|Jatin Das at Sarala Art Centre, Madras/ Chennai|
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to separate the public and private persona of Jatin Das. They shade into one another indivisibly. Whether gauged by his life or his art, he emerges as a larger-than-life, electrifying personality. His paintings and drawings have a restless energy, an almost palpable flow of coursing colour, like blood through the veins. His focus is Man. He crams into the human form all life, both within and without it.
His nudes ~ whether as supple line drawings or earthy oils on canvas ~ flow from reservoirs unseen, encounters uncharted, passions unquenched. His hunger for life, for experience, for rewarding relationships, is torrid, tangible and occasionally teasing. What fuels his burning pace? What music palpitates through his being? Can he cram all he wants to into a single, stratified life?
His paintings have proved to be best-sellers in New Delhi, where he lives. Every alternate interview he’s done has proved controversial ~ for Jatin does not mince words, whether about inter-personal relationships or sharing views on current politics or the commerce of art.
In person, this recurrently angry, middle-aged man’s interests flow into all matters that touch the human discourse. His artist’s soul analyses subjects as diverse as Indian classical music, art education, the cut-and-thrust of living in real and surreal time. His pride in his Indian roots surfaces at the most unlikely times. Delta-like, Jatin encompasses as much as he can within the surge of a river in spate.
“Why can’t a drawing or painting be accepted for what it is? My work never has an agenda,” he protests, his hands agitating the air in a flurry of gesture. “I don’t set out to do anything. My work is not narrative. It’s not telling a story. I paint first, then draw the outline. I see something and just feel like translating that onto paper. That’s it.”
Jatin’s subject matter is derived from everyday inroads into life. From the intense colours of a sunset over his terrace. From the ecstatic shrieks and cries of children at play outside his door. From the captivating body language of sweepers, construction workers and domestic help.
“I take photographs of trivial things ~ when a tree is cut down, when new sprouts of sienna and shades of browns and greens appear on a dead log,” reveals Jatin the individual. “These photographs are just manifestations of my concern. They are never enlarged. I write a bit of free verse occasionally. I listen to a lot of music. I am open, willing and ready to be exposed anything and any influence which comes my way.”
But why is the human body a constant in his art? Is that an obsession? “I have been painting human figures for many years. So many works get cancelled in my mind. It is not the fear of death, but that the factual linear time is short. Every time I finish a work, I feel it is a starting point, and the feeling continues,” Jatin explains. “Usually, I like working on a single figure. Now and then, two figures together have periodically emerged unintentionally. Recently, I’ve become conscious of it as a series. I suppose I’ve become more and more conscious about human relationships and our predicament, with the man-woman relationship as the most complex of them all. But it’s in no way a documentary of anything.”
Is the sheer physicality of his renditions deliberate? “I try to capture a mood, an emotion. And the body, the form, the physicality is accidential,” Jatin avers.
Jatin’s words flow torrentially, changing colour and direction in response to moods. He is as quick to disgust as to laughter. He enters the spark and fusion of discussion almost with glee. Phrases from Bengali, Oriya, Hindi and French dapple his conversation. The poetic, rather than the prosaic, is his chosen metier, whether verbally or visually.
Winding through the diverse bylanes of his life, he recalls Mayurbhanj in Orissa, where he was born in December 1941: “A small town with mountains and rivers and ponds and fish and dance and music all around… a solid traditional and natural locale.” From there, he moved on to study art at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay, to live and teach in Delhi, and to exhibit widely at home and abroad.
Here are fragments from Jatin’s world, in his own verbal strokes:
How would you render yourself through the prism of art?
I am a contemporary painter. The traditional painter did paintings or sculptures or etchings for religion or worship. He was the product of a homogenous society. The nawab or the king or the temple looked after him. It was a collective approach that was congenial to him.
Today, it is tougher because of the pressure of the industrial situation. Besides, there’s your ambition and the fight for survival. I work alone. My work is not religion-bound, but every work of art is bound by the spiritual.
Are working conditions in India conducive to your art?
In our country, compared to the rest of the world, we have a lot of freedom that we are not using. We do not have state patronage or pressures, like in the socialist countries, of what art should be. Know what kind of freedom I am talking about? Lack of concern. The indifference of society is a freedom in itself, na?
Our media is totally indifferent to the visual arts. Our government does not have a cultural policy. Any committed, serious-minded, involved artist here works in a state of vacuum. Whether you have a good write-up on your paintings or a bad write-up, whether you sell or don’t sell, whether you exist or don’t, nobody will worry. Uday Shankar died, a great genius; but nobody cared. In our country, you need sustaining power. You have to burn your own fuel and fall back on yourself because we do not have proper criticism.
There are many good artists here who realize we are the product of a bastard situation. (With mounting excitement) Who is aware that at Bombay and Calcutta and Madras ~ you know, the 150-year-old British schools ~ we learnt of Michelangelo and the Greek concept of sculpture and figuration that the proportion for a beautiful body is seven-and-a-half heads?
In our iconography, we have five-head, ten-head concepts. Fantastic! Concepts which have not dated. I’m surprised that few Indian artists are working with the virgin material available. I’m not talking of bringing in Indianness by copying, by aping it. I am talking about digesting or imbibing all this to do what you want to do.
I’m not saying this only as an Indian. I’m saying this as an artist.
What do you feel you have contributed to Indian art?
Oh my god! Oh my god! That’s such a heavy question! (Laughing aloud) I don’t think I have contributed anything at all to Indian art. No, no, I am purely responsible for myself. All my work ~ good or bad, whether you like it or don’t ~ I don’t blame anybody or the situation or anything for it.
Mind you, many people think I am a painter, so I should be concerned about the sensibility of Pattachitra or Pichwai or Kangra miniatures only. Personally, I feel if Kumar Gandharva has arrived at such a stage that, when I listen to him I sit at the edge of my chair in the audience, I’m terribly envious that I have not reached there yet. He was lucky because Indian classical music has flowed like a river, uninterrupted, till today. Contemporary art has had no continuous flow. It has taken off from the colonial period, from Ravi Varma.
What I am saying is: contributing to Indian art is all bullshit. I haven’t done a thing. I’m just waking up gradually. I’m frustrated that I haven’t done enough. And so much has been done already. In any discipline of art or science, if you knew how much has been done, you would stop working. It’s only because you have a compulsion, for no reason, you paint or draw…
How do you select your themes?
The landscape (in my paintings) is now contained in the human form. In the past, if this was the format (hands block spaces in the air), there were landscapes and smaller figures. What has happened in the last 18 years or so is that the human form has enlarged and occupied full space in the canvas and the landscape has been contained within.
When anybody does a Ganesh, Shiva or Parvati, he is representing iconographic codification or simplifying it. When I paint a human form, I try to give it an attitude of charge or energy. Because my paintings are only bare human forms. They are not clothed. They are not naked. There’s no locale. There’s no architecture. There’s no vegetation around it. Just the minimal human body.
What’s the impetus for your art? Are you conscious of any outside influences?
When I paint a human form, why should I be influenced by a painter who is painting human forms? Why not by human beings themselves? It is a wrong notion that an artist has to be influenced by another artist. My experiences are also derived from theatre, music, dance, painting and poetry… and cobblers and basketry-makers.
There are many persons you have been carrying around with you to your bed or to your house. I don’t know much about how work evolves, but I do know some aspect of it ~ from eating, from drinking, from gardening, from making love, from taking a walk or from being concerned with other people or picking up the suitcase of an old lady who can’t carry it…
My work has evolved in different directions within the main current. I have not yet exhausted that direction. When I do, whether the public like it or not, I will go on to another. But I will go naturally; I will not force myself. Each canvas differs in terms of handling. But they are not very different because I am the same person. I have the same expertise in my fingers, in my muscles.
Now, I look back and find different rhythms at different periods. This rhythm is unknown to the artist and (vehemently) I don’t want to find out. It is not necessary. Believe me, all this analysis is meaningless… I don’t know my work fully well. By indirect observation, I find I am pre-occupied with the human predicament or charge and energy, that is the governing pivot around which the human being lives.
How important is technique to you?
I believe every medium has innumerable possibilities. It is the journey of the artist, what he or she discovers. The technique is just a vehicle. It’s your mind, the spiritual content of your work that’s important. Technique is not important, but the whole of the western world is caught up with the innovation of newer techniques for the sake of newness.
I am open and willing to try different mediums or techniques if I can make them my own, to say what I want to say.
Is this business of exhibitions important to you?
When I exhibit, it is a fraction of the total body of my work in the studio. The total body of studio work is a fraction of my total thinking. So, it is a fractional thing you are seeing. On the other hand, there are many paintings you may have in your mind that you just cancel in your mind. You never do them. How about that?
One is caught up in the vulgarity and basic dichotomy of modern living. I’m not living in the Himalayas and I’m not being looked after by society and the state. I paint and I sign on my paintings.(Furiously) One has imbibed the western manifestations of a gallery and museum and selling and cataloguing and all that nonsense which, personally, I don’t believe in but, for my own survival, I have to be a part of.
When I paint, nothing matters. But it is also human that I should like people to see my work. I would like my work to be sold and written about, but I’m not ambitious at any cost.
How do you feel about the morality of selling paintings?
Everybody has to sell their commodity to survive. The only difference is I am not selling my soul. I am not making sweet, romantic Indian landscapes for foreigners and Indians to buy, those who will match their curtains and carpets with my paintings. My paintings pose a great problem for people to buy because they are stark and confront you. If you have one in your house, it will demand your attention. You can’t ignore it as a wall hanging.
I have given away my work free to very close friends. I have sold my work at half-price or in installments. Sometimes, I don’t sell or show a work to some people. (Sadly) But I have also learnt a lesson. I have given away drawings that are still rolled up or left on a shelf.
Now, I even want to price my lovely brochures nominally, so that you won’t throw them away. This is the modern situation. I am not living in the 18th century or the 6th century or whatever…
How do you relate to your viewing public?
Intellectual understanding is a nonsensical thing, a false western attitude. What is important is exposure and familiarity, not understanding.
In 1976, I was taking my drawings to the Kumar Gallery in Delhi in an autorickshaw for an exhibition. The rickshawallah said: “What are these? Can I see?” So, I took him along before the opening and he went around. He said, “It’s the first time I’m looking at such work.” And in his own simple Hindi, he realized that the figures were tense and full of energy.
Let me give you another situation. I was holding a show in England. People arrived. Just before entering the gallery, they asked me, “Are you a cubist? Are you an expressionist?” They want to term me, to place me. It’s like westerners expecting Indians to be snake-charmers or elephant-riders or, maximum, painters of miniatures and temple sculptors. (Indignantly) They are not ready to accept that contemporary Indian art exists.
How important is art education?
Our total education system is faulty. The British made a hotchpotch of it to churn out clerks, not to educate people. Schools and colleges should be centres where you are longing to go, to learn. The bridge between school and home and society, between art and science, should be deeply embedded in the system. All the allied arts ~ tribal, classical, folk, contemporary ~ should be shown to children at the primary level without force.
What is the point of going to Ikebana classes for a young, sophisticated lady who does not even water her plants at home? We are aping the superficial western world of the 1930s and 1940s. The government is doing nothing to curb video games. They don’t realise it will create generations with all kinds of aggression. It is vulgar. (With agitation) These days, people are buying real-looking plastic pistols for their children!
Does the art critic have a major role to play in the Indian context?
It is his role to bridge the gap between the artist and the viewer or listener, to put himself in the shoes of the artist and find his pulse. He should be educated, sensitive, ready, willing to travel with the artist. He should start out with humility, not with arrogance. Only if you have artists do the historian and the critic and the buyer and the onlooker come in.
The critic’s role is also to go in search of the artist. His personal viewpoint is of no consequence. He should be so enlightened that his personal viewpoint becomes a total viewpoint with a knowledge of the art world, the art situation, the social surroundings in which the artist lives.
Is there more that you’d like to share of yourself?
Sometimes, I’m so frustrated by my own situation that I feel I should give up painting and go and work in a village. But I’m not cynical. I still have the energy to bulldoze or fight. Or dash off a letter to the (Lalit Kala) Akademi or to the government blindly, to register my protest.
I’m concerned about everything. I go and spy if someone is beating up a child. My friends complain that I indulge too much, dissipating energy. That’s how I am and it’s too late in the day to change.
I’m also very impatient ~ not scared ~ that time is running out. There is so much one is capable of, that one hasn’t done. So much one wants to do that one hasn’t done…
(Originally published in Indian Express, Chennai/ Madras, in September 1983)