When one talks of painting, one thinks, in spite of oneself, about Europe and, particularly today, about France. So much so that we do not always think with sufficient force that other continents, other countries also have their masters and that, if artistic life in those countries occupies a lesser place than in ours, it is no less active. I want to speak here about an Indian painter, about the painter of the new India par excellence: Jamini Roy.
Born in the second half of the 19th century in the village of Beliatore in Bengal, Jamini Roy, since his childhood, has familiarised himself with the old and complex culture of his country. Beliatore is, in fact, in that part of Bengal which is situated between the mountainous regions of Bihar and the green plains fertilised by the delta of the Ganges. In these regions numerous races have formerly mingled with one another and put of their blending is born an intense and tenacious culture entirely nourished from the soil, enriched with various ethnical marks, although the Hindu heritage predominates in it. In the course of centuries, one of the principal characteristics of this culture has been the revolts which manifested themselves against the Aryan spiritual pressure; and if Hinduism predominates in it today, it had to accommodate itself to many Animist and Buddhist reminiscences.
All the art of Jamini Roy is impregnated with his origins; there is no concession in it to precepts imported from the Occident, but one does not find in it either any complaisance towards the orthodox, conception of Hindu art, with its esoteric keys and its difficult symbolism, and it is there that Jamini Roy is an innovator: the power of his talent makes- of him more a national painter than a provincial master.
The father of the young Jamini was inspired by the progressive spirit; when his son was sixteen years of age, he sent him to Calcutta to study painting in spite of what the people of his caste thought about it. Overflowing with zeal, eager to get hold of the secrets of the art of painting which he felt to be the ruling urge in him, the future master made rapid progress; his reputation was made when he was 21. Indian, painter according to the European method, he was superior to most of his contemporaries. That lasted thirteen years.
Soon came a period when Jamini Roy realised that he was painting with mastery what he was seeing, but that he had not expressed what he was feeling. Up to that day, he was the son of the conquest; he wanted to become the son of the independence. He wanted to paint his blood and his race, with the means which the people of his race had always utilised. For attaining this goal, no sacrifice seemed to him too bitter, no risk too dangerous.
Trained to European teaching, habituated to Western conveniences, Jamini Roy renounces all these facilities; he reduces his palette to seven colours which he prepares with local earths' crushed in tamarind glue or in the white of the egg. For the grays, he uses the mud of rivers; the vermilion he takes from the ritual composition used by Indian women at the time of religious ceremonies; blue is just the simple indigo and white is lime. And when he requires black, it is the modest black of soot that he employs. Better still, in the preparation of his canvas he uses cow-dung, all like his ancestors-but in full knowledge of the cause.
After the indispensable gropings he gets at last the right recompense for his efforts: it is a new painting surely, but all impregnated with the spiritual and cultural traditions of his country. A Hindu art in all its aspects, but an art profoundly human also....
Even his religious pictures, like his curious "Krishna and Balaram", vibrate with the life they contain; one feels in them the deep pulsations of the Indian people to whom the artist has always remained so near, all the activities of the people of his country he tries to express: religious scenes, strange ritual dances, rustic work. Through the colour as through the form one finds back India, monumental, mystic, but sensual, almost feminine.
The art of Jamini Roy, however, does not limit itself only to the face of India: it has sometimes searched for inspiration on the side of the Occident. It results then in strange portraits of Christ whose resemblance with those painted in Byzantium is astonishing. It is, moreover, by this resemblance that the authenticity of the Hindu painter is established. In fact, the geographical position of Byzantium, the influences received by its artists are at the root of the bewitching overlapping of the Orient and Occident in Byzantian Art. When Jamini Roy, this oriental, seeks inspiration from the Occident, is it astonishing that the same overlapping will be reproduced with almost similar results?
Outside India, Jamini Roy is certainly to be counted among the greatest contemporary masters. In certain aspects, by the charm of arabesque, rounded and sure, his painting reminds you sometimes of the painting of Matisse. Let us note incidentally: the Orient is not completely strange is to Matisse; and perhaps in the marriage of two civilisations, the Occidental and the Oriental, is found the explanation of the resemblance between these two painters of so different origin. However it may be, Jamini Roy bears witness for India, bears witness to an Indian artistic life which is very intense and which goes on manifesting itself more and more.
From The Art of Jamini Roy, A Centenary Volume, 1987.