Beyond Modernism– En Route to Postmodernism in Kolkata
DR PAULA SENGUPTA surveys the gamut of Kolkata's past and present art practices
highlighting the shifts in the ever-expanding horizon
The years immediately preceding independence and the impending partition of Bengal, were years of great turmoil, not just for the world at large, but for the city of Calcutta in particular. As the world reeled under the impact of the Second World War, the Quit India Movement gained ground in India. Millions across the length and breadth of undivided Bengal perished in the infamous famine of 1943, prompting artists and intellectuals across religions to raise the voice of protest.
In 1947, Bengal was partitioned – a border was drawn rending apart villages, families, lives, and histories shared since time immemorial. Devastated by famine and some of the worst Hindu-Muslim rioting in human history, Bengal was deeply disillusioned. In this time of disillusionment, Calcutta, once the august capital of the British Raj, came to represent the promised dream. The displaced millions thronged here in pursuit of the modern and the marvellous. The city teemed with refugees, unsituated and bereft of roots.
The fabric of Modernist art in Kolkata is woven primarily of two factors – its undeniably Colonial inheritance and the 'unsituatedness' of its artists. In this respect, despite many overlappings, it differs from its Santiniketan sibling, where the quest for a nationalist identity was predominant. The heaving metropolis, with its heavy Colonial burden, was a far cry from the idyllic environs of Santiniketan – in the city, artistic ideologies and aesthetic oeuvres were shaped by the turbulent post-colonial years that witnessed, according to some, the destruction of a nation's promised dream. The need for solidarity was strong and artists groups were formed in an attempt to make the collective voice heard. Significant among these is the Calcutta Group founded as early as 1943, by amongst others, Paritosh Sen.
Bengal in the sixties was politically turbulent, rife with strife, inundated with refugees and riot victims, revolutionary rage, and plagued by social injustice. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Kolkata was firmly in the grip of incessant political upheaval. Innocent people suffered at the hands of revolutionaries and rioters while the establishment looked on in apparent unconcern. Artists of the time saw themselves as champions of the proletariat, looking upon their art as the voice of the oppressed – as had the German Expressionist group in Europe. Reared in the teeming city of Calcutta on a diet of emerging socialist politics, young artists such as Sajal Roy, Bijan Choudhury, Isha Mahammad and numerous others, in their formative years in the late 1950's, became closely associated with the revolutionary political movements rocking the city and its environs at the time. Reacting with violence and anger, there emerged from the mid-1960's onwards, several images of a choked city heaving under the burden of its own discontent.
Between 1970s and 80s Kolkata witnessed a burgeoning of new talents, who has gone down in the annals of Indian art history as significant among those who steered the course of Indian Modernism. As a practising contemporary artist myself, I attempt to draw attention to Modernist practitioners in Kolkata who have impacted the still ongoing transition from Modernism to Post-modernism in the city, focusing on those who confronted established precepts in Modernism, reconciling between ideas, concepts, contents, genres and languages.
Paritosh Sen's “language of expression was formed through his training in the realist-illusionist tradition of picture-making, handed down by the Colonial academic institutions, an exposure to Western Modernist traits through his visits to the West in his formative years, a conscious study of ethnographic artefacts like tribal sculptures in particular, and an exploration of the Oriental visual register for which the artist had a partial empathy.” Even whilst appropriating elements from the structural art of the Modernist West, Paritosh Sen (1918-2008) appropriates equally the linear orientation and single-figure format of the Kalighat Pat. What emerge are bloated picture spaces replete with mockery, violence, and unrest – motifs/codes with marked social, political, and even moralistic connotations. Though the gestures of defiance, visible since the 1940s in Sen's work, never lose their relevance, from the 1970s parallel explorations to locate himself accurately in time and space are constantly visible.
Though born and bred in an urban milieu, Meera Mukherjee's (1923-1998) life and work were an exploration in “conceptualizing the nation by considering the rural” and realizing the creative exercise as an extension of this consideration. During the 1960s and 70s, Mukherjee travelled extensively through the country researching for a publication on “The Indigenous Metal Craftsmanship of the Subcontinent” under the Anthropological Survey of India. She appropriated, as a result, not only indigenous methods of metal casting, but also a realization of an ancient culture and tradition in practice. Though Mukherjee never sought to valourize the rural, as did many post-independence practitioners, her intense belief in the enduring cultures of the land formed the basis of a lifetimes work that certainly carried reflections of a post-independence nationalist ideology.
Jogen Chowdhury (born 1939) has been instrumental in ushering in a shift in art practice in both Kolkata and Santiniketan, partly through his praxis, partly through his seminal role as an academic, and largely through his enthusiasm for new explorations. Rejecting the classical easel painting traditions that he was tutored in, Jogen drew instead on the linear Kalighat Pat tradition to develop a visual language that is at once eloquent yet carefully nuanced. Both fascinated and victimized by history, Jogen's work carries within it the unsituatedness and sense of dislocation characteristic of artists of his time. Though, time and again, Jogen responds to his milieu, revisiting it as a site for negotiation, yet he seems to be deeply unwilling to narrativize it and thereby trivialize it. The experience of Jogen's work is instead sensory, suggestive, the motifs exceeding specificity, to be re-read again and again in continuum.
While Paritosh Sen, Meera Mukherjee, and Jogen Chowdhury's attitudes to visual language, material, and the attempt to contextualize are critical to the development of contemporary art in the city today, I will now touch upon three painters who shaped High Modernism in Kolkata through the 1970s, 80s, and even 90s.
Bikash Bhattacharjee (1940-2006) remained throughout his career the true torchbearer of the European academic art tradition and training that comprises our collective Colonial burden. And yet, Bikash's every work was generated by the city of Calcutta – it was as if its urban angst ran through his veins. Recognized as one of India's leading Modernist painters in the Western Realist and Surrealist tradition, Bikash fostered a generation of artists in Kolkata who followed (and still follow) in his footsteps. However, unlike his many clones, Bikash possessed a unique ability to apply a time-honoured language to credible contexts, drawing profusely on the narrative art traditions of Western Classicism, Realism, and Surrealism, as also capitalising on the Indian penchant for the narrative.
Ganesh Pyne (born 1937), though trained in the same academic traditions as Bikash Bhattacharjee, evolved a pictorial oeuvre that derives more from the stylistic traditions of the Bengal School and its affinity for literary derivatives. Through skilfully structured temperas, Pyne builds a multi-layered realm of fiction and fantasy, a dreamscape caught somewhere between Bengali folklore and mythology, and the claustrophobic North Calcutta alleys with their musty smells and amber lights. His followers are also numerous.
The Government College of Art & Craft, Kolkata is famed for its watercolourists. Shyamal Dutta Ray (1934-2005) is a part of this historic legacy that, in time, has also proved to be a burden. However, Dutta Ray appropriated a medium traditionally used for academic study to advantage, developing a symbolic pictorial repertoire that subtly critiques the remnants of a fragmented, crumbling Colonial past, thus addressing the urban predicament in the post-colonial era.
Post-modernist concerns knocked on the doors of this conservative Modernist bastion fairly late. Marxist Kolkata, traditionally alienated from politics at the Centre, did not feel the impact of a globalising economy and an altering cityscape until well into the nineteen-nineties. Kolkata's artists too remained largely aloof from both the issues that Post-modernism sought to address as well as the new languages that were being used to address them.
A few Modernist practitioners, particularly those who were academics, directly/indirectly impacted the beginnings of Post-modernist practice in Kolkata. The institution of the Faculty of Visual Arts at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, in the 1970s was also instrumental in initiating a democratic, liberal, and experimental approach to art theory and practice, and slowly breeding familiarity with the expansions occurring in art practice elsewhere.
Though operating well within the Modernist framework, deviations are significantly visible in the work of Dharmanarayan Dasgupta (1939-1997), a member of the Faculty through the 80s and 90s. The 'distinctive ambience of a regional modernism' locates Dharmanarayan clearly in the time and place to which he belonged, even whilst deriving from Fantastic Art and Surrealism in the West.
However, of all those so far mentioned, it is Prof. Partha Pratim Deb who has directly impacted the onset of Post-modernist practice in Kolkata – certainly in terms of language, even if not concerns. Born in 1943, Deb spent the better part of his career teaching at the Rabindra Bharati University, retiring some few years ago as Dean of the Faculty of Visual Arts. As an academic, he has played a seminal role in bringing about a marked shift in art practice and art viewing in the city.
Deb will disarmingly tell you that he does not subscribe to any 'ism' or style. His prolific, hybrid, and wide-ranging output is the outcome of creative playfulness that is arrived at spontaneously. There is neither agenda nor any attempt to contextualize – whatever he produces as 'art' is merely part of an ongoing process of introspection and submission to material, object, and instinct. Essentially trained as painter, Deb, even from his very early years, was never enamoured with conserving the sterilized sanctity of a medium. Since this carried no significance for him, he did not hesitate to attempt to build the three-dimensional within the two-dimensional format, an experiment that eventually led him to introduce found images, texts, and eventually objects to a rapidly expanding visual vocabulary.
Deb's introspective nature, his forays into the fantastic, the creatures that inhabit his inner psyche, and eventually worm their way into his more visible practice as a maker of objects, can all be seen in the drawings that constitute a concurrent part of his prolific practice. Even as the artists' imagination runs amuck in these black and white drawings, he continues to retain a masterly level of control that belies the spontaneity of thought visible herein.
Deb created a liberal atmosphere for experimentation and synthesis in the years that he spent at the Faculty, from which a whole generation of Kolkata's contemporary art practitioners have benefited. Though his experiments were neither learned nor conscious, they were well ahead of his time, dating as far back as the 1960s when Indian Modernism was still struggling to find its feet. Isolated in the era of High Modernism that dominated art practice in Kolkata through the 70s and 80s, it is only in the era of Post-modernism that Deb has come to be recognised.
It is the altering environment in the state and the city in particular that has prompted some contemporary practitioners to seek new directions and extend visual vocabulary. What perhaps distinguishes contemporary art practice in Kolkata from that elsewhere, is that by virtue of its distinctive lineage, modes of production continue to remain strongly rooted in studio practice.
Rarely seen in Kolkata, but nevertheless with a practice, schooling, and upbringing deeply rooted in the city, is Chittrovanu Mazumdar. Emerging in the mid-80s as an abstract painter, Chittrovanu brought a hitherto unseen vigour, speed, and excess to the genre, splashing mammoth picture spaces with violent, dripping colour fields simulating graffiti and billboards on the city's streets. It was not long before the energy of these canvases exploded their boundaries, the image in the artists' mind exceeding the two-dimensional. This led to an investigation of material, a quest to seek the means 'to realize [the] ideal in concrete terms.' Through a vast and varied range of experiments that now extended to include not just objects, but space, sound and light, Chittrovanu emerged in the 90s as Kolkata's first installation artist, intensely classical, highly dramatic, and yet well beyond Modernism. He is concerned primarily with the domain of cultural hybridity, of which he himself is a product. When asked to describe his recent work, Chittrovanu stresses 'impermanence, a continuous shifting, and in the process, change. It has always been important, or rather essential, to me.' Just as change forms the crux of Chittrovanu's evolving artistic philosophy, the process of transformation takes precedence in an exercise that the artist essentially regards as private. The shift in focus from product to process, where there is neither beginning nor end, is seen for the first time in art enterprise in Kolkata.
Also emerging in the 90s as a painter strongly rooted in the narrative art traditions of both Santiniketan and Baroda, as also European abstract painting, Jayashree Chakravarty's entire body of work constitutes an excavation of memory. Hers is a cartographer's progress, mapping the public through the personal/private space. Once again, in a shift from earlier precedents, process becomes a pivotal element in the artists' journey, the pictorial surface a site of excavation. While in the paintings on canvas the layering of memories is clearly visible, in the works on paper, the physical act of layering renders a surface that is at once dynamic and eloquent, akin to seasoned leather or wrinkled skin that has borne the ravages of time. As the artist revisits, relives, and relocates her memories in time, the works take on mammoth proportions engulfing entire rooms, pressing against their ceilings, heaving at the midriffs, and curling into themselves forming mysterious hideaways that the viewer is invited to negotiate. While Jayashree's paper installations remain an extension of her painterly practice, the extension in itself claimed new ground and posed fresh challenges in a city long seen as the bastion of classical painterly practice in India.
Abhijit Gupta renounced a career in design in the late 90s to resume art practice. His vocabulary is defined by his extensive experience in design, his close associations with craftspersons and vernacular cultures, and his appropriation of both photography and the moving image. After a long hiatus, he reappeared in 2000 with a series of photomontage-constructions that read like oblique memoirs of the personal. Though he briefly tended towards abstraction, his sharp wit and caustic humour soon led to a significant work in 2002 – Yeh haath mujhe de de Thakur which represents a milestone in appropriating the popular in the realm of 'high' art in Kolkata. From here onwards, his work grows increasingly political and contemporary in its concerns.
Also appropriating the popular, the religious, and the ritualistic to address the politics of the times we live in is Sumitro Basak. Though Sumitro's visibility is primarily as a painter, he is also a maker of books and puppets. He creates an ambiguous world peopled either by true 'false' realities or false 'true' realities. His forms, originally collaged out of materials, which are in their actual use meant for celebratory purposes, are amorphous and shifty, creating spaces of tension between the visible and invisible. From his early work that borrowed heavily upon the popular cult of picture-making in Bengal to his present work that carries distinct resonances of Matisse's collages as also children's art, Sumitro appropriates with great felicity to develop a language that is unique and conditioned by his specific location.
Amritah Sen is a teller of fables and myths, a true inheritor of the narrative trends in Bengali Modernism – but equally of the language of Hokusai, the structural simplicity of Brancusi, Calder, and Kandinsky, and the lucidity of children's book illustration. True to the nature of fables, Amritah's protagonists are plants, animals, and human beings that people the natural and the supernatural, the real and the ethereal. Though Amritah seamlessly bounds within spaces, her protagonists remain locked within the urban predicament, trying to negotiate the insatiable metropolis. Witty and humorous even whilst addressing the grave, Amritah's supremely subtle surfaces belie the physicality of her process and the range that it employs.
From amongst the past and present faculty at Rabindra Bharati University, perhaps due to their proximity to Partha Pratim Deb, have emerged three contemporary practitioners in Kolkata - Shreyasi Chatterjee, Chhatrapati Dutta, and myself.
Shreyasi Chatterjee's textile collages and objects are rooted in the domestic space. Her choice of material, technique, and vocabulary is metaphoric of the feminine condition which she both celebrates and rues. The act of stitching here becomes a meditative act where the artist-woman spends long hours considering her position vis-à-vis the world within and the world without, relating both to the home and the city. The metaphoric use of woven textiles traditionally made and worn by Bengali women, of the kantha stitch used by Bengali women to make cotton quilts that are traditionally narrative fields in themselves, and the appropriation of the alpana or ritualistic floor painting of Bengal lay definitive claim to domains traditionally demarcated as belonging to women. By appropriating them in the process of art-making, Shreyasi breaks new ground in contemporary art practice in Kolkata.
Chhatrapati Dutta, quintessentially a painter of consummate skill, made his first forays into the alternative domain and new media whilst a member of the faculty at Rabindra Bharati University. Whilst both his repertoire and his concerns veer widely, in recent times Chhatrapati confronts the varying equations of power between cultures and classes against a backdrop of colonial inheritance in post-colonial times. He also weighs the culture of consumerism in a rapidly globalising economy, often vis-à-vis the city of Kolkata that is a strong presence in his work. In the classical tradition of schooling at the Govt. College of Art & Craft, Chhatrapati's oeuvre is dazzling and dramatic to an extreme, but it unites in its fray a vast gamut of possibilities from a wide variety of sources not frequently seen in Kolkata.
My experiences of teaching at the National Institute of Fashion Technology and later at Rabindra Bharati University, led me to challenge my pre-existing practice as an artist-printmaker. The narratives that I wove had graduated from broadsheets to artists books, incorporating text that forms an integral part of my creative exercise. The transition from here to performance was natural, integrating along the way my affinity for object-making. This led eventually to the search for new languages, the desire to confront and intervene into real space, eventually considering it as the site of investigation. In the last 6 years, my work has graduated from the realm of the autobiographical narrative to addressing issues in the public domain, but my interest in them remains rooted in the personal and it is from this space that I respond to them. Both material and making are key elements in my vocabulary and contribute significantly to the reading of my work.
Several of Partha Pratim Deb's students are Post-modernist practitioners in Kolkata. I will mention three amongst them – Debnath Basu, Debanjan Roy, and Adip Dutta.
Debnath Basu's drawings are grey, dark, and dense and deliberately difficult to decipher. They are made with graphite dust procured from local iron foundries rubbed on the surface of found or fresh paper, and demand careful viewing so as to be decoded. Perhaps it is the artists' ploy to thus draw attention to images of dominance, repression and victimization that form the basis of his work. Though some find resonances of the Bengal School in the hazy layerings in his work, I would venture to say that he is rather an inheritor of Deb's consummate graphic skills and sometimes dark humour. In the final count, however, Debnath's mind works like the printmaker that he was trained to be, meticulously resolving concepts and images in the myriad shades of grey.
Debanjan Roy is a sculptor. From his mentor, Partha Pratim Deb, he has inherited the penchant for the 'found', though in his case these are more ideas and icons rather than objects. He emerged early in this decade with recurrent images of the self irreverently juxtaposed onto revered/recognizable iconic images. His recent concerns lie in the commodification of cultures and icons in history. He gleans from the local to address the politics of power, a subtle subtext that runs through images of mockery and wry humour.
Adip Dutta is a sculptor and both alumnus as well as faculty of Rabindra Bharati University. He is a maker of objects that congregate into complex sculptural arrangements as do the diverse objects in his drawings that unite into complex trajectories. Adip's earlier work derives from the temperament of post-war sculpture as seen in the era of post-modernism. Through the construction of the self and the exploration of memory, the artist projects the sense of loss most essential in post-war sculpture. His recent work, however, derives from the personal domain, venturing to confront the notion of the “other” through gender and sexuality. Adip's selection of material, the sculptural process, and his own physical involvement in it are cathartic elements in a theatre that unfolds as much in the studio as in the gallery.
Providing further impetus since 2005, and opening up the international arena to contemporary art practice in Kolkata is the Khoj International Artists' Association, Kolkata. Spearheaded by contemporary practitioners in the city, Khoj Kolkata has played a seminal role in bringing the “alternative” to the city and in motivating galleries to look beyond Modernism.
Dr Paula Sengupta is an artist, academician, curator, researcher and writer resident in Kolkata. She is currently Senior Lecturer in the Depertment of Graphics (Printmaking), Faculty of Visual Arts, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata and has also taught as Guest Faculty at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Kolkata in the past. She is Secretary of the Khoj International Artist's Association, Kolkata.