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The painter at Writer's
Last weekend, Mamata Banerjee did what no other politician in living memory had ever done: she painted two canvases before a crowd of awestruck thousands and her deft strokes were telecast live by an array of TV news channels. But then, Didi probably wasn't surprised since her paintings have been fetching good prices of late.
Last month, 230 of her creations - most of them acrylic and oil on canvas - sold for over Rs 50 lakh at an exhibition at Kolkata's Town Hall. Priced at Rs 1. 5 lakh, Rs 2 lakh and Rs 3 lakh, her canvases were bought mainly by industrialists, wealthy businessmen and art collectors. In April 2011, 95 canvases by Mamata exhibited at a private art gallery in this city fetched over Rs 1 crore, with one titled Banglaar Maa selling for Rs 12 lakh. The exhibition, titled '25 Hours in a Day', was a runaway success and helped fund the party's successful poll campaign that brought her to power in Bengal. Her first public exhibition in 2005 brought in a very modest Rs 4 lakh while the second one in 2007 fetched Rs 14 lakh which she donated to the victims of violence in Nandigram.
Unschooled in art, Mamata's skills receive more than generous acclaim from prominent artists, most of who are members of her culture clique. Artist Jogen Chowdhury even compares her to Tagore. "Perhaps she expresses herself so boldly in colour because she has no formal training in painting. Her choice of colour juxtaposition is inimitable. You can compare her to Tagore, also an untrained painter, " says Chowdhury.
Artist Suvaprasanna, too, says Mamata's compositions are unique and her use of colours and bold brushstrokes has created a new genre in contemporary art. Senior art critic Manasij Majumdar says he's impressed with Mamata's ability to paint so vividly and so fast. "She has a repertoire of brush strokes that she confidently employs on her canvases. She has a feel for vibrant colours, " he says.
But others are far less enthusiastic about her art. Prominent post-modernist painter Sunil Das says, perhaps tongue-in-cheek : "Bengal had 3, 051 artists, now I'm happy to know my tribe has gone up to 3, 052. " He points out that he hasn't read many critics' comments on Mamata's paintings, apart from the expected eulogies from painters close to her. He also raises a pertinent issue: "I would like to see how much her works fetch in Chennai or Mumbai. "
Another prominent artist who did not want to be named said Mamata's "childish adventures on canvas that lack any artistic merit" are "naturally bought by industrialists and businessmen because they have a stake in staying close to whichever dispensation is in power. "
Trinamool leaders, however, contend that one of Mamata's paintings titled Flower Power sold for $3, 000 at an auction in New York last October. Mamata had donated the painting to a USbased NGO, Children's Hope, and the painting was bought by Sundaram Tagore Gallery. At the same auction, a cricket bat signed by Sachin Tendulkar and other members of the Indian cricket team fetched $15, 000.
Many say Mamata's creations sell for their novelty factor. "A senior functionary like a chief minister taking time out of her obviously busy schedule to paint is something unique. They're purchased by many who'd like to display a painting by a chief minister, irrespective of its artistic merit, on the walls of their living rooms, " says an art critic. But most of the Bengal-based industrialists who bought her paintings told TOI-Crest that they saw artistic merit in Mamata's paintings. One of them, also well-known for his art collection, says he had put up Mamata's canvas in his living room.
"Show me any other senior and busy politician who paints like her, " says MP Derek O'Brien. Mamata has an easel and canvases in the anteroom of her office chamber at Writers' Buildings and paints whenever she's in the mood. She also paints at her Kalighat home, mostly late at night. "I am not a painter but a commoner. Mine is a casual approach - no more, " Mamata told TOI-Crest recently.
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