I think there are few countries of the world where the position of art in its relation to the artist, to the community, to science, religion, politics and other departments of life is being more eagerly revaluated than in contemporary India. All these conferences, symposiums, art annuals and prolonged discussions (often very wearisome, sentimental, muddled and boring) bear witness to the fact that we are involved in a 'complex' which must be analysed clearly before we can go any further in producing art-works. For we are heirs, in the realm of art, as in other fields, to vast accumulations, ranging from the great ancient and mediaeval tradition/which ended with the disruption of the Mughal Empire, to the age-old folk tradition which broke down under the 18th and 19th century European influence. Until the forces of 'civilisation' imposed themselves like a thin veneer on our lives, the ritualistic needs of Indian village society had kept the arts close to most people. But with the growth of new groups and patterns the old crafts have been increasingly destroyed, until they remain a survival from which the new integration can arise only if certain basic questions are asked. For instance, we have to analyse the creative process itself and see how an individual artist integrates by gathering together certain split off parts of his own nature, and of his audience, in a work of art. Also, we must see how far a particular work is the expression of the personal unconsciousness of the artist, that is to say, of his psychological type, and to what extent, given the spark of genius, the similarity of background and development of the artist and his public is responsible for that authentic utterance which strikes a note in various layers of society and is acclaimed a masterpiece. And there are a host of other questions: what is the true basis of an artist's inspiration, of his technique and influence? How much does a particular style owe to the structure of the community of which he is a part? And if the existing, social and aesthetic relations are inadequate, how can they be changed, if at all?....All these considerations arise when one addresses oneself to a review of the art of Jamini Roy, certainly one of the few important painters in India today. For, if he has not himself self-consciously asked such questions, he has at least solved some of them in the only way in which a painter can-through paint. So that his work mirrors not only all the current conflicts in India, but marks the turning point of a completely new epoch of development.
It was at the house of one of his earliest friends, the poet Sudhindra Datta, that I first met Jamini Roy. A somewhat "stocky figure in homespun, with a kindly, well moulded round face, crowned by graying hair, and with mellow Bengali eyes, he seemed so simple, unassuming and unostentatious to me and such a refreshing change from some of the frustrated, attitudinizing artists of cosmopolitan city Calcutta.
After showing us some canvases which he hoped to include in the then impending 1938 exhibition of his work in British Indian Street, Jamini Roy went away. Catching the enraptured look in my eyes, Sudhin told me a few facts about the artist's life. Apparently, Jamini, the scion of a small landlord family from a village in West Bengal, had been trained in the current tradition of the Calcutta School of Art, a once vigorous movement based on the revival of the motifs of the frescoes of Ajanta and Bagh. But he had become dissatisfied with the spurious elongation of eyebrows and fingernails which was increasingly sentimentalizing the productions of this school, and was reaching out to new forms.
For a time he became a 'fashionable' painter, then he fell under the influence of Vincent Van Gogh and such European painters as he saw in reproductions. One fine morning, however, he deliberately cut himself adrift from all this and went back to the survivals of the folk tradition in his village. And he evolved that extraordinarily rich, sensuous and musical art which some of his critics have called a 'modern primitivism.'
What exactly is meant by primitivism? It is obvious that it does not mean 'going native', as some even of the most celebrated artists between the two world wars thought it to mean when they began to copy negro sculpture and Javanese masks. For 'primitive art', in its African and other folk forms, is neither technically nor emotionally simple. The scientific use of the word 'primitive' denotes a condition of the imagination when the unknown potentialities of nature or man, the fates, arouse fears and dreads, appeased by the offering of prayers and the evolution of magical formulas. Since the twentieth century, man has not, over the bulk of the world, travelled far from this condition, in spite of his much vaunted 'civilisation', and it is natural for many artists, in full view of the terrors and hallucinations of the European jungle, to try to soak themselves in the influence of the 'prelogical' survivals of the earliest art of the world. The difficulties of achieving those changes which make an infant into a self-aware man have naturally also tended to make the magic of the child's view of life more important as a new starting point in modern art.
But though at a superficial glance the return of a middle class Bengali artist from the world of 'fashionable' painting to the folk tradition would seem like 'primitivism', in the above sense, Bishnu Dey and John Irwin are right in explaining the peculiar difference between the return of some contemporary European painters to the Altamira caves and Jamini Roy's return to the folk tradition of his country: The important point to recognise,' they say, 'is that he approached folk art not as an outsider, but as one who had an intimate knowledge and understanding of the living experiences of the people where lay the roots of the folk culture itself.' Again: Jamini Roy never had to pursue Gauguin's far-away search for equivalence and symbolism, nor was it necessary for him to study the paintings of Matisse in order to develop an "integral vision".’ For he was going back to the cohesive and comprehensive culture of his inheritance accepting its myths and legends, basic forms and primary colours as a birthright.
At the same time, however, it must be admitted, as these critics indeed admit, that Jamini Roy had to wage his own peculiar struggle, because he was not content merely to copy the level surfaces, the flattening out of design in depth, etc., or to revive folk painting, but to create a new, forward art from the elements of the somewhat damaged village tradition, the breakdown of the 'feudal, system in India, and the artificial as well as natural obstacles in the way of a modern synthesis makes the transformation extremely difficult. For, on the one hand, the self-conscious artist has to retain the trick of the ancient magician, and, on the other hand, hehas to avail himself of the fruits of scientific knowledge. And because of the clash of the several surviving layers of civilisation in India, the attempt at the communication of one's vision by mastering the fantastic nightmare of hunger, cruelty, oppression, pain and psychological disorders, becomes a heroic struggle against all kinds of doubts and hesitations, especially in pictorial art, which has an indirect, subtler and deeper connection with immediate local realities than science or even the written word.
The pertinacity of instinct, then, with which Jamini Roy went back to the sources of primordial inspiration in the village would not alone have qualified him for respectful attention; for often, the attitude towards an unknown art can become the sheerest sentimentalism. It was rather his discovery of the truth that much excellence lies in inheritance, as in the conquest of environment, and that the artist transforms his material. The ordeal which he went through to reach the point of concentration amid the many strains that were intertwined in his middle-class experience by focusing his attention on everything in contemporary India, simultaneously, makes him uniquely important.
Let us see what are the characteristic elements of the Bengali folk tradition. The old folk culture is an amalgam of two mainstreams, the anthro-pormorphic beliefs of the Dravidians, the original neolithic inhabitants of India, and the more abstract poetizing of the Aryans, the earliest invaders. As in most conquests, the conquered culture takes its revenge on the conqueror. So that the indigenous nature myths and the dark magical cults, with their pantheon of tree spirits, snake gods, fauns, Nereids and ghosts, thoroughly infused the invading strain. But it was not until after the decay of the classical court culture and the emergence of the humanistic revolt of the Buddha that the slow, intricate folk practices became the predominating culture. The decay of central authority and the disruption of Vedic religion through the contentions of the schools was aided by the dynamic undercurrents from the village republics, and thus arose the three great medieval forms of Hinduism-the worship of Vishnu, God as the Blessed One, in Northern India; the worship of Shiva, God as creator, preserver and destroyer in South India; the worship of Sakti, God as Mother, in Eastern India. The last of these schools of religions was the main source of those weird Yogic practices which Sir John Woodroffe has described in several volumes of translations of Tantric Texts, embodying the apocalyptic philosophy of the Iron Age and enclosing a psychology of ritualistic worship which was to be the main source of the continuous folk art of Bengal. Ecstatic dancing, the rhythms of music and song, river worship, snake worship, the various cults of the Mother Goddess-are all evidence of the insidious triumph of folk imagination over the orthodox mind. Bankura District, where Jamini Roy was born, shows the process of revolt and assimilation more intensely than many others in Bengal. His village of Beliatore still retained, even in our own age of railways and motors, its self-sufficient medieval economy. Group life was closely knit together by communal ritual and immune from contact with the outside world.
There is a phrase of Aeschylus which very aptly describes the attitudes of the artisan in such a landscape: 'The eye of the soul is bright in sleeping and dark in waking.' Certainly, the village craftsman is not a self-conscious artist, he fulfils his function in the community by drawing upon folk imagination and expressing the communal taste for age-old primary colours and designs, the conventional forms in making things for daily use, such as pots, pans, toys, printed fabrics, scrolls, ritualistic images, etc. .
Jamini Roy had seen the skilled men of his village at work in his childhood. And, ostensibly the instinctive love of the child to potter about, in spite of social and class taboo, led him to copy their motifs and patterns early. His father, perceiving the boy's predilection, had done what was befitting the status and prestige of a small landlord-sent Jamini Roy to the Government School of Art in Calcutta. When, after about thirty years of the imbecile curriculum and European fashions, he 'returned' to the folk tradition, it was, therefore, not difficult for him to regain the sense of awareness which inspires the devotees in a family who collaborate on certain festivals to draw one line each in the collective picture called the 'Pat' drawing; and he sought out the myths of the Bhakti (love as devotion) cult.
On the surface, this attempt at a departure from the stultifying rules of the art school is reminiscent of Matisse and Derain. But, under Indian conditions it was, as has been said before, tantamount to a revolution. For Jamini Roy restored to the picture not only the state of mind of the indigenous artisan, but he consciously revived that respect for the quality of line which is an Indian specialty, the result perhaps of centuries of effort to attain rhythm, almost as though it were a spiritual exercise. Organisation, balance, proportion-these too accrued to him from the folk tradition. But he transformed them as only a forward looking emotive scientist could have done by bringing out the primary characteristics of the figure and formalising the less important features.
No doubt, as Professor Shahid Suhrawardy suggested in his pioneer essay on Jamini Roy, his training in European techniques helped him greatly. For instance, his departure from the straight line to the curvilinear may have been influenced by what he saw of the French contemporaries; and he certainly learnt to experiment in the penetration of light into the texture of a painting, from the Europeans. But the synthesis he carried out is significant for his nearness to the basic Indian tradition and his transformation of it into a new style. The sure economy and restraint with which he gets a picture in two or three strokes shows as though he is a medium possessed by the single minded vision of the 'Pat' draughtsman and yet in alliance with the mood of the most genuine elements in the world of art.
It is perhaps for this reason that one is particularly impressed by most of his preparatory drawings and sketches. But those who remember the 1938 Calcutta exhibition of Jamini Roy's work will see in his painting a development which now seems to have achieved phases. Messrs, Bishnu Dey and John Irwin have not reproduced many examples of the early period. Therefore, I would like to press the claims of one of the Mother and Child pictures in the collection of Humphrey House in the style with which Jamini Roy first startled us by getting away from the idiotic exuberance of the Calcutta art world. The tall panel called the Peasant showed the peculiar discrimination with which Jamini could select abstract characteristics and infuse inpainting the strength of simplicity by an appropriate handling of homemade colours. The drama of compositions like the Santhal Dance which was to develop in the later Kirtan pictures is the quintessence of his magical genius, for here painting is approximating to music.
But it is not merely a new way of handling paint that distinguished Jamini Roy's work. In his satirical pictures and cartoons he was already, before the war, aware of the clash of social forces: money-lenders and landlords, with the heads of beasts of prey, were symbolic of the emerging peasant struggles, as the dream birds were haunted by the sense of malevolent spirits gathering on the horizon. And apart from the child-like gaiety of the singing parties and the innocence of Virgins, there was the almost an insane look of dazed horror in the highly formalised open eyes of most of his figures. The exaggerations of the toy style paintings were also used to show a crazy humour.
If I admit the bias of literary appreciation that enters this way of looking into pictures for some kind, of message, there still seems in the development of Jamini Roy, from the paintings of village beasts, birds and flowers, through his comments on human beauty and dignity to his concentration on the life of Christ, a self-conscious attempt at asking the question: What has happened to us? Why are we so plagued? Where are we going?
Some academic person might say, of course, that Jamini Roy is seeking the peace of the abyss. But the artist denies that; 'Art', he says, 'is work of experience, of stress and strain, wrestling with problems, intellectual and physical'.
That is the nature of his approach to painting. At the best it is a search for value in the manner of a poet who asks: What is the true world behind the veil of words? But, always, it is a search for integral form, for a new kind of naive beauty which can yet reproduce the disorientated romanticism of our age.
Published in 'The Art of Jamini Roy, A Centenary Volume', Calcutta, 1987.