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Painting the fast-disappearing world of Tagore's Santiniketan

Chandra Bhattacharjee’s exhibition ‘Santiniketan’ laments the loss of a landscape that inspired Bengali artists

Chandra Bhattacharjee at his studio, in Kolkata.
Chandra Bhattacharjee at his studio, in Kolkata. (Photographs courtesy Art Alive Gallery)

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As you approach Santiniketan in Bolpur from Kolkata, your city-weary eyes are treated to lush paddy fields, goats snoozing in the middle of the road, ducks wobbling across, the sound of a passing train on the horizon. If you happen to be travelling in September/October, you will see the majestic white kash phool (a type of grass) bobbing their head like a sea of foam. This bucolic scene is interrupted by the sight of small resorts, homestays, houses which have sprung up in the middle of the fields. At places, parcels of land are fenced off by barbed wire—next time there might be a concrete structure here. The ever-expanding urban sprawl has crept up on Rabindranath Tagore’s “abode of peace”.

“Santiniketan has become like a small town, ugly-looking buildings are everywhere. There is no planning, no colour palette is followed. I have been going there frequently with my camera and sketchbook, but now you cannot find the Santiniketan that inspired artists,” says Chandra Bhattacharjee on the phone from his studio in Kolkata. While metaphorically the exhibition is about Santiniketan, the picture is the same the world over, he says.

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This anguish, despair underlies Bhattacharjee’s solo exhibition, titled Santiniketan: The Hum Of Unreasonable Silence, at Art Alive Gallery in Delhi’s Panchsheel Park. Known for his figurative work, the landscape in the 21 paintings, while devoid of human figure, carries tell-tale signs of man’s intervention: felled trees, a truck heaving with bricks, a pile of wooden logs. In one work, you spot a goat in a corner, staring at a barbed wire fence—her freedom to wander limited. The works are stark, muted—it’s mostly charcoal black, greys, with hints of white and shadows. A few paintings are in laterite red, the colour of the soil typical to Bolpur—a 43.5x88.5-inch triptych immediately grabs attention.

Charcoal & Dry Pastel on Paper, 43.5x88.5 inches, 2021.
Charcoal & Dry Pastel on Paper, 43.5x88.5 inches, 2021.

Bhattacharjee, 63, says Bengali artists see Santiniketan in the image, or “chobi”, of Tagore; it’s an incubator. “We have been inspired by the works of Tagore, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Nandalal Bose. In no other place in India will you find a university, where the atmosphere, the surroundings, the landscape has inspired artists so much. But that beauty, the Santhal villages, the lush landscape is disappearing.”

What does he mean by "the hum of unreasonable silence”? “The fact that nobody is bothered or doing anything about it. People who can make a noise, or are in a position to make a difference, are silent,” he says. “Since I cannot sit on the road and agitate, this is my way of protesting. My language is my art, so I react through my work,” says Bhattacharjee, who has another solo exhibition, Veins Of The Earth, going on simultaneously at The Quorum, Mumbai.

“Art is not only a beautiful thing to hang on your wall, that is an old concept,” says Bhattacharjee when I tell him there is a sombre tone about the paintings. “Today you will find a contemporary message reflected in the work of a conscious artist. I paint people/creatures who are in the shadows, are invisible—their background is not very vibrant. That is the mood of my paintings.”

This brings us to his own struggle in the formative years. Bhattacharjee, who grew up in Patuli village in Bardhaman district, came to Kolkata in 1980. Since his family did not have the financial means, he would paint giant hoardings hanging from a scaffolding during the day and attend night classes at the Indian College of Arts and Draftsmanship. He used to share a small room with five-six other people in a building next to a 24/7 market—the only space he had to practise art was by placing a board on his lap.

(left) Charcoal on Paper, 43.5x29.5 inches, 2021; and Charcoal on Paper, 30x23 inches, 2021.
(left) Charcoal on Paper, 43.5x29.5 inches, 2021; and Charcoal on Paper, 30x23 inches, 2021.

“Coming from a pristine village which had paddy fields all around, this place (in Kolkata) was the reverse of that. It was claustrophobic, there was the constant din from the market and the smell of putrefying vegetables. A bhayonkor (frightening) experience. If at times my colour palette comes across as basic, it is maybe because there was no colour in my life during those years,” he muses. It was only after 11 years, when he joined The Economic Times, Kolkata, as a designer, was he able to rent a small place along with a friend. In 1992, he took part in his first group exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, going on to quit ET in 2004.

Now Bhattacharjee has his own studio, a few minutes’ walk from his residence. He spends 7-8 hours there every day, when he’s in Kolkata. During the pandemic-induced lockdowns, when the frenetic pace of exhibitions, attending workshops and meeting deadlines came to a standstill, the studio was a place of contemplation. “Tokhun ami khub chinta korar shomai paichi. Ami khub bhaitoray dukhtay parlam (I found plenty of time to introspect without distraction. The isolation helped me probe deeper into my subjects). The outcome was that I have now become very choosy about where to go, where to show. I prefer to work at my pace, until I am satisfied, instead of trying to work to a deadline.”

Bhattacharjee’s other passion is photography. There too the visual imagery and frame is similar to his canvas. He calls photography an extended part of his art. “Instead of brush and paint I am using my camera lens. My paintings help me frame my photographs and vice versa.”

I ask him one last question about the use of multimedia in art. “I am old school in that way. I have never felt that I cannot express myself through my paintings and need to take the help of tech or other medium,” he says.

Santiniketan is on till 2 March, at Art Alive Gallery, Panchsheel Park, Delhi, 11am-7pm, closed on Sundays.

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