Artists: Notes on Art Making

First published in Rupam, 1926.

In connection with the Seventeenth Annual Exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental art, held at Samavaya Mansions in December last, Professor Benoy Kumar Sarkar, who has recently returned from Europe, expressed his views on the general tendencies of the modern artists of Bengal, as represented in the last exhibition. He has not yet formed a definite opinion about their latest developments, but he remarked that “practically speaking those artists who are not bound by old conventions have been able to display much creative spirit.” When asked to substantiate his remark, he took as his illustration“ Story of the Unseen land,” by Durgashankar Bhattacharya.


“It is only an execution in the conventional spirit,” said he, " although the ‘legend' is original and fresh.” The central piece consists of four figures in different corners of a square form made of bamboo rafts. The pose in the act of catching fish is quite noteworthy. The forms of the two boats gave, added to the piece, some amount of colour and have served also to contribute a contrast to the yellow rafts.


“But the artist has deliberately attempted a number of what he seems to consider to be 'mystic' lines. To the observers, however, these attempts appear to be vague and meaningless. The total absence of background of any sort is a technique that can hardly excite one's interest under ordinary conditions of treatment. Perhaps the painter believes that by placing the central piece in such an unoccupied and empty space he is continuing the tradition of ancient and mediæval oriental artists and perhaps this is why he calls his work ‘unseen land.'


It is clear, of course, that Mr. Bhattacharya has not taken the subject-matter from anything known in art history. To that extent he is undoubtedly free and unhampered. But although not handicapped in them, he has chosen to experiment with the so-called mystical handling. The result is disappointing. He has failed to create the atmosphere of the infinite in spite of the negation of the background. It must be admittee admitted, however, that the artist has skill in drawing and possesses the sense of colour.”


“Those pieces which deal with Pauranik story and mythological or religious history," continued Prof. Sarkar, "are invariably defective." The artists have tried to be true to the tradition but succeeded in becoming mere imitators without a vital message.


Thus whether the treatment or the subject be traditional, the result is in both cases unencouraging. But so far as the present exhibition is concerned, I should say that it is not mainly a collection of ancient and medieval subjects or styles. And this is a happy sign of the times. A change in outlook is noticeable among the artists.


“Now let us see some of these workers," said Mr. Sarkar, “who deal with things in which they themselves happen to be interested in their daily lives and who have cared to be true to themselves instead of trying to reproduce the ancient spirit' as it is called. Take the Joy of Rains (No. 82), by A. K. Majumdar. It has been executed in a dexterous manner.


"In the first place, the colour scheme in it is made up of different shades of blue. Secondly, the peculiar form of the bungalow cottage of Bengal, the oblique sides of its thatched roofs as well as its angularities have been enriched with the round concave of an umbrella shape over the bent figure of a young boy. The whitish figures of moving ducks have brought into relief the dusky atmosphere of a rainy day.

There is no conscious effort on the part of the artist to play the Indian or the Bengali. But all the same he has succeeded in contributing a nice quota to our form sense. He has been able to create a plastic joy, so to say. It is a piece of sincere art.”


In the like manner is No. 80 by the same artist to be appreciated. Here, again, we have a really creative composition. To begin with, the piece is not monotonous The uniformity of the blue has been in upon by dots of white flower forms as well as swarms of flying birds. Further, the artistic effect is heightened by an expanse of greenish surface which cuts the background in an uneven, rough manner. Two boat forms we see in parallel position and the human figures, erect as they are, form transverse parallels to the former And their combined effect on the entire grouping is that of wealth in heterogeneity.

The boats, again, have acquired prominence on account of the red streaks. These latter, moreover, are to be seen distributed in different sections. Altogether we have here many of the delights that the juxtaposition of varied forms and colours offer to the eye.

The success of these pieces as contrasted with the failure of the ones mentioned above is, I think, chiefly to be attributed to the absolute repudiation of the "ancients”.


Question : Do you mean to say that it is impossible to exhibit greatness when one deals with ancient subjects or attempts to follow the methods of the old masters?

Answer: No, it is not impossible. I am only speaking of the tendencies to be found in the present exhibition. If you know how to divide the space, which colours to mix and in what proportions, how to distribute the forms, and what use to make of the background, you can be a great artist even though you borrow your theme from the ancients even though you deliberately try to catch their technique. I am just going to give you an instance of such success and analyse the essential elements in its make-up.


Mr. Sarkar turned to No. 113 Rome's Rival, by Abanindra Nath Tagore, and said as follows:-

* Probably it is a Christian Scene, the figure of some saint, may be Christ himself. The author has sought to call up the atmosphere of monasticism which you may even call Buddhist if you please. The influence of the ancients is quite palpable. But, and this is a speciality, the artist's workmanship does not consist in a mere attempt to be true to what older mystics have drawn.

“The author of this piece is not a copyist. He has command over the methodology of the makers of the old frescoes. At the very first glance, indeed, every observer will notice in it the marks of the great “primitives”. You have the bold arms and the vigorous human figure. By the bye, this is rather exceptional with the present artist whose brush, as a rule, is used to the softer, more delicate and gentler touches.

“The halo is not wanting in the background. The staff, a long almost vertical piece, seized with the right hand bent in a lifted posture, has delightfully broken the space and added to the majesty of the composition. A dignity characteristic of the‘heroicages,' we may say.


But wherein, outside of these elements, lies the grandeur of this composition ? I am inclined to think that the basis of dignity in this work lies in the manner in which the artist has filled up three-fourths of the entire surface, from top to bottom, with the bulky, yet simple, figure of a human being. The very height and weight of the shape, as apparent in the milieu of the space, constitute the marvel of the workmanship. The artist is an expert in space-management."

The piece was analyzed more minutely and the interviewer got such remarks as the following :-

"Deep brown drapery flowing from the neck in a magnificent manner covers, properly speaking, the entire space. This, Indeed, to the very soul of the present technique. There remains but slight uncovered surface to the right and to the left.

“The not very loud grey of the face has been placed in an environment of equally mild tints of colour. The three or four touches of bold blue in the halo have served to offer a pleasing contrast to the generally soft colour scheme of the entire work.

“The gentleness of the hues does not fail to tell a significant story to the eyes. We do not wait to enquire how the figure has been named by the artist. A piece like this might have a natural place in a collection of the Tang and Sung masterpieces of mediæval China."


Then Professor Sarkar turned to pictures Nos. 150, 151, etc., drawn by Sunayani Devi. “These are some of the new forms," said he, with which our art-world is being enriched. There are four or five human forms in different poses. The artist has got an admirable conception of structure.

“The shapes, perhaps, would not be enjoyed by those who form their æsthetic sense on the strength of the experiences of physiognomy culled from their every day life. Sunayani Devi's faces might even be described as outlandish or archaic by persons used to the normal standard.

“ But the figures display in their workmanship a sculptural solidity of remarkable character. And this has been produced by the manipulation of different degrees of whitish or black and white colour. The artist's brush has manufactured a liquid flow of grey marble as it were. A soft idyllic and lyrical quality is the characteristic charm of her studies in the plastic possibilities of colours."


Interrupting himself, Mr. Sarkar said:

"Perhaps I am doing injustice to many good works that are exhibited here by attempting this bird's-eye view in such a hurried manner. But I am talking only of certain special features that have attracted my attention in these few minutes. I cannot, however, bid you good-bye before I draw your attention to the pictures 133 and 135.”

These exhibits are known as The deserted house tells its owner's fate and Captive Light. The artist is Gaganendra Nath Tagore.

“The titles," remarked Mr. Sarkar, "are mysterious no doubt. The artist has chosen to be frankly mystical, at any rate, in description. But there is hardly anything mystifying in the works themselves.


“Ostensibly, the painter has given us some houses. But nobody would be prepared to believe that these are house-forms at all. One may not object to believing at the utmost that one is perhaps here in the presence of brick or stone structures. No stereotyped architectural design is there, nothing to connect it with the familar forms of masonry work, much to the discomfiture of the contractors and engineers. From this standpoint one would not be wrong if one were to believe that mystical something is in sight. Indeed, one might go to the extreme and remark that there does not seem to be anything in the line of conventional forms except only a few touches at different points."

“And yet I believe," said Mr. Sedan, “that a lover of art will find in these formless forms of absolutely no historical racial context some of the most vital colour-compositions and architectonic expressions. The blue and white of 133 the red and blue of 135, exhibit delightful varieties of structural colour-design of moderately large sizes. There is plenty of nourishing food here for the student of æsthetics.


“Even without being able fully to understand what forms lie before our eyes, according to the recognized canons of the objective world, we feel that the shapes have been placed alongside of one another in symmetrical and harmonious groups. I should invite all art-critics and lovers of art to begin with such specimens as object lessons in ' pure art’.

"It is in such compositions, thoroughly futuristic as they are, that we begin to appreciate without the scaffolding of legends, stories, messages and moralizings, the foundations of genuine artistic sense. This artist is certainly a creator of new forms which no doubt have a great message to the souls that thirst for creation.”

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