If the driving urge to paint had not impelled Sunil Madhav Sen into being an artist, he would have been a frustrated lawyer today. With a beaming smile, and a cigar in hand -- both part of his personality, he recalls the day when the image of a household deity first inspired him to draw on the walls of his home. He was eight years old then, and was severely scolded for this. But he persevered. Without formal training or encouragement, he has evolved a style that is uniquely his own.
Sunil Madhav Sen was born in 1910 in Purulia, now a district of West Bengal. “At 56”, says Sen, “I feel very young, and can contribute to art for many years yet.” The 33 years during which he has been actively painting, have been punctuated by many changes in style, and today he still has the vigour and vitality to break away and try a new approach to new vision.
The Calcutta Group was formed in 1943 -- the year made memorable by the Bengal famine. This group of like-minded artists -- painters and sculptors of different origins and education, banded themselves together in the belief that true art is not imitational or traditional. They discarded these art forms in their quest of a personalized, abstract approach to nature. A synthesis of East and West can be achieved, they feel, though the conviction underlying their work is basically Indian.
His earliest efforts were imitations of nature. In the Santhal hills and in Bhutan, Sunil Madhav found that picturesque quality that lends itself easily to art. This he translated freely into landscapes, scenes of folk dance and tribal life, and above all the profiles and faces of woman. Even in those early days his style was tempered by the influence of Kandinsky and Klee, in the abstract and expressionist idiom of graphic art. Since then it is the folk art of Bengal that has found expression in Sen’s canvases.
A synthesis of subjects soon afterwards resulted in the combination of woman and nature. “A bird seller”, “The Fisherwoman”, “Woman with Flute” were pictures of the period.
And throughout all this Sunil Madhav experimented enthusiastically with colour. “For me there is no joy without colour” he says, as he pulls out a stack of paintings from under a couch in his studio. His colours are vibrant, clear and rich -- colours of the Indian country side, its flowers, and the sky. Ultramarine blue and brilliant yellow keep company with bright browns and leaf greens.
A recent exhibition of contemporary French Art greatly inspired Sunil Madhav who had never seen original western art before. Braque he found stimulating, and dozens more enthralled him. The process of welding, the emotional fantasy of India with the disciplines of the European school once more marked his style. A synthesis that he sums up succinctly in his remark is that the artist’s life is all experiment. Breaking away briefly from conventional surfaces, Sunil Madhav moved on to painting on to glass in rich, bright colours, which gave it the semblance of a stained glass window.
More recently, the motifs of Mohenjodaro and Harappa mixed with the primitive forms of Egypt have resulted in a new phase of his painting. “Owl in Red” is representative of this period. This canvas, like others in this style, shows a liberal use of red. It perhaps also marks Sunil Madhav’s first serious experiment with texture. Here colour is thickly crusted for visual relief; the tendrils of black bleak the monotony of red. The symbolic motifs are also a change from his earlier work which is characterised by bold rhythmic lines and flat colours.
That he is a profile artist cannot be doubted. He can turn out a complete painting in three hours. “Whenever I am gripped by the mood, I take a day off from office -- with the result that I have never been promoted in my job”, says Sen. The floor of his studio is littered with dozens of sketches. These he calls his “hectic sketches”.
Sunil Madhav’s work has frequently been exhibited at one-man shows and in group exhibitions in India and abroad. The National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, displays five of his representative paintings, and the Government House, National Library and Jadavpur University, Calcutta, prominently displayed his work. “Suspense”, one of his oils in post-Impressionist style won him the coveted Academy of Fine Arts award in 1945.
Further afield, his paintings have been exhibited with those of international artists at group exhibitions in Tokyo, Brussels, Newcastle, Sydney, and Perth. A one-man show of his work was also organised in New York.
When asked about his views on current Western trends -- Pop, Op and Top art -- Sunil Madhav Sen’s reply was characteristic of his youthful approach. “Tastes of people change fast and we shall never go back to yesterday’s styles. Newer art forms will inevitably develop to keep pace with man’s achievements in science.”
And so his unceasing experiment in expression and colour continues. His success lies mainly in the fact that he has combined the frantic exploration of line and colour with a joy and verve which is singularly Sunil Madhav Sen.
Published in the Roopa Lekha, Vol XXXVII No 1, Chief Editor MS Randhawa, Editor Krishna Chaitanya