Bikash Bhattacharya: the realist reframed
Looking through time, society and the immediate environ to be in the swirl of things, which defines ordinary life– the mundane realities, where the extraordinary remains camouflaged and rarely gets discovered through the ordinary gaze, this is what comes to mind while trying to place Bikash Bhattacharya – one of the pre-eminent painters of India from the latter half of the twentieth century– in the context of the artistic practices of today.
Throughout his life he remained steadfast in following the project of depicting the world of experience with the finesse akin to the European realists. His pictorial language arose from the marriage between academic realism and a keen awareness of the social conundrums related to the existential map of the urbanites. He was the only Padmashree-adorned artist from Kolkata, one who loved to draw the characters of his paintings from the middle class inhabitants of North Kolkata i.e., Old Kolkata.
Sanat Kar succinctly narrativized the psyche that has always been bound up with the locality he was a part of: ‘He [Bikash] remained a North Kolkata Bangalee in his body and soul till he left us.’
His 69th birthday occasioned a retrospective with 69 paintings that saw its display both in Kolkata– from 17 August to 9 September, at ECA (Emamichisel Art)– and Delhi– from 6 October to 5 November, at Vadehra Art Gallery. The paintings are a testimony to the changing post-independent society, occasionally bringing into view the inner workings of the city as well as the family lives that create a multilayered narrative in its midst by highlighting the humans in their most private moment.
The curatorial challenge notwithstanding, amassing of a total of 69 paintings borrowed from various institutions across India, artist’s family and important collectors like Prashant Tulsyan, Bikram Bachhawat, Arun Vadehra, Jugal Kishor Khetawat, was in itself an accomplishment. The show was a homage to the artist whose life summarily eneded in December 18, 2006.
An immediate success considering the number of visitors it attracted, the show was a test of posterity’s claim on an artist whose influence on the Kolkata art scene was seminal.
Artist Paritosh Sen once attempted to fathom the Bikashian bend of mind: ‘The touch of Bikash’s deft brush guided by his imagination and intellect often succeeds in transforming the reality of the visible world into another in which the element of unexpectedness creates as much mystery and surprise as they prompt psychological response and which, over the years, has become the hallmark of his prolific output.’
Though time was a frame that bounded most of his efforts, the element of surprise in many a painting centers on the theme of some timeless features of life and lived experiences. The unfurling of the psychological elements within the very center of the social existence of the lives that thrive on a regular pattern or those that are on the edge seemed to take place with a certain visual consequence in such paintings.
Bikash developed a knack for picking up the snippets of real life experiences to juxtapose them against a reconstructed realm of art – a space where concepts are laid out with tactile facility and lives are examined from within the limbo of meaning and an attentive gaze.
About his own art Bikash once expressed: ‘My subjects are straight from life, but the motifs are absolutely mine.’ His protagonists’ expressions, formations of their eyes, or mouth are the results of an exercise in an audacious removal of the empirically-registered layer of reality that at first spurs the viewer to take interest in his work. Through this very process, the European brand of realism was lent a personalised signature.
In many a painting women epitomise beauty, power and completeness; they are devi- (Durga) like– savouring the world through the third eye. He was working on this series while Naxalite extremism raged on, playing havoc with the local polity and disrupting socil lives. In his repertoire, some of the devis were playfully superimposed with well-known film stars. Zeenat Aman, 1970’s bombshell, was recast in the role of a 'stenographer' in one of the paintings from 1984, which bore the title Durga.
Bikash kept on attempting to chart an artistic route based on the symbiosis of popular entertainment and the high art representation, as the social fabric slowly wore away in the face of political turmoil back in the 1970s.
Portraiture was Bikash’s another big forte. He had a series of such works not only in oil but also in conte, pencil and ink. In this particular exhibition, portraits of two actors Shambhu Mitra and Rabi Ghosh, done respectively in 1994 and 1997, are two of the most remarkable conte renditions on paper.
In the 1980s, Bikash’s illustrations for a sequel to ‘Dekhi Nai Phire’, a novel by Samaresh Basu, which was being serialised in the weekly Desh were all the rage in the artists’ community. Based on the life of legendary artist Ramkinkar Baij, the project remained incomplete due to Basu’s sudden death, but the illustrations made Bikash a household name.
The Retro also showcased some rare works such as a poster, a woodcut print of a cityscape and some sketches, where the influence of the French artist Dega is prominent. Though the great house of Tagores ‘Jorasanko Thakurbari’, Shovabazar Rajbari and other glories of 19th century’s Kolkata was not far off from his Shyampukur residence. So, the changing cityscape of Kolkata was one of his richest content of exposition through his art and in every medium he has attempted to execute this.
The occasion saw the publication of an illustrated and extensively documented book of 112 pages. The catalogue contains pieces of recollections by the co-members of SCA group Sanat Kar, Pranab Ranjan Roy (who left the group and has earned renown as an art critic and art connoisseur) and another eminent art critic Manasij Majumder along with the images of 69 works, the invitation cards of various exhibitions span 35 years of Bikash’s career, certificates, press clippings and interviews in exact forms as preserved. The book also attracts one with some rare photographs of Bikash Bhattacharjee in different moods and associations.
It is because of his dive deep into the psychological undercurrents of the people of his time, which made Bikash Bhattacharjee one of the most relevant and powerful artists. In this show his works have been presented in four segments that connect to five decades.
When Indians reminisce about the 60’s and its signature firmament, two artists from Bengal always merit a mention– Ganesh Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharjee. Though Bikash has left his mortal coil, in his canvases the two highly expressive eyes, and its extraordinary gaze, leave behind the world interpreted for the onlookers to get excited by.