharply modeled and have a peg like three- dimensionality. They seem rooted in an architectural arrangement and the space around them is a highly concentrated space. The inmates of these paintings seem to radiate a thick animal life, darkly brooding on their destinies. The colours are flat in the background, or in the accessories, but graded in the human forms. Each part of the figures is distinct and to a certain degree a symbol of itself, yet it is united and belongs to a whole.
In “Woman with a Flower” the head is a solid ovoid with a black crown of hair and a round bun, range from heavy brown to black. The eyes are slits or rents through the surface of colour, the hands and limbs are modeled without detail. Everything is clear and stark, beginning with the harshly limited colours, and the enforced simplified drawing, the image is lodged in a location. In this period Biren favours strong yellows, browns, vermillion, vivid blues, raw greens and of course, black. The most structural of all his colours is black. Though reduced to basic shapes the motif or subject matter is clear and the composition is architectonic. In relating this art to its time, and the artist’s development it must be recalled that though highly personal the style also belongs to a decade of transition, (the 1950s) of linearity and flat colours. In Biren’s work however the result is an arrangement rather than illustration, the subject matter is only the means to the dominance of pattern. The spectator’s eye oscillates between two and three dimensional forms (and this is even a clearly stated ambiguity); between white and black; luminous verses earthy colour; figurative subject and abstract pattern-these are the contradictory poles between which the painting is held.
The second phase of Biren De’s art may be said to have begun when the stylized figure finally started getting disembodied into free shapes and units. If the module of the figure was lost he had moved to a new arena of limitless form. But the shapes he chose to continue to be vaguely reminiscent of known images, they are juxtaposed and brought together, seen through one another, in a space that is somewhat vast, and sometimes close, in the relevance of its own compositional logic. From 1958 onwards we see paintings of the type of “Apparition”, for which he received the national award. Besides the free shapes another development is the absence of the binding lines, the boundaries of the forms have now their natural paint edges and there is no linearity, indeed the edges are rough and smudgy showing a textural interest. The luminosity continues into distant strangely lit horizons - broken by lowering clouds. Titles like ‘Apparition’ and ‘Vigil’ convey the general haunting quality of these pictures. In 1959, Biren won a Smith Mundt award and spent a year in the United States. He spent his time ruminating and looking and savouring rather than working. His style was not perceptibly changed by this experience, rather the confrontation of a different world tended to make him more sure of his own. After his return a significant exhibition was held in 1961 (Kunika, New Delhi).Bynowthe shapes which were first definite and then indefinite and broad become reduced to two major forms. Some curved and U-like - which may be thought of as feminine and others straight and wedgelike or masculine. These symbols were small and were arranged or moved or floated within the space of the frame. The ground was coloured more softly and the colours were textured. Biren also began to use impasto and the thickness or thinness of the paint formed a subsidiary interest.
A new phase however had already begun, and becomes consolidated about 1963. The artist was going through a period of heart-searching and with immense labour and suffering seems to have resolved his problems by the evolution of particular symbols. These symbols or shapes which are mainly erotic - are in fact shorn of eroticism, they are almost scientific hieroglyphs. Painted (not drawn) on a monumental scale they fill the space with their brooding presence. Texture is mostly abandoned for a smoky thin application of colour. The colour is vibrant and rich with large areas of black or ‘dark’ and with occasional areas of purple or green.
The sensuousness of the subject is reduced to a kind of solid torpor, the great principles of Yin and Yang become some strange resonant diagram that seems to beat with the pulse beat of the earth.
Biren’s recent work seeks the unity of these and other fundamental shapes. They are not new, for it is the ancient circle and square, the U and the cylinder that are here. But the forms are confronted or fitted or involved in a unique way. The shapes in spite of their essential geometry are somehow human and more satisfying than the ‘hard edge’ impersonal statements of contemporary Western art. The colours continue to shift between raw, luminous and sombre, they appear besides, around and through each other. The composition of these pictures seem consolidated - formulated and presented in a tight crystal. No shift in any relationship can be affected without disturbing the whole equilibrium which is precise and permanent.
On the other hand in spite of the element of finality there is also a quality of imminence. A luminous light seems contained, within and is revealed; a strange fascination holds the viewer as if he were in the presence of an Icon.
The artist says he has no wish to be different for the sake of being different but he feels an immense need to do what he is doing, a kind of discontented urgency which is a driving force. “My work has touched all the phases of art and is moving in its own direction. With a minimum amount of technique, with the least symbols or shapes “I would like to make the maximum statement. Present-day art seems to me to be subject to too many tyrannies - tyrannies which are extraneous.” “I have to recreate art for myself again and again”. I am living my art and it is immersed in silence.” “The symbols are like sounds I hear inside me, inside my loneliness, to which I am united. When I paint ‘Purush and Prakriti’ this is not a ‘subject’, it is a part of the continual movement and quest in life. I feel I have to fit things. Things do fit in with one another and the relationship of one to the other is important. There is discord and harmony and waiting. One is always waiting to be fulfilled.” These words are not mystic or literary, nor do I think they explain the artist’s art. But like the paintings themselves they are part of the artist and therefore of interest.
Biren’s painting has grown and is growing. Sometimes it is labeled ‘Tantric’ but I do not think it is tantric any more than what is painted today can be ‘traditional’. I think it is clear that each phase emerges out of the one before and is more profound. Though the struggle of the artist seems immense, it seems he is also more able to let some inner source beyond rationality dictate his direction. His art moves through him towards a more universal expression which is elegiac and heroic. The deep reverberations of this music will be with us when all is still.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, no. 6 April 1967, pp. 28-30.