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When almond eyes beckon

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The 125th birth centenary of Jamini Roy, 'the unlettered outlaw' of the art world, is being celebrated at the NGMA.

In 1931, an exhibition of Jamini Roy's paintings at his Calcutta residence was inaugurated by ballerina and Indologist Stella Kramrisch. Writing on it, Shanta Devi, daughter of Modern Review editor-owner and later Hindu Mahasabha president Ramananda Chatterjee, described in great detail how three rooms of Roy's house had been transformed into a "traditional Bengali setting" complete with village pats (palm leaves) and alpona (decorative floor drawings). Eighty-two years later, on Roy's 125th birth anniversary, the National Gallery of Modern Art does not wear a Bengali look. There are no little lamps, no incense, as Shanta Devi wrote, and of course, no alpona.

What greets one instead is a handsome Jamini Roy, his deep-set eyes and head resembling, as his patron Maie Casey wrote, "the massive beauty of Picasso". You forget alpona and the Bengali setting as the melancholic Roy handholds you through the most exciting, intense and faction-ridden period of Calcutta's art world. It is like walking through the history of modernism in Indian art and what it meant for Roy and fellow Bengali Nandalal Bose, though not always on even terms, to become the toast of high society Bengal, replacing the likes of Abanindranath and others who ruled the Bengal art scene. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that from the 1930s onwards, if there was one Bengal artist who rode the scene like a colossus it was Jamini Roy (1887-1972 ). A chronic loner, Roy had an enviable list of admirers and patrons from Kramrisch and poets Bishnu Dey, Sudhindranth Datta to confectioner KC Das, novelist E M Forster, biologist JBS Haldane, the Congress party and critics Shahid Suhrawardy, Rudy von Leyden and Maie Casey who remained a devoted friend till his end in 1972.

At the exhibition, paintings from different points in the artist's trajectory are on display: the early days influenced by the naive style of Sunayani Devi, niece of poet Rabindranath Tagore and sister of Abanindranath; folk and western idioms;almond eyes inspired by patachitra artists;lyrical, evocative and sensuous lines;bright colours, earthy setting and the dominance of the local over the national. As one meanders through the exhibition space myriad images representing various phases of Roy's long artistic life fight for attention. A copy of Van Gogh's self-portrait here, the raw sexuality and innocence of Santhal women there, a recreation of the Last Supper on one wall and almond-eyed Jesus Christs and several crucifixions on another. A playful Krishna with doting gopis (cowherd maids), fakirs (mendicants ), pilgrims, a mother in various forms, a child, a smiling Gandhi, a sombre Rabindranath, the wellheeled babu and a well-adorned bibi are all there. If calligraphic lines help in simplifying the forms, a task Roy took very seriously, a flat technique lends a distinctive aura to the Santhal women. Oil on canvas and cardboard, tempera on cloth, pen-and-ink drawings and a few wooden sculptures stand testimony to the master modernist's sway over technique and seamless straddling of various forms.

Deconstructing Jamini Roy's poetic lines, bold colours and idioms through the prisms of form and technique would not only be an affront to the genius from Beliatore village in Bankura but also offer a seriously compromised narrative of Indian nationalism. Here was a man well trained in the academic style at the Government Art College, Calcutta, who chose to negotiate his art through politics and successfully marry the two. In the process, politics influenced Jamini Roy's choice of form, technique and everything else. It was not an easy task to defy the historicism of the Bengal school and settle for the local, the primitive, and the indigenous. It was his desire to practice an art whose inner thoughts he could enter that took him to Beliatore where, at the feet of folk artists, he learnt to be simple and expressive. Call it an act of defiance against colonial rule, Jamini Roy's reliance on the local and his emphasis on the rural both in form and technique was an overtly political act. But as the exhibition makes it amply clear, it came at a price. Roy had to unlearn a few things. He had to, as art historian Partha Mitter points out, forsake oil for tempera and concentrate on primary colours.

It is to the credit of noted curator-critic Ella Datta that the show has been elegantly designed to evoke the highs and lows, successes and failures, and cynicism and reclusiveness of Jamini Roy. The exhibition explains why Roy told Mary Milford, another of his patrons, that "peace is not good for an artist, art is born of experience, of stress and strain, wrestling with problems, intellectual and physical". This must have come from Roy's growing distrust of everyone, especially his peers, for whom he had become a big source of envy. With time, the "unlettered outlaw", as Suhrawardy called Roy, pushed himself further into the corner opening up only to a select group of friends and admirers. Ironically, and this was Roy's greatest strength, his art was not complex, individualistic and carried no rancour. It gave collective joy and happiness to society, be it in his three-bedroom house in 1931 or the elite NGMA in 2013. Missing the exhibition would be unforgivable.

'Jamini Roy: Journey To The Roots' is on at the NGMA until August 25

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