Indian friends have often asked me to introduce them to Jamini Roy. This has usually meant a visit after dark to the artist's house in Calcutta, and there has often been something supercilious in the attitude of the friend accompanying me. What will this so-called 'great' artist turn out to be like? He never appears in public; he never makes public statements. He is just a name; and there is the suspicion that it is a name more esteemed by foreigners than by Indians. May he not turn out to be something of a hoax?
The sequel is always the same. As Jamini Roy comes in, the friends face is transfixed with an entirely different expression. In a swift movement he bows down low, and touches the dust beneath the artist's feet.
There is a quality in Jamini Roy's personality that inspires this kind of immediate, wordless respect. With his silver hair swept loosely back from his forehead, his august appearance, gentle manners and slow speech, wonderfully lit by metaphor and simile, one feels more in the presence of a philosopher than an artist. He conveys to an intense degree the dignity of human suffering.
In his own life the suffering represents the seven years that followed his break with Western forms of art, when he turned to the peasant art of his native Bengal, from which he evolved his own unique style. At the time he was India's most successful portrait painter. Overnight he found himself scorned, ridiculed or ignored. For seven years he scarcely sold a picture, he and his family living often in dire straits. This happened a long time ago, in the 1920s, but it left an indelible imprint on him.
The gradual realization that these seemingly childish drawings were in fact the work of a major artist came in the next decade, when he was the subject of furious controversy. His annual exhibitions in Calcutta were exciting events, newspapers devoting entire pages to praise or abuse him.
A feature of his pictures is that they are at, once understood and appreciated by the humblest Indian peasant. One outcome of his years in the wilderness was that he was determined to sell cheaply, bringing his work within the budget of people who would not ordinarily be able to afford pictures in their homes. The combination of these factors led him to be hailed by Communists as a true people's artist. At the same time he was being hailed by the Congress as a true Indian 'national' artist. One day, after a Communist had been particularly importunate that Jamini Roy declare himself a 'people's, artist, he turned to me and said, pointing at one of his pictures, "The carpenter who made the frames the beauty of his work."
He was immune to political acclaim. But what he said about the frame-maker had a deeper meaning. What he was really saying was, 'Can this communist make anything with his hands?' Because a key item of Jamini Roy's philosophy is that a man's character is to be judged by what he can make.
Annual exhibitions were causing too many strains and interruptions. In 1950 he moved into a house of his own design in south Calcutta, where he has lived ever since. The entire ground floor is a series of simple display rooms, with whitewashed walls and low wooden benches to sit on. There his current pictures are permanently on view to visitors, rendering it unnecessary to give public exhibitions. Each year a stream of visitors comes to him from all over the world, and he receives each of them personally.
But it is not easy for visitors. His house looks unlike any other house in Calcutta. Once you see it you know it must be his. But it is "difficult to find taxi-drivers don't know the place, and he refuses to have a telephone.
Here one finds his lifestyle's keynote, which is to live in constant affinity with the primeval villages of Bengal, the source and origin of his work. Anything which is not found in a humble village home will not be found in his house. If he offers you a smoke, it will be biri; if he offers you a drink, it will be water. The sole exception to this is that he has electric light.
Even when he was at the height of his output, a Jamini Roy painting was the outcome of weeks, sometimes months, of thought. He would rise long before first light and sit on the floor in his studio in total darkness, thinking. In the roof was a small vent. As the first indication of light came through it, the pictures in his studio would dimly appear, but all one could see were the lines, without any colour. Then as the light increased, the colours would start to glow. This is the essence of a Jamini Roy picture. Line first, then colour.
I have never known a famous man who has travelled less. In the past twenty years I doubt if he has been out of his house more than twenty times. He has seldom left Bengal, and never been out of India. One day I arrived to find him holding a first-class return sleeper ticket to Delhi. He had been decorated by the Nehru government, and was expected to go to receive his decoration. "You're not going, are you?" I asked in astonishment. With a little smile he shook his head.
"If they want to give it to me, let them send it," he said.
And indeed they had to.
From The Art of Jamini Roy, A Centenary Volume, 1987.