Jamini Roy (1887-1972), one of the most celebrated artists of modern India, is especially admired for his painting that brought solace to the viewers in a tormented time of history. He gave a novel and daring direction to the art of colonial India by evolving his idiom of expression out of Bengal’s folk painting, discarding at once both of the dominating trends of his days, namely, Western academicism, then insipid and decadent, and Neo-Bengal school, which tended to become cold and fragile. And as the time marched, his concept of art’s agelessness has gained importance in the context of the present generation artists’ new search for the roots.
Born in a remote village of Bankura in West Bengal, Jamini Roy showed his inherent interest in representational arts from his boyhood days, when he loved to spend times among the village potters and emulate their doll-making. His actual training however began at the age of sixteen in Calcutta at the Government School of Art and Craft. Though at the time Abanindranath Tagore was the acting principal of the school, he preferred to take lessons in Western style and technique. After eight years, when he came out of the school, he was an accomplished painter in oils. In fact, in his twenties he earned his living by executing portraits in academic style. But his spirit of quests led him to many directions, including those of idyllic paintings of the genre of Abanindranath’s disciples and the landscapes experimenting in the way of the post-Impressionists like Cezanne and Van Gogh.
In the beginning of nineteen twenties, when he was in his mid-thirties, Jamini Roy took the vital decision of discontinuing painting in Western method. At that time, his yearning to discover an idiom of his own. “Even today”, he said afterwards, “I am least bothered whether my paintings is good or bad, and I feel that it is no concern of mine. My sole desire is to make my paintings look different.” In his agony to have a personal identity he realized certain truth that he mentioned later on in the following words : “It was not possible for me to paint in European way, nor in Chinese or Tibetan…. because I was not in their milieu.” With the consequent understanding that he could flourish only in the cultural consciousness of his own tradition, he turned towards the folk-painting of rural Bengal.
To reach the very source of the folk-tradition Jamini Roy went back to his native place, and there he studied with the patuas their style and technique. But the task of deriving a personal idiom of modern concept from a popular expression was an uphill task. He worked hard for about seven years at his north Calcutta residence to solve problems relating to shaping his new visual language on certain principles. And ultimately succeeded in substituting the conventionally pursued ‘high art’, of whatever style and school that might be, by pictorial values of a rustic ‘popular’ art, such as, “level surface, a central focus, and the flattening-out of design-in-depth.” Though his penchant for for a ‘central focus’ on the canvas may be marked even in his work of the academic days, it was only through relentless exercises of at least nine successive stages that he mastered a style of painting conceived entirely on two-dimensional terms. For his early paintings in new style, many of which echoed the Kalighat Patas, clearly betray modeling of the voluptuous forms. His finally achieved style of essential painting, that he evolved by referring from time to time to Egyptian murals, Byzantine mosaics, Jain miniatures, and above all the painting of the ‘child-mind’, represents a concept of configuration which is, in the terms of art historians, ‘primitive’, to distinguish it categorically from the parallely running trend of the ‘Classical’ style from the days of Greco-Romans through the Renaissance to the middle of the nineteenth century.
Jamini Roy’s debt to the folk-painters was not confined only to style and technique. In the choice of subjects, too, and therewith the psyche in which those subjects were to be narrated, he followed their state of mind. This was on his part a conscious move to outlast the transitoriness of contemporaneousness. Life-cycles of two avatars, Rama and Krishna became his main themes, to which later he added the life of Christ. But possible his most favorite subject was mother-and-child, which recurred frequently in his brush and almost turned to a motif. In treating such other subjects as Sri Chaitanya and his devout singing companions, the Bauls, and even the Santals, singly or in group dances, he similarly endowed his canvases with the traditionally flowing cultural ethos of rural Bengal. Decorative motifs and designs with human floral forms, found on the walls of the tribal huts and the floors of the rural households during seasonal festivals, inspired him to draw some abstract designs of immense aesthetic interest.
In their compositional discipline, reminding sometimes the rhythmic as well as symmetrical arrangements of figures on the panels of late medieval Bengal terracotta temples; in their lines, defining the contours of the forms in unfaultered sweeps; in their colors, deep and saturated, Jamini Roy’s paintings thrive in rare vitality. Strength of his paintings is a vividness of expression born of conceptual clarity, and this quality made him so enormously popular with the viewers. In assessing his achievements after a generation one would readily credit him for successfully bridging the gap that developed in the cultures of the traditional rural Bengal and the colonial Calcutta. It is Jamini Roy who provided a broader base to the art of modern India by enriching it with ethnic substances.