Monday, 18 November 2013

Jamini Roy: A Versatile Experimental Artist

Jamini Roy (1887 – 1972) was one of the earliest and most significant modernists of 20th century Indian art who played a prominent role in breaking away from the art practices of his time. His career spanning over nearly six decades had many significant turning points showcasing the versatility in his visual language.

Trained in the British academic style of painting in the early decades of the 20thcentury, Jamini Roy became well-known as a skilful portraitist. He received regular commissions after he graduated from the Government Art School in what is now Kolkata, in 1916. However, the first three decades of the 20th century saw a sea-change in cultural expressions in Bengal. The growing surge of the nationalist movement prompted all kinds of experiments in literature and the arts. In visual arts also the experiments were clearly manifest with the founding of the Bengal School by Abanindranath Tagore rejecting European naturalism and the use of oil as a medium.

Jamini Roy also rejected the style he had mastered during his academic training and from the early 1920s searched for forms that stirred the innermost recesses of his being. He sought inspiration from sources as diverse as East Asian calligraphy, terracotta temple friezes, objects from folk arts and crafts traditions and the like. From 1920 onwards Roy brought a joy and élan to the representation of village scenes and people, reflecting the innocence and romanticism of his childhood upbringing in a rural environment. It was perhaps an instinctive step forward for him, given that he was born in Beliatore village in Bankuradistrict of what is now West Bengal. There was no denying that he sought to express his kinship with his roots from this period onwards.

Sometime around 1919-1920, Jamini Roy turned away from the commissioned portraits. He would paint a little and then something deep down made him obliterate what he had painted earlier. This went on for a good few days till he suddenly expressed radically different visual ideas germinating in his mind. For the next few years, he did a suite of paintings featuring Santhal women. These sensuously painted women were engaged in their daily chores in their village settings. Using firm angular lines, he painted romanticised images of figures that hinted at increasing stylisation.

These paintings were stepping stones to even more dramatic changes in his visual language. From the mid-1920s, his images were executed with sweeping, calligraphic lines showing the artist’s strong control over the brush. Colour was leached out of the paintings resulting in series of monochromatic pictures that hinted at inspiration from both East Asian painting styles and Kalighat pats. The images were drawn from everyday life—mother and child figures, women, bauls and so on.

By the end of 1920s, Jamini Roy turned for inspiration towards the folk arts and craft traditions of his own district. He painted ordinary rural people, scenes from Krishna-leela, scenes from the epics, icons from the folk cults of the region, witty representations of animals. Perhaps, one of the boldest experiments in figuration and narrativisation was the series from the life of Jesus Christ. The episodes from Christian mythology were visualised in a way that could communicate itself easily to the ordinary Bengali villager.

Jamini Roy’s engagement with modernity lay in his search for the essence of form. He found what he wanted in the folk art idioms. Something of this search can be seen in the carved wooden sculptures that he made in the early 1940s. And yet Jamini Roy’s methods were not that of the folk artist. There was no spontaneous naivéte in his visualisation. He made meticulous and detailed drawings of his images. He was rooted in the village culture that shaped his early years and he shared with the villagers an uncomplicated world-view and a belief in the certainties of tradition. Another feature to be noted in Jamini Roy’s modernism was the use of bold, vibrant, dazzling colours that negated the naturalistic colour palette.

It is interesting that till the 1930s, along with his folk-style paintings, Jamini Roy also continued to paint portraits with impressionist and even pointillist brushstrokes. The medium in the later years was however tempera. Amazingly, he also made wonderful copies of European masters. Obviously, these were tools for honing his visual language.

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