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Painting of Dharmanarayan Dasgupta: Social Critique through Fantasy and Satire

by Mrinal Ghosh

Fantasy, fun and satire  these are the three elements of the paintings of Dharmanarayan Dasgupta (1939 – 1997) through which he used to posit a social critique. His images are figurative but they defy the environment of apparent reality. Even they negate the force of gravity. The men and women, the protagonists of his paintings, can easily walk or fly in the air, can enter a closed room defying the barrier of the wall, the hutments, trees and other elements of nature can rhythmically move in the air. He thus created a very soothing and sonorous world of dream. But this apparent grotesque pleasantness gradually yields towards a pathetic and melancholic void extracting and analyzing the uncanny contours of reality showing how our existence lacks the firm base and deep root, how we live in an amorphous world without any force of bondage, without any gravitational integrity. Through apparent melodious fantasy the paintings of Dharmanarayan build up a grave social critique unmasking the socio-psychological void inherent in our existence.

Like most of the artists coming to limelight during 1960-s apart from this social critique he also had a search for indigenous identity through assimilation of tradition and modernity, through synthesis of western and indigenous form elements. In a short note that he had written as an introduction to his works in the album published by 'Society of Contemporary Artists' in 1991, the artists' group of which he was an active member since 1970, he clarified his stand in his expressions thus: “The world is shrinking. But the geographical features of a country, its climate, the people and their culture remain essentially the same. Upheavals and changes are on the surface. By birth I am what I am, and there are certain things I inherit, so I feel I should have something in my work that distinctively speaks of my own heritage.” He also said, “I live in a world of crisis and chaos. I have not chosen it  a special set of historical and personal circumstances have forced it upon me. My works, perhaps, reveal my experience of that world through fantasy, fun and satire.

To reflect the language of his own heritage he had to strive a lot. At the initial stage he tried with the tantrik imageries to attain a flavour of mythical India. But that did not reflect contemporary reality; neither could achieve any aesthetic originality. So he abandoned the idiom. Then he explored the form elements and colour composition of Indian medieval miniatures, especially Rajput and Pahadi paintings, studied the intrinsic characteristics of Kalighat paintings and other folk forms of Bengal. The humour and satire associated with various artistic and literary expressions of nineteenth century Babu culture of Bengal also appeared to him to contain extensive possibility. He meticulously studied the idioms. Through assimilation of the essential features of all these sources he devised his own form, which within the apparent environment of lyrical fantasy reflected his caustic criticism of the existential dilemma. His art education at Kala Bhavana of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan and association with such masters like Binodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar helped and inspired him through this exploration. At a certain stage he was also attracted by the innovations of Western modernism, specially the environment of fantasy implicit in expressionism and surrealism. The naïve world of Henry Rousseau (1844 - 1910), the simplicity, innocence, pleasant atmosphere of his paintings exposed new light to him. He could feel within all these Western modernist innovations there were certain subtle elements of oriental Wisdom. He tried for a synthesis of these two worlds. And after about one decade contemplative research he was able to innovate his own form through which he could made a mark in the modernist painting of 1960-s.

Dasgupta was born in 1939 in a small town named Dharmanagar at Tripura. It was in the base of a hill called Unokoti. The landscape was beautiful. Their family was however original inhabitant of a village in the district of Kumilla at East Bengal, now in Bangladesh. His father Satyabhushan Dasgupta worked in the office of the King of Tripura. He had to move in the different parts of the province. The beauty of the landscape fascinated Dharmanarayan during his childhood. He did his schooling at Agartala. Since his childhood he felt an inclination towards artistic creativity. After completing Intermediate course from a college at Agartala he went to Santiniketan and got admitted in Kala-Bhavana in 1957. In his own word, “the half educated village boy of Tripura got a new life at Santiniketan.” The cultural and natural environment of Santiniketan, the association with artists and teachers, especially Binodebehari and Ramkinkar opened up a new world of creativity to him. He completed the course in 1961.

He returned to Agartala and was engaged in a job there, but felt dissatisfied. The environment was not congenial for his artistic development. He came to Calcutta. The art environment of Calcutta was new to him. It was different from what he experienced at Santiniketan. Here he found the artists of his generation were more inclined towards Western modernistic modes. He felt a dilemma, dilemma between nationalism and so called internationalism. The cultural heritage of Santiniketan and the light that it kindled in him helped him to find the way.

His first solo exhibition was held from 6 to 13 November of 1963 at Artistry House Gallery of Park Street at Calcutta. He showed 8 oils and 22 watercolours. He tried to absorb the western modernistic idioms, but could not attain total success. After one year in November 1964 he participated in a three person show at Delhi along with his two friends, who were now famous, Ramchandran and Deviprasad Saha. His inclination towards surrealism was appreciated. In June, 1966 he participated in a group show of six artists again at Artistry House in Calcutta. Among the other participants there were Ganesh Pyne, Lalu Prasad Shaw and Bikash Bhattacharya. The Statesman commented on 9 June 1966 on his works thus: “Dharmanarayan Dasgupta has imposed a kind of monumentality on his large pictures notable for their detailed draughtsmenship.

In November 1967 he made a duet show with Lalu Prasad Shaw at Arts and Prints Gallery. Two kinds of paintings were there. One was portrait based. There was expression of dreadful panic in the faces, which was posited as existential turmoil. The other was fantasy based paintings in bright colours showing some affinity with the expressionist environment of the paintings of Rabindranath. During early 1970-s he made a series of paintings on old cars. Fantasy took a distinct turn in this series. This trend gradually developed. The paintings he displayed in the annual exhibition of 'Society of Contemporary Artists' in December 1980 were appreciated for his originality. The Economic Times commented: 'The pictures in general have the same effect as fire whose flame has gone out but whose warmth lingers'. The original form was evolved.

The social turmoil always haunted him. The memory of violence, counter violence and death during the naxalite movement of 1969-70 was expressed in a series of paintings during early 1980-s. He made a series on blood stained garment. A male garment (panjabi) is hanging from the from a hook on the wall. Drops of blood are falling from it. On the ground the crows are sucking the blood. Such were the horrified imageries of death and violence. He gradually came out of such dreadful expression to express tragic void out of apparently pleasant fantasy.

In his second solo, which was held at Calcutta Art gallery in 1985, he could show some important marks of individuality. The forms he devised here in tempera and glass paintings were combination of satire and fantasy built up from the urban-folk stylizations inherent in Kalighat paintings and other traditional idioms. He was also fascinated by the wealthy tradition of our medieval miniature paintings, especially by the jubilant color fields and spatial arrangements of Rajput and Pahadi schools and Bengal folks. Assimilating all these traditional modes what he brought out were very much penetrating temporal social satire in the guise of nineteenth century babu culture of Calcutta. His characters float as if in a grvitationless environment in their personal world of fantasy with an urge for fulfillment of their desires. This humorous and fantasy oriented social satire could achieve a stronger formal integrity in his third solo of 1988 held at Chitrakoot Art Gallery of Kolkata. Since then his progress has continued unabated. In the third solo he showed 15 paintings in tempera. The remaining five were glass painting. He showed his originality in these two mediums.

During 1960-s and 70-s painting could not be a dependable profession for the artists. Dasgupta tried many professions, mostly teaching. Finally in 1985 he joined as teacher in painting department of Rabindra Bharati University and rose to the position of Dean of the faculty of Visual Arts. His contribution as the teacher of arts beside his achievement as a creative artist has also placed him in an important position in the art field of our country. It is unfortunate, he did not have the full span of life. He could not survive a sudden ailment that terminated his life on 24 October 1997 only at the age of 58 years. But this could not diminish his contribution. He is remembered as an important innovator of the indigenous identity of our modernist painting that was generated by the artists of 1960-s.


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