Jamini Roy was 42 when his artworks made themselves to public view for the first time ever. Nothing particularly surprising, given that India was largely alien to the concept and practice of open exhibition of paintings or sculptures by living people. (In fact, it was only in 1936 that the country got its first [private] gallery: Dhoomimal, in Delhi.)
So, back in 1929, Calcutta’s Government School of Art, from where Roy underwent formal studies under a style that was then avant garde and called the Bengal School, hosted an event that put 56 of his works on display. The historic occasion was also noted by the presence of a top journalist-entrepreneur under the British rule alongside a renowned Indian artist who was the first to travel abroad to study printmaking. That is, Alfred H. Watson, editor of The Statesman newspaper, and Mukul Dey, the first Indian principal of the 1854-founded Government School of Art in the city by the Bay of Bengal.
In retrospect, it wasn’t just their physical appearance of the two personalities that added grace to the occasion. They spoke certain things that did turn out to be dense in analysis as well as foresightedness. Or, “prophetic”, as art scholar-archivist Satyasri Ukil notes later. So precise were they in their observations about the artistic merits of Jamini (1887-1972), who was born in a small town called Beliatore in what is today Bankura district under Medinipur division of West Bengal.
In what appears to be the earliest printed note of appreciation about Jamini paintings, Dey describes the painter’s works as an improvement upon the traditional Bengal art that can open up a new realm of aesthetics altogether. Jamini “succeeded in developing an indigenous line of art and preserving an outlook which is typically Bengali, from a state of decadence,” he notes in the foreword to the 1929 catalogue of the Roy exhibition that Dey had himself sponsored. “He has established his place in the rank of artists as will be evident from the specimens of his works exhibited.”
Even more discerning had been Watson’s words at the inaugural ceremony. Jamini paintings “will repay study,” the Briton notes in his speech. “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,” he says. “You must judge for yourselves how far Mr Roy has been able to achieve the ends at which he is obviously aiming.”
Watson foresees a paradigm shift that Indian art is poised at the hands of Jamini, who eventually won the Padma Bhushan award. “From this phase, we will 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.”
It isn’t that the speaker is just presuming things. Watson banks his view from hindsight, actually. Jamini’s earlier works were done “under purely Western influence”, he points out. They consisted “largely of small copies of larger works”, yet merited to “be regarded as the exercises of one learning to use the tools of his craft competently and never quite at ease with his models”.
To Watson, art, to deserve the name, must be living and expanding. “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,” he adds.
Ukil, as a researcher, goes on to quote the whole text of Watson’s speech in his blog. He does it to also allay what he notes is a wrong bit of record about Jamini—that the artist had his first exhibition of works on the British India Street of Calcutta in 1938 (by when Jamini was 51 years old).
The page published in 2000, in further substantiation, says (late) B.C. Sanyal, another towering modernist Indian painter, got the professional chronology wrong on Jamini. Thus the first-ever Jamini paintings with folk idiom had to wait for 71 years to be presented as a piece of historical record, claims the note, while thanking C.B. Gupta of Delhi’s National Museum and Chhanda Dasgupta of the national capital’s Lalit Kala Akademi “for helping me to track and access some of the important references.”