Art History

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, Issue 31, 1981, pp. 23-28.

An unique collection of twenty small drawings and five temperas by Jami Roy was brought out by the late painter’s son Amiya Roy and was exhibited by Victor Banerjee, at the latter’s newly opened Calcutta Art Gallery, as the establishment’s maiden venture, between 29 February and 1 March 1980. The five small works in tempera were a group apart. While most of the rest were monochromatic line drawings in ink on paper, some had faint touches of water colour or gouache. In none of these attempts either at formation of masses or at endowing of chiaroscuroistic middle tones were discernible. Hence, they were pure drawings in lines. It seems that all these drawings, as well as the temperas, were conceived and worked out as layouts or sketches for bigger paintings.

There is a general belief that sketches, done by artists by way of exercise or of keeping notes, often turn out to be more satisfying than many of their finished works. This is at best a rash generalisation. While any conscious spontaneity may heighten the effective quality of an art which is primarily an expression of emotion, it may have an adverse effect on works in which constructional and formal values predominate or works which owe their existence to mediation by thought. Although the belief is not founded on sound reasoning, it is nevertheless based on empirical observation. The observation leads to the assumption that when an artist works out a finished art object, for others to behold and get, he consciously or unconsciously tries to orient himself towards an imagined demand on him and this tends to circumvent the free play of his creativity. But when he makes sketches or keeps notes for personal use, he is not under any external pressure. Personal sketches thus, being other-party neutral, often represent an artist better than many of his finished works. This observation probably holds good even for the great artists who do not produce to a demand but condition and create demand. Even they have to live up to the expectations they themselves create. Jamini Roy’s sketches provide us an opportunity to verify the belief as well as the assumption based on observation.

Like Jamini Babu’s finished paintings, the sketches are unplanimetric compositions on flat two dimensional surface. Motifs are linear things without volume, except the volumes suggested by the contour lines. In so far as the contour lines are concerned, they too are divested from volume denoting capabilities through repetition of direction and rhythm at regular spatial intervals; this tends to heighten decorativeness and lessen objective semblance. Though the motifs refer to Krishna, British sahibs, Madonnas, Radhikas, Gopinis, Dakshin Rais riding tigers, Kamadhenus, cats with prawns, Kadamba trees etc. etc., through graphic representation of homographic (homo=man plus graphic=representation by means of creation of visual object), iconographic and social circumstantial identities and narrational relative placement of motifs (within the limits of unplanimetric composition on flat surface), Jamini Babu’s paintings are farthest from descriptive and even from narrative representation (for an exposition of ‘descriptive’ and ‘narrative’ functions of art, see Georg Lukacs, Writer and Critic, London, Merlin 1970) of worldly phenomena, inter-relationship of objects, and objects and happenings. Let us try to see why this is so. Motifs (men, women, birds, fishes, animals, plants, foliages, inanimate objects, etc.) in Jamini Babu’s works are either whole shapes or agglomerations of shapes delineated by definitional lines. These definitional lines do not stimulate even the imaginary lines around the phenomenal objects and their contours. Lines, freed from their illusionistic functions, become boldly autonomous. The gently curving continually graduated lines delineate flat shapes on flat grounds. Although these compounds of lines and shapes do have formal resemblances to worldly phenomena, in no way they refer to the substances of the phenomena. The motifs are basically and primarily shapes and agglomerations of shapes, defined by lines. Repetitive assemblage of lines and shapes, of similar character, at similar spatial intervals, further take away the substantiality of the motifs by heightening decorativeness. The desubstantiation of the referred phenomenon takes place on another plane also. A Krishna, a Joseph, a Madonna, a Radhika, a Gopini, a Santal woman in Jamini Roy’s work differ from each other only in their iconographic and visible social circumstantial attributes - represented graphically in short-hand signs rendered decoratively and not substantially. Further, there is little difference in the way Roy represents a cow and a Gopini; character of lines are the same, comprising shapes which go into the build-up of the images of the cow and the Gopini have much in common. In fact, the only associations Jamini Babu’s motifs evoke, are those related to man-made objects like toys, dolls, modelling, carvings, drawings and paintings representing men, women, birds, animals, fishes, plants etc. etc.; that is, his motifs come from the world of art itself.

In Jamini Roy’s finished paintings, the picture space is treated as if it is a compound of two definite dimensions with two axes, horizontal and vertical (like that we get in Piet Mondrian and not like an amorphous field, that we find in Wassily Kandinsky). Lines are calculatedly drawn to divide the picture space, strictly keeping to the axes. Lines and shapes are carefully juxtaposed on flat ground to produce desired design effects. Lines are precise and shapes well defined. Both in the lines and in the shapes there is no break in the continuity of their extent. Lines do not cross each other and shapes do not overlap (even where they do, there is no distortion in the outlines defining each shape.) The shapes and agglomerations of shapes which Jamini Babu’s motifs basically are, are always endowed with convexilinear fullness, and always glittering with decoration. Jamini Roy’s finished paintings create a world where every line is in place, every shape is related to every other shape in a fixed design, every motif is at peace with every other motif through an essential unity of formal structure. There is no room for any tentativeness, nor any scope for any addition. Tension-free contended fullness, definiteness and decorativeness are the prime effective upshots of Jamini Babu’s finished paintings.

In so far as only the visual conception is concerned, Jamini Babu’s sketches agree essentially with his finished paintings. Same kind of attitude towards picture space, use of it, function of lines, function of shapes, juxtaposition of lines and shapes on flat unplanimetric surface, representation of worldly phenomena in motifs prevail in the sketches. But the sketches do differ from the paintings in details of handling and employmentofelements of visualisation which render the character of lines, shapes, and space different and ultimately make the effects of these sketches significantly different from the paintings. Let us try to enumerate the differences.

Since, unlike in paintings, the lines in the sketches do not have to enclose or define areas occupied by flat colour masses, the lines become free. Unlike the lines in the paintings, the lines in the sketches are not integrally wedded to shapes and motifs, although they by and large define them; hence, we get loose and discontinuous ends of lines in the sketches. The drawn lines in the sketches are not those carefully, slowly, deliberately painted thin-thick-thin continuous things with curvilinear propensities; they are bold and confident, yet tentatively drawn lines. Although their spatial juxtapositions and placements are calculated and decorative, they exhibit some kind of tentativeness and fluidity. As a result of the character of lines, the shapes and agglomerations of shapes (i.e. the motifs) attain a kind of flexibility. An occasional diagonal direction of a loose-ended line or projection of a shape further accentuates the latent dynamism of the tentative discontinuous lines and flexible shapes of an otherwise static composition of a sketch. A comparative study of figures in movement in Jamini Roy’s finished paintings and in sketches would be relevant here. Jami Roy has been eminently successful in showing figures in static posture and also in capturing the frozen moments of a figure in slow movement, but has by and large failed to capture dynamic figural gesture or movement in his paintings. But just by changing the character of lines and shapes he has admirably portrayed movement in these sketches.

The visual differences between Jamini Roy’s finished paintings and sketches have just been enumerated, let us now try to see the effect of these differences and their significance. Both in his paintings and in sketches, Jamini Roy takes off from the visible aspects of Bengal’s rural-agrarian life. Even when he refers to myths, legends and semi historical episodes, the characters and motifs are modelled after the character of Bengal’s rural agrarian life. However short-hand are the figures - they refer to object used by rural Bengalees. The psychic associations Jamini Roy evokes through stylistic kinship with Bengal’s folk art styles, so well noticed, also have their roots in rural agrarian life. But emphasis on the sensuous quality of elements of pictorial presentation, on designs created with those elements and on decorativeness of the designs, make his pictures self-complete entities and render all references to the phenomenal world merely incidental. Not image but precision of workmanship, not denotation but decoration, attract attention.

If some lessons can be drawn from the history of arts, one lesson is that, formalist art can attain truly great heights only when the autonomous art object, evocatively or otherwise, embodies some emotion or refers to some abstract concept. Decorative presentation of a visually pre-existing phenomenon, even if it is in purely pictorial terms, usually fails to embody in itself the essence of any emotion, or refer to any abstract concept. As formal art, Jamini Roy’s finished paintings often fail to reach that height, because of over decoration and dependence on only visual stimuli. Jamini Roy’s sketches, like his paintings, do depend on visual stimuli of the phenomenal world and take-off from the same ground as his paintings. But in these, he does not go to build up a close, precise, calculated and self-contained decorative world. Lines here have life and the imperfections seen in real life objects. The flexibility of lines and fluidity of shapes here endow substance to the motifs, and figures become lively. Sketchy working out of the motifs leaves room for the play of imagination, where there is none in the all-worked-out finished paintings. The imagination playing back and forth connects the take-off points of the phenomenal world with the created images. With this back and forth play of imagination the difference between the mirror-image begins to assume significance.

It seems that in his sketches, Jamini Roy builds a mythic world in the image of rural-agrarian Bengal. This mythic world does not have the deformities, imperfections, ugliness and contradictions of the real rural-agrarian Bengal. This myth projects an ideal, a wish that takes off from a reality and centres round the reality. It projects an image of transformation; it projects the wish of a simple conflict-free full life. The process of transformation from real to ideal, from imperfect to the perfect, from observation to wish-fulfilment gets graphic representation in fluid imperfect lines and flexible shapes. We begin to see Jamini Roy, the artist, in a new light; the incomplete formalist begins to appear as a hesitant visionary.

In the light of the new observation, induced by his sketches, we feel tempted to take a second look at his paintings and do a review de novo (which is now possible, as Jamini Roy’s Calcutta studio has become a public gallery of his works, under the management of the Government of West Bengal). One now notices that, at least in Jamini Roy’s earlier paintings (I am not referring to his pre-folklorish period paintings), the lines were not as continuous, as deliberate, as slow, as coldly calculative as are commonly assumed or as one finds in his later paintings or in the paintings of the followers of his mannerisms. Shapes often has distant fluoro-morphisms and zoomorphisms (after birds and fishes). Repetitions of direction and rhythm of lines and shapes at spatial intervals and successions (which give to paintings their decorativeness) were often less than at strictly regular and sequential intervals. Masses of flat colours and flat areas were often made up with more than one colour, rendering the areas less pure as colour fields. Surfaces were often textured. All these tended to lessen the possibility of his paintings being regarded as pure formal things as such.

If Jamini Babu did not have the conceptual clarity to go to the length of departing wholly from the episodic in the perusal of the pure, he did not also have the boldness of vision to transform his imagery into carriers of vision. He remained a decorative formalist and a hesitant visionary. While in his paintings the visionary’s hesitation and designer’s wish to please are more pronounced, in more intimate personal sketches the designer for a while take the back seat and lets visionary pilot the proceedings under the former’s supervision. Jamini Babu’s sketches makes us face this truth.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, Issue 31, 1981, pp. 23-28.

Keywords: Jamini Roy, Sketches, Pranabranjan Ray, Lalit Kala Contemporary, Motifs, Representation, Decorative, Folk Art, Formal Design, Indian Modern Artist.

The author describesJaminiRoy’s drawings and its evocation of an ideal image of rural-agrarian Bengal.

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