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Artist Profile1
A doyen of the modern Indian art phenomenon
Wonderful works of art by one of the most celebrated modern Indian artists of India are soaked in a rural romance, celebrating the country’s humble grassroots. The inimitable themes and style cultivated by Jamini Roy (1887 – 1972) still draws the fancy of collectors around the world as evident at some of the recent sales of South Asian modern & contemporary art. His dazzling depictions of mythological subjects, rendering images from Ramayana and Mahabharata to go with those of contemporary workers/ peasants remain relevant even after a passage of over eight decades.

Hailing from a modest village in the state of Bengal, his affinity to nature and rustiness of life there amply reflected in his subject matter and technique. He did a Diploma from Kolkata’s Fine Arts, Government School of Arts and Craft (1903-08). While studying there, he developed propensity for drawing classical nudes in keeping with the then prevalent academic traditions. To begin with, his dabbling in the Post-Impressionist genre of landscapes and portraits could be attributed to his training in a British academic system. Gradually the young practitioner started experimenting with the art rooted to his own culture, seeking inspiration from the surrounding life, living folk as well as tribal art forms. The artistic transformation took a definite direction around 1921-24, after peasant upsurges across the country, prompting him to explore contemporary concerns.

The Kalighat idiom was a source of great influence to him. The highly popular folk style works – the bewildering bazaar paintings - sold in the vicinity of the Kalighat temple, manifested in his captivating calligraphic brush lines to execute sophisticated forms. The austerity of lines only highlighted his immense control over brush. The lyrically and at times even sensuously done lines with lampblack over white or pale gray background exuded both vigor and the poetic quality of his compositions like the Baul and Woman Seated, symbolizing his style. Keen to experiment, he totally did away with the traditional canvas later on and opted to create his own unique surfaces out of wood coated with lime, woven mats, and cloth, using natural earth and vegetable colors. In the process, he switched to indigenous materials, discarding canvas and an impressionist style in oil painting.

Highlighting Jamini Roy’s contributions, veteran art critic Suneet Chopra had elaborated in an essay: “An important development in the evolution of contemporary Indian art was the discovery of Indian folk traditions by artists with an academic training. Attempts to evolve a genuinely Indian artistic expression prior to this were restricted to reviving the miniature styles. Artists of the 1920s sought out the cave paintings of Ajanta and Bagh, with their fine examples of public art and used them as a model for the scale of their own expression. Nandalal Bose employed the mural and the use of tempera in our modern artistic expression. He also introduced the simplicity of the scroll-painters of Bengal into contemporary painting. But the artist who took it to the level of a style was Jamini Roy.” The master modernist had had several solo exhibitions in India and internationally, including those in New York and London.

The most recent major posthumous displays of his paintings are 'The Body Unbound', Rubin Museum of Art, New York (2011-12); 'Ethos V: Indian Art Through the Lens of History (1900 to 1980), Indigo Blue Art, Singapore; 'States of Departure: Progressives to Present Day', Aicon Gallery, London; 'Masterclass', Dhoomimal Art Gallery, Delhi; 'Time Unfolded', KNMA, Delhi; 'The Fish Eyed Cosmos', Apparao Galleries, Chennai; 'Roots in the Air, Branches Below', San Jose Museum of Art; 'The Emergence of Indian Modern Art', Aicon Gallery (all in 2011); 'Modern Folk', Aicon, New York (2010); 'Indian Art After Independence', Emily Lowe Gallery, Hempstead; 'Kalpana: Figurative Art in India', courtesy ICCR at Aicon, London; 'Moderns and More', Aicon, Palo Alto (2009), apart from ‘Manifestations I to VI' editions at Delhi Art Gallery.

Among the awards he won for his artistic excellence are Viceroys Gold Medal (1935); and honorary D. Litt., Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata (1967). Apart from being chosen as fellow, Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi in 1956, he was honored with Padma Bhushan by the Government of India (1955). His artistic impulses, as mentioned above, were largely shaped while growing up Beliatore village in the then undivided Bengal’s Birbhum district. What set him apart was his conscious disownment of formal art school-trained modernity to adopt the Bengali folk works’ nostalgic lyricism ushered in a distinct new phase in the annals of Indian Modern Art. He rejected the then modern style of painting, foraying into the realm of folk paintings. His dramatic yet deft depictions of aboriginal Santhal drummers and vivacious women figures gained immense popularity in the 1940s.

The fascinating figures were marked by bold, thick and precise lines, catching the viewer’s attention with their trademark almond-shaped eyes, as if staring back at one. Art writer Sona Datta aptly dubbed this style of painting as urban patua, superimposing his unique forms on the folk style popular in Bengal’s village paintings. Jamini Roy simplified the basic forms, adding a distinct touch to the usage the medium, material and themes of local painters even as retaining their innocence, simplicity, and bold, flat colors – mostly yellow ochre, vermillion, grey, cadmium, green, red, blue and white. The animals, Radha, mother and child were all painted in simple two-dimensional forms, denoting flat color application and a clear emphasis on the lines. The figure of the Christ was another recurring subject in his painting.

The sensitive and socially conscious artist blended the innate artistic sensibilities with his appropriation of folk idiom that manifested in various ways. While painting ordinary village folks, he reinvented images from the patua’s ravishing repertoire. A series of works he did a decade before the World War II testified this knack of infusing the native folk painting style with those of his own. In a way, he can be credited with making art accessible to a wider section of society, through his realistic representations of the rural everyday chores of the jovial Bengali community. Jamini Roy took a gamble in breaking away from the tradition, to set his own stylistic and thematic agenda, even while staying true to the core values that shaped him as a person and as an artist, making him one of the highly influential painters of the 20th century era.