Living Art | Tracing Jamini Roy's evolution as a painter, from Western styles to indigenous forms

Abanindranath Tagore’s idea of Indianisation of art and Rabindranath Tagore’s essay The Hermitage inspired Jamini Roy into nationalism and searching for his roots.

Ashoke Nag December 09, 2021 15:33:48 IST
Living Art | Tracing Jamini Roy's evolution as a painter, from Western styles to indigenous forms

Famed Bengal artist Jamini Roy’s style, inspired by the well-known pata form, is so famous that people have almost forgotten his earliest works which have no resemblance to his later repertoire. For around two decades, after graduating from the Government College of Art in the first decade of the 20th Century, Jamini Roy was steeped in the Western art style.

“In his earliest period, after passing out of art college, Jamini Roy was painting Impressionist landscapes, post-Impressionist portraits, nudes and still life influenced by (Vincent) Van Gogh, (Paul) Gauguin, and other Parisian artists. But while he mastered the styles of these Western greats, his works were original. And India and Bengal never left him. Alive in his works were also Indian village scenes, farmers tilling the soil, and Santhal women carrying pitchers,” says Dr Prakash Kejariwal, art connoisseur, collector, and founder director of Kolkata’s oldest and commercial modern art gallery, Chitrakoot. Jamini Roy also excelled in churning out portraits, both  Impressionistic and Classical.

Portraitures were once at the core of his oeuvre. He also left for posterity the famous tryst between Poet Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi in Shantiniketan in the Western Impressionistic style. Painters were struggling to make a living those days. Roy would turn out portraits and landscapes for war-time foreigners who would pick them up for a pittance. At that juncture of his life, Roy was also doing various odd jobs to make ends meet. He worked in a small lithographic establishment and a cloth shop, and painted theatre backdrops.

In the vortex of personal turmoil, Roy was still striving to adopt an indigenous style for his creative output. The Kalighat patas attracted his attention, and he drew on them up to a point. “Reflections of the Bankura temple architectural form is also illumined strongly in his drawings, which are also rare,” observes Kejariwal.

Living Art  Tracing Jamini Roys evolution as a painter from Western styles to indigenous forms

In turn, the Nationalist wave swept away Jamini Roy. And he never looked back. Undeniably, his schooling at the Government College of Art in Calcutta and his significantly efficient West-based works did come of great use, but he now adopted a totally indigenous form and style with gusto. It was a mosaic of folk art, Kalighat pata style and the temple art form.

“He is a master even when painting a Beliator patas, where other folk artists of the region pale out. This is because his work is profoundly painterly. That is where his genius lies,” says Kejariwal. (Incidentally, Beliator is a remote village in Bengal’s Bankura district, where Roy was born in 1887). “And he made a constant attempt to discover a personal aesthetic, which he finally achieved.”

Living Art  Tracing Jamini Roys evolution as a painter from Western styles to indigenous forms

Loss of livelihood, brought on by his departure from Western art, led him to face hardships which only fortified his resolve to pursue the Indian form. This finally led to his creating unforgettable iconic figures like Mother and Child, and his famous ‘single-line’ women. The roots of these brilliant works are evident in the terracotta temples of Bengal.

Roy’s early phase was decorative, to an extent. There was a fair deal of colour and motifs. Whereas later, his paintings were turning minimalistic. “It was like Matisse’s works. A look that screams Jamini Roy. He spent decades before his final phase arrived. This is because he was a conceptual artist. So all the while, he spent contemplating approaches that look different, but still communicate what he wanted to convey,” Kejariwal says.

The transition from an artist, whose earliest works reflected the Western style, to a painter who passionately adopted a totally indigenous form, traces back to between the late '20s and early '30s.

This is the style he kept perfecting throughout his life, leading to the quintessential Jamini Roy.

It happened that Abanindranath Tagore’s idea of Indianisation of art and Rabindranath Tagore’s essay The Hermitage, published in Prabasi, the famous Bengali literary magazine of the time, in 1908, which Jamini Roy read thoroughly in 1923, inspired him into nationalism and searching for his roots.

Interestingly, his art drew the attention of great painters like the three legendary Tagores — Rabindranath, Abanindranath, and Gaganendranath. Even foreign art lovers like JBS Haldane (Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry at Cambridge University in the 1920s) and his sisters Naomi Mitichison said, “How is that Jamini Roy’s pictures are so simple, but you go on looking at for years and don’t get tired.” English painter Frederick Harry Baines (1910- 1995) wrote in Art News and Reviews that Roy’s work had in no way suffered. On the contrary, his best paintings showed increased tension and economy. An article on Roy also appeared in the French journal L’Art.

Curiously, famed Russian film director Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin (1893-1953) and renowned actor Nikolai Cherkasov (1903-66) used to collect his paintings, while a range of critics from different countries, including famous British novelist EM Forster, wrote about Roy’s works. His collectors were spread across China, France, Russia, England, Germany, and the US.

“After he had migrated from his early Western works to the pata style, Roy’s works reflected the Ramayana, Krishnaleela, Ganeshleela, Radha-Krishna, Christ, Shiva-Parvati-Ganesha, mother and child in varied forms, folk and rural motifs, village men, woman, and animals, among other forms. In his Kalighat pata style, his lines are simple, but lead to complex moments. His pata lines are simple and bold. Derived from clay images initially, the lines were roundish to begin with,” says art writer Anjan Sen.

Living Art  Tracing Jamini Roys evolution as a painter from Western styles to indigenous forms

“True to his patua upbringing, he started churning out works for the masses by reproducing his own works. He did not want his paintings to be just museum and gallery pieces. His magnificent lines remained, while the colours were filled up by two disciples who worked devoutly with him for the last 15 years of his life. These are none other than Jamini Roy’s studio works, signed and approved by him. This was triggered by the huge demand for his works, and the great artist wanted to make them available to people at large at affordable tags,” says Kejariwal.

An anonymous quote from the '40s runs, “The history of Jamini Roy’s work reveals a slow and painful, but sure development of an artist who never wanted to separate his technical virtuosity from his own vision with its peaceful purity, the unitary demands of his own aesthetic, which varyingly but always, delights the spectator.”

Roy once said, “Peace is not good for an artist. How can that happen? The mind strives and burns all the time in the creative activity of art.”

Ashoke Nag is a veteran writer on art and culture with a special interest in legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

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