Jatin Das at Art Alive Gallery in Delhi (Photo: Raul Irani)
The virus was like an “unseen ghost”, quips Jatin Das. The artist was confined to his home in New Delhi last year after the Government announced the lockdown across India. So hard was the economic and social impact of the lockdown on city-based migrants and daily-wage earners that thousands of them hit the road within weeks of the shutdown. TV news and social media relayed a live stream of disturbing visuals of the most economically affected walking back home to their far-flung villages. Many died on the way. Jatin Das was moved by this unprecedented event. “I had limited art supplies at home, about two hundred acid-free paper and ink bottles when I began painting these images and all the emotions, and anxieties I experienced came pouring out into my art,” Das says over a video interaction from his studio in Mehrauli. The migrants’ woes are the subject of the 79-year-old’s ongoing exhibition at the Art Alive Gallery in Delhi. Sunaina Anand, director of the gallery, suggests that through this series, “We can gain an insight into the struggles of people who form the backbone of this nation.”
The predominantly ink works in Exodus 2020 bring into focus a national tragedy. The scenes Das paints will be familiar to many readers. A man is carrying a child on his shoulder. A woman howls in anguish. A couple is shown fleeing the city. Das records the migration, poverty, deprivation and hardships in earthy tints and lyrical movements. Simple and intense, the paintings are more like studies. Even though they are devoid of the painstaking details that you would encounter in, say, Chittaprosad’s reformist art, the humanist concerns in them cannot be easily overlooked. Defined by bold lines and a sense of social realism, the works reflect the artist’s restless search towards portraying what he calls “human predicament”.
Das’ art is not guided by the “illustrative or narrative” style. Neither a storyteller nor an artist of protest, Das is all about spiritual ecstasy dipped in a warm sauce. He explains, “The figures in my paintings have no clothing. There’s no architecture, no trees, no foliage, no political context, no timeframe, nothing. I don’t call them ‘nudes’. They are only bare figures. I was primarily interested in the energy of the workers. This is nothing new for me. I have always been attracted to the Tribals, labourers and working-class men and women. Somebody pushing a cart, somebody ploughing, somebody carrying a basket on the head. Because they have muscles and bronze, shining bodies and a strong connection to the earth, that’s what makes it appealing for me. All my paintings are born from this energy.” Put another way, he says with a laugh, “My figures are dancing to their own tune.” While the artist himself refuses to fall prey to fine art’s interpretative charms, one of his closest friends, the late poet Dom Moraes, has aptly described Das’ protagonists as “weightless in the frame”.
“I have not looked back but only in the last year or so, I am taking stock and asking myself, what is art? What is life? What are we meant for?,” says Jatin Das, artist
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For Das, art happens in the moment, a random chaos fated for either greatness or obscurity. He does not believe in having a creative process and even if he does have one, it is largely intuitive. Words like ‘inspiration’, ‘mood’ and ‘creativity’ do not seem to exist in his dictionary. “Like a child, I look at a paper, get excited and start working. I have been painting for 60 years now. When you work for as long as I have you develop an inner flow and journey, and all the works come from that churn. Some people comprehend your ideas and what you are doing and others don’t. For example, critics call conté as charcoal. But conté is just a crayon. Aap samjhe? [Do you understand?]” He sketches every day without fail, but does not exhibit everything. When drawing he looks for the “Brahma rekha”, the key line on which any painting rests. “The beginning and the end of a line is very important, somewhat similar to a musical note. Even now, I jump with joy like a student when I see sculptures at Konark, Khajuraho and Mahabalipuram,” says Das, who likes to identify himself as “progressive” or “contemporary”. The term “modern” is not for him. “It’s an empty and vulgar word. Like smartphones and smart cities.”
Moraes once dubbed him as a “bearded chronicler of his own visions”. Shaggy grey beard and cigarette in hand, he wears a brown jacket and beret during our video interview, the quintessential image of a laidback artist and his avuncular train of thought suggesting a professor. He also gives out a ‘holding court’ vibe, particularly when he talks about Bombay’s thriving art scene in the 1960s and his friendships that he has always cherished. It’s a city with which he shares an old and intimate connection. “I’ve been staying in Delhi for more than 50 years but I still miss Bombay because I lived a high quality life there. When I say high quality I don’t mean luxury. It was a life of creative highs.”
Born in the princely state of Mayurbhanj in Orissa, Das grew up in a creative household. His mother wrote poetry, a gift he has inherited. Only 16 when he first went to what was then Bombay to study at the Sir JJ School of Art in 1958, he says, “Between then and now, I have not looked back but only in the last year or so, I am taking stock and asking myself, ‘What is art? What is life? What are we meant for?’ etcetera etcetera.” If he seems deeply introspective and nostalgic, blame it on all the solitary hours spent indoors in the lockdown. Elaborating on his early years, he says, “Those days, the JJ School of Art was the most unusual campus in the country. Even today, with its heritage structure, enough spaces for sunlight and burma teak flooring, its architecture design is one of the best in the world.” Another upside was that as a young artist, he struck up a lifelong friendship with established names like FN Souza, VS Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta.
Much older, FN Souza became one of his dearest friends. The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) founder always made for interesting company. Whereas the abstractionist VS Gaitonde, who is a darling of the art market today, was known for his famously reclusive lifestyle. “Gaitonde did few works. He used to enrich them,” Das says, adding, “A man of few words, he wore only black or brown. Let me tell you a Gaitonde joke. Tyeb Mehta and Gaitonde were in my house once. Tyeb said, ‘Jatin, do you know Gaitonde was my teacher at JJ for a while? He taught me drawing.’ To which Gaitonde replied, ‘I not only taught Tyeb drawing then but I can teach him drawing even now.’ We all laughed. We had so much fun and no time for ill will. We were open with each other. We could look at a painting and say, ‘The light is good, par colour thoda kuccha hai. You can criticise somebody’s work in a gentle way without hurting that person. There’s a way of doing it.” Even though he maintained close ties with PAG, he makes it clear: “I am a loner. I never belonged to any particular movement or camp.”
“I have always been attracted to the tribals, labourers and working-class men and women. Because they have a strong connection to the earth, that’s what makes it appealing for me,” says Jatin Das, artist
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The Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, where Das had a studio, or a “little room” as he calls it, was the cultural font that attracted artists and scientists. One such struggler was MF Husain who had a studio next to Das at the institute. The art world was like a small town and everyone knew everyone else. Long gone, the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute played a significant role in Bombay’s ‘cultural renaissance’. Evoking those heady times, the artist explains that it was one giant salon: “The great yoga teacher BKS Iyenger was there. Ravi Shankar used to play music, sitting on the floor. The theatre guys Ebrahim Alkazi, Satyadev Dubey and filmmakers Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Sukhdev were regulars. Of course, Gaitonde, Nalini Malani and others were also working there, because it was a great space for ideas, experiments and conversations. I’m talking about a time when the L&T founder Henning Holck-Larsen could walk into my studio, select a painting and carry it himself. Nobody needed an invitation like today. If I am having a show, Mr Homi Bhabha, Dom Moraes, Leela Naidu, Gaitonde, Husain, Souza—everyone would come.” How and why did this beautiful confluence get lost? “What confluence, bhai?” he snaps. “It was a commitment. Nobody was after money, name or fame. Soli Batlivalla and Madhuriben Desai were the institute’s founders. Their name is there, but the camphor is gone.” Curiously old-fashioned but also forward-looking, Das has been vocal about his unwavering passion towards cultural preservation and a need to keep the past alive. “All over the country,” he says, “our traditions are decaying. We have no sense of historicity, no sense of pride and we do not preserve our heritage. The media is only interested in those who can sell. ” Luckily, Das has preserved snatches of that bygone era through his portraits series of long-lost friends, from Bhupen Khakhar and Souza to Alyque Padamsee and Leela Naidu. “But white ants in my bloody studio ate five boxes of old portraits and sketches. Sometimes, things like these also happen in life,” he says, laughing.
As opposed to the earlier, more innocent times when you could buy a painting straight from the artist, the art market these days is all about headline-grabbing auction records, conceptual spectacles and mischievous provocations. The art boom of the last two decades has created a false impression that all artists are wealthy, wine-swigging jet-setters. Speaking to Das, you get a reality check. “I don’t have a house of my own,” he bemoans. While many of his contemporaries have made a fortune his finances have remained strained despite a successful career. “That’s because I live on the sale of my painting but I don’t paint for selling. It’s a very simple expression but it’s loaded,” he says, emphasising that he had funnelled his earnings back into his three expensive indulgences—the JD Centre for Art in Bhubaneswar, a growing fan collection that has been exhibited widely and buying drinks for friends. “Call me mad,” he says, with pride. “But I have no regrets. I don’t spend on myself, except on dal chawal and the best art material that money can buy.” At the moment, his biggest worry is an eviction letter to vacate his Mehrauli studio, whose contents are too difficult to move at short notice. This December, he will turn 80 but he can’t think of celebrating.
Asked about his future plans, he replies, “I have to write my will and close a lot of pending projects.” His daughter, actor and filmmaker Nandita Das, constantly tells him to prioritise and take up new work only after previous ones are finished. “She jokes that I spill beans as I walk,” he says with a smile. In the end, he’s happy that his three children—he also has two sons—are carrying forward his artistic legacy in their own way. “My youngest one has grown long hair and a beard and wants to pursue art,” says the septuagenarian whose reputation hit a low in 2018 when multiple women accused him of sexual harassment at the height of the MeToo movement. When we mention this he turns livid. “Why are you bringing this subject into a profile about my work?” he asks, irritably. “There are people who are envious or jealous. What can I do? Stay with me for a month here, write a book of 500 pages and then we will talk.”
(Exodus2020 by Jatin Das will run at Art Alive Gallery, Delhi till March 15th)