An exhibition on Jamini Roy at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art seeks to critically re-examine the art of one of the most celebrated modernists

What is an artist made of? Not just exceptional skill and a zeal to experiment. Ideas, beliefs, vision and a foresight form the foundation of an artist’s character. The history of Indian art is dotted with such names who led discourses around seminal issues wrapped in the language of arts and aesthetics. Jamini Roy, regarded one of the earliest and most significant modernists of 20th Century Indian art, is part of that history and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi, is celebrating the stalwart with a massive exhibition “Jamini Roy (1887-1972) Journey to the Roots” curated by senior art historian Ella Dutta. The last time NGMA had exhibited Roy’s works on such a huge scale was in 1987 when it mounted a show celebrating his centenary. The show will be declared open to public from June 25, a day after it is inaugurated by the Union Minister of Culture, Chandresh Kumari Katoch.

The collection on display will comprise almost 200 works — paintings, drawings, sculptures and etchings on glass (for the latter he was commissioned by Steuben Glass, a American crystal ware manufacturer) taken from not just NGMA’s collection but also borrowed on loan from art collector Abhishek Poddar and senior artist A.Ramachandran. Director Rajeev Lochan’s note also mentions a letter written by the artist to a loyal collector in the USA. NGMA has got a facsimile of the letter by Christie’s in addition to a silent video of the painter from its archives. Ella Dutta says Roy was very popular in the West and would regularly get visitors from abroad. “He was very accessible. People could buy works from him directly,” adds Dutta, who has also written a monograph on the artist to be released on the occasion.

According to Dutta, not much has been published on Roy in English and whatever little is there is anecdotal and impressionistic. “A lot of it has been dealt with in great detail. For instance, about his way of living, exhibiting but there is very little critical assessment of his art. So there is a chapter on his life and there is a chapter analysing his art,” reveals the art critic.

Born in 1887, the year 2012 was the artist’s 125th birth anniversary. Except for a few exhibitions in Kolkata, the event went largely uncelebrated but NGMA has now decided to celebrate the occasion with this exercise. “The goal is to re-examine Jamini Roy. We wanted to contextualise him. The exhibition shows the way he projected the rural and indigenous community. I wanted to show he was experimental. When he moved to the folk idiom, the figuration, lyrical lines and idyllic pastoral scenes evoke a certain kind of feeling and mood, which is very close to the atmosphere of Krishna and Vrindavan. On the other hand, his figuration in his Christ series is so different. There, the figures are erect, straight with hieratic poses. He was narrating a story that belonged to an alien culture but there was certain intimacy.”

More than chronologically, the exhibition is designed thematically and different sections concentrate on his Krishna and Christ series. “But still it manages to create a sort of timeline like in 1919-1920 when he rejected European academism. He painted a series of sensuous Santhal women though he was still using oil. There is ‘Santhal Dance’ which is a horizontal panel depicting Santhal women. We have three of those earliest departures. There are works rendered in calligraphic brushstrokes. Towards the end of 1920s, he had moved to pure folk idiom. He did a series of works on village communities. There is a work titled ‘Blue Boy’, a young village boy in blue painted against a bright yellow backdrop.” The special thing about this and other such works like ‘Blacksmith’ from his village series is that he rendered the subjects lot of dignity. Roy is supposed to have said that he wants to paint images that his village people would understand and respond to.

Dutta curiously includes some copies of European masters done by Roy in the show. While on the one hand, Jamini Roy had consciously chosen to break away from the European style to return to his roots and find inspiration in the art of patuas, terracotta of Bankura, he continued to borrow from the academic realism of the West. “My guess is that it was to study how they applied colours, played with light etc and later you would see mosaic like paintings from him, the way he applied colour in his work. He wasn’t doing these in oil but in tempera but he bought a semblance of oil to these works.”

A few sculptures in wood done in late ’20s and ’30s are also part of the show. “They are mostly heads and there also he was looking at simplification. He chiselled till the barest of features would remain.”

One was of the few artists who made copies of his own works. “A lot of people had written about it and he had no qualms about it. In fact, he had taught his son to make figures like his and had one person to help him fill the colour and he would then give it a finishing touch. Once artist Bhavesh Sanyal asked him that people say that you have opened a ‘karkhana’ or factory to which he said, ‘I want my paintings to be affordable and I want every Bengali household to hang my work. If I don’t increase the supply then how will it be available to people.” If not every household, his robust figures steeped in tradition with oversized eyes, have indeed been grilled into the consciousness of every art lover.