It is perhaps once in a lifetime that a senior artist bares his soul to the world in the manner in which Jatin Das has done in his recent exhibition, ‘Portraits: Artists and Friends’. Comprising a body of 500 works in oils, ink and conte, he has exhibited his collection of portraits of people who have crossed his life as friends and otherwise. Thus, the exhibition brought a smile on the faces of all its viewers, for no one went without recognising at least half a dozen of the people in the portraits.
This massive effort was on display at the Lalit Kala Akademi from November 17 to 22 and was supported in its publication efforts by the Raza Foundation. The exhibition encompassed many angles in that it was a portrayal in artistic terms of the vast coterie of friends and well-wishers down the years and a retrospective study of the artistic techniques and expertise, as the works spanned a period extending from his college days till date. These divergent yet significant inputs have made this showing both a feast for the discerning viewer as also a time for the artist to introspect on art beyond its technical contours of colour, lines, strokes, applications, mediums and more.
Goaded by the frequency of queries on why he had chosen this moment in time to exhibit his precious and personal collection, Das reminds them: “Nobody ever had a dedicated show of this kind,” continuing on to state that art for him is not mired by limited technicalities but is spread into a wider ambience where he, as an artist, also writes poetry, and that the art on the walls is not a formal and exclusive aspect of his persona, but a way of stating that art is “not necessary to exhibit”. That goes to explain why this vast gamut of works – by one who is not ‘labelled’ as a portrait painter – has now come to be on view, as a fraction of the overall personality of Das.
Having made known the reason behind unearthing these portraits from his art treasury at this point in time, the master dwells on the regulations he puts down before taking up a portrayal. While the works bear a striking resemblance to their personalities not just in their features but also in their characteristic mannerisms, one is likely to imagine that they were sketched during leisurely chats and moments of casual camaraderie. “All these works are commissioned works and though all of them are of friends I know and friends who have now ceased to be friends, they were done after several sittings with the subject,” he categorically states.
As a large chunk of the works on display are of the artist’s early period spent in Bombay, several of them have a patina of anecdotage attached to their sources. Says Das, “In Bombay, I moved houses many times but was lucky to have a studio at Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, where many painters, sculptors, musicians, theatre people such as Alkazi, Husain, Gaitonde, Ravi Shankar and many others had their studios too; I was the youngest of them all. There I did my portraits in oil including that of Souza in 1962, and Laxman Pai in 1963, amongst others.” Also, the artist recounts that his bent toward portrait making was partly the result of his teachers in the JJ School of Art, particularly Shri Shankar Palsikar, professor Sambhaji Kadam and the legendary Shri Gopal Deuskar of the institution.
Besides the portraits of fellow artists and today’s legends, a sizeable segment of the portraits comprised women figures. Yet, the artist confesses to being wary of taking on the feminine subject for a very personal reason. “Women are more concerned about their features and with their looks and in my experience there was only a French lady who was very cooperative and did not mind being portrayed realistically”. On another occasion, he recalls, “Almost 50 years ago I was commissioned to do a portrait of a couple. She had a double chin and she asked me to remove it. I refused. Whenever I am commissioned to do a portrait, I decide the size of the rendering. I only do it when I have some connections with the person. Likeness is not the only thing in a portrait. To bring out the impressions and the essence of a person is important.”
Going by this yardstick, this exercise of laying the personal and the professional on the current platform of portrayals was no cakewalk for him. For one, the collection of the portraits from their current sources, though a foreseen obstacle, he concedes, had him bowled over when he confronted the sight of an oil on canvas portrait of an acquaintance which had been kept under wraps and folded into four parts. “It took so much trouble to straighten out the canvas and then frame it for the show,” he said. Similarly, the other works too have been meticulously mounted on acid free mats for durability. “All this has been done from my own resources as the show is for my own satisfaction,” he states.
Yet, one niggles over the timing of such a mammoth event. Was it a commemorative show? Definitely not, if one is to go by the artist’s own words. “My young student Aaloap Shah who has been with me for years, (an artist in his own right) found hundreds of portraits during this move (to Mehrauli). They were in oil, watercolour, ink and conte. Many were surprises for me. I found a portrait of Ramkinker Baij that I did in 1962, which he had signed. Also of Paritosh Sen, Kumar Gandharv and many others. That’s how I thought of holding an exhibition of portraits.”
Having learnt the nitty-gritty behind the current showing, one is led to inquire about another mystery enshrouding some of the works in this cache of portrait gems, which were the ones that were a class apart by dint of their bearing the signatures of their faces on the rear side of the portrait? “I had painted Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu,” he states pointing to a large canvas with their portraits medallion-like on either corner of the frame. “They had obliged with signing my work on the rear of my painting which I have cherished till date”. Even the master musician, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, whose portrait elicits all the vigour of his musical style, bears the signature stamp. When asked to define the odd one in the lot of this enviable portrait gallery, Das points to his work on Keshav Malik, “I had painted his portrait from a photograph, an exception, because he had passed away before I could have a sitting with him”.
There were still other valuable takeaways in store for viewers to this show. One learnt that though the current show was held for just a week, connoisseurs can hope for a better deal later. “During the last three years, since I shifted to Mehrauli, I am cataloging, archiving and looking at works from my entire journey as an artist for the first time.”
The Das journey is set to double its enjoyment component for connoisseurs in the days ahead. One only needs to wait and watch.