Those deep, dark, haunting eyes, so beautifully etched by the great Jamini Roy, continue to bewitch. Watch them watch you at a show in the national capital right now

The question when it comes to Jamini Roy is: how can those unseeing eyes haunt one so much? The answer to that lies in a stroll around the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi, that is hosting a two-month retrospective to celebrate the painter’s 125th birth anniversary.

On display are not just his oft-seen paintings — that of Three Pujarins, one of whom wore that unforgettable indigo saree, or the Kalaghoda— but also his earlier works that helps you put together his transition from the western school to Kalighat pata, the Indian art form that found patronage under the British, until he eventually found his distinct style — heavily influenced by Kalighat and yet not quite Kalighat. And the answer to the haunting eyes question lies in this fine line that Roy crosses to establish his style. The eyes are rendered in Kalighat style — simple form, no fuss — and yet not quite Kalighat. The sweep is lot more dramatic in Roy’s.

At NGMA, as you walk past the pencil sketches, which showcase the meticulous efforts of the artist, you see the hesitation in the initial experimentation. He tries out various forms in miniature, tries out figures from the mythology. And yes, you see the eyes taking shape quite distinctly as you walk along.

You turn a corner, and you see the filled out pencil sketches in different sizes — sometimes the faces fill the canvas, sitting disproportionately on the figures and sometimes faces almost disappear in the looming figure – reflecting the efforts taken by Roy in getting the proportion right. You also realise along the way that he seemed to have focussed a lot on Biblical themes to begin with. The various mother and child pencil sketches that you saw initially, are transformed into Jesus and Mary, sweep of the saree turned into a gown.

Establishing a chronology is extremely problematic, you are informed, just as you wonder why there are no years mentioned in the accompanying information. You wish it was not so. For it would be interesting to know which came first: the Byzantine Mosaic —which is so uncharacteristically subtle, faint lines criss-cross, creating a mosaic in an interesting blend of colours, eyes almost non-existent — or the tempera on mat Christ with Cross (which he paints on bamboo mat, creating an illusion of mosaic).

At some point he abandons trying to convert mother and child into Mary and Jesus. And then a Santhal tribesman walks into his canvas, telling us of Roy’s search for a subject that resonates with him (Maybe, he did the Biblical scenes assured of an audience among the British).

You see him searching further: his initial portrayal of the tribe follows the “Oriental” style. As you walk through, the tribal women cavort in lakes, strike “sringar” poses, much like the Tahitian women that French impressionist Paul Gauguin painted.

Perhaps Roy wanted to break free from that, because he begins tracing and filling animal forms soon: cows, cats, lobsters, the famous black horse. By this time, you realise he has started to blend flat solid colours with greater confidence.

And then, around the next turn, you come into the Jamini Roy that the world celebrates: the figures in perfect proportion, his sweeping lines tuck in the waists seductively, the colours just right, and the eyes, stretched out of the frame, looks at you blank and bold. Unmistakably Jamini.

Your journey comes to an end with the realisation that Roy wanted you to be haunted by his eyes. He took efforts to make sure you go home with those unseeing eyes.

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