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Sen and sensibility

A retrospective of Paritosh Sen, the grand old man of Indian art, is on in the City till the end of the month.

One of Paritosh Sen's untitled works.

RETROSPECTIVE ART World, Chennai, is taking a Paritosh Sen Retrospective - the artist's first - to the major art centres in the country, Time & Space and Gallerie Zen being responsible for the exhibition in Bangalore. It is currently on at the latter's suitably spacious and well-lit gallery on Dickenson Road till August 30.

At 83, Sen's life and work has spanned many exciting developments, in India and abroad. Some of the socio-political aspects and many of the artistic developments of those decades are reflected in the 60 years of his creative life - from 1930 to this millennium.

However, the exhibition is a patchy, rather than comprehensive, representation of his progress and growth as an artist, concentrating more on his earlier and most recent periods, the hiatus being the '60s and '70s. Some of the works, particularly from the early periods, are recreations either mechanically reproduced or freshly painted replicas.

A self-portrait.

Growing up in Bengal, it is no surprise that the earliest influence on Sen was the Bengal School, from which the folk art simplification of rural elements and the typically "fish-eyed" women are apparent, though he was not slavishly following its style. (The Pine Tree, 1939, seems an assertion of his individuality.) His palette is muted, if not downright gloomy as in Bengali Wedding Scene, though one would expect such a subject to be expressed in bright and joyous colours. Some of his perspectives at this time are refreshingly experimental as in Bengal Village and Watering a Tulsi Plant.

Of the replicas on view from this period are his adaptations of miniatures on Mughal court life. Akbar and Jodhabai (1938) is a felicitous example of the best from both the indigenous styles, personalised with a touching sense of intimacy between the two figures.

Sen was a founder member of the Calcutta School in 1943. The group's attempt to make its work modern and more reflective of the realities perceived around it, resulted in a loosening of the Bengal School inheritance, allowing a much freer use of form, space, and colour. The infusion of the modernist aesthetic, the result of the availability of European modern art in reproduction, is apparent in paintings from this period, the Third Class Compartment being the only example on view.

His study in Paris had an immediate influence on him, Picasso exerting the strongest, resulting in distortions of form and figure, emboldening his palette with pure colour and emphasising the importance and beauty of line. Louder echoes are perceived in the paintings on display from the years following his return from Paris: the faces, particularly, of The Bird Seller and Boy Floating Paper Boats, seem imitative of the maestro.

The 1960s saw a more savagely expressionistic outpouring, his reaction to the disturbing global political scene, with massive shapes and volumes, unconfined by the discipline of line, causing an almost non-figurative amorphousness. Though no paintings are on show from this stage of his work, there are smaller works - sketches, pen and ink drawings, calligraphic brushwork - of the '60s and '70s. These genres have a vitality and charm of their own, the essence of momentary instances captured with a few quick unlaboured strokes, and usually a true indication of the artist's lineal facility. They cover a range of subjects from animals and birds to the human figure, the most charming being The Pregnant Lady (1978) brushed in with grey ink on rough sepia paper, the pure black of her sari border giving it the feel of a Chinese brush painting.

On his return to India, Sen had recovered his Indian sensibility, though Western modernist formal values continued.

They were more relaxed and less self-conscious because the borrowings were made his own, therefore more intrinsic. The '80s saw a joyous return to the singing line, a return to Cubist refractions and deftly handled colour planes, which style has continued into his present day work.

Sen has been free from sentimentality, a playfulness and irony providing a healthy counterweight to that Bengali trait.

His love of and concern with people is expressed usually in single figures that dominate the canvases, portrayed with witty indulgence or sharper irony. The figures of various occupations are his own renderings of subjects such as are often found in Company School works: The Bird Seller, Kutchi Woman at the Spinning Wheel, The Coconut Vendor. His series on politicians attacks their venality with trenchant, but rarely savage, caricature, though there is only one painting in this idiom, Portrait of a Mafia Don. His ample women engage in the homely or the mundane as in Woman with Telephone and Woman Feeding Bird.

In all his figures the eyes are informed with intelligence or awareness and are not obliterated with defeat or impersonality. In the two paintings of Ravana mourning death of son it is extraordinary how much grief is conveyed by the eyes, the tragedy coming not merely from the painted tears, and in the Man with Hookah sketch, the eyes of the men mirror their smoke-filled brains. Strange, then, that in the Self-Portraits on display, Sen's eyes are blanked out with spectacles, but perhaps this device is a result of his self-effacing personality. A wry objectivity erases all trace of ego though the regrettable passing of time is a main concern (a clock looks over his shoulder in Self-Portrait with Grandfather Clock), his mouth a dour slash across his skeletal face, very often looking like the Grim Reaper himself.

The overall impression of the retrospective is Sen's expressive exuberance, his concern for life in its many aspects, idiomatically expressed indifferent formalist phases, an overdue tribute to a grand old man of Indian art's modernism.


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