There are two aspects of Amitava's show, currently on at the Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai, that strike a viewer: the amorphous, almost Rorschach-ian forms on the canvas and the general mode of pain. His works are home to bright splashes of colour, to near-fluorescent hues, to light-reflective gold and silver, to what seems to be the occasional sequin (but is actually a kind of paint cleverly used), but there is an anguish that seeps into the air as you stand in front of Tamra and the Wounded Tree, or Inflicted Wounds or even the diptych titled Wounded Earth, without really looking at the names neatly placed alongside. As the canvas reveals its various facets, you start seeing, understanding, where the darkness is, where the tears come from: Small strips of medical sticky-tape, carefully placed on the paint, centred by a red blotch, a wound given rudimentary first aid. There is nothing specifically delineated, but much that is felt, unsaid, emanating from the thought that has created the work. And in the gentle wash of pain, there are small stars of celebration, of joy, as in Vivaho where the couple stand shyly separated by a dividing line, the red sprays perhaps of the flowers in the garlands that will soon make them one…
Delhi-bred and based Amitava Das, a Bengali in accent, appearance and sensibility (even though he avers, albeit with a smile, that the people of Kolkata need to grow out of an obsession with Tagore and Rabindra Sangeet), showed in Mumbai after a hiatus of six years. “I have shows in other places,” he says, “it is not possible to show only in one place all the time!” He refuses to classify his work, insisting that “When I work, I do not work from a particular point of view saying it belongs to a particular style or phase or school. It is up to the viewer or anyone who can appreciate my work to classify it. I don't believe in doing so – a true work of art doesn't belong to any school or anything else.”
A graphic-cum-exhibition designer by professional, Amitava studied at the Delhi College of Art even as he worked on various shows, mainly designing pavilions for India in major trade fairs and events abroad. “The last project I did before I quit (exhibition design) was to design the India Pavilion for the Cannes Film Festival.That was the year Devdas was the official Indian entry.” The true importance of this field and his contribution to it came in 1984 – “I did a show that gave me a space of 23,000 square meters – it was the Hanover Industrial Fair, and India was a partner country. The next day, they stopped showing India of the past and started showing modern India – that is the impact that we had!” Amitava remembers that “in 1989, the same thing happened. Trade through fairs is the new culture, the way of thinking - that is why there are so many art fairs today. India has slowly become a global partner in almost every field, especially in the visual arts.” He believes that this is evident in “the fact that Hollywood actors want to act in Bollywood these days!”Indian art is fast gaining a position of great respect in the international realm.
However, “Many people try to showcase their work from their point of view, which is wrong. We should try and showcase our work from our cultural point of view,” Amitava insists. “We have to act according to international terms – this is something that India should try and changeso that our point of view is recognised. We should be able to make art from this region be seen and acknowledged and recognised the world over as having a unique cultural identity. We should not have a complex about that. We should feel that we are strong, that this is our/my art.” This, he feels, is hardly a simple issue to deal with. “The problem is that we do not have the right promoters. Also, we do not have good art writers, or the right backing – not government backing, since the government should not interfere, but should merely provide support. Otherwise red tapism and bureaucracy will not allow art to grow.” In this, though, self-promotion, is not a player, since promotion is “not my job – that is what the galleries or art writers and promoters should do.”
With many years of experience backing him, Amitava has some advice to give. “Young artists should work sincerely and consciously with respect for art and their own culture. I cannot advise them on how to promote themselves. But, of course, the whole world has become far more transparent now, with the Internet, and there is a great revolution happening in communication. Facilities are available, and now younger artists have to have a different way of presenting their work, but they should always remember that the mind is far more important than informationToo much information has to be matched by a point of view..” So what is the magic formula to find success, especially internationally? He explains his perspective that “Certain artists have been recognised, but there are so many more who are good but do not have promotional avenues and ways of being noticed internationally. If you want to participate in a biennale, for instance, you have to do a certain kind of art – multimedia or installation, perhaps. That should not be a factor in selection, though it tends to be. I don't accept it.” How does he manage to keep ahead in this kind of environment, especially since competition is, to put it mildly, cut-throat? “I paint, I draw, but I don't do installation art or sculpture – after all, I have done that on a very large scale in exhibition designs! And my work was more architectural then. I do not feel like doing it now since I have already done it, though with a different purpose!" In Moscow some years ago I was given a huge glazed wall to work on, wonderfully brightly lit by the sun. I did a tapestry mural with the help of 250 women from Mehrauli village, through an NGO, and they wove my design on canvas with felt to show a Krishna Leela. Amitava makes it clear that “I am not against installation art – I appreciate it greatly, but feel that it is a greater organizational feat than an individual one. Many works of this kind today are not original, but derivative to a great extent.” And, to make it worse, “Many younger artists are confused about it and so do all sorts of things to grab attention.”
Many years ago, “I divided my attention into study work and my own work ever since I was in art college. By the fourth year I had a successful one-man show.” Family support comes, even though “My father originally wanted me to study commerce, be a CA, have a career. I joined a commerce course, but quit soon enough. At the time I never took art as a subject since I did not like the way it was taught. I would visit shows, read, watch others – that is how I learned enough to get into college.”
Commerce and art need not be separated, Amitava says, since “Ultimately, artists need to survive. Why should they keep the old image of the jhola-carrying struggler? They should have the best of whatever is available, a good life and lifestyle, so why not aim to sell?” But intentions as an artist should be clear, “You should not play to the gallery. That's why I never depended on anyone – I was independent, worked for my living and did art, since it was my passion.”
Keywords: Amitava Das