Kolkata-based Ajoy Ghose has been quietly taking the tradition of wash technique forward

The followers and disciples of Abanindranath Tagore took his wash technique to several places like Bengal, Lucknow, Madras, Jaipur and Lahore and practised it there. It thrived before it vanished in due course of time, barring in Bengal, where somebody or the other kept at it. If Abanindranath was inspired by this Far Eastern painting technique and modified it amply to make it relevant in the Indian context, his successors like Hemendranath Mazumdar, Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Benode Bihari Mukherjee nurtured it and took it forward from there.

A few practitioners of this painting technique are left now, and Kolkata-based Ajoy Ghose is one of them. In his solo show in the Capital, Gallerie Ganesha is exhibiting 22 wash paintings of the veteran artist.

Well-known stories and episodes from Indian mythology — Ahilya and Savitri, Karna-Kunti, Karna Parshuram — are retold on his canvas evocatively, suggesting a dream. “While Abanindranath did more of realistic work, Nandlal was interested in mythology, the sculptures of Ajanta and Ellora. My work is a mix of both. I was influenced by both of them,” says Ghose over phone from Kolkata.

Educated at the Government College of Art & Crafts, Kolkata, under Dhirendranath Brahma, Satyendranath Bandyopadhyay and Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ghose has been primarily working in the techniques of wash and tempera. He says it is the subject that decides whether it requires wash or tempera.

The traditional Bengal school watercolours (wash technique) were introduced in India by the Japanese. In 1903, Japanese scholar and art critic Okakura sent his two artist disciples, Yokoyama Taikan and Hisbida Sbunso, to India, who stayed with the Tagores in Calcutta. Abanindranath developed his technique by observing how Taikan, using a large, flat brush charged with water over a carefully painted and highly finished surface, gave it a range of soft and delicate tonalities. Abanindranath modified it. After applying a thin transparent layer of watercolour, he would dip the painting in water — though the Japanese never did it — which washed away some of the colour, and yet another transparent colour-wash was given to it. In this way, after successive colour and water-washes, different colours fused, bringing out tender tones. The sharp angles and geometric spaces come to stand in contrast with the overall surreal effect.

Ghose, who gives his paintings about 15 to 20 washes, says the medium finds fewer practitioners owing to the time and labour involved. “It is also about a really skilled hand at drawing. I am not trying to say that I am the best… I am still learning.”

Though rooted in tradition, Ghose has ushered in contemporaneity whichever way he could. In the painting titled ‘Barhasphat Kathan’, Shiva is depicted wearing a necklace of Lapis Lazuli, a blue gemstone. The artist uses the Lapis Lazuli to hint at the blue poison in Shiva’s neck. In ‘Parthasarathi’, Ghose has shown Krishna reciting the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna. The horse hooves do enough to suggest the impending doom.

(The exhibition is on at Gallerie Ganesha, E-557, Greater Kailash II, till October 10, 2012.)