I was born on 13 April 1921 in the village of Barama in Chittagong, now in Bangladesh. My first experience with any form of art activity was the model of a sea plane I made at the age of about seven. This was sometime in 1928 or 1929. One day a sea plane landed on the waters of the river Kamaphuli in Chittagong. Crowds of people flocked to see this wonder, this huge sea bird machine. I too went to see it, with my engineer father. We approached it in a country boat or sanipan, and examined it in great detail from all sides, full of amazement. The urge to reproduce it was irresistible. I used cardboard, scissors bamboo strips, gum, a penknife, needle and thread, working with great care and patience to assemble a model of the wonderful seaplane. It was about 18 or 20 inches long, but could not be floated in water, as its main component was cardboard. So it was hung from a piece of string near the window; and though not many people gathered to appreciate it, I was happy to see my handiwork swinging in the window like a gigantic dragonfly.
In the small but beautiful town of Chittagong, I used to attend a municipal school. But learning by heart from books was not my strong point. And when a cow obligingly chewed up all my new books one day while I was still lounging around the school compound, my father decided that enough was enough. I was sent off to the village, where our large joint family lived. We made quite a football team, with thirteen or fourteen of us children together. Life became one long game. I must have passed tests and moved from class to class, but I have no recollection of it. Not that I was lacking in merit, just in studiousness. My one passion was drawing. From this an interest in attempting to write like printed letters. I used to copy from copybooks for hours at a time. These copybooks were full of pictures of tables, chairs, gates and boxes. Devendra Majumdar, our drawing master, appreciated my copies and I got high marks in this subject alone. In class VIII I received a small box of water colours as a gift from my uncle Sailendranath, whose approach to life was slightly unworldly. This gift was a wonderful acquisition. I started copying portraits, still lifes, landscapes from magazines and calendars, all the while keeping a careful eye on the precious, rapidly depleting paints. I remember spending hours trying to faithfully copy a moonscape from a book of poems, Sagar Sangeet by Chittaranjan Das, the nationalist leader. It was a tough, heart-rending effort. But it never ended up looking exactly like the printed version.
Satish Ganguly, a devotee of Kali, built a small mud house on the fringes of the village. One day I saw a couple of painters painting pictures on the inner walls of the room, depicting the predicament of Maharaja Harishchandra. I was mesmerized by their work. Everything seemed so real - human figures, trees, burning ghats, everything. I could understand copying from books, but how did one draw from nowhere? For days I would go to watch them painting. I could ask them no questions. Their skill seemed supernatural to me. Years later, as a student of City College in Calcutta, I was tempted to reproduce exactly a scene from the Ajanta caves in black and white, from a pamphlet a hostel mate gave me. Our hostel, which was situated in Bowbazar Orphanage Lane, was meant largely for Buddhist students. I made a full size wall drawing with sauce powders and paper sticks. Prof. Dwijendralal Barua, the Superintendent of the hostel, was very impressed with this feat. He would not allow that wall to be whitewashed for a very long time.
Sibu (Biswas?) was my roommate. Under his influence I began doing handwritten posters for the then banned Communist Party of India. Underground activities have their own attractions for the initiated youth. My handwritten, ink and brush posters were neat and legible, and they were put up at various points in the city. Some were meant for the industrial areas I once remember joining a cycle procession with playcards, some of them done by me. This was during the Second World War. When Germany attacked Soviet Russia in 1941 suddenly the slogans changed. From ‘Not a man, not a paisa for this imperialist war’ we started seeing ‘Every man, every paisa for this people’s war.’ I was not very much concerned by the political intricacies of such slogans. My handwriting was attractive; the comrades liked my posters; it was reward enough for me.
I returned to Chittagong, as I did not have the money to cling to Calcutta. Moreover, all the schools and colleges were closed. Back in my village, I spent time with old friends like Bimal Sen and Rakhal Das, who were now part of the CPI cadre. They brought me ink and brushes and I once again began handwriting posters, and enlarging some cartoons published in the communist weekly, People’s War.
In my early teens, I was constantly in the company of my older cousins and their friends who believed in terrorist activities against the white rulers. Boys of my age were employed as couriers. While growing up, I was surrounded by the indescribable miseries of the poor who laboured endlessly only to see the fruits of their toil being enjoyed by the rich. An intuitive sympathy developed, which was deepened by my experiences in Calcutta. In Chittagong almost the whole generation of young committed anti-British terrorists turned communist, full of wonder at what the Russian Revolution signified. Most of them were honest, sincere, dedicated people. We hated British rule and had close ties with the poorer sections of the people, both Hindu and Muslim. We were able to combine the struggle of the peasants and the poor with the fight for freedom. As for myself, I was very interested in producing posters as this gave me an opportunity to draw and express myself, though in a rather naive way. My posters were usually put up I market places, shops and on trees.
Soon the great famine of 1943 bared its fangs. Chittagong was a front line area. The allied soldiers were everywhere. Suddenly there was food scarcity. Mass starvation was widespread. The worse affected were the potters, barbers, washermen, fishermen and the landless. Their womenfolk were often lured away by touts to service the soldiers. Some women came back from the streets of the town riddled with venereal disease. Without food or medical care, they were dying.
My father had died in 1934. I was thirteen then, and the eldest. My mother was left a widow at the age of twenty-nine, with five children to look after, one of whom was insane from birth. A benevolent relative took charge of my education uptil matriculation. My mother bore every hardship with fortitude. During the famine, partial starvation was the rule for us as well as for many lower middle class families in the village. Amidst all this she came into contact with several communists working underground. Even my youngest sister, just nine years old, was acting as an efficient courier. In such an atmosphere, it was exhilarating to be producing political posters with slogans and illustrations. Fine art was not a consideration. Rather, it was Mao Tse Tung’s dictum that held sway: ‘All artistic efforts must be directed towards resistance against the Japanese aggressors; let embroidery take a backseat for the present.
Chittaprasad, the renowned artist and party activist, was busy wielding his powerful pen and brush to record the human misery around us. He initiated me into directly sketching the people I saw on streets and in hospitals. With my untrained hand I toddled from page to page. The district committee of the CPI encouraged me and made me a full timer overnight. I made many posters, and with the help of comrades, started exhibiting them in villages and small towns. The IPTA, which consisted of singers, dancers and theatre persons, started a new form of cultural performance alongside the exhibitions. We were able to enthuse a sizeable section of the people, who volunteered to run relief kitchens and parted with a portion of their own daily meal to feed the starving poor.
Seeing some of my work, the provincial committee asked me to return to Calcutta. This Calcutta was very different from the one I had left. I was older; I was in the midst of the organization. I yearned to improve my skill in painting and drawing, which had become a passion with me. P.C. Joshi, who had come to know me in Chittagong, advised me to join the Government School of Art in Calcutta. This was a turning point in my life. Zainul Abedin, the painter who depicted the victims of the famine with powerful emotion, was my teacher and mentor. The way he taught and talked to us was a treat for us first year students. Although he was not actively associated with the Communists his brush was free of partisanship, his empathy for the exploited was immense, and he was sympathetic to the cause. I became an enthusiastic pupil of his, intent on mastering the technique of drawing and painting. Often a monotonous exercise, I doggedly pursued this aim of sharpening my perception. Coming as I did from a rural background, I had a diffidence about my vision and capabilities which is still with me.
Chinese wood engravings of this period, after the German artist Kathe Kolwitz, were influences that drew me to his craft; but I did not have the requisite knowhow or skill. So like the other regular students I devoted most of my time to doing foliage, still life, perspective, life and antique studies with total concentration. Yet there was never enough time. We were constantly being drawn into the mass movements which made history at the time. Rashid Ali Day, communal riots, Independence Day, Vietnam Solidarity Day and many other such happenings found us on the streets. In 1949 the Party was banned, and along with many others I had to go underground. This was the time of that ominous slogan, ‘Yeh Azadi jhoota hai’ (This freedom is a lie). During this period I did hundreds of handpainted posters, thousands of linoprints, untiringly and with no sense of frustration or lack of fulfilment - I was fighting for a cause, and using whatever abilities I had to do so.
In early 1950 For a Lasting Peace, for a People’s Democracy, an international organisation, brought out an editorial condemning the sectarian stand of the CPI. It acted like a bombshell. Suddenly everyone became self-critical and vocal; but soon self-criticism turned into criticism of others only. I felt that for several years, along with other artist comrades, I had churned out enough political posters with misleading slogans, messages unrelated to reality. There was a sense of despair. Several of us turned away from political slogans towards what we felt was a truer pursuit of creativity, artistic endeavour. The urge for artistic creativity lying dormant within me, had been awakened by my work for CPI. But now, disassociating myself from active Party work seemed inevitable if I was to pursue my passion for art. Reba and myself did not renew our membership. This was in 1956. But we remained close sympathizers of the party and the cause.
For a while wood engraving became my medium. I reworked compositions from my Tebhaga diary. For the first time, these were neither illustrations nor posters. We were studying the works of Nandalal Bose, Abanindranath Tagore and others of the Bengal School, as well as the western masters. In 1952 there was large exhibition of soviet paintings. Till then we had been enthusiastic admirers of Soviet socialist realism. But this exhibition raised a storm of questions. Why so many portraits of political leaders, of no particular artistic merit? Why so many naturalistic paintings, with no attempt to break new ground in terms of colour, tone, design or ideas? In contrast there was the invigorating portrayal of wheatfields by Van Gogh, rich in colour, tone, handling of the brush and full of a passion the Soviet painters could not communicate due to their incomplete understanding of the aesthetics of art lay not in the theme as such, but in the expressive powers of the individual in terms of the pictorial elements.
In 1953 I joined the Calcutta Corporation as an assistant teacher, teaching all subjects from drill to drawing. On Saturdays I arranged an art class where the young children were given brushes and colours free. These were mostly slum children, full of enthusiasm for every moment of class. They painted with great gusto aspects of their everyday lives, people sleeping on foot paths, standing in queues for water for water, grazing sheep on the maidan, flying kites or balloons at a fair. They expressed their love for beauty through gay colours and simple themes.
About a year later, Atul Bose invited me to build up a graphic department at the Indian School of Art. In a school of art a teacher can sustain a meaningful relationship with his students provided he himself pursues his own creativity with dedication. For this reason I agreed to take the assignment on a meagre salary of Rs 95 per month even that not paid regularly.
Four years later, in 1958, I joined the Government College of Art in Delhi (then known as the Art Department of the Delhi Polytechnic) as lecturer in charge of the graphic department. It was a UPSC appointment. Teachers like B.C. Sanyal, D.R. Kowshik, Sialoz Mukherjee, Dhanraj Bhagat, Biren De and Jaya Appaswamy were in Delhi at the time. Associating with them and other Delhi artists, together with my own probing of the new elements of modern gravure and lithography, widened my concept of art and aesthetics. My attitude to art changed. For nine years I remained completely involved with the Polytechnic, developing rather newer ideas and aesthetics through continuous exercise in thought and work. I began to realize that just the theme, embellished with skill, is not enough for true art. One has to cross the boundaries of theme to to create a meaningful work, something an artist cannot achieve through sheer will power. One has to meditate. If the theme predominates, sentimentalism is bound to pervade the work.
Too much sentimentalism creates a barrier to a full understanding of pictorial values. This is a drawback with some of the weaker artists of the Bengal School. Some of my past work, too had been adversely affected by political considerations. In Delhi I struggled to rise above subject matter and theme, but they refuse to leave me completely. The Famine of 1943, the communal riots of 1946, the devastations of war, all the wounds and the wounded I have seen, are engraved on my consciousness. The burin mercilessly cuts the surface of a wood block, acid ferociously attacks the zinc or copper plate, these exercises continue without any premeditated design, but in the end an icon of wounds emerges. This icon represents the hapless, deserted starved and tortured.
All of a sudden, life in Delhi became irksome. There was much that was commendable about it, but the overly success-oriented attitude I saw around me began to jar. In 1967 Reba and I came away with our three-year old daughter, Chandana. We headed for Calcutta. Then, after much hesitation, we came to Santiniketan and joined Kala Bhavan in mid-1969. It was Dinkar Kowshik who was instrumental in my coming here. He insisted on building up the graphic department with my help. And, of course, Benod Behari Mukherjee’s encouragement also influenced my decision.
At Santiniketan, artists like Rabindranath, Nandalal, Benode Bihari and Ramkinkar had created a wonderland of art activity. Their art dealt less with subject matter than with inner vision, urge and tension. The fast pace of Delhi life was replaced by tranquillity and meditation. I learned much from viewing their works. A new awareness created in me.
In 1969-71 society was in a state of upheaval and chaos. A section of the youth was restless. There was panic and terror amongst the common people. Wounds is what I saw everywhere around me. A scarred tree, a road gouged by a truck tyre, a man knifed for no visible or rational reason. A new concept was born. The object was eliminated; only wounds remained.
White-on-white prints emerged from these wounds. They look abstract, but in fact they truly are wounds, inflicted on sheets of clay or wax. The knife or some other implement is thrust into the body of clay, a blow lamp or red-hot rod burns the surface of wax sheets, and these physical effects are produced. I manufactured a cement matrix over which handmade paper was prepared. There was no prototype for me to follow, so the entire procedure took a long time, but finally it functioned efficiently. It was but an extension of the wounds a burin or acid would make on surfaces like wood or metal sheets. During the summer vacation of 1974, as a diversion from printmaking, I started playing with bits of wax in the company of senior sculpture students such as Chandravinod Pande and Manik Talukdar. I produced some unusual figures with wounds. Chandravinod took up the challenge of casting them in bronze. He was successful. I found a new outlet.
In May 1975, Vietnam succeeded in routing the Americans. This was an unequal, unjust struggle which had disturbed me for many years. I had personally participated in several demonstrations and protest meetings against American aggression in Vietnam. This victory aroused a vision in me, an eternal mother holding her head high, a new born child cradled against her shattered chest. It took me two and a half years to complete this bronze, which was 40 inches high and weighed 40 kg. It was stolen on 3 November 1977 and never recovered. The former Vice-Chancellor, the respected Nemai Sadhan Bose, has lamented the ‘broken nest’ of Vishwa Bharti. We need not worry about Rabindranath. He will live forever through his art, literature and songs. But the so-called temple of Vishwa Bharti, is built of bricks and mortar, and its decay is ingrained in its very structure. We, the employees of this great institution have from time to time removed a brick or two to serve our interests, or else why should we see cases of theft, murder and corruption being covered up with exemplary finesse. Since everyone shares the sin, no effective protest or action is possible.
It was only after my retirement in 1983 that I once again began working in bronze. A casting complex on a humble scale was set up in the compound of our own house at Lalbandh. Now I concentrate on bronzes, I prefer not to call them sculptures. They do not have volume, mass or even weight they bear the scars of wounds. They are wounds. The ten fingers of the hand manipulate them. They are small, done without the help of amateurs. Each figure stands or rests on its own, with its own logical structure. This method of working directly from sheets of wax is not suited to large works. I feel more at ease doing small pieces which are mostly mono products, with no duplication, since the piece mould technique cannot be applied here.
Here at Santiniketan I have had the opportunity to work continuously. When I was hesitating over accepting a job here, Benod-da affectionately assured me that this was the only place where one could work as much as one liked; or if one preferred, laze one’s time away. Twenty-four years later I can say that despite some bitter and hurtful experiences, my life here has been meaningful. Benode Behari and Ramkinkar, the two great masters, have been a constant source of inspiration and aesthetic stimulation. Benode da was possessed of almost supernatural powers when he took up a brush, crayon or needle to draw or engrave. His total blindness was no obstacle to his inner vision while feeling and working with a medium. Ramkinkar, at the end of his life, painted the Annapurna series with such energy, defying physical infirmities - and what pictures they are! Amongst my contemporaries Dinkar Kowshik is foremost in helping and encouraging my efforts. He has stood by me through thick and thin. K.G. Subramanyan is also a great friend and guide. Sarbari Roy Chowdhury has been enthusiastic in encouraging my work in bronze.
Seventy is no mean age. A sense of impermanence is creeping into my life. So far, immersed in my art and with my wife Reba beside me, my only preoccupation was with working harder and harder. Now I feel that nothing lasts forever. Much of what I have done has been achieved with great effort. Groping and finding is time consuming. Yet, sometimes, something emerges effortlessly, something unexpected. These tiny moments of joy have brought me immense pleasure. Only time will tell whether they have been worthwhile.
The aim of art is to create beauty. What is beauty? Venus de Milo, the Venus of Willendorf or the donor couple of our Karle caves are all objects of beauty, but with what a difference! Empathy seems to be a major factor in creating this sense of beauty. Empathy imposes beauty on the ugliest objects; lack of empathy robs even the most beautiful of it. How does communication occur, between the artist and the viewer? Some people look for a simple form of communication, the ability to recognize an object through natural representation, or to relate it to some story. But to realize the artistic merit of a work of art; such a simple approach is not enough. Communication involves a spirit of give and take on an aesthetic plane, with both the artist and the viewer at the same level of access to Rasa. Rasa can be explained as a high degree of aesthetic excellence which can be realized and perceived through intuition. Connoisseurs stand on various steps of the staircase of perception. They react to works of art according to their ability to perceive or appreciate. On the higher levels of perception, one reaches beyond the thematic content and comprehends the various ingredients that have gone into the making of a work of art. When it exudes an inexplicable brilliance, the connoisseur is able to feel its overpowering impact and is filled with wonder. Thus a genius is unable to conceal the strength in whatever he does, while a mediocre talent fails to hide his weakness. Nor can excellence be judged in terms of popularity. Both Van Gogh and Cezanne were unable to communicate with their viewers in their lifetime, though their communication with their subjects was total, empathy being a major driving spirit. Now the world celebrates their genius.
Back to our dwelling at Lalbandh. Here Reba, Chandana and I have built our humble nest, with a minimum of material requirements. In fact you could call it a studio with beds here and there. Amidst all sorts of household chores Reba keeps busy with her paintings and terracotta. Chandana, having finished her course at Kala Bhavan, is on her way to exploring her identity. And I continue to pursue my bronzes. The same wounds, with bits of broken, twisted, molten, moulded wax. A few people assist me in casting, dressing, welding and so on - Sunil Marandi, a Santhal village boy; Badal Roy, a neighbour; myself, and Khadu Sheikh, a young Muslim from the nearby village of Surul. Casting is team work; but patination is solely my job. I have learnt some techniques of this from Provas Sen, the renowned sculptor.
Viewers sometimes want to know if I am satisfied with the end product. Frankly speaking, the answer is often no. Recurrence of concept is a handicap, but my joy in my work is indestructible. Pain in the process of creativity can turn into inexpressible joy. Here let me try to further clarify my views in the form of questions and answers.
Why do I draw or paint?
Because of a strong inner urge
Why this urge?
An artist possesses the faculty to paint. This constantly drives him in the pursuit of new ideas. The urge may be due to material factors like the need to earn a living, money or fame. Earlier religions, and more recently, politics, have been important factors. Modern artists are freer in their activities. Van Gogh, Cezanne, Rabindranath, Ramkinkar, Benode Behari, each has sought and found joy in his own way through artistic pursuits. To find newer means of expression is an immense challenge and a source of satisfaction to the artist.
What do I paint?
Expression of my own self, revolving around the one concept - Wounds.
What about viewers?
I am not conscious about this aspect while working. The medium and my skilful manipulation of it help me realize my concept, which is born of my existence as a social being, and the experience gained from the different situations and activities in which I have been involved.
What is rasa?
The ultimate essence of a work of art. Rasa is a two-way process. The artist strives for rasa in his work. The rasika or connoisseur intuitively detects it. Rasa is bestowed, not made.
Is there a difference between taste and the ability to realize rasa?
Taste can be improved with effort and learning. Rasa is an inborn faculty. An illiterate person may be a true rasika while a great scholar might be unable to respond to a work rich in rasa.
What is the life force of a work of art?
This cannot really be explained, only experienced. The difference between a sleeping and a dead creature indicates this. A great Buddha image seems to breathe with life, creating an aesthetic vibration all around it. The little danseuse of Mohenjodaro vibrates with this life force, which may also be termed tension.
How does one define originality?
In art nothing is completely original. Heritage, both national and international, is bound to influence an artist either consciously or sub-consciously. Art activity mirrors the visible world. Intuitively the artist introduces technical perceptions and innovations which create new forms. These are in turn enriched with fresh concepts. Exceptional talent is able to create great art with these tools, and great art is unequivocally original.
How do politics and art interact? Do Communism and creativity in art complement each other?
Social consciousness and commitment can inspire artists to produce great work, but when politics become party politics, then it cannot inspire true creativity. From personal experience I have found that politics can be abstract to the point of absurdity, in the sense of being totally divorced from reality. Abstract art may be inaccessible to the common viewer, but at leats it does not do active harm to society, unlike wrong or absurd politics. There are so many examples of this that they need not be cited here.
Communism is a result of social consciousness attained through the intellect. Art, in all its forms, is an inborn faculty. Communism may inspire an artist to create great art, but it cannot turn a person who does not have the necessary creativity into an artist. For example, my one concept has been Wounds. If a viewer discovers only it’s thematic content and misses the aesthetic values, then the whole exercise has been futile, and time will relegate these works to the dustbin of history.
Actual events fade away in course of time, but aesthetics engulf time. The Altamira cave paintings, the classical arts of Egypt and Greece, Renaissance Art of Europe, our own Mohenjodaro, Ellora, Konarak, all convey different degrees of social commitment. But wherever great art has been created it is due to the genius of the artist not the content, theme or degree of social involvement. Some patuas of Kalighat have shown excellence in the creation of images with a strong sense of design, playful brush strokes and absolute control over contour, colour and shades, and finally a delightful sense of abandon. Not all of them could achieve this, only the true artists among them.
The aesthetics of a work of art cannot be realized through a political approach. Its excellence is revealed through its own components, not because of any message or polemic. Picasso’s Guernica is exquisite because of its pictorial elements. For the same reason his Massacre in Korea does not rise to the same heights. In our own country, despite M.F. Husain’s undoubted talent, his Goddess Durga symbolizing Indira Gandhi’s power during the Emergency, has not received much praise. Because political art without rasa can only howl. It cannot make music.
What are my views on Communism today?
My romantic attitude towards Marxism and Communism has received a rude shock from what is happening in the Communist world, especially in the Soviet Union. I had dreamt of Communism as a panacea for all ills that Capitalism with its ruthless exploitation had caused in human existence. Dreamers are also a part of real life. Scientists, painters, writers, poets, are all equally dreamers. Communism has alternatively been both dream and truth to me. I find no reason to discard this dreamful truth, or should I say truthful dream? Exploitation, both physical and moral, is at a pitch today. I think that Communism alone can bring society back to its senses. Communism and humanism together comprise the truth. If the haves have the hope of living a full life, so should the have nots. Hope is a dream worth living with.
How do I feel exhibiting my work? Nowadays and for a long time, I have not felt enthusiastic about holding exhibitions. Friends often ask me the reason. I feel that one does not, after all, reach many people through an exhibition. A few hundred even a thousand or so - a mere fraction of the populace. A cinema can reach millions. But painting, sculpture, printmaking cannot have the same audience. Younger artists need exhibitions for the sake of meaningful exposure, but for a person of my age and experience, I feel them unnecessary. My work has become an addiction, and running around over an exhibition seems pointless particularly since our material needs are few.
What I have gained through my art activity is joy, pure and serene amidst an ocean of frustration and sorrow. Failure, frustration and extreme poverty could not stifle Van gogh’s zest in his artistic pursuits, because of the inherent joy in the passion for painting. Blessed with an aptitude for creating art, we too are fortunate to share the same joy and warmth, I consider this a great gift of nature.
I November, 1991
Published by CMA, 1995