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Artist Profile1
A peep into artist B. Prabha’s oeuvre and her inspirations
B. Prabha is best known for her inimitable and instantly recognizable style of fascinating figures mostly of ubiquitous rural womenfolk. Rather pensive looking, their graceful elongated features invariably holds your attention. One of the most critically acclaimed and prolific artists of her generation, she worked mainly in oil, her each canvas usually executed in a single dominant color.

Her early works were modern, freely rendered paintings. Gradually, she started experimenting and soon developed what was to be recognized as her signature style. Her subject matter encompassed a wide array of concerns that she harbored, while observing the life and people around. The prevailing social realities, the hardships and oppression that women faced and their unexpressed sentiments as they faced life with a sort of numbness influenced her practice.

She made a strong statement on the same through her art akin to odes to their spirit and the endless plight. In the graceful forms of her female figures, the artist intensely examined their inner world, sufferings and courage. Her work was not merely a portrayal of the female forms; it brought their suppressed sentiments to the fore. It was not just coincidental that her inspiration as an artist was Amrita Shergil.

Recounting her formative years, she had stated: “I dreamt of being a singer and I was equally good at painting. My elder brother advised that I couldn’t master two vocations at a time. So I had to make a choice between singing and painting after completing my matriculation. That was very difficult, indeed! And after a lot of introspection, I opted for painting. At that time, there were not too many women painters (in India). I respected Amrita Sher Gil a lot. My ambition was to become a renowned painter (just like her) and to take my paintings to all corners of the world.”

About her motivation and concerns as an artist, she explained: “The core theme of my paintings was always women and their sufferings. I have seen them and observed them closely. I did not just thought of the urban woman but also those in rural areas, who were as creative. They exude so many emotions to portray.” Indeed, a significant aspect of the artist’s body of work was her effort to portray the plight of women from different strata of society, who silently suffered without raising a murmur. She tried to give voice to them. Her representation of the fisherwomen of Mumbai was indeed unique.

B. Prabha portrayed these simple, rustic women and their immense willpower to struggle and survive against all odds. Their appearance with distinctive hairstyles and bright sarees accentuating their distinct persona depicted in her inimitable style formed the core of her practice. As she matured as an artist, she developed an elegant, formal style, which was very much characteristic of her artistic excellence that she reached through her immense perseverance and intense observation. Her career graph, encompassing her journey from a humble village to hustle-bustle of a city was quite interesting. She dreamt to become an artist at a time when there were not that many successful women artists around in India.

Born in the village of Bela, near Nagpur in Maharashtra in 1933, she first studied at the Nagpur School of Art before arriving in Mumbai for further honing her skills as an artist, albeit with hardly any support – monetary or otherwise. It was a meager existence with no source of sustenance except for some pieces of family jewelry that she sold to survive through this tough phase. She completed a Government Diploma in Painting & Mural Painting from Sir J.J School of Art, Mumbai (1954-55) where she received a scholarship to specialize in mural painting. Her first show, while she was still in the art school, proved a memorable one for her. Homi J. Bhabha, an eminent Indian scientist, acquired three of her paintings. The gesture was a big confidence booster and she never looked back after that.

B. Prabha’s works have been shown in a series of solos and group exhibitions at prestigious venues in India and abroad, including ‘Shradhanjali’, a show dedicated to her husband, sculptor B. Vithal whom she married in 1956. During their long period of struggle, the two were often supported by other fellow artists who offered them a place to stay and even to store their works. Her marriage, in a way, was turning point in her life as the fellow artist changed her perspective both as an individual and also as an artist.

‘B. Prabha - From the Album’, a selection of works by the late artist, was on display at The Viewing Room, Mumbai, earlier this year. Charting out her career, an accompanying note mentioned: "On her canvases, she immortalized the fisherwomen of Mumbai.B. Prabha’s graceful elongated figures of pensive rural women, with each canvas in a single dominant color still continue to mesmerize art lovers. Other selected posthumous exhibits in acknowledgement of her greatness as an artist are 'Celebrations 2011', Kumar Gallery, New Delhi (2011); ‘Winter Moderns’, Aicon Gallery, New York (2008); ‘Pot Pourri’, Gallery Beyond, Mumbai (2008). She won many noteworthy honors and awards, such as the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) Award, New Delhi and First Prize at the Bombay State Art Exhibition (1958), among others. Her work is with several major collections.

Her paintings covered a wide gamut of subjects and themes, from languid landscapes to pressing social issues like hunger and homelessness. In time, her yearning for simplicity, even as she dealt with the complexities of life, drew her to oils. Particularly moved by the struggles of rural women, who soon turned the core theme of her oeuvre, the sensitive artist developed an elegant, formal style. The subject matter and the style remained her trademark.