GOBARDHAN ASH (1907-96)
A CENTENARY TRIBUTE
Aakriti Art Gallery showcases this exhibition as a centenary tribute to one of the seminal and legendary artists of our times, Gobardhan Ash. At the threshold of his birth centenary, it is necessary to review his body of work once more because they map both the beginning and the fruition of modernism in Indian visual arts.
Gobardhan Ash stepped into the art scene during the mid- twenties of the last century when two concurrent trends ruled the roost in Indian art. The Victorian academism on the one hand and the Bengal School on the other hand had reached the stage of mannerism. Even the patriarch of the Bengal School Abanindranath Tagore had given up painting at the age of 60, perhaps to pave the way for his uncle Rabindranath Tagore to emerge as a painter who refused to toe either of the two prevailing discrete main trends of the time.
Though Ash enrolled in the Government School of Art, Calcutta, as a pupil in 1926, he left the School after about five years as the pedagogy disillusioned him. He was not cut out for the cut and dried curriculum of the school that discouraged any deviation from the rules of the book. In 1932, he set out for Madras and enrolled under the tutelage of Deviprasad Roy Choudhury, the then principal of the local Government Art School. Despite his brilliant academic records, the Bohemian within him could not sustain the set curricula that hardly allowed any experimentation. As a result he left Madras the next year and came back to Calcutta. Meanwhile he had already cut a niche for himself as a portrait painter in oil medium. Portraiture in oil was very popular in the thirties, which he did for sustenance. There was no viable art market to fall back on, even in Calcutta, where two annual art events were held with great pomp. Initially, Ash was associated with the annuals of the Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta. The Academy provided exhibition facilities for young artists. These annuals were held in the make-shift galleries of the Indian Museum's corridors and the lobbies, as the city had no formal exhibition gallery. Solo exhibition was beyond the purview of the aspirants in the art field. On his return to Calcutta, Ash organized a group titled Art Rebel Centre with a host of like-minded young painters who also faced the situation that held no promise for them. But there was no looking back in his life, neither did he get stuck into a stylistic groove to rotate endlessly within a set style as it happens sometimes when certain recurrent features become one's artistic benchmark. Though human figure remained Ash's forte since the beginning, the attitudes of time shaped and added characteristics to his style till the end. Instead of replicating what the temporal vision offered, as an artist he constantly craved to create a reality of coherent and vital images with expressive means of lines, shapes and form. Ash as a young man had run away from home several times betraying the fact that complacency that prevailed in art in general was unbearable for him. After his return from Madras, he again led a Bohemian life for a stretch of some years though he continued painting regularly.
Caravaggio was classified by his contemporary art-historians as a painter of low category people as he showed Christ and the characters of the Bible as commoners in tatters and with dirty finger nails. Ash, who never left his ancestral moorings despite his Bohemian life style, drew on the images he saw around his village mud house at Begampur, Hooghly. They belonged to all walks of rural life, from the land-holder to the landless labourer and the gypsies.
The artist who maintained his lonely plight, was discovered by the Progressive Writers' Association in 1945 which displayed the series of painting that he did on the Bengal famine of 1943. While Zainul Abedin drew on the hapless beings who died silently on the Calcutta pavements, Ash exploited thin washes of rusty brown to strip bare the distressing and callous reality of the life of the people who suffered in rural Bengal. Bereft of fetish or romantiasm, the paintings showed the stark, direct and uninhibited reality. Ash's chosen medium was oil until then. But he shifted to water-colour and a terra-du-Sienna palette to fathom the depth of reality and the flux of transmogrification. While Abedin used dry-brush technique and India ink, Ash took recourse to the earthy brown tones to achieve the unity between the content and the style.
After the famine series, Ash felt the need to add body to his colours in keeping with the moods of the changed social ambience. He took to gouache to give both the opacity and the plasticity to his forms. The service personnel, the contractor, the nouveau riche that thrived on the exploits of the war, together with the commoners of the village life thronged on his painted space, displaying the hued phantasmagoria. The stylistic shift showed emotive simplification and a colour-orchestration produced through variable dabs and patches of opaque paint. The summation of reality necessitated the simplification of form. Though his style obliquely referred to Pointillism, Expressionism and Folk Art, these were coincidental and were inherent in the process itself. The rhythmic readjustment of the forms betrayed strong emotional undertones. The images covered the length and breadth of the paintings and subjugated the background without leaving any breathing space. The images looked overpowering. Curiously enough, in some of the paintings, a quaint sense of humour veering on the flippant brought a touch of lightness, while some verged towards allegory. Piles of paintings remained stacked in his mud house as he never played to the gallery.
In 1950, Pradosh Dasgupta, the Secretary of the Calcutta Group incidentally came across these paintings and he virtually dragged Ash out of his self-imposed seclusion by arranging a solo show of his work at Calcutta. The press saw in him an artist who ploughed a lonely furrow in the field of modern art. For the urban viewers fed by Jamini Roy's image of rural Bengal, Ash seemed a discovery. They literally stumbled on the reality. In the same year Calcutta Group held a joint show with the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group which included Husain, Souza, Raza, Ara, Gade and Bakre. Ash also joined as a member of the Calcutta Group. The press hailed Ash's distinctly individual approach. In 1953 Ash joined the Calcutta Group's exhibition at New Delhi. The Group however failed to sustain the artistic camaraderie and was officially disbanded despite the efforts of some of its members. Ash never initiated any individual show on his own and stopped exhibiting. In 1953, Atul Bose invited him to join the Indian school of Art and Draughtsmanship as a teacher. He served the school for a short period. An exhibition of his work was arranged by his friends in Dehradun in 1958.
During the sixties, he again took to oil and painted a series of canvases on the child in different moods as theme. He also painted occasional portraits for sustenance. A habit that he developed over the years was to see the mirror every morning and do a self-portrait.
In 1982, a host of admirers showcased his paintings at the Academy of Fine Arts at Calcutta. The show vividly showed his stylistic traits and major shifts that marked his individuality. Between the late sixties and the seventies, tesserae-like dabs as in a mosaic gave way to the act of painting. His fully loaded brush strokes became free and sweeping, enunciating the forms. He allowed the brilliant colours to run into one another at times creating a visual relationship of the hues.
By the late seventies, he also turned out a number of landscapes inhabited by weary, toiling people reflecting the socio-economic situation in rural India. While his early figurative works hardly left any room for spatial relief, these landscape-based paintings, had open spaces that suggested dimensions while complementary colours heightened their intensity. A parallel set dealt with intimate figures in close-up view. While the figures that inhabited the landscapes appreared in rhythmic plastic strokes sans facial details symbolizing the anonymity and unrelenting poverty, the set of figure-based paintings showed the characteristic individuality of the personae.
These two sets painted simultaneously reflected the artist's view of life, the two facets of human existence : man in his collective struggle for survival against the grim realities of prevailing socio-economic conditions, and man, the individual in his solitary moments when he is uniquely himself.
In 1983, the Art Heritage of New Delhi presented his solo retrospective that drew wide attention of the cognoscente. Another retrospective of his work was held at Kala-Bhavana, Santiniketan in 1992. In 1993, the noted film-maker Nabyendu Chattopadhyay made a film on him titled 'Bleeding in the Sun.' In 1994, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Calcutta arranged a solo show of his work in a big way. Art Heritage of New Delhi arranged another show of his paintings in 1995.
Ash won several awards since he started participating in exhibitions. Incidentally he won three awards in 1936 from the Madras Fine Arts Society, All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, New Delhi and Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta. He was awarded the coveted Abanindra Puraskar of the West Bengal State Government in 1984, for his life time achievement in the realm of visual Arts. The All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society of New Delhi felicitated him as a veteran artist in 1988. In 1995, the State Academy of Dance Drama Music and Visual Arts, West Bengal gave him the annual award.
Ash breathed his last in 1996 at the age of 89. The Gaja Gallery of Singapore held his posthumous one-person show in 1997 and the Habiart Centre of New Delhi held another show in 2000.
Gobardhan Ash was an artist who perennially drew on those sources which ensured a vital relationship with all aspects of life. His palette was like the flow of osmosis that ensures living. From the onset, he had rejected all forms of complacency and of stereo typing, preferring the excitement of adventures in new ways of pictorial expression. His works all through betrayed the outbursts of his creative energy. During the last lag of life, his brush became frenzied with a peculiar immensity of surprising degree. His brush insisted on the poignant details of human existence.
All the works exhibited in this show are from the Ash family collection.
Professor (Dr) Sovon Som