Paritosh Sen's influences are evident in his works as they combine cubism and expressionist grotesquery

Paritosh Sen is perhaps one of India's best-known artists and leading members of the Calcutta Group. Laburnum and Indigo Galleries at Cholamandal Artists' Village revisit his legacy through a selection of works taken from different periods, which, placed side by side, indicate the changing shifts and turns in the artist's style and sensibility. The collection contains works both dating back to 1961 and as recent as 2007. It isn't a retrospective, but more a sampling of work gesturing at the diversity of the prolific artist's oeuvre.

Sen studied art in Chennai (then Madras) and also in Paris, where he met Pablo Picasso who is said to have influenced his work. The elements of cubism are present on Sen's canvases and papers, but combined with an expressionist grotesquery. His triptych ‘Woman Under Shower' (1999) is perhaps the work that will first attract your eye when you enter the gallery. It's colourful, bizarre and very large — stretching upwards to 72 inches. It shows three bathing women, each framed by a flat background of squared tiles, their voluptuous curves giving an illusion of the third dimension within the two dimensional plane — tricking your eye into perceiving a depth of field where there is none.

Tracing a chronology

Walking through the gallery, you can almost trace a chronology of the changing styles and preoccupations of the artist. Adjacent to his exuberant triptych are his caricaturesque charcoals and further on his colourful ‘Still Life with Mughal Objects' — each in style somewhat different from the other.

However, the exhibition makes me recall old family holidays, where a visit to an art gallery was always mandatory — even when back then none of us knew the first thing about art. This seems to be a general trend with families when they go to Europe — one must always visit a gallery and gasp at Picasso. You know these are famous works, but perhaps you don't always understand why it is that a lopsided woman with eyes on the side of her head is ‘great art'. Perhaps it's because then we didn't realise how Picasso, Braque and Gris broke away from the Western tradition of pictorial art that had been in place since the Renaissance to challenge conventional forms of perspective and representation; how revolutionary they were; how profoundly they impacted not just the course of art, but also the way that we perceive.

Yet these galleries contained informative material telling us this — in spite of whether or not you chose to read them — and this is where the Paritosh Sen exhibition is lacking. There is no argument against the significance and influence of Sen's work, and the broad existing body of academic writing about him, of course, only supplements this. Because of the rich scholarly fabric and reputation that today surrounds his work, it makes it seem that a knowledge of Sen's academic heritage would facilitate your appreciation of his art. Although perhaps this isn't necessary (in the Barthesian sense of de-authoring), it certainly would be helpful — and just informative in general (isn't it always good to learn new things?).

Paradigm shift

For instance, a brief timeline could help you view Sen's work in relation to his trajectory as an artist and compare shifts in formal qualities and responses to the changing paradigms of the world around him. Because not everyone is going to have a knowledge of his artistic background and relevance, and whilst there are books on Sen sold in the gallery, these cost Rs. 3,000. It's a shame there isn't a smaller brochure containing information for the average viewer — who I really do hope does go to see this exhibition. I would like to think that not everyone who visits this exhibition is a seasoned art lover — if Art Chennai truly wants to bridge the gap between the public and the general inhabitants of the art spaces, then established art spaces such as these should be a little more welcoming by sharing their knowledge and expertise.

(The exhibition is on at Laburnum and Indigo Galleries, Cholamandal, until March 18)


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