The seedlings of European revolutionary trends in the plastic and graphic arts, that had taken root in the art-world of India early in the century, had grown into almost deterministic influences by the time the Second World War ended, when Satyen Ghosal (b. 1921) entered the pictorial profession at Calcutta, not like a novice to be swept adrift, like many of his compeers, but as an accomplished and gifted craftsmen with independent power of judgement. Endowed with a mature and balanced mind, Ghosal withstood, rock-like, the buffets of the swelling trends from the East or the West, but felt, and tasted each one of them, and assimilated their individual essences into a synthetic pattern of his own.
Hailing from Bengal with a sufficient fund of good taste for graphic art self-fostered from his early amusement in crude daubs and pastels, Ghosal entered the Government School of Arts and Crafts, Calcutta, when yet in his teens. After subjecting himself therein to the full discipline in painting, drawing and designing, he came out as a compassionate craftsman and an accomplished teacher in fine arts, having passed with credit the Diploma and Teachership Examinations, which immediately helped him to secure teachership in fine arts in the Delhi Polytechnic and later on (1951) professorship in fine arts in the Government College of Arts and Craft, Calcutta, where he still continues.
The few years of Ghosal’s life in Delhi were also years of intense and serious research, study and experiment in the manifold painting traditions of the world with the aim of developing his own individual idiom. But there is nothing new under the sun and all that one can do is to devise a singular disposition of elements, culled from the past and present models, into a structure of some novel design with just that touch of the personal which gives it an individual character.
In his search for a personal style Ghosal followed the evolutionary method. Since he entered the profession he has been evolving pattern after pattern or perfecting by stages the same pattern under the impact of some novel inspiration or influence that he has been meeting with from time to time. From what he has produced during the last decade and a half, we can very easily discern three broad stages through which his art has been evolving as far as his technique of expression and approach to art are concerned.
The first stage of his plastic development ends with his first exhibition in Delhi in 1948. In these tentative exercises in realism one often meets with the unmistakable first signs of creative originality in the artist’s approach to nature and life which has been straight and direct. His perceptive faculty would take in the essential aspect and mood of his model and transfer this visual impression on the canvas with such delightfully sweeping brush strokes as would impart vitality and boldness to the composition as a whole without any deliberate affectation or distortion or exaggeration. The result has been a happy realism of a novel nature, which bears the special seal of the artist. This is palpably discernible in the broad patches of paint in various shades and tones with which he not only builds up the organic mass of trees and rocks but also clearly indicates space in proper perspective. The works of art, which he executed in this period, show the artist’s growing creative talents and assimilating powers.
The second stage of his artistic development may roughly be said to have terminated in 1955. From what he has produced since 1948 up to 1955 and displayed often in India and in London, we find him a consummate artist and accomplished craftsman with a novel style that has been progressively shifting towards the post-Impresssionistic models, recalling Gauguin and those French painters who were inspired by the art of the East. But all the same time it is still modelled direct from life and nature with marked simplicity, rhythm and massiveness that are characteristic of Indian sculpture. The composition throughout has been balanced, bold and vigorous and the spatial extent broad and vivid and this has been achieved more by linear disposition than by mere graded colour accents. This shows that the artist has achieved decided proficiency in the secret of traditional Indian line - drawing. The themes selected are aesthetically popular, generally interesting and socially arresting such as Feeding Swans, Study of an old man, Rulers and the Ruled, Picnic under a tree and the like. The motifs, forms and images, are symbolic and typically Indian.
Here is a style and technique of his own devising wherein Ghosal would have created some strikingly original works had he persisted in it. But he would not rest on his oars in this evolved mode which left little to make it a perfect instrument. Not content with what he had achieved at home, he proceeded to England in 1954, where he had a year’s brush-up in the Slade and Goldsmiths school of Fine Arts of the University of London. He also found time to tour extensively in England, France, Scotland and Switzerland and to visit numerous art galleries and museums there. From these contacts in the West, Ghosal gathered fresh ideas and inspiration which he, in subsequent essays, tried to synthesise with such Indian modes and mannerism as were bequeathed to us by the traditional and folk arts of the country and by painters like George Keyt.
The works Ghosal exhibited in New Delhi towards the close of the last year, though containing many good works in his erstwhile matured style, show him receding from his earlier Impressionistic style and striving towards evolving a new type of symbolical language capable of expressing adequately his inner experience or what his constructive mind conceives in the in the world of thought and fancy, unrelated to objective nature, but having real human and social value. In a sense he has been progressing since 1955 from the gross to the subtle, from the tangible objective reality to the forms and fantasies conjured up by imagination, from the outer to the inner life, from realism to near-abstraction. Herein he leaves the terra-firma for unbridled fights in the magic world of fancy and weaves strange visionary compositions, ghost-like patterns, weird shapes, oval, circular and elliptical figures. These expressionistic compositions verge on the abstract, though not yet of it, for their simple reason of their having a singular character of their own, wrought, as they are, on the basic cultural modes of India with the exceptional skill of the artist in the manipulation of the plastic line and striking colour harmonies.
In the new symbolic style Ghosal is much more original and creative than he has been in his earlier realistic works. Artistically this near-abstract mode is as sound as the previous one is aesthetically gratifying. In either mode he has been consciously intuitive and spontaneously dexterous inexecution. The themes depicted are in keeping with the metaphysical character of the new style and with his changed outlook on life. Such subjects as Death, Renunciation, Youth and Old Age, Love and Conflict, Shelter, Sleeping on the Pavement and the like are perennial concepts of human thought and appropriately fit in the super-physical mode of the art that Ghosal has, of late, been delighting in.