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Sumana Roy
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Jamini Roy resides, in imitation, all around us

An untitled painting by Jamini Roy

few days ago, Paroma Roy Chowdhury, Country Head, Corporate Communication and Public Affairs at Google India, put up this Facebook status: "Looking for great India doodle ideas ..." Amidst the avalanche of national icons and secular festivals, the writer and editor Sandip Roy's suggestion was the quietest: "Jamini Roy". Roy even offered an annotation: "April 11th would be Roy's 126th birth anniversary".

Growing up in Bengal, it was impossible not to have encountered Jamini Roy. The two are ubiquitous, Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy, but the difference between their versions of omnipresence has largely to do with their choice of aesthetic: against Tagore's famous autograph, now a cottage industry in itself, is Jamini Roy's thumbprint, folk, the famous anonymous. Roy's paintings are full of what Amit Chaudhuri has described as "ideal figures with over-large eyes that did not see, the repetitive figures in repose". They are everywhere, seeping into our consciousness from calendars, masala jars, Durga puja idols, fancy wrapping paper, textile art (the anchal of a sari, the chest of a kurta), school bags, match boxes.

It was a species of the last kind that my father's closest friend, Kamalesh-jethu, a zoologist, carried with him on a research trip to China in the mid-1980s. A Chinese zoologist had apparently taken great offence when Kamalesh-jethu had offered a Jamini Roy painting matchbox label to him in return for one of his: the 'over-large eyes' jutting out from the painting seemed like an accusation to the 'small-eyed Chinese people', Kamalesh-jethu told us in his humorous politically incorrect discourse.

It is perhaps to that kind of analogy, the relation between tradition and individual talent, to use that canonical phrase, the poet Nissim Ezekiel refers in his poem Jamini Roy when he says —

Among the adult fantasies
Of sex and power-ridden lives,
Refusing their hostilities.
His all-assenting art survives.
He started with a different style,
He travelled, so he found his roots.
His rage became a quiet smile
Prolific in its proper fruits.

t is interesting that Ezekiel and the Bengali poet Buddhadeva Bose, who has a poem with a title similar to Ezekiel's, Jamini Roy Ke, To Jamini Roy, mention the painter's "innocence" as a contrast to the world's "adult fantasies" and "sex and power-ridden lives". Buddhadeva Bose uses the word aamra, the collective we, to posit his world against Jamini Roy's (Bose is not alone among the Kallol poets, the post-Tagoreans, who wrote about Jamini Roy; Bishnu Dey, the poet and essayist, wrote a book titled Art of Jamini Roy).

This is Bose's argument: Intoxicated by self-pity, we have brought our talent to the marketplace; for our sins Jamini Roy suffered. The tone of self-laceration and self-criticism fills the poem, as does the catalogue of collective gratitude to Jamini Roy.

The walls of sins will begin crumbling,
The hour of the artist will return ....
You've made our lust for dreams lazy,
For your piety we are grateful, Jamini Roy.

(Translation mine)

What exactly is the "innocence" or the "piety" that Ezekiel and Bose see in Jamini Roy? Jamini Roy, born on 11 April, 1887, in a village in southern Bengal, studied at the Government School of Art in Calcutta, where he learned to paint classical nudes in the academic tradition that derived largely from Europe. He soon abandoned the impressionism of his early work for folk art, turning to the Kalighat pat for inspiration. A reaction to both the Bengal School and the continental tradition, his paintings were aimed to give Indian art its necessary identity, one where art was of the people and for the people. His was, in a sense, a people's art, the language of a collective, and perhaps that is why two Indian writer-editors chose Jamini Roy's paintings for the cover of their many-voiced anthologies: Amit Chaudhuri's The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature and Nilanjana S Roy's A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food.

Ratnabali Chatterjee, writing about the painter Jamini Roy in 'The Original Jamini Roy': A Study in the Consumerism of Art, says: "Caught between a colonial hangover and a feeling of nationalism bordering on chauvinism, the middleclass intelligentsia were oscillating between the two extremes. The new style created by Jamini Roy [...] was reminiscent of folk forms, the survival of a past tradition which was unmistakably Indian or rather Bengali, thus providing a cultural root [...] [it] offered a rescue route from the stylistic conventions of the Bengal school, which acted as a constraint on the depiction of contemporary events — the war and the famine."

It was of this "folk form" that I was reminded when I read a news report comparing, almost audaciously, two art exhibitions in Kolkata: the first, of Jamini Roy, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore at the Chitrakoot Art Gallery; the other, of Mamata Banerjee's paintings, curated by Shivaji Panja under the title, The Dreamer's Creation. Banerjee's paintings often reference Roy's "over-large eyes", but there is none of that "innocence" or "piety" that Ezekiel and Bose noted about Roy. It is pastiche, what Frederic Jameson called "dead language", "devoid of laughter". This is Ezekiel:

An urban artist found the law
To make its spirit sing and dance.

Does that explain why, in spite of the many festivals (utsav) that Banerjee declares from time to time, there is no "law to make its spirit sing and dance"?

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