Sunday, June 22, 2008

Nirad Majumdar: a devalued genius of modern Indian art

Nirad Majumdar first went to Paris when he received a French government scholarship in 1946. In Kolkata, he was a founder member of the Calcutta Group, the first progressive art group of India. Calcutta Group artists were trying to break away from the tradition of the dominating style of the Bengal School, instigated by the patriarch Abanindranath Tagore. By that time information about new developments and experiments of twentieth century European art was gradually coming in and the Calcutta Group artists, influenced by the developments, started to change the course of the modern art in India. Nirad Majumdar became obsessed about French culture, particularly Paris, from his early days and when he ultimately landed there he at once embraced it. Paris in those days was the world art capital. Major painters and sculptors like Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Brancusi were at the helm of their artistic careers. Students and artists of different countries were flocking the Paris streets and boulevards, attending art courses in the Parisian academies, studying masterpieces at Louver, assembling around the masters and endlessly discussing their ideas in the cafes and social gatherings. Majumdar quickly became one of them.

He was greatly influenced by Cezanne, became a close disciple of Brancusi and Braque and befriended many contemporary intellectuals. At the same time he was a regular visitor to the Parisian opera houses and theaters, met Picasso and Jean Genet, was reading Balzac, Baudelaire and Rimbaud and was deeply impressed by the modern French poetry. He was actually suggested by a noble French lady to read French love poems to learn the French language better which he spoke fluently.

But among all these activities Nirad Majumdar was searching his own artistic language. He realized soon that the modern formalism which he had closely observed in Paris, cannot give him a distinctive identity until he travels back to his Indian roots. After a deliberate search he finally ended up rediscovering the symbols and images of Tantra. He tried to make a synthesis of western form and Tantric symbolism and ultimately developed a unique style of painting, rich in idea and form. He held his first exhibition in Paris, in the year 1949, traveled to Holland and Britain and returned to India in 1958.

Majumdar started teaching art in Kolkata and later was the Principal of a Kolkata art college. He exhibited regularly; his shows were thematic representation of ideas with poetic names like ‘Image Eclogue’, ‘Wings of no End’, or ‘Nine Variations of Symbolic Nine’. He revisited France again in 1977 and ’78 but was bitter to see the changed face of Paris where the studio of Constantin Brancusi, the man he highly respected, was destroyed and converted into a motor garage. He wrote an extraordinary memoir after his return, ‘Punoshcho Pari’ (Paris Revisited). The book, written in Bengali, had glittering observations and anecdotes on French cultural life and personalities. His language was also inimitably original, full of lyrical imagery even when he was addressing ordinary subjects. Majumdar passed away on September 26, 1982. ‘Punoshcho Pari’ was published after his death.

Nirad Majumdar is one of the most devalued painters of modern India. Today, in the boom and hype of modern Indian art we have almost forgotten this man.