Kolkata: Soon after her doodles with the paintbrush were snapped up by collectors impressed with her “innate skills”, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has debuted as a poet at the ongoing Kolkata Book Fair.
She isn’t, though, a first time author—she has so far written some 25 books, but only about her politics. Though some of her verses deal with politics, this collection of poems, written mostly while she toured through the state, is different from her other published works.
She Nei (She is no more) derives its name from the Delhi gang-rape victim. It was published by Deys Publishing, and according to Sourav Chakraborty, a youth leader of the Trinamool Congress party, She Nei has already sold more than 10,000 copies.
It is a best-seller at the Kolkata Book Fair, says Sudhangshu Dey, the owner of Deys Publishing, and another compilation of poems by Banerjee is to be launched next week. At least 2,000 more copies of She Nei are being reprinted in view of the huge demand for it at the book fair, Dey says.
A comparison with the polymath she often quotes and appears to be inspired by—Rabindranath Tagore—is unavoidable though it may appear farfetched by the canons of art appraisal.
Both untrained and restless as artists, they ventured into this art form with doodles and at an advanced age.
And there’s more to it than that. Tagore never titled his paintings so as not to guide viewers’ responses. Banerjee has gone a step ahead to liberate her works by titling them, A Dreamer’s Creation.
Even her first book of poems was inspired by death, which for Tagore, too, was always one of the strongest influences in every form of art—certainly so for his paintings, according to several art historians.
The piece from which Banerjee’s collection of poems derives its name was written on the day the Delhi gang rape victim died, according to the publisher. “The influence, as one can make out, was very strong,” he says.
And for the record, at least one celebrated artist, Jogen Choudhury, said in recent media interviews that he saw glimpses of Tagore’s innate skill in the chief minister’s paintings.
Now the differences: whereas Tagore’s paintings at his first major exhibition in Kolkata in 1932 were dismissed by critics and collectors alike, Banerjee’s works, around 250 in all, grossed at least Rs1 crore last month—a huge reward for an artist not conventionally skilled, according to art dealers.
But she isn’t keeping a penny of it for herself, donating it all for her party’s political activities.
Tagore, too, had hoped that his paintings from his 1932 exhibition would sell and he would use the money to build Visva-Bharati University, but they found few takers.
“She is a cut above the average,” says another celebrated painter Shuvaprasanna, explaining collectors’ interest in her paintings. “Everything about her is unique—her energy, her child-like simplicity, her strokes…”
Tagore’s cerebral art was probably ahead of his times, say many art critics.
She works mostly with oil paints, which take time to dry, and yet manages to fill up fairly large canvases, working in her ante-chamber at the Writers’ Buildings—the state’s administrative headquarters—between taking important decisions.
She says the painting is a stress buster.
“Because I am untrained and don’t know where to start, I can finish my paintings in no time,” Banerjee said early last month at the inauguration of her exhibition.
But what remains a mystery is how the slow drying oil paints keep pace with her restless imagination. Even Tagore shunned them for fast-drying ink and watercolours; he, too, being no less restless with his paintings.
Not everyone is bowled over by her art in the same way as the two painters cited above.
And they aren’t the usual suspects—for instance, Left leaders such as Goutam Deb, who have always dismissed her paintings as trash.
Sunando Sanyal, an educationist and prominent social thinker in the brigade of intellectuals who rooted for the end of the Left regime, said, “She is the chief minister. It is not surprising that people are buying her paintings to please her, and the same is true for collection of poems as well.”