Arriving at The Object Craftsperson and Seamster
by Paula Sengupta
In the late 1960s, fresh out of art school, Partha Pratim Deb joined the Maharani Tulsibati Girls High School in Agartala as an art teacher. While, undoubtedly, his art education at Santiniketan and Vadodara had taught much, in effect, the emergence of Partha Pratim Deb's novel and innovative approach to art-making stems from these formative years in Agartala when the conventional notions of 'making' were perforce challenged. At that time, art materials were not readily available in Agartala as a result, Deb had to make them. From enamel paint to sawdust, adhesives, sand, and even broken furniture, Deb began to employ a vast array of materials to make “art”. To an extent, the use of alternative materials and the ability to be resourceful had been learnt from practitioners like Ramkinkar Baij and Biswaroop Bose in Santiniketan but this was the first that Deb's education in exploring multiple and non-conventional paths was put to the test.
From 1972, for over three consecutive decades, Partha Pratim Deb taught in the Faculty of Visual Arts at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, retiring eventually as its Dean in 2004. To separate Deb's academic career from his evolution as an artist is a near impossibility, for clearly, his practice would not have emerged as it did had it not been for the academic environment that shaped and nurtured it.
The Faculty was formed along liberal, democratic lines where holistic education and the spirit of experimentation were encouraged. Deb was instrumental in shaping this ideology, never allowing himself to be limited by the system either in teaching or practice. If questioned, Deb will tell you that he always looks upon his work as an “art object” rather than as a “painting” or “sculpture”, thereby defying and challenging set prescriptions for “art-making” and evolving new languages.
For the better part of Deb's career, academics and art practice progressed parallely, intrinsically intertwined and interdependent. Residing on campus, Deb spent countless hours in his office and the Faculty's studios teaching and working simultaneously. Able to access not only painting studios, but also sculpture and printmaking, as also a wealth of non-conventional and even throw-away/waste materials that lay around the campus, Deb extended his practice beyond all conceivable limits.
Having spent a couple of years as a student at Vadodara, Deb's concerns emerged differently from that of his contemporaries in Bengal and were quite detached from the politics of the time. Also, by virtue of his art education, Deb had received a wide exposure to the history of art. This, as well as everything he gleaned from news that filtered through, made him aware of the fast changing preoccupations of art practice in the west and the radical languages that were rapidly emerging.
In the early 70s, employed as he was by a fledgling institution that he was expected to shape, Deb attempted to look afresh at the lessons learnt from his teachers, driven by the desire to work against the grain. He also begins at this point to attempt to re-contextualise the concerns of western art movements that he was drawn to, especially Dadaism and Pop Art. In this process, Deb is gradually seen to emerge as a master craftsperson, where 'making' emerges as the paramount element of the creative process. From 1972 onwards, Deb's practice is clearly emboldened appropriating a wide range of mediums and languages in the process of image-making.
The 1978 series, Photo Session marks the entry of the found image in Deb's work a practice that is common enough in Postmodernist practice, but was completely unseen, perhaps even derided, in the 70s amongst Deb's contemporaries. Though Deb stumbled upon this idea rather than using it in any considered or premeditated manner, it represents a very significant breakthrough in his practice. From here onwards, the rampant use of found imagery in his work, later leading also to the use of found objects, added dimensions that were not seen again in Kolkata until the rather delayed onset of contemporary practice.
Fairly early on, even whilst working in a painterly, two-dimensional format, Deb exhibited a desire to incorporate the third dimension. From the early to the mid-70s, working on rather unconventional surfaces such as masonite board, plyboard, etc., Deb is seen as struggling against the flat surface of the canvas, defying its rigid contours with objects that attempt to exceed its limits. The emphasis is clearly on exploration of material and surface as opposed to content. In 1976, in an unprecedented response to material, the first found object a shirt makes its appearance pasted on plyboard and painted over in dark pigments. From here onwards, there was no looking back as the years passed, Deb went on to working increasingly with found objects, eventually turning sculptural in the process.
From the 70s onwards, Deb engaged in making a sizeable body of sculptural work. Much of this was in terracotta, a medium that he was able to easily access in the sculpture studios at the Faculty. These painted terracottas were organic/semi-organic forms, almost extensions of the artist's drawing practice, often executed on his office table just as the drawings were. The possibility of using found objects occurred to Deb from seeing the use of readymades by the Dadaists, adding yet another dimension to his sculptural practice. However, unlike the Dadaists, Deb, being the master craftsperson, was interested in transforming the object, either to enhance or to obliterate its identity. From a repository of throwaway objects that lay around the university campus or that students brought for his use, Deb took his pick, adding or subtracting at will to weave the sculptural narrative.
By virtue of teaching in the Painting Department at the Faculty of Visual Arts, Deb had access to a vast store of used canvas that students discarded. From the 80s, Deb began cutting these up into smaller squares/rectangles and making small interventions on the already painted surface. In the mid-90s, Deb's attempts at recycling used canvas come together with his innumerable experiments with the painting medium and surface, as also with his long-standing desire to stitch. Between 1995 and 97, there is a series of two-dimensional stitched canvas cloth works as well as simply stitching on canvas/board. Already proficient at texturally developing the painted surface, Deb now begins to use needle-and-thread as a drawing or construction tool, adding a third dimension to the picture-plane.
As a natural progression from these two-dimensional works, Deb finally graduates to constructing stitched, three-dimensional canvas sculptural objects. As a child, contrary to established clichés, Deb remembered his father as being a competent seamster who tailored clothes for them. It is not surprising, therefore, that he thought nothing of resorting to sewing cloth to make sculptural work, though, at the time, sculpture in India prided itself on being a largely masculine domain. In fact, Deb's initial attempt was to stitch overgarments these later started to develop exaggerated appendages and when hung up, came to resemble hanging human figures. However, Deb stopped short of trying to install these or any other work outside of conventional sculptural norms since, clearly, installation or even sculptural arrangements were without his artistic periphery.
Deb's use of found objects and images, as also much of his parallel, supporting explorations, preceded his time. Since his work was not frequently seen or understood, he was largely dismissed by the artist fraternity as inconsequential. This, however, did not deter him in the least for at the Faculty, his significance only continued to grow. Enthused and encouraged by his colleagues and students, Deb surged ahead with his practice, confronting new frontiers everyday. Till 2004 and for a short while after, Deb continued to dabble in making objects, both from found materials as also from scratch. However, retirement from service and the disassociation from the art school environment that nurtured his experimental practice, has taken its toll on object-making in more recent years.