The eminent Bengali artist brought a sense of Modernism to his works while keeping the folk idiom at their core
In 2013, the National Gallery of Modern Art, or the NGMA, in New Delhi, organised an exhibition titled Jamini Roy (1887-1972): Journey to the Roots. Curated by art historian Ella Datta, it celebrated the 125th birth anniversary of the eminent Bengali artist, who was considered one of the earliest Indian Modernists. By the time the show was held, one had already gotten familiar with Roy’s oeuvre— characterised by influences of the Kalighat pats, renditions of women from the Santhal community at work, figures with almond-eyes and the brilliant use of colour.
However, one of the early works on display at the exhibition, Portrait of a Lady, marked such a stark departure from his usual practice. It was done in the characteristic European portraiture style, a hat tip to his British academic training at the Government of Arts and Crafts in Kolkata. The very poised and Western feel of the painting was in stark departure to his later works like say, The Cat and Lobster —a quirky, humour-laced painting, inspired by the Kalighat patuas.
When juxtaposed together, the two works highlight the marked evolution of Roy’s practice, signifying the long artistic journey that he embarked upon in his career— shifting from Western portraits, nudes and still life to his paintings of the Santhal girls, calligraphic brush drawings, and the seminal ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Mother and Child’ series. Once he moved on from the European style, it seemed like the art and craft of Bengal, with its rich heritage of toy making, weaving and scroll painting, had spilled onto Roy’s works.
And yet the modern master wasn’t mimicking those motifs and iconography in his paintings. Rather, he was interpreting them with a great deal of thought and care, in a way that had immense universal appeal, and continues to feel modern even today. For instance, in The Cat and the Lobster, he has not attempted to create a life-like creature. Rather, the cat is imbued with a personality of its own —vibrant, enthusiastic and spirited.
Roy’s upbringing had a huge influence on his visual vocabulary. He was born on 11 April 1887, in the Beliatore village of Bankura district of West Bengal. He grew up surrounded by potters, weavers, toy makers and patuas. It is no wonder then that he chose art as a career. “Eighty or more years ago, a Bengali bhadralok father would have looked askance if his son wanted to paint, but Jamini Roy’s father was of surprisingly liberal values. He arranged for his son to learn painting at the Government school of arts and crafts,” writes R.P. Gupta in the article, Did Jamini Roy Become a Prisoner of His Own Idiom, first published in the Times of India in 1987 and now available for reading on the Critical Collective.
After graduating, he took up commissions by the rich officials and landed gentry in Kolkata to do European-style portraits. However, as nationalist fervour gripped India, Roy started to look inwards, towards the art and craft that he grew up with. He also wanted to democratise art by making it accessible to a wider section of people. So, not only did he keep his works affordable, but he also brought the common man of Bengal — the peasant, the craftsperson, the bauls, the homemakers, the Santhal women —into his paintings.
“From the mid-1920s, his images were executed in sweeping, calligraphic lines showing the artist’s controlled brushwork. Colour gradually disappeared from his paintings resulting in a series of monochromatic pictures that hinted at inspiration from East Asian painting styles, like Kalighat pats. The imagery was drawn from everyday life,” mentions a story about Roy on Google Arts and Culture. One must take a moment here to understand Roy’s mastery of the line—critics in the past have described them as “architectonic, self-conscious, deliberately realised”. Although he was inspired by the patuas, his lines were not done on the spur of the moment or spontaneous. Rather, they were controlled and well thought-out like painted bands.
In this phase of his career, Roy moved towards natural pigments and paints, just like the patuas of Bankura. It is believed that the greys he used came from the clay of the Ganga. One began to see a lot of muted blues, rustic browns, reds and greens that he derived from metals, minerals, vegetable dyes, and more. He also made a conscious choice to depict scenes from the epics and Indian myths and legends. One of the landmark works in this context is the Three Pujarins, a tempera on paper. The use of indigo blue in the drapes of the women, critics believe, is a reference to the despair of the indigo farmers in Bengal. His depictions of narratives from the Ramayana and Mahabharata endeared his works to the people of Bengal, who could relate to these scenes. The significant Krishna Leela series was also created at this time.
It was in the latter phase of his career that he created some of his most powerful works: the ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Mother and Child’ series. As Gupta writes that in those paintings, which in many ways, fall among his finest work, the man who repudiated the West again looked to the West for a theme he could identify himself with fierce intensity. It is a matter of debate about what led him to paint the mother figure in his work — whether it was due to the prevalent worship of the mother goddess in Bengal or Roy’s style of bringing Indian and Western influences together? Whatever it be, his works were unique in their treatment and theme. “The peculiar excellence of Jamini Roy’s art is also common to eastern philosophy and civilization. It finds expression in the soothing calm and tranquillity of his pictures. However warm the colour, however complex the line, they radiate almost a physical coolness, a calm, comforting peace, undisturbed by the storms and stress of modern life, the fruit of contemplation and distilled emotion,” writes Amrita in Jamini Roy, published in the Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1964, and now available on the Critical Collective. “Secondly, every picture reflects bright, even light, unencumbered by chiaroscuro or realistic modelling, wholly concerned with the realisation of pure form.” It is no wonder then that he was honoured with one of the highest Indian awards, the Padma Bhushan, and declared one of the nine national treasures.