Bikash Bhattacharjee (1940-2006) would often say that he wanted his portraits to be so close to life that the viewer could feel the blood course through the veins of
his subjects. And he managed this with remarkable skill.
The Kolkata skyline in sharp detail in She is Knitting
One of India’s leading contemporary artists, Bhattacharjee’s virtuosity with the medium of oil was spellbinding. An insightful portraitist who could reveal the core of his subject’s persona, Bhattacharjee painted several portraits of powerful, rich and famous Indians. Indira Gandhi, for instance, and the members of several business families of India. He was also a sensitive portrayer of cityscapes. He once told this reviewer that his teacher, artist Arun Bose, had opened his eyes to the poetry in the Kolkata skyline. There was beauty even in the images of the decaying streets and buildings of North Kolkata where he grew up and lived.
What was most outstanding about Bhattacharjee’s visual language, in the context of modern Indian art history, was the brilliant use he made of oil as a medium. Introduced in India by European artists more than 150 years ago, it was widely used by academic realists trained at British art schools and by Raja Ravi Varma. B
hattacharjee’s visual language upended the conventional notions of academic realism and introduced a large dollop of subversion.
Other than the commissioned portraits, which formed a distinct genre in his art, when Bhattacharjee painted upper-class people, he added a touch of satire in his representation. Conversely, when he painted the working class, he gave his subjects a heroic stance, even a touch of playful divinity. Take, for instance, Krishnaswamy, the portrait of a rickshaw puller. This approach was diametrically opposite to the style of the academic realists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These painters simply projected the world of the elite. But Bhattacharjee brought to the foreground the lives of the urban poor. He also had sympathy for the middle class, whose economic powers were fast eroding in the early post- Independence decades.
Author Manasij Majumder has dealt with many of these aspects. He has not written a conventional biography, but in the discussion on Bhattacharjee’s art, he weaves in important biographical details. Majumder discusses the formative influences on Bhattacharjee, and the evolution of his aesthetics. He also talks about the growth of realism in European art and how Bhattacharjee fits into this context. Majumder analyses the role of women in Bhattacharjee’s art and the painter’s artistic journey. For instance, he details his work on the famous Doll series, where surrealist twists turn innocent toys into menacing symbols. It was painted in the early
1970s, when West Bengal was torn by violent political turmoil.
Heroism marked Bhattacharjee’s portrait of the poor in Krishnaswamy
The book derives its strength from the reproductions of some 200 paintings, several drawings and photographs. To see the reproductions of the macabre surrealist images of the 1960s, when Bhattacharjee created bizarre composite man/beast images, is a rare treat.
Majumder has done some fine analysis of Bhattacharjee’s work, but one cannot help noticing the flaws. While he gives a concise history of realism in European art, he does not discuss the emergence of artists who chose the style in India. He also does not talk about how Bhattacharjee gave academic realism a contemporary dimension. Majumder should have discussed the commissioned portraits Bhattacharjee did—they were some his most painterly images.
One also feels that the writing could have aimed at greater clarity in the use of language and avoided such oxymorons as “edgy, meticulous realism” and “lucid shadows”. The book lacks a good bibliography, which was necessary for it to be counted as a document of art history. Marta Jackimowicz-Karle’s book on Bhattacharjee has been cited in the text in passing. There is no credit line for the excellent photographs used in the book. In spite of the substantial research that has gone into the book, these and many other omissions reduce it to a gorgeous, well-produced coffee-table album.
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