A view of rural Indian life by graphic artists

Arriving hard on the heels of the India Art Summit, came the just concluded Dhaka Art Summit. While one is unaware of how many art lovers took the opportunity to visit one of the more recently created annual art happenings, the timing made good sense as international visitors could make a convenient sojourn from Delhi to Dhaka in Bangladesh, before heading home. Among the Indian galleries that exhibited at the Dhaka Art Summit, was the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) which is fast increasing its presence, within India and neighbouring countries. The DAG Mumbai gallery opened not so long ago and soon after, its participation was noted among the few other Indian galleries at the Singapore Art Stage.

For the Art Summit at Dhaka, DAG chose to exhibit the works of two of their favourite graphic artists from Bengal — Chittaprasad and Haren Das, who we can only say are as unlike each other as chalk and cheese! A true rebel, Chittaprasad gave up his Brahmin surname to be one among the masses and ‘joined the grassroots movement to resist both colonial oppression by the British, and also the feudal oppression of the landed Indian gentry’. Despite his undisputed talent, Chittaprasad remained a self taught artist. His political leanings probably stood in the way of his being admitted either at the Government School of Art, Kolkata as well as Kala Bhawan in Santiniketan. Haren Das on the other hand, ‘remained committed to British academic and Victorian ideals that included concepts of perfection’, his focus upon a vision of a ‘rural ideal’.

DAG is known to include both Haren Das and Chittaprasad’s work in their various group shows under their ‘Manifestations’ brand. However, the gallery’s pathbreaking solo show on Chittaprasad, a year or so ago still remains etched in my mind as one of the most fascinating art exhibitions that I have seen. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity of seeing such a vast collection of the works of this amazing and rather volatile artist’s work — and even more so, because I can revisit the experience that has been so well documented in the two volumes that I bought as a gift for my husband.

From 1947, Haren Das, the undeniable master of graphic techniques, became the mentor of every art student who studied at the Government College of Art in Kolkata. It has been said that ‘during his day, Haren Das took his share of criticism. His art was quickly dismissed by activists such as Chittaprasad Bhattacharya, who thought it a romantically naive view of Indian life’. For Das, it was more important to focus on the connection that ‘rural Indians still had with the earth, the dignity of their labour and the strength of their families and communities … the people who inhabit Das’ artistic space seem quite content, if not outright happy’ — unlike Chittaprasad’s ‘suffering peasant’.

While his finely etched woodcuts may seem to lack the force and power that governs Chittaprasad’s work, there is a moral to be learnt from the fact that it is Haren Das whose guidance has honed the skills of a great many artists who are now internationally acclaimed. The first name that comes to mind being Somenath Hore, who in his time had strong political leanings, using the skills that he imbibed as a student under the tutelage of his teacher, Haren Das.

(The writer is an author and a former art gallery owner)


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