Portrait in flagrante derelicto

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Against the cultural clamour, Jatin Das mounts a new show with fresh energy but static vision, says Gaurav Jain

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IN THE sunlit yet cool alcove of his Delhi studio, artist Jatin Das smokes a chain of Gold Flakes between sips of black coffee, all the while talking non-stop, commandeering his house staff and pretty female assistant, and keeping up on the phone. A carpenter saws away in the corridor outside. “At this junction of time, I feel very alone,” he rues.

The 67-year-old artist is holding a solo show in Delhi after a gap of nine years, at the India Habitat Centre. In the studio’s foreground is a large canvas of a kissing couple. The paintings at the new exhibit, however, involve little touching, let alone kissing. The nudes are uniformly austere, with their eyeless Modigliani faces blanked with controlled might. The caryatids seem to be the only ones having some fun, pushing against the invisible ceilings of their canvas.

Originally from Orissa, Das lived in Bombay for 10 years before finally settling in Delhi. He trained under SB Palsikar at the JJ School of Arts, where Palsikar and peers like FN Souza were busy with the Progressive Artists’ Group. Das was part of that trajectory of the new Indian modernists — Souza, Tyeb Mehta, Jogen Chowdhury — where he applied his human forms in a continuum to classical Indian figuration. He has been a typical modernist in his stylised outlines and abstract backgrounds. Das seems to have thoroughly imbibed that milieu’s determination to find local artistic idioms against foreign aesthetics, as well as their solidarity with an Indian colour pallete — he’s continued his affinity to strong shades.

Search into the Earth, Couple in Burnt Umber, Santhal Woman — this time, too, Das’ figures are chorded with energy. His people have the same angularity as before, full of dents, hefts, tucks. They are regularly muscular, even the women, but the bodies seem cooled now, as if the muscles were resting. Their force radiates from the hands, with delicate fingers primly darning the stung air — those tentative hands giving each figure a knobbly defiance.

‘Young artists can buy and sell me 10 times,’ says Das. He is unrelenting in his criticism of wannabes

On first seeing the exhibit as it was being hung, Alka Pande, curator of the Habitat Visual Arts Gallery, found the work to be quintessential and straightforward Das; unlike, say, the satirical wit in his 2006 show of travel-inspired work at Delhi’s Lalit Kala Academy. “It’s nothing earth-shatteringly different, but it’s consumed by the same energy as before. The grammar of his vision has been singular, but it doesn’t experiment as much with the form.” One sees this especially in the watercolours, a medium he discovered in Bali a dozen years ago, which have followed the same path as his oils.

Jogen Chowdhury emphasises Das’ mastery of drawing and rhythmic line, and the artist Shuvaprasanna concurs: “Passions have changed, but his centre point has remained the same. Not many people are so strong in line drawing today.” Jatin originally leapt onto the art stage with his signature iconic imagery, centred on his drawing prowess, where he is an acknowledged master. “He’s refined his language but hasn’t taken a quantum leap in recent years,” notes Pande.

Curator Marta Jakimowicz is severer, saying that Das is unable to express issues as we feel them now. “He has made the Tyeb Mehta heritage more appealing. With his stylising and sensual elements, he presents harsh issues in a pleasing way. He’s obviously very accomplished, but he’s become a bit old-fashioned with this dependence on a modernist lineage.”

The other mark of his generation of artists has been an easy nationalist streak, an idea of political commitment to society. The painter says, “My figuration has no clothing, no ornamentation, no architecture, no time and place. But it has a feeling of India in its colours, its structures, its forms.” His studio men and women, in typical Indian element, seem to jab rather than sit or stand — a knee here, an arse there — straight lines bent hard into each other that yet somehow don’t tear the space open since they’re essentially balanced on a mutual centre of gravity. They remain harmonious to the gaze, swinging in final poise.

He remains reticent about his working approach. “My work is my personal stupidity. I don’t know my work. I never look at it at all, never display it in the house. Everything is intuitive. But your instincts are sharpened with time. There is a lot of discipline, embedded and hidden, and also not to be discussed.” He’s firmly touchy about staying off the topic. “I don’t know what is ‘prolific,’ I know the word but I don’t know what it means. I’m a practitioner. Every day I draw and do watercolour, then I get to oils. This is the riyaz.”

Popular Indian culture, with its infernos of politics, cricket and cinema, have left him bleak about the place of art in our society. He sorely misses the comradeships of his younger days — painters, musicians, dancers — who would regularly drop in to see each other. “It hasn’t happened in the last 15 years. Now we only meet at exhibitions and parties.”

“Young artists can buy me five times and sell me 10 times,” he snorts. He is unrelenting in his criticism of the finagled urgency among the wannabes he encounters. This despite his eagerness to ensure a young audience for the show, for which he’s had colleges across Delhi postered. He opens up a darkened room at the back where he stores rows upon rows of stacked canvases. “Do you know, many young artists have no work, everything has been sold!”

He seems comfortable, even eager, to don his hat of cultural politician. His outlook on the country’s direction is similarly tetchy. “All this talk of nine percent GDP growth is vulgarity… How can the authorities get away with saying that Kalahandi is still hungry after two years? Can’t we change that course of affairs in just one month?”

But he’s also brimming with projects and ideas. He founded and now chairs the JD Centre of Art in Bhubaneswar, and hopes to establish a museum for his collection of hand pankhas. He’s also an advocate of instituting a national youth service programme in the interval between high school and college.

His old friend Raghu Rai laughs, “Jatin is always splitting into pieces and falling all over, but it’s special and spontaneous when he assembles anything. One good thing about him is that he is mad!” It’s a madness committed to its work amid resentment of cultural neglect. Ask what excites him now among all his cultural gloom, and he replies simply, “I work every day. Just that — my own steam.”

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