In 2006, a few days before Bikash Bhattacharjee’s death at the age of 66, MF Husain had described him as “a painter of our time, whose browns are burnt like in Rembrandt”. The praise for the Bengal artist came in the foreword of a book on him by Manasij Majumder, which was titled Close to Events: Works of Bikash Bhattacharjee.
The realist artist would have been happy, after all he had often expressed his admiration for Rembrandt. Like the Dutch artist, he too fantasised realism, attempting to replicate the minutest details, also turning away from the then popular distortion of figures and abstraction that was being pursued by most artists of his time. “He was a master artist. Unfortunately we don’t see much of his works because most of them are in private collections and do not come out for sale,” says Vikram Bachhawat, director of Aakriti Art Gallery, who has mounted an exhibition of the artist at his Delhi gallery. Titled “Human Face & Urban Space”, the show features works of the artist from the time when he was a student at the Indian Art College, in the ’60s. Borrowed from the family, the work is a documentation of the making of the artist, from routine studies to hasty sketches.
“These are some of the works that he did not want to part with. They provide a sense of direction to his work and development of his style,” says his daughter Balaka. She notes that the figure studies titled “Body Language”, stand as a mark of modernity. The subjects range from female nudes to pastels of a young man with bandana-like head gear. A sari clad woman sits with her hands covering her eyes, perhaps in remorse. “These give an insight into his thinking, his quest to perfect the details of human anatomy,” adds Balaka.
Born in Kolkata, Bhattacharjee lost his father at the age of six. While financial insecurity marred the nascent years, the period also saw communal riots that followed the Partition of Bengal. The laid-back life and traditional setting left a lasting impact that reflected in his art rooted in cultural idealism and inspired by leftist ideals. He spent hours observing artisans giving shape to Durga idols at Kumartuli, nestled on the banks of the Hooghly. Even before he graduated, he had sketches of the shattering down of the Senate Hall of Calcutta University in 1959. The years right after saw him paint distorted forms and dabbling with collages.
Soon, he joined the Society of Contemporary Artists that comprised leading artists from Bengal and encouraged free thinking. While his first solo at Artistry House Gallery in Calcutta in 1965 had distorted landscapes and cityscapes, he turned to realism in the late ’60s with works such as the Death of Antique (1968) for the Delhi triennial show. His most celebrated series perhaps came in the ’70s in response to the Naxal movement. “The Doll” series, also in the ’70s, depicted his disappointment with the political set up — with the playthings thrown on the streets like corpses. His Durga in the ’90s epitomised the strength of women, beautiful and strong. “Things haven’t changed since then. We are still battling the same issues and have the same grouses,” notes Bachhawat.
The exhibition in Delhi gives a glimpse into the making of the realist artist through works that have not been seen before. So there are his pencil works from the ’60 to the ’80s. There is also a sketch of his associate B Shankar, and watercolours from the ’60s — wooden stairs leading up to a roof in an untitled work, shadows covering the tiled floor in Urban Space for Human-II and silhouettes on a crowded platform in Urban Space for Human-III. There is also an artist behind the easel. We see him at work, his torso and legs visible, but Bhattacharjee keeps his identity hidden.
The exhibition is on at Aakriti Art Gallery till April 30