A retrospective of Sakti Burman's work, explores the interplay between the oriental and the occidental.

The year was 1967 in Paris. A young man from Kolkata, barely 22 years of age, was showing at the annual show for young painters. Among the first of his paintings that was bought was a still life; Paris skyline reflected on a mirror above the fireplace in his humble apartment. “I sold it for a pittance. Back then, I never thought my painting could be sold. I was just about 20. And I did not even keep a photograph of that painting,” recalls Sakti Burman now 76 and still seeing the painting so clearly in his mind's eye. “The paintings I sold in Paris then are now coming out at auctions and fetching a good price. May be someday if I become a Picasso, the painting with the mirror will surface,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh.

One will not see that painting but over 100 works — oils, water colours, lithographs, sculptures by the artist — on display at “The Wonder of it All”, a retrospective of Sakti Burman's work spanning six decades, which opens at the Jehangir Art Gallery. In the water colours he interpreted the beauty of places he visited as a student Konark, Kashmir and Udaipur among others to the impressionist take on cities and villages in Europe and the distinctive works of later years.

The artist reflects upon the journey that took him from his village in Bengal to the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata, to the Ecole Nationale Des Beaux Arts, Paris. “It has been a journey of living, learning, experiencing new places and being inspired by the great masters of my times. These stages reflect in my work.”

There is a dreamlike quality to Burman's works. The artist says that, in his earlier works, it is easy to spot the influence of other painters but now he has developed a style of his own. “Now, through my work, I always try to express some kind of reality mixed with the unreal and dreams. These events are not really connected to each other. They are a result of the play between my subconscious and my culture and my reality. This connection and disconnection that happens in your mind,” he says.

Burman has lived in Paris since the 1950s but never forgotten his Indian roots. “I was living with the reality of Paris, which allowed me to accept things, reject nothing, while maintaining my own personality. I have tried to assimilate things from my stay in Europe and my own culture and memory. That plays out in my works now.” Many of the works at the retrospective are testimony to this interplay between the oriental and the occidental and the effortless ease of their existence. Hanuman shares a canvas with a Centaur.

Art is not only for the few who can afford it. It should reach as many people as possible, Burman has maintained through his life. Inspired by the four-colour reproduction on canvas in vogue in Paris, Burman dabbled in lithographs in the 1970s. “My lithographs of the time have travelled all over the world to different homes. Art should be made affordable to get people to have their first contact with art,” he says.

Looking back on his life's work, Burman says, “Whatever I have done has been done sincerely. May be I could have done more work. May be this retrospective will prod me to do more work.” Touché. 

The Wonder Of It All: A retrospective of Sakti Burman's work at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai. March 12 to 22.