By Anasuya Bhar
In the beginning it didn’t seem very serious. Actually it was a relief from a schedule that was really taking a toll on my health, both mentally and physically. And seriously, I was just imagining a kind of welcome break, like we have as an extension to the summer holidays in schools and colleges, in our state. Only that it wasn’t summer yet, then. But the first fortnight blended into a strange and unknown phenomenon called the lockdown.
We had started stocking up on our essentials and after the first panic attacks, were slowly settling in to a household sans working people, sans the exigencies of school, college or office, even sans visits that were occasional. The house around me slowly endeared itself anew as our home, corners were noticed, the covers of dust gone and gradually I began to feel a new sense of belonging.
This was a place that I had actually neglected in the mad rush of everyday life. But even walls, pictures, bedsteads, floors and cupboards have stories to tell. The ensuing silence, apart from the urgency of the patrol car or the daunting ambulance cries, had a general vacuous quality about it. Nevertheless, in that apparent vacuum, people like me, who settle in somewhat well to a walled calmness and insularity, often got lost in the years gone by. The wall was almost necessary to get away from the soaring statistics or unnerving pictures of death. Horror was, and is, all around, but if one needs to maintain sanity, one must, simply must look elsewhere.
The past few months have been a time for pleasant ruminations. I was going through my father’s memoirs. My father is an artist by profession, and has almost reached his eightieth year. What was happening effectively, through the reading process, was that the memories made me go back to a past where I too, was no less a protagonist than my father. When I was born, my father had already toured half the world in connection with art education, or even by dint of exhibiting his own works, and I featured midway into the story. For me the exercise was proving to be rewarding in a different manner, it reminded me of those incidents which were now so far away. Like the corners of my home, it seemed that the corners of my mind, and most gratuitously so, were being lit up, quite vividly. And now I too have a story to tell.
I was born into a world where colours, canvasses, the easel, spatula and brushes were as integral to my existence as food, or toys or stories. Ever since I can remember, I remember my father engrossed in his work-table with his creations.
In Pune, Maharashtra, where my earliest memories were founded, Baba* began experimenting with pencil. He made small drawings, sometimes realistic, sometimes fantastic, sometimes abstract. A part of the dining table, in a largish kitchen, served as his studio space in an otherwise cramped household with a toddler. He came home from work and after a quick dinner worked till the late hours of night. This same pattern continued for a long time well into the years when we returned to Calcutta in the eighties of the last century.
By then I had grown up and would watch him from a distance. He would be so engrossed in his work that he would hardly be conscious of anyone’s presence beside him. He usually made a ‘layout’ for his drawings. Usually, a layout would be a rough sketch on white paper with a blue or black ball point pen. He would sometimes, make several copies of this, in various proportions, sometimes singling out details or magnifying and diminishing other aspects as his temperament suited. At times he even cut and pasted paper into the layout in order to produce a collage as well as to get the feel of totality of a big picture. This was then, generally his working method, where the layout study would almost be a miniature of the original work.
In case of pencil drawings he would next take a large ivory board, of the Japanese variety, usually procured from G.C. Laha, or Kalpana, a shop in South Calcutta. The layout would be reproduced on this ivory board with such expertise that I would watch spell bound. Effortlessly, the lines came out in dark graphite pencils on the white board. The eraser had no role in this performance. The bold outlines would take shape intensely, while Baba poured over them for several hours. When there was much detailing to be done, he took a few days to finish one work.
Lines have always been very important in Baba’s works. The lines have to come correct; only then would the form emerge. That done, the other details would be worked upon, the folds of the apparel, for instance, the drapes. Years later, while studying Aristotle, I realized the truth of this same analogy while the philosopher said that plot was more important in theatre than the character.
Baba’s canvasses usually came home framed. Very rarely did the rolls and the frames arrive separately and we sprawled on the floor trying to get them stapled together! The first thing that Baba did with the canvasses was to fill them up with basic colours like red, green, blue or yellow, covering the white surface totally. He said that this would give the canvas a ‘body’ to support the colours of the painting, later. Once dried, he would begin, mostly one canvas at a time, perhaps two, but never four or five at a go. He would first make the line drawing, with a bold brush. He would then fill up the form, whether of a human figure or an animal, with basic blurbs of colour, in a flat unidimensional surface. The detailing, the shades, the lights, the perspectives would come much later. Baba has generally worked in the realistic, at the most cubist tradition in oils, never in the impressionistic mode.
An oil painting usually takes days to complete, trying to arrive at the exact form and thickness. In his works, he sometimes left faces without the regular features of eyes or the nose, or ears, or even the mouth. A naïve viewer, I often asked him, ‘why did you not draw the eyes, nose or mouth?’, to which he answered, ‘No, it is better to imagine them.’ And so one can. The form is so powerful that one has no difficulty in imagining the features in a blank face; it also gives the viewer an autonomy and freedom that is very different from the coercions of an imposed reality. Baba had the habit of changing his oil paintings several times. He still does; he ‘touches’ them up in efforts of improving them. Sometimes, a drawing would be wholly disowned and consigned to the basket, and a painting would totally be wiped off. Such works are totally lost to the world now.
One such work was the painting of a tramp. Cast in realistic mode, and dressed in western wear, the tramp was one who materialized slowly and painstakingly, in front of me. I grew to like it through the many alterations it suffered, through the several changes of its attire, until, finally I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the painting had been totally wiped off to make place for a completely new one! I felt rather sad at this unexpected end of the tramp, although the painter never rued his loss. In fact, the world would never come to know of the tramp’s existence beyond my memory or Baba’s.
To see a painter work, without intruding on his ways, gives a very different perspective to his art; different from the viewer, the collector or the critic. Here one gets to see the formation, which suffers several changes, and many revisions. A painter’s craft is always in flux and chaos, it only evolves through considerable pain, and is replete with the pangs of childbirth. The painter’s craft is hardly visible to the world, in art galleries or in the collector’s rooms; neither is it ever written down. The painter’s craft is perhaps revealed, occasionally to a simpleton like me, who found myself staring in awe at whatever he did. I hardly ever tried my hand at it. Now having migrated further off from the painter’s studio, both literally and figuratively, all I can do is to visit the corridors of my mind to reconstruct those once familiar, abundant and dear images.
*Baba is my father Tapan Ghosh, a veteran artist and continues to paint and write in his Salt Lake home at Kolkata, India.
Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and the Dean of Postgraduate Studies in St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata. Dr. Bhar is the sole Editor of the literary Journal Symposium http://www.spcmc.ac.in/departmental-magazine/symposium/, published by her Department. She has various academic publications to her credit. She is also keen on travel writing and poetry writing. She has her own blog https://anascornernet.wordpress.com/.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.