Exhibition of Ashok Bhowmick’s Paintings to Mark Emergency Anniversary

Amidst pouring rain in Kolkata today well-known painter Ashok Bhowmick held an exhibition of 12 of his paintings in the verandah of Vivekananda Hall at Jadhavpur University campus, after which in the afternoon he gave a talk on “Progressive Trends in Indian Painting”.

It was the occasion for remembering the Emergency in today’s context. During the Emergency Ashok Bhowmick was in Azamgarh town of U.P. Those were the days when he was gaining an understanding of well-known Hindi poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh’s poem “Andhere Mein”. The paintings in the exhibition, inspired by Muktibodh’s “Andhere Mein” and other poems, have an impact similar to that of paintings by Goya and also Picasso’s “Guernica”. All the twelve paintings included in the exhibition were painted in the 1980s.

The exhibition was organized under the joint aegis of the Kolkata chapter of Pratirodh ka Cinema (Cinema of Resistance) and the art group Jan Kala Samooh of the Jan Sanskriti Manch. Introducing Ashok Bhowmick, Pratirodh ka Cinema Kolkata chapter convenor Kasturi said that he is one of those rare artists of today who relate art and politics. Inaugurating the exhibition, lyricist, singer and musician Nitish Roy (associated with Gana Sanskriti Parishad) appreciated the significant contribution of Bhowmick in taking the identity and work of Indian progressive artists to the people and compared his contribution to Hindi literary society to that of Kolkata artist Khaled Choudhury. Speaking on the occasion national convenor of the Pratirodh ka Cinema campaign Sanjay Joshi highlighted the importance of the cultural-political atmosphere nurtured by Bhowmick along with the Progressive Students’ Association (now AISA) in Allahabad and credited him as the creator of the poetry-poster movement and the new genre of calligraphy. On this occasion Bhowmick gave the audience a detailed introduction to the context of each of the pictures in the exhibition.

In his talk on “Progressive Trends in Indian Painting” Bhowmick explained to the people the identification of progressive elements in Indian painting and the finer points and politics of painting. His talk was divided into sub-headings and accompanied by slides of examples from world art. In this context he stressed that the responsibility of today’s artist is to take art to the common people. He discussed the progressive elements in Indian painting under different sections. In the first s section titled “Modern Indian Painting in Search of its Roots” he said that the emergence of what is called modern poetry must be seen in juxtaposition with the formation of the Indian Society for Oriental Art. In this phase the work of painters such as Abanindranath Thakur, Asit Haldar, Nandalal Bose, Raja Ravi Varma and Hemendra Majumdar show that our early painting was limited to the female body, kings and queens, and the quest for religion. Sister Nivedita’s remark on Nandlal Bose’s painting “Sati”, that “becoming a sati is the ideal of Indian womanhood” is a telling commentary on the early development of Indian painting. Taking a small diversion here Bhowmick analysed the reasons why some paintings triumph over time and death, and mentioned Goya’s “Facing the Firing Squad: the 3rd of May 1808” and Picasso’s painting (1951) “Massacre in Korea” as two such immortal creations.

Bhowmick then took up the section “Art in Times of Trouble” and spoke about “Gassed”, a painting by American artist John Singer Sargent which depicted the heinous use of gas by Germany during the war and which is today counted as a great anti-war painting. In the same section he also spoke about George Clausen’s painting “Youth Mourning” and Picasso’s “Guernica”. Bhowmick considered it very significant that Picasso broke his form and created a new form when he painted “Guernica” in 1936.

Bhowmick then spoke about Indian painting in its new avatar, calling this section “The New Face of Indian Painting”. He felt that the post-independence transformation of Delhi into a new art market was significant and was possibly due to the many foreign embassies located in the capital facilitating a new market here. During this phase the old People’s Art Group also changed. According to Bhowmick the PAG on the one hand blindly followed Picasso and on the other developed “mechanical” art. Citing the example of Souza he said that unlike Picasso, Souza had no reason to break his form, and therefore his pictures do not have the same significance. In the context of the new avatar of Indian painting he cited near-replicated paintings by G.R. Santosh, Raza and Sohan Kadri to show how they were mechanically replicating ideas and were far removed from new ideas and the people.

In the penultimate section “Metro Art” Bhowmick commented sharply on the outlandish institutes that are coming up in the name of art. Citing Subodh Gupta’s work, he explained how art is now being run according to the market rules. He said that art, instead of communicating emotions, has become trapped in the play of glamour and size; that is why we see Subodh Gupta painting “Absolute Vodka” in the shape of a bottle, or shaping a measure with 1 kg gold and calling it art, and Thukral and Tagra coming up with “Gold Flake”. Bhowmick regretfully owned that the number of fools inhabiting the world of painting today is greater than that in any other art form. He deemed it unfortunate that one can “buy” painting whereas even today poetry and prose are beyond price.

In the final section Bhowmick focussed on “Paintings of Drought” and showed the audience the true progressive elements in Indian painting. He introduced the audience to the works of Zainul Abedin, (Drought series), Sudhir Khastagir (woodcuts), Ramkinkar Baij, Gobardhan Ash, Atul Basu, Quamrul Hassan, Gopen Roy, Somnath Hore, and Debabrata Mukhopadhyay. According to him Chittaprosad was an Indian painter in the true sense, who painted a variety of subjects like the Bengal famine, Tebhaga peasants’ revolt, Birsa Munda, Durbhiksh of Kolhapur, and the fighting people of Kashmir. The trend of giving space to the common man in art started by Rabindranath in 1931 continued with K.K. Hebbar, B. Prabha, N.S. Bendre, Sadequain and Quamrul Hassan. It was this awareness and sensitivity which enabled Kamrul Hassan when he went to Dhaka after partition, to disregard dictatorial rule and include training in sculpture as well as enrol girl students in the art college he established. When the time came, he also created the poster “Aise Janwaron ki Hatya Karni Hogi” against a powerful ruler like Yahya Khan.

After the talk Bhowmick had a 45 minute question and answer session with the audience. Answering a question on whether the progressive legacy is still alive post Quamrul Hassan (in this era of Metro Art), Bhowmick replied that there are certainly some young painters who are preventing their paintings from becoming “goods for sale” and whom he would definitely discuss in a future talk.

The programme was conducted by Pratirodh ka Cinema Kolkata chapter convenor Kasturi.