Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium
Suhas Roy = Radha.
Suhas Roy = Crows.
Suhas Roy = Jesus.
Suhas Roy = Sensuality.
Yes. Witness the Mistress of the Moon.
For each of these Suhas Roy (1936-2016) was chased by galleries and collectors. His works have been widely exhibited and are well documented. Many of them on view at Mumbai’s prestigious Jehangir Art Galley (January 17 to 23, 2023) are not on sale. The intention is to train viewers on the diversity and skilfulness of the much loved artist from Bengal. In short, to hold up the totality of the artist who enriched Contemporary Indian Art with sketches in Western Academic style, graphics, landscapes; with his series on Crow, Jesus, Radha, The Seductress of Khajuraho; with aluminium paint on glass, acrylic on paper, egg tempera on canvas…
So where do we start? Where did he? There’s a story at every turn in the journey, so let’s start at the very beginning.
A little boy in Tejgaon, now in Bangladesh, had lost his father when he was not even two. One Kaji Saheb, who taught geography in the village school and doubled as the art teacher, took the child under his wings. If the boy learnt to outline India on the blackboard, he could also draw papayas and brinjals. And everything he drew scored 10 on 10. His teacher would say, “It seems you’ll grow up to be an artist!”
The boy loved to spend all his hours drawing and fishing. “How will these pleasures serve you in life?” the family elders would admonish him. The youth would smile in reply and go on, eventually to join the Indian Art College, study new methods of printmaking under Somenath Hore and S W Hayter, visit Paris and Florence to study Michelangelo’s David and Pieta…
However, Paris post WWII was an eye-opener for artists like Suhas Roy and, a decade before him, for Krishna Reddy, who had graduated from Santiniketan. Both India and Europe had come out of prolonged periods of turmoil. But, poised on the threshold of an independent existence as a sovereign nation, India was looking back to its roots for defining its identity, whereas England and France and Germany – which were eager to get over the bitterness left by their recent history – were looking for a complete break with the past. For Suhas Roy, returning home meant returning to his cultural roots. And Venus emerging from the Water became kin of the image of goddess Lakshmi emerging from the lotus-laden pond closer home.
This Indian-ness was reinforced when he joined Santiniketan as a painting teacher. The lush green environs, the ponds and rivulets, the chirping birds and rustic villagers took him back to the childhood haven snatched away by the politics of religion that had culminated in the Partition of the Subcontinent. Suhas Roy, raised in the British Academic mood, with undying admiration for the values of the Italian Renaissance and the visions of the French Classicists, riding the high tide of Modernism, debating whether to go Abstract or Semi-Abstract, started painting landscapes!
Yes, landscapes. Regardless of what the critics said – just as they did for the Bengal Masters – Suhas Roy was not being ‘regressive’. For, he did not paint any particular spot with fidelity to topography – as John Constable did. Instead, his landscapes were an expression of his yearning for a paradise lost: his place of birth. When he moved from Kolkata to Santiniketan, in a reflection of spatial reality the neighbourhood palm trees started putting their heads up in his paintings. His sensitive foliage, the birds and animals and ponds were all in answer to his quest for the luxuriant green he had left behind, across the Radcliffe Line.
“Santiniketan gave me back the opportunity to go fishing as I used to in East Bengal, and I rediscovered the beauty and calming effect of Nature,” he had said to me when I curated the Living Santiniketan exhibition in Delhi of late 1990s. “It came as a relief to me, burdened as I was with the constant thought of ‘What to paint?’ For, Nature constantly changes.” Additionally, he realised that appreciation of beauty is not confined to a class or profession. “Doctors and poets alike love flowers. So, I decided to go back to landscape, taking no note of whether it was in fashion or out of it.”
The crow, very much a part of the Bengal landscape, then became his signature in the 1970s. The scavenger was an attraction because of its black feathers. Japanese water-colourist Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) — notable for his role in creating the painting technique of Nihonga — had come to Bengal in early 20th century with scholar Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913) and helped Abanindranath Tagore master the medium. He had done a series of Mount Fuji in black-n-white. Chancing upon that in the Santiniketan library, Suhas was so impressed as to reach for the austere palette. The crow readily lent itself to the scheme. Spraying the canvas with acrylic paint before construing the image in watercolour, Suhas would use a Japanese colour stick to create tones and dimensions. The Far Eastern concept of an object in a wide open space came to be highly appreciated and widely collected – including by philanthropist politician, Karan Singh.
In Indian philosophy and literature, Nature is the Eternal Feminine. That could be why, after ten years of doing landscape, Suhas Roy’s imagination sought out the allied image of tribal girls. It was a natural progression, for women – especially tribal women – have a symbolic if not symbiotic link with trees. Often, he would counterpoise a tree with a woman. Taru, he titled one done in an art workshop.
From a woman in a landscape to Radha was just one step away. For an exhibition on Krishna organised by Gallery 88 of Kolkata, Suhas Roy played with the concept of the Blue God being the Ultimate Being. Melding Purush and Prakriti – the Male and the Female forces of the Universe – his canvas sported a nude woman against a dark blue background. The painting, titled ‘Radha’, not only sold for an enviable sum, but it also set in motion an astonishing demand for the image that shows no sign of abating.
Truly he basked in the adulation of resolved collectors, one of whom said, “When I am tossed and tired of problems, I look at your paintings. They act like balms.” Yet, for painting these very ‘balms’ the artist had to hear the criticism that he was feeding the appetite for calendar art. His Radha was a concept no better than the ‘mass produced’ icons ubiquitous in Indian spaces. But the master was far from apologetic. “It is the very definition of icons,” he had pointed out to me one afternoon. “Images of personalities deified by popular imagination, be they mythical, historical or social, are repeated again and again, generation after generation, in different styles and contexts.” If one age worshipped them as bronze figurines and gold paintings, another flaunted them in oleographs and calendars. It has been so with Radha-Krishna, Ram-Sita, Buddha-Jesus, and even with Gandhi-Tagore-Teresa, I realised.
Jesus, though, had entered Suhas Roy’s world long before Radha. Sometime in 1969 he had visited Florence to see David. He found the sculpture epitomising masculine beauty “too proportionate”, and wandered into the church next door preserving Dante’s Divine Comedy in parchment. There, in one corner, he saw the last work of Michelangelo – an unfinished Pieta. Such infinite pathos! The artist could not brush it off his memory even after he returned to Calcutta and one day its picture postcard inspired him to paint a Jesus. When he stopped, the canvas was sporting a contemporary pieta – Jesus without the head, his body descending from the heavens.
As a persona, Suhas Roy had deep regards for Jesus. He was, to the Bengali artist, a symbol of forbearance. Perhaps he also saw the serene visage of the Prophet sporting a Crown of Thorns as a reflection of his own self – or was it of his country, that had been crowned with an Independence bloodied by Partition? Somewhere Suhas, a father who in his own lifetime lost both his children to Eternal Sleep, saw Jesus as a redeemer who showed mankind how to bear every suffering and pain that was a mortal’s lot. That is why such palpable love, even when tinged with sorrow, pain or sadness, flows out of His veins. This must have prompted even Vatican to acquire his Jesus in 2006.
Suhas Roy arrived at ‘Khajuraho’ in the mature years of his well lived life. He was intrigued by the carvings on the walls of the temples in central India that have embarrassed some and outraged some. Considered the descendants of the celestial Moon, the Chandela rulers had celebrated love in every expressed formation. Love, the invincible bonding between man and woman, man and man, indeed between man and all living beings, is made explicit here. Surely Suhas Roy was not equating love with lust. Was there a spiritual pursuit layering the physicality of the actions immortalised in stone?
No doubt there was. For Moon has always been equated with romance, love, passion. The artist was exploring the mysticism that wraps the ascetic deity inside the temple. Much like the sculptors of yore, his ‘Seductress’ is a quest for the sublime. If the ancients believed that you must leave all your worldly longings outside the temple door if you seek moksha, deliverance, the contemporary artist continually sought nirvana, redemption from conflict, in the beauty of peace.
Rigidity was unknown to Suhas Roy. The changes in his art came spontaneously, and every good result goaded him to go on. He dwelt on a theme only until another creative urge besieged him, be it Khajuraho, the series he titled Mistress of the Moon, or Cappadocia in Turkey. Never shy of experimenting, his foremost concern – always – was meticulous quality. His temperas would have egg yolk with oil and Japanese porcelain, gelatin with resin and tamarind seed. If it held the promise of a finer texture for details, he would use a watercolour brush for oil paintings. For, he would repeat, “Good art will never lose its demand just as diamond will never lose its market.”
For Suhas Roy, the aesthetic and the spiritual were one and the same. And even the hurly-burly of political turmoil had to adhere to his norms of aesthetics. Did Suhas Roy, then, live in an ivory tower away from social realities? No, he insisted, he “never ran away…” Once, on a fishing trip outside Santiniketan, he witnessed dead bodies being fished out of water following a flash flood in Ilam Bazar. Haunted by that image he had painted the Disaster series, depicting landscapes with shrouded bodies. Indeed, when the Naxalite period gave rise to despondency, he was tossed by the political reality of his land. But he prophesized that “every turmoil, be it social or political – including the ongoing one at Singur – would be short-lived.” So, if contemporary art became mere documentation, then that too would be short-lived!
“Only when it transcends the here-and-now can art have lasting value,” maintained the artist even when disturbed by the dark side of humanity. So, though distressed by cruelty, he chose to decry war by showing not blood-spill but the meditative power of peace and sublimity of love. “I focused on what has lasting appeal. Flowers blossom in the same fields that are crushed by battling soldiers. I speak of the war through the Buddha who transcended war.”
This sublime pursuit of Suhas Roy explains the unending appeal of his Seductress, his Radha, his Jesus.
 Translates to tree
*All the photographs have been sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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