At the age of 16, he left his village in Bankura district of West Bengal for art education at Government School of Art, Calcutta, but when it was time for Jamini Roy to develop his own language with colour, he returned to the folk and craft of his homeland. Among the few artists who deviated from the academic western style to explore their Indian roots, Roy found inspiration in Kalighat paintings, traditional kanthas and alpanas.
The cursive contours and flat bright colours with bold brushstrokes formed an amalgam that defined his art. Modernism for Roy was symbolised in the lives of the common people, the marginalised Santhals, whose folksy features and bronzed bodies were characteristics of his gopinis and pujarins, mother and child as well as the deities.
“The sweeping lines encompassing large areas of quickly filled in flat colours come from the Kalighat pat painters. Yet the lines demonstrate the sophistication, the mastery of brush, and above all, the genius and magic of Jamini,” says Uma Jain, director of Dhoomimal Art Gallery. With the exhibition titled “Carved Contours” she is sharing 80 artworks by the Bengal master from the family collection built by her father-in-law Ram Babu Jain and husband Ravi. “I never met Jamini but after I got married into the family, Kolkata was one of the first places we visited as a couple and we went to his house where everyone treated me like their own bahu (daughter-in-law), with saris and numerous gifts given to a young bride visiting for the first time,” says Jain.
The formidable family collection was scanned by curator Uma Nair, who selected coloured works as well as pen and ink drawings for the exhibition, giving a glimpse into the vast oeuvre of the artist and his numerous engagements. “He reflects the genesis of neo folk idioms when there was none. He created a lingua franca of parallel aesthetics born out of his love for both folklore and the power of narrative,” says Nair. A testimony to this fascination, she notes, is an oil on canvas depicting the crucification of Christ. “The linear cadence born out of gravitas, the almond-shaped eyes of oriental charisma, the spiritual seduction of his women and their drapes were all made for love,” Nair adds.
Roy’s Ravana, meanwhile, occupies an entire sheet, with the ten heads positioned diagonally, rather than the usual horizontal depiction. “It’s unlike his other work, and explains why he is the first modernist. Look at the way he had handled Ravana; positioning his heads diagonally, with multiple heads put down. He understood the language of surrealism, giving so much joy to the destruction of evil,” she says.
The mother and child was a recurring theme and is also replete in the exhibition, which has among others an image of a Santhal woman embracing her child, a bronze-bodied Santhal mother feeding an infant and outlined figures reflecting maternal love. There are Mary and Jesus too. “The orange toned Mary with the baby has an oriental aura about it. Her bare feet and her matriarchal posture say so much about the treatment of his figures,” notes Nair.
The rarer suite, however, are the set of neat drawings, “probably 40 to 60 years old” that trace his artistic afflatus to the childhood spent in Beliatore village, where he was surrounded by the art of weavers, potters, tillers, bauls and Santhals.
“These drawings help us follow Roy’s trajectory and we see it has a lot to do with the Bengal terracotta work on Bankura’s temples, where tales from mythology and the epics would be carved in serial panels and blocks,” says Nair. Exemplified by sharp lines and definitive strokes within the small frames, the dexterity is evident, as it is in his rather restricted palette, limited to seven colours — Indian red, yellow ochre, cadmium green, vermillion, grey and blue — prepared from indigenous materials such as hingul, harital, kak khokri, lamp black chalk and limestone.
The exhibition at Dhoomimal Art Gallery, G-42, Connaught Place, is on till March 10. Contact: 23324492