Tribute to Hemanta Misra: the “Calcutta Group” Painter
by Moushumi Kandali
While we look back to the last two decades in this issue of the Art news & views to take stock of the things that had “happened” in the Indian art world – I take a quantum leap back to the forties. Those who were witness to the pulsating art scenario in Kolkata in the forties with an ideological departure initiated by a new group of artists called the progressives/ Calcutta group, perhaps remember a young man from Assam who was one of the members of the group. For the subsequent two decades he was an active integral figure in the art scene exhibiting in the major shows and had been featured with critical acclaim in the major art journals and magazines of the time such as the Lalit Kala Contemporary, Samkalin Kala among which an elaborate appraisal by artist Pradosh Das Gupta is worth-mentioning. This surrealist painter, so called by Pradosh Das Gupta, played a significant role in ushering the hybrid and inter -lingual inter- textual character of Indian art in the modernist phase. Let me go back to a few more decades in order to pay tribute to this artist of true calibre, on the occasion of his first death anniversary in 31st December 2010.
That Hemanta Mishra (1917 - 2009) chose to join the Calcutta Group is itself a pointer to his relentless quest for an art which is synthetic, vast and unbounded. His historical significance lies in the fact that though his lingual idiom was surrealist, temperamentally his works were very much Indian. Of course surrealism was the final phase, which he reached after traversing through two different phases. In the beginning, like any other artist, Hemanta Mishra too was interested in the academic studies of figures, objects or nature. Such naturalistic representation comprised of landscapes, natural settings of forests, hills, rivers, valleys and human figures. His technical skill and capacity for enhancing the theme with a fine blend of colour and form received rave applause and critical acclaim. But his artistic quest seemed unquenched as he tried to break through the forms and colours and took to the cubist mode of expression. Probably all modernist distortions of forms start with cubist tendencies or its impact is felt at least once a while at some point in the career of a modern artist. Hemanta Mishra was no exception. But his cubist phase was more ornamental in nature. As if the artist sought something deeper and different as his medium of expression and Cubism acted as only an intermediate phase in the search. After about a decade of an extensive quest, he finally arrived at that language which enabled him to express himself with utmost vigour, both at the conceptual and aesthetic levels. That Hemanta Mishra is also a poet perhaps accounts for his lingual choice of surrealism. Surrealism which surfaced in the 20's and became even more popular in the 30's as an offshoot of the Dada movement, had always contradicted rationalism for its belief in the irrational aspect of life and human psyche. Surrealists attempted to find truth in the subconscious impulses, dreams and fantasies of human mind. The central idea of this art movement was to release the creative powers of the subconscious mind, or as Andre Breton pointed out in the manifesto, “to resolve the contradictory conditions of dream and reality into absolute reality a superreality”.
The quintessential character of Hemanta Mishra's art is his poetic lyricism. Hence it is no wonder that he attained salvage in Surrealism where his poetic persona would completely be a foil for his artistic persona. We should remember that the motivating force of Surrealism was the French poet Andre Breton. At the very first glance one can feel a prominent influence of Salvador Dali in Hemanta Mishra's style of rendering. To cite an example, the painting A Rose Dew in the Bosom of Time evokes a Dali like cosmic vision. But whereas Dali was preoccupied with the cerebral and cosmological queries, Hemanta Mishra seemed to deal more with the psychical aspects. In this work, he seems to explore the multi-layered strata of memory, dream and fantasy. It is also an intimate account of some existential conflict or inner turmoil. The motif of rose dew evokes an element of impermanence in contrast to the continuous flight of time. But what is it that is temporary like a dew drop? Is it love? Is it the relationship between man and woman? Or is love and relationship with the ideal other a conflicting experience like a rose that exude fragrance and beauty co existent with a thorn of pain? Is it like the dew drop that sparkles only for a moment, yet leaves a mark in the memory forever? Like any Surrealist work this painting also presents its subject subtly, keeping the element of mystery or the irrationale intact. Also, motifs and images are pitted against a indefinite indescribable surreal background, thereby creating a web of multiple suggestions. Of course, Hemanta Mishra's Surrealism has an inherent Indianness in it. His treatment of colour, tonal variations, style of delineation and the spectres of imageries manifests that inherent Indianness in his art. His colours are never stark; but always subdued, smooth and translucent. This quality of colour and tonality evokes a deep sense of vastness and infinitude. The compositional pattern adds to the depth and volume to his psychoscapes giving it a dream like dimension. Amazingly at times Hemanta Mishra sees to be more a symbolist where the motifs, images and the symbols act as coded signs of certain hidden thoughts and impulses. In Symbolism, art is the visual expression of the emotional experiences where the idea is clothed in a sensuous form. Another interesting feature which sets the artist apart from the western surrealists is his choice of motifs and symbols. Whereas the western surrealists symbols were derived from the natural and the modern mechanical settings, he seemed to be inspired by nature alone. Stretches of lands streaks of sand, rocks, frozen rivers, trees, ruins and eggs are some of the recurrent motifs in his oeuvre. In most of his paintings one can discern the recurrent presence of a headless female torso. Herein one can draw a parallel with the Romantic painters for whom motifs like ruins, forests, barren land, rock formations or female figures were favoured images. For both these natural images are sites of hidden truth of the universe and inexplicable mysteries of life. Hence with a closer look, we realize that Hemanta Mishra is an artist of eclectic vision. If lingually he is a surrealist, temperamentally he is at times a blended persona of romantic and symbolist disposition with a profound sense of rootedness to Indian tradition, culture and ethos. But these Indian roots never hindered his outlook, thought and growth as an artist.
In Assam, the emergence of four Calcutta artists, Mukta Nath Bordoloi, Suren Bordoloi, Jagat Singh Kachari and Pratap Baruah, all trained in Calcutta, bore the seeds of modern art in the third decade of the 20th century. As in the rest of India, the first phase of modern art in Assam manifested itself in the form of British Academic Realism, the Rennaissance along with some overtones of Romanticism. The second phase came about in the 50's with the emergence of two very significant artists - Asu Dev and Hemanta Mishra. Asu Dev's Pointillistic representation in the form of the Byzantine mosaics, and Hemanta Mishra's Surrealist and Symbolist explorations brought a new dimension to the art scene. In fact, it was artists like Hemanta Mishra who introduced the element of modernity in the true sense of the term by experimenting in the idioms of surrealism hitherto unexplored in the art world of Assam. In fact, he was a pioneer in more ways than one the first artist from the North-East to exhibit in the First International Triennale held by the Lalit Kala Academy in 1968, and the first to display at the National Exhibition of the Lalit Kala Academy or in the galleries abroad. He was also the first one to be included in the archives of the National Gallery of Modern Art, National Academy of Art in India as well as the Museum of Oriental Art and Culture in Russia. Moreover his name has been included in various international anthologies of artists published by prestigious institutions of USA and UK during the sixties and seventies. For a person who started his artistic journey six decades ago, in a peripheral place like Assam, in an environment un-conducive to art practice, it was indeed a great achievement for the artist and a matter of pride for his native place. But many quarters regret that Hemanta Mishra did not get the due he deserved in his life time. However he had undoubtedly carved a fine niche for himself in the pan-Indian art scenario and those who are aware of the developments in the modernist art discourse of India will certainly acknowledge his contribution.
1.( “Hemanta Misra, the Surrealist painter”, Roopa-Lekha, Vol XL no 1 and 2, Chief Editor, M S Randhawa, Editor, Krishna Chaitanya, All India Fine Arts And Crafts Society, New Delhi )