Ratnottama Sengupta journeys to show how past and present are interlinked in art and pays tribute to a polyglot
I must have been six or seven years old then. I had already developed the habit of looking attentively at visual images even before I could discern the letters of the alphabet. For, even as a child I would leaf through Baba’s* books that were everywhere in our house — in the bookshelves, on the table, on the beds and even under the beds. So, when I loitered out of our home into those of our neighbours, I was drawn by the ‘Merry Christmas’ cards overflowing the mantel shelves of some and the ‘Diwali Greetings’ lining the walls of others. Later I started collecting them, and some years down, when my elder brother went off to medical school, I inherited his stamp collection. In all of these, I would involuntarily seek out Indian scenes: women plaiting hair, farmer ploughing his field, Koli* fisherfolks with their nets, boatman in the river, cow and calf, lady lighting a diya*, an itinerant sadhu, a Baul* singer…
Why was I drawn to these ‘Indian’ stories? I was, after all, growing up in Bombay of 1960s, where the citizens were commuting by train to eke out a livelihood in the mills and factories, in the corporate offices and film studios churning out tinsel dreams. I never posed these questions then but almost six decades later I have the answer:
In the rapidly industrialising country, people coming out of a glorious past were forging a new identity for another tomorrow. But even an India of new dreams could not be divorced from the lived reality of the forefathers, right?
This realisation came to me after I visited Santiniketan, had the good fortune to interact with pathbreaking artists like Sankho Chaudhuri, K Subramanian, Ramananda Bandopadhyay, Debabrata Mukherjee — and when I penned Krishna’s Cosmos on the art and life of pioneer printmaker Krishna Reddy. Through them all, I understood that the need for a self-perception of a ‘Bengal’ identity — both biographical and cultural — was very much alive post Partition.
Although Krishna Reddy had a divergent journey in Art, Maniklal Chatterjee, was also moulded in the same crucible as the printmaker, under the watchful eyes of the iconic Nandalal Bose. And, in a certain way, Maniklal carried on the famed Master Moshai’s* Haripura Congress tradition of capturing the everyday life of farmers and labourers, artisans and housewives. It came out of his innate love for nature and the pastoral world in the lap of mother earth. In other words, it was rooted in Life as it was lived in erstwhile East Bengal, that end of the land which was lopped off by the Radcliffe Line, forcing Maniklal to seek a new roof to shelter his homestead — and a new haven through lines and tints.
Krishna Reddy, moving in 1950 to post World War II London and Paris, realised that while Europe was seeking as escape from the horrifying memory of the holocaust, by negating human figures and going into Abstract art, Cubism, Op art and Pop art, India was looking back to its pre-colonial heritage in art: the Mughal miniatures, the folk traditions of Bengal, the bazaar art of Kalighat, the Patachitra of Puri and the homely Madhubani. It was this fount of inspiration that Maniklal Chatterjee appears to have made his own. He did not use his inborn skill to counter the influence of Academic training, nor was he being Progressive by adapting Modernism. Born of a different history and rooted in a different culture, he compulsively looked back to the home he had left behind in Barishal and drew upon the wash technique, the tempera and water colour of Santiniketan that has welded diverse art inheritances in its quest for an Oriental universality.
In short, it was this artist’s way of retaining an identity that was as much him as his Bangal accent and his commitment to Communism. Yes, he committed his grasp over the formal and technical basics of the Santiniketan/ Bengal School of painting to talk about Everyman. His imprint of life of his suffering countrymen bore the aesthetic sophistication of the hallowed School but was charged by the love for an idyllic India. A withering workman’s India. An unspoilt India now relegated to memories.
But though he dipped his brush in the colour of nostalgia, Maniklal’s art was imbued with serenity and joy. The women and men, the kids and calf pulsated with lived energy. The ‘sarbohara‘ who has lost his all — the uprooted refugee as much as the man who has nothing to lose but his chain, these were the heroes for Maniklal Chatterjee.
Those were the glorious days of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). Remember the film, Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land)? The rickshawala on foot racing with his cart against a horse drawn carriage, not just to reach his human brethren to his destination but also to earn two square meals and — more urgently — to save his two acre land, back in the country’s hinterland, came to signify the rapidly industrialising India of 1950s. It was this set of lives that Maniklal Chatterjee chose to iconise. His art sang of those deprived, but not downtrodden. Not for nothing were these celebrated as ‘Postcards from Bengal’. The poet within the artist wrote, “Tomar kaachhe aajanma wrini aami — tumi je basundhara (I am beholden to you Mother – you are the Earth).”Age cannot wither nor time stale this luminous face of Mother India — be it for Maniklal Chatterjee or for you and me. Because art for him is the expression of a deeply rooted emotion. It is as personal a portrait of his life and times as the photograph of my parents taken in a studio after their marriage: It is a time wrap, but one we will always be grateful for.
*Baba: Father. Her father was the late Nabendu Ghosh, an eminent writer in Bengali and a personality in film scripting and directing.
*Koli: Fisherfolk in Mumbai.
*diyas: oil lamp
*Baul: mystic minstrels or bards in Bengal
*Master Moshai: Teacher or Maestro in Bengali
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and write books. Daughter of Nabendu Ghosh, she has authored Krishna’s Cosmos, a biography of the pioneering printmaker Krishna Reddy, among many other books She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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