Jamini Roy: The First But Forgotten Exhibition

— Satyasri Ukil

Jamini Roy exhibition catalogue, Calcutta 1929
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
This article is reprinted from ‘Art & Deal’, May-June, 2000.


It is proposed to record here, approximately seventy-one years after the event, the details of a one-man show where Jamini Roy presented for the first time his style of painting with folk idioms.

Except in the writings of Jogesh Chandra Bagal (Centenary Volume, p. 48) this particular exhibition of Roy fails to secure even a passing mention in the apparently erudite and informative writing of Shahid Suhrawardy, and Bishnu Dey and John Irwin (Jamini Roy) respectively. Surprisingly, in none of the subsequent literature on Roy do we find any mention of this particular exhibition. Why?

Probably due to the absence of proper, informative research Dey and Irwin had concluded their appreciation of Jamini Roy on an apologetic note. They wrote:

Despite the lack of fresh achievement in recent years, Jamini Roy’s work nevertheless remains a marvel. He was given no aid by the atmosphere of Calcutta’s world of art… yet, in the lonely struggle, he has painted magnificent pictures and our gratitude asks us here: Could we humanly expect more”? (Jamini Roy, p. 30)

Contrary to what Dey and Irwin have to say about the artist having given “no aid by the atmosphere of Calcutta’s world of art”, the first Jamini Roy exhibition was held in 1929 at the premises of the Government School of Art, Calcutta. This was sponsored by Mukul Dey, another Indian artist and the first Indian principal of the art school.

Foreword of Jamini Roy catalogue by Mukul Dey, 1929
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
From the evidence found about this historic exhibition it can be proven beyond doubt that Mukul Dey must have launched Roy, the new patua, in a befitting manner. On the occasion of the exhibition a decent invitation was printed on a gold-rimmed white ivory card (dimension: 11. 3 cm x 15 cm) and a four-page catalogue folder (dimension: 12. 8 cm x 19 cm) was prepared on light yellow handmade paper, complete with a foreword by Mukul Dey along with titles and prices of 56 Jamini Roy works on view (Seebelow).

Mukul Dey had invited Alfred H. Watson, Editor, The Statesman, Calcutta, to inaugurate this important exhibition, which in retrospect, I feel, must have been a very wise and pragmatic decision as far as promoting Roy was concerned. Apart from securing a significant media coverage for the artist (The Statesman, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 1929, p. 14), Watson had prepared a most interesting inaugural address to declare open the show (See below).

Today, after more than seven decades, the views of Watson on Roy in particular and the responsibility of Indian intelligentsia to support and preserve their own cultural traditions in general would sound almost prophetic! Watson’s speech was unique for another very important reason… his views were rooted in solid common sense, essentially occidental in quality.

As far as I know, chronologically, this is the first ever documented appreciation of Roy in India. In 1929, the Tagores at the Indian Society of Oriental Art (ISOA), Shahid Suhrawardy, Bishnu Dey and John Irwin were yet to extend their support and appreciation to the post-1921 new patua paintings of Jamini Roy.

The exhibition invitation card, 1929
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Further, in 1929 Roy himself was far from his subsequent inclusion in the Congress patronised mainstream Indian art as exhibited at the Lucknow AICC Session in 1936. Later on in life Mukul Dey (my maternal grandfather) used to talk about Roy and how the 1929 exhibition was a grand success. He used to tell us how the sale proceeds of this show were brought to the artist in a bamboo-basket.

During the summer of 1998 I found the initialled typescript of Watson’s inaugural address along with the exhibition invitation card in Mukul Dey’s papers. Still the story was far from complete and hence not quite up to my satisfaction. In February 2000, I found a termite-eaten, fragile, yet somewhat complete piece of the catalogue I was looking for.

In Delhi I could access the microfilm archives of the Nehru Memorial Library to trace The Statesman of Oct. 1, 1929 which contained on page 14 almost a column-long review of the exhibition. Most interestingly, there the reviewer had explicitly claimed that Jamini Roy was a product of Abanindranath Tagore’s Bengal School!

In fact, why Dey was in a position to appreciate and sponsor Roy as early as 1929 could be the subject of a very interesting, though debatable study. The tradition of indigenous art appreciation in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century India, especially Bengal, was a cerebral and emotional gift we received from our more enlightened British and Japanese well-wishers.

List of Jamini Roy exhibits and prices, 1929
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
It is a paradox of our national history that educated modern Indians had to learn to appreciate their own rich cultural heritage from some of the greatest Western and Far-Eastern scholars. Mukul Dey was no exception in this regard. During his fairly long stay in England (1920 to 1927) he was fortunate enough to interact with the very cream of English intelligentsia who were great admirers of indigenous Indian art.

Apart from E. B. Havell, who had assigned the status of his “collaborator” to Abanindranath Tagore, there were other important personalities too, like John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon), Laurence Binyon, Muirhead Bone, T. Sturge-Moore, Henry Tonks and George Clausen who were equally interested and keen observers of the art of the subcontinent.

While in London and as early as 1926 Dey was already delivering a series of lectures on Indian art illustrated with lantern slides, under the recommendation of Binyon and Clausen. Also, this was the period when Rudyard Kipling’s gift of a series of Kalighat pata-paintings to Victoria and Albert Museum had drawn public attention to what had been a neglected type of Indian bazaar art. (W. G. Archer, p. 5)

List of exhibits, last page, 1929
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Thus, when he returned to India in late 1927, Dey had enough maturity, conviction and courage to extend practical support to a struggling Jamini Roy in sponsoring the first ever exhibition of his original neo-folk paintings. If Roy was courageous to discard his earlier European influences and adopt a neo-patua style (c. 1921), then Dey, only about a year in his office as principal, Government School of Art, Calcutta, was equally courageous to sponsor and hold the exhibition at the very stronghold of British academic art in India; especially when the atmosphere of the School was tense due to the prolonged absence “on leave” of Jamini Prakash Gangooly, the Vice-Principal and a well-known exponent of western academic art.

In the foreword to the 1929 Jamini Roy exhibition catalogue Dey wrote:

The cultivation of fine arts has been a neglected subject and the artists are not usually given the prominence they deserve. Mr. Roy is an eminent artist in his own line. It must however, be said to his great credit that he succeeded in developing an indigenous line of art and preserving an outlook which is typically Bengali, from a state of decadence. Mr. Roy’s works shown at the present exhibition is an improvement upon the traditional art of Bengal and open up a new field of art altogether. He has established his place in the rank of artists as will be evident from the specimens of his works exhibited”.

On the other hand, Watson was almost prophetic in his inaugural speech when he said:

Art in any form cannot progress without encouragement. The artist must live and he must live by the sale of his work. In India, as elsewhere, the days when the churches and the princes were the patrons of art have passed. Encouragement today must come from a wider circle, I would say to those who have money to spare buy Indian art with courage. You may obtain some things of little worth; you may, on the other hand, acquire cheaply something that is destined to have great value”.

Here, it seems Watson gave a clear indication of the bad patches Roy must have been undergoing then.

Though Dey and Irwin have given a faithful account of Roy’s material hardships following his father’s death and his preference to “depend on his painter’s profession” rather than taking up the responsibilities of a country landowner; they are strangely silent about the support Roy received at this stage from another fellow artist, Dey, and an Englishman, Watson.

The question arises: why this silence? Was it due to lack of information or due to the want of inclination? Apparently, at a later point of time it was claimed that Roy was a ‘discovery’ of Gagonendranath Tagore and the Indian Society of Oriental Art after his exhibition at ISOA on Sept. 19, 1937 (Gagonendranath Centenary Volume, pp. 85-86).

Further, it may not be out of place to mention here that it was Gurusaday Dutta of the Indian Civil Service who sort of set the stage for Roy’s subsequent 1937 ISOA exhibition, when in March 1932 he had exhibited for the first time in India the folk artists of rural Bengal in the very premises of Indian Society of Oriental Art. Apart from organising this exhibition, during its inauguration Dutta had also arranged for a group of Birbhum patuas to demonstrate their art to the distinguished guests.

Alfred Watson’s inaugural speech at Jamini Roy exhibition, 1929
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Unfortunately, keeping in tune with the tradition of our general academic lethargy and consequent inertia most of the subsequent scholars and art historians have taken for granted what Dey, Irwin, and Lalit Kala Akademi had to say about the Jamini Roy chronology.

Apart from them, it is interesting to note that Prof. B. C. Sanyal, who is possibly the only living person who might be having first-hand knowledge of the 1929 exhibition, also got the chronology wrong. He wrote:

I was away from Calcutta since 1929. On a visit to Calcutta in or about 1938 I met him (Jamini Roy) at the first exhibition of his uncompromisingly linear forms. Colour was absent. But the supple fullness of his lines appeared to be the means to an end. By now he was confirmed in his philosophy and faith in the rediscovery of the roots of Indian art” (Lalit Kala Akademi, seminar paper).

Thus, the first ever exhibition of Jamini Roy’s paintings with folk idiom had to wait for seventy-one years to be recorded and there by highlight the pioneering efforts of Mukul Dey and Alfred Watson in promoting his art.

I would like to thank C. B. Gupta of National Museum, New Delhi and Chhanda Dasgupta of Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan for helping me to track and access some of the important references.

Alfred Watson’s Speech

“In a few moments I shall declare open the exhibition of the works of Mr. Jamini Roy. Those who study the various pictures will be able to trace the development of the mind of an artist constantly seeking his own mode of expression. His earlier work done under purely Western influence and consisting largely of small copies of larger works must be regarded as the exercises of one learning to use the tools of his craft competently and never quite at ease with his models.

From this phase we see him gradually breaking away to a style of his own, moulded by many influences, but ultimately resulting in a treatment of mass and line which is almost Egyptian in its outlook. There is a primitive force, perhaps yet not quite sure of itself, but consciously striving to break into individual expression.

You must judge for yourselves how far Mr. Roy has been able to achieve the ends at which he is obviously aiming. His work will repay study. I see in it as I see in much of the painting in India today a real endeavour to recover a national art that shall be free from the sophisticated tradition of other countries, which have had a continuous art history.

The work of those who are endeavouring to revive Indian art is commonly not appreciated in its true significance. It is sometimes assumed that revival means no more than a return to the methods and traditions of the past. That would be to create a school of copyists without visions and ideals of their own. From the point of view of art it would be a wholly worthless endeavour — a thing of no significance.

Art to deserve the name must be living and expanding. Upon the minds of its exponents must be beating the illumination of all the ages. Whatever direction Indian art may take in the future it cannot, if it is to have value, go wholly back to the past any more than it can become merely imitative of the Western outlook.

It must have a vision of its own. All Indian art today is in the stage of experiment. Its exponents are seeking some firm ground on which they can stand, and they are seeking it by numerous paths. It is that fact which makes the present period so intensely interesting to the student of art. Failures there must be, but any day may emerge the man who is to set Indian art on the road of high accomplishment.

Let me say one practical word, if I do not detain you too long. Art in any form cannot progress without encouragement. The artist must live and he must live by the sale of his work. In India as elsewhere the days when the churches and the princes were the patrons of art have passed. Encouragement today must come from a wider circle.

I would say to those who have money to spare buy Indian art with courage. You may obtain some things of little worth; you may, on the other hand, acquire cheaply something that is destined to have great value. What does it matter whether you make mistakes or not. By encouraging those who are striving to give in line and colour a fresh expression to Indian thought you are helping forward a movement that we all hope is destined to add a fresh lustre to the country.”

Catalogue of Exhibits

  1. Mother Rs 55 
  2. Offering Rs 65
  3. Seeta Rs 60
  4. Day Dream Rs 60
  5. Sunset Rs 20
  6. Gran’pa Rs 35
  7. A Village Girl Rs 40
  8. Forlorn Rs 25
  9. Brothers Rs 25
  10. Babu Rs 20
  11. Winner Morn Rs 20
  12. Blessing Rs 35
  13. Malini Rs 30
  14. Expectation Rs 25
  15. Last Hope Rs 25
  16. Left Behind Rs 35
  17. Mother’s Delight Rs 59
  18. School Study, price not given
  19. Study, price not given
  20. Radhika Rs 60
  21. Caress Rs 35
  22. Darling Rs 35
  23. Buddha Rs 30
  24. Village Headman Rs 20
  25. Phoenix Rs 20
  26. Homesick Rs 25
  27. Nursing Decoration Rs 40
  28. Messenger Rs 25
  29. A War Memorial Rs 15
  30. Susunia Village Rs 25
  31. Whither? Rs 35
  32. Shelter Rs 25
  33. Reverie Rs 35
  34. Gran’ma Rs 35
  35. Portrait of an Artist Rs 40
  36. A Sketch Rs 25
  37. Old Street Rs 25
  38. After Rembrandt Rs 75
  39. Nearest to Heart Rs 65
  40. Maiden Rs 75
  41. Grandson Rs 80
  42. Sisters Rs 75
  43. Wild Flower Rs 75
  44. Sati Rs 50
  45. Meditation Rs 50
  46. Aristocrat Rs 50
  47. Pronam Rs 75
  48. Youth Rs 50
  49. Buddha and Sujata Rs 75
  50. A Bengali Lady, price not mentioned
  51. Mother Rs 50
  52. A Village Rs 30
  53. Elephant Rs 30
  54. Wild Flower Rs 50

 

Update:

Delhi, on October 29, 2010

Exactly a decade after this article was published, the Indian art historians have awaken up to take notice of the contribution of Mukul Dey who played a pivotal part in organizing and promoting Potua-painterJamini Roy’s work in 1929. It was his first ever solo exhibition in India.

Authored by Sona Datta, curator of South Asia Collection at the British Museum, London, a thoroughly researched monograph on Roy titled Urban Patua: The Art of Jamini Roy has been published by Marg Publications in 2010.

However, interesting to note while giving a detailed description of the first solo show (p. 26) and annotating the supporting text (n. 15, p. 26) to quote a part of Alfred H. Watson’s inaugural speech of 1929, the curator Sona Datta missed to acknowledge Satyasri Ukil’s article titled Jamini Roy: The First But Forgotten Exhibition anywhere in her annotation and bibliography.

We wonder, where else Sona Datta could have secured the speech of Alfred H. Watson if not from the article written by Satyasri Ukil? Professional courtesy to mention contribution of others was expected from a professional like Sona Datta, especially in the case of this article since the writer is Mukul Dey’s grandson.

Delhi, January 12, 2012

Thanks to Roi Raj for editorial support.


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