The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) takes great pride in presenting the second volume of the Reminiscences of the doyen of Indian art, Padma Bhusan, Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal. The reminiscences of a veteran artist like Sanyal need not be punctiliously chronological. For they could sometimes lose a natural and lively quality in narration of incidents and happenings connected in different phases of his life. The Reminiscences gives us a close view of his interaction with personalities in the field of art and the life in his times, in India, Europe and the USA, making for informative and enjoyable reading.
Sanyal at 97, can be called, “the man of the century’. Affectionately addressed as ‘Bhabesh Da’ by his friends and admirers, he is a product of the complex network of the socio-economic and cultural milieu in India of the twentieth century—the first half of which saw the last decades of British colonialism.
He has, as is evident from his memoirs of the period after Independence, developed his artistic personality with more confidence and creative freedom in the changing backdrop of the socio-political and cultural scenario, with signs of reaffirming pride in inherited artistic traditions. Sanyal’s own artistic journey from the 1920s, from dramatic portraits to today’s paintings of hill scopes in a personal style—displaying vision and refinement of execution—is highly significant. The changing trends in visual arts have been sensitively felt and filtered through his aesthetic sensibility in his work during these decades. In his own way, he symbolizes the merging of the traditional and the modern.
His memoirs are a typical story of an Indian artist during the 40s, recounting the urgent need for survival of the artist and his search for peace in his life and work. Sanyal seems to have faced life with courage, maintaining a keen sense of humour he continues to possess. That is why, perhaps, he saw himself, the way he did, in his self- portraits rendered with an inimitable sense of humour and wit. He talks of the heartaches and despairs he suffered during his migration from Lahore to Delhi. There are incidents and stories of how the young Sanyal was always in search of “heads” for survival as a sculptor, and how he gradually became a part of the nascent art world of the 40s in the capital. He has many significant things to remember about the art scene of Delhi, as the Founder-Chairman of the Delhi Silpi Chakra (1949); as Head of the Art 1epartment, Delhi Polytechnic (1953 6W; and as the Secretary, Lalit Kald7ikademi (1960-69).
Sanyal in various forms of art and modes of expression during the last 50 years, has not only left a deep imprint of his art and personality, but has inspired many of his students and contemporaries in the pursuit of their creative expression. A known humanitarian, he is in touch with the ‘common man’, the subject of some of his most important works, both in sculpture and in painting.
In recognition of his contributions to Indian art, Sanyal has recently, been bestowed in July, 1999, with the Shankaradeva Award by the Government of Assam.
The Reminiscences has been ably and painstakingly edited by the eminent art critic, Santo Datta. He has put together laborious footnotes to bring out interesting points and events and introduce these to the readers. Many appendices including personal letters written to Sanyal have been reproduced. Santo Datta has collected documents which might prove valuable to future researchers. A huge mass of material has been made readable and photographs have been used to illustrate the life and times of the artist. We are grateful to him for his valuable research and effort in editing the memoirs.
The second volume of The Vertical Woman: Reminiscences of B.C. Sanyal covers the period from 1947 to the present.
While going through the 800-page manuscript and shaping it for the press, this editor was amazed by the author’s feverish urge to record almost everything that he could remember as something significant, or something tender and lovable, during the long stretch of time. That he was in a hurry was evident from his use of all kinds of paper, of different formats and colours, ranging from note- sheets to foolscap papers, that is, any paper he could lay his hands on. And he used all kinds of pen and ink, depending on their immediate availability.
Long years of teaching, sculpting, painting, journeying in India and abroad and working as art administrator— memories of all these seem to have rushed him to his desk. For Sanyal, it was an intermittent high fever of reminiscences. Readers who expect strictly chronological documentation’ will do injustice to the veteran artist. Yet, his Reminiscences is a document. To this we come back later.
In his memoirs, the artist has used many words, Russian, Czech, Roumanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian and German, etc. which naturally rubbed off on him during his travels. I could not check their spellings. But I have checked and corrected spellings of most of the place names and those of the rivers and mountains all over Europe, America, Africa, China and Japan where he made his numerous journeys. Even after that I might have left many errors and editing lapses, which I regret.
As I did with the first volume of his Reminiscences, so have I tried to cover some of the numerous references he made to famous people, events and artists in the footnotes and appendices of this volume. I wish I had the time and facilities for preparing more notes for the readers’ benefit. For instance, Sanyal made passing references to the revolt in Hungary or to the Suez crisis when he was on his way back to India. Short notes could have helped the readers to relate the Reminiscences to the critical period the international situation was then passing through.
During his visit to the Soviet Land and East European countries, Sanyal often questioned the artists about the raison d’etre of Socialist Realism. On this he had discussions with the artists of Eastern Europe. At some point of editing, I decided to prepare a whole appendix on Socialist Realism, giving extracts of policy statements emanating from official sources and opinions of artists and ideologues of other countries, even including some passages from Mao Tse-Tung’s talks at the Yenan Forum on Art and literature’, 1942. For the young generation now the question may not be as agonising as it was for us in the ‘Forties and ‘Fifties. But this would have prohibitively increased the number of pages. Instead, what I did was a brief footnote on Renato Guttoso, one of the finest exponents of Socialist Realism, whom Sanyal mentioned admiringly.
Similarly, I covered Bela Bartok, Ossip Zadkine, Hassan Shaheed Suhrawardy and Frank Lloyd Wright in footnotes for making some points clear to the readers. On his visit to New York, Sanyal viewed Frank Lloyd Wright’s many splendored Guggenheim Museum as an inverted ‘wedding cake’. He was right. In a footnote on Wright, I quoted Peter Blake, the historian and critic of architecture, pointing out how the design of the Guggenheim Museum had failed both in function and objective.
Sanyal is on a sad flight of nostalgia when he remembers Delhi Shilpi Chakra’s evenings at its premises in Shankar Market: “Best of all were the fraternal evenings, in an informal atmosphere, of poets, painters, dancers, musicians and intellectuals of different hues.... It was a treat to see the architect Habib Rahman’s pantomime of Martha Graham and Sailor Mukherjee enacting Van Gogh” Just like his studio-cum-school in the pre-Partition Lahore Few readers know what contributions architect Habib Rahman made to the skyline of the Capital. This has been covered in a footnote. I wish I could do more.
As I said above, the personal memoir of an artist, even when it is not strictly chronological, leads us to the vital issues and problems that made up the changing art world of his times. The Reminiscences leads us to a long period of rapid, sometimes radical, changes in the socio-political and cultural climate in India. His personal memories and experiences also contribute to the documentation’ of the period gone by. His viewpoint is that of an artist working for his survival and a niche in the history of modern Indian art. There were many like him in India and abroad, representative of their times.
Sanyal has given the readers ring-side seats to view and ponder on the big scandal that burst upon the Indian art scene when the First Triennale-India was held in the Capital in 1968. He described the high drama act by act. Sm Indira Gandhi was then the Prime Minister of India.
While regretting the surfacing of the new breed of art sharks, Sanyal notes with a deep sense of loss and sadness how he lost his unconventional self-portrait The Last Moghul to such a shark. He says that between him and other sharks in the art market my ‘cats’ and other pictorials missed their niche in my studio for ever’.
About the controversies over the role of progressive and committed artists raging in the ‘Eighties, he made some references. To bring the contentions nearer to the readers, I have quoted extensively from Krishna Chaitanya (the late K.K. Nair) in footnotes.
The three appendices at the end of the volume include Sanyal’s ‘First Amrita Sher-Gil Memorial Lecture’ of 1980; two different versions of the ‘genesis’ of Delhi Shilpi Chakra; some personal letters written to Sanyal by Lady Ranu Mukherjee, Dr Hermann Goetz, Sm Haimanti Chakrabarty and Dr. Mulk Raj Anand; an article on Sanyal’s art by the late Jaya Appaswamy, and extracts from “Gallery Twenty-Six Artists’ Forum,” 1977 pamphlet. In his introductory piece to the pamphlet Sanyal gives a touching description of the life of a refugee artist in the post- Partition Capital;
“26 Gole Market, now Gallery 26, has an abiding association with my personal life,... It is here I began by accepting a few pupils and painting and sculpting despite all handicaps. The squalor of a market place, the stench from the neighbouring fish and poultry shops, the operational noise of the next door tailor-master’s sewing machine, the non-stop tick-tick orchestration of the typewriter training school, the din of the ever flowing traffic below—all added up to the milieu and atmosphere which I felt was congenial to a destitute refugee artist”.
However, over the decades he won recognition for his contributions to art, art teaching and art administration, and honours have been showered on him, both national and international.
It is his instinctive sense of humour and his rare capacity to laugh at himself in the most bizarre circumstances that have seen Sanyal, sane and sound, through the vicissitudes of fortune.
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