In the mixed-media, multi-media contemporary art-saturated gallery scene, a show of miniature landscape by the late Bireswar Sen comes as a refreshing change. Maybe it’s the effect of the mountains, caves and the rivers depicted in the 80 smaller-than-postcard-size artworks showcased in Between Heaven and Earth: Himalyas and the Art of Bireswar Sen, but the phrase “breath of fresh air” readily comes to mind. Admittedly, part of the paintings’ merit lies in the fact that they are so unlike much of the art that gets shown these days. Sen, who died in 1974, was influenced by Abanindranath Tagore and, later, by Nicholas Roerich. Edited excerpts from an interview with show curator B.N. Goswamy, art historian and professor emeritus, history of art at Panjab University, Chandigarh, on the life and art of Sen:
Tell us about the Bengal School of Art and Bireswar Sen’s relationship with it.
Sen started off as a member of the Bengal School of Painting but then parted ways with it. The Bengal School centred around the Tagore family—Abanindranath Tagore and his pupil Nandalal Bose were among the more prominent exponents of this school. This school was partly influenced by the Mughal and Pahari School of Painting; and also by the wash technique (of painting), which was borrowed from Japan.
In the early 20th century, Santiniketan and the house of the Tagores had an international atmosphere, with many overseas artists and scholars visiting—visiting Japanese artists introduced the wash technique. The Bengal School’s influence was felt all over India, but then in the 1930s it lost force. As a young student, Sen attached himself to Abanindranath; then later he came under the influence of Nicholas Roerich. Sen, however, retained the wash technique.
Clouds and Skies series
What is the wash technique?
It is different from watercolour—the paper is first dipped in water and as it is drying, you fill it with the pigments. This gives it a smooth and different feel from watercolour—the colours mingle with each other. This technique requires quick working, and according to his family members, Sen would sit with a sheaf of papers in the morning and sometimes produce four-five paintings in a day. He was very prolific.
How did Roerich influence Sen?
Roerich came to India in 1931 and settled in the Kulu valley, not far from Manali. He was an adventurer, thinker, writer, painter and a campaigner for peace. He painted startling landscapes with brilliant colours that were monumental in scale. He used to paint for theatre in Russia and that probably had something to do with it (the monumental aspect)—there is something very dramatic about his work. When Sen saw Roerich’s work, he was awestruck. He met Roerich and their friendship developed. Sen travelled to the Kulu valley and imbibed the idea of pure landscape which is virtually unknown in India.
Mountains series-The Tirt
Pure landscape was a revelation to Sen, but in his own works he always brought some human figure into it—very small in size, like the nail on your thumb. This helped establish the scale—the enormity of the rivers and mountains. And (it brought to the fore) Sen’s romantic imagination. He was a very skilled craftsman and the paintings he made were very small in scale, almost as if he was recreating the miniature tradition. The Bengal School artworks were small too but not on this scale.
It is difficult to guess. Perhaps he wanted to retain a link with the past through small images. Or maybe he was challenging himself: “Here are the works of my mentor. Can I get the same effect on a smaller scale?” Or, maybe it was just Sen’s inability to handle large-scale works.
The Human Spirit series
Sen is not very well known today.
Contemporary art is so full of itself—it is noisy; and hanging on to its own agenda and strengths. It is only interested in the here and now. But Sen did have a following during his heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. He had pupils, and people he influenced. But he hardly finds any mention in current books on Indian art.
Any concluding comments?
Scale in itself and of itself is immaterial. It is about the curiosity that a work excites. Suppose you have two depictions of an elephant—very small and very large. You could be attracted to the smaller version because of its detailing, etc. I am reminded that in the Indian literary tradition, there is a premium on what you leave out as opposed to what you say. Sen was an inwardly turned man. And I personally prefer works that offer the room and opportunity to contemplate, to go quiet. As the Chinese saying goes, “The line doesn’t end, you’ll have to lift the brush.”
Water series-Morning Dew
Which means what?
You have to take a decision—to go on expanding or to stop. Everything is connected; it is for you to decide when and where to end it.
Between Heaven and Earth: Himalyas and the Art of Bireswar Sen is on display until 28 February at the Triveni Kala Sangam, 205, Tansen Marg, New Delhi.