Meet Three Visual Artists From Kolkata Breathing New Life Into The Everyday

Two surrealist paintings in soft pastels and oil
Two surrealist paintings in soft pastels and oilSubhadeep De

When you take a walk down the city road in the morning, what do you see? A vivid contrast as street shopkeepers ply their trade and persuade the ever-elusive customers while the gigantic shopping mall looms beside them—walking, talking heads rushing towards the office with a briefcase in one head and a smartphone in the other—a child running after his school bus as he had risen ten minutes late that morning—the blaring of horns, which drowns the sounds of the few birds that still throng the city—the vehicular fumes overpowering the sweet scent from the florist’s shop—men assembled in tea shops, with newspapers and a cigarette in their hand, as they discuss how the country has gone down the drain. The city is full of such familiar sights yoked under a pre-determined routine. Is it possible for art to thrive in such mechanical surroundings?

To quote Andy Warhol “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Even in this day and age of mechanical production, the city of Kolkata still lives and breathes art. In Kolkata, art is found everywhere— its heritage buildings and architecture— the paintings of Indian gods and goddesses that can be seen behind rickshaws and buses— street posters of some up-and-coming theatre production or films— the walls of North Kolkata, Golf Green, and Park Street adorned with graffiti, slogans, and revolutionary street art. The whole city is an exhibit of various local skilled craftsmen and women—the bookbinders, wood block makers, stamp makers, the workers at letterpress printers, the sandesh makers, and the jewelry makers. In a city thronging with such expressiveness, let us refrain from solely romanticizing western artists as we Indians often tend to do, and instead look at three artists much closer to home:

I. Rukmini Chakravarty

As a  child, Rukmini was a very quiet kid one of her main forms of expression was through art and writing in notebooks. Her initial influence was her parents who have a keen interest in art, music, books, and travel. They nurtured her creativity and provided the space to observe different art objects, paintings, photographs, music and film posters, record album covers, stamps, and all that they collected from all over, each of which had its own story to tell. Her elder sister and Rukmini took art classes from Proiti Roy, a well-known artist, and illustrator who inspired them from the very beginning to create anything they wanted through various mediums.

l: A photo of Rukmini by Rebecca Alice r: A self-potrait in oil
l: A photo of Rukmini by Rebecca Alice r: A self-potrait in oilRukmini Chakravarty

 Rukmini used her imagination and intuition, to paint abstract forms that expressed momentary moods and emotions—things that she could not articulate in language. Her artistic processes changed with her surroundings. During her time at the Aegean Center for Fine Arts in Paros, Greece she was deeply inspired by the European masters. The study of human form and anatomy was an integral part of her classes at the center. She painted everything from still lifes to portraits and landscapes. The artist shares an interesting personal incident “While I was painting a landscape in oil on a canvas at the studio, I could only see the colors in reality that I saw in front of me. My painting professor Jane came, took my paintbrush, and put one stroke of purple on the blue sky that I painted.” The incident marked upon her how to constantly shift from reality to imagination, dreams, and surreality. Rukmini does not believe in sticking to one medium or style. For her, each new painting is a personal experiment, born and reborn out of learning and unlearning.

The world around her, the protests that she has participated in, the neighborhood lady sitting on her balcony, a stranger on the road—everyday things become a part of Rukmini’s artistic universe. She has mostly used ink, pen, and oil and has not dabbled much with acrylic. She is currently working as an illustrator and artist and takes on projects that move from a design sense to a fine art sense. Rukmini has also worked with several art communities, teaching creative lessons to village children in Nepal at the Marpha foundation, with Adivasis in Devrai Art Village Panchgani—oscillating between teaching art to children and wanting to undertake personal explorations of her journey as an artist.

l:A digital drawing of a bird r: An etching of a house in Paros
l:A digital drawing of a bird r: An etching of a house in ParosRukmini Chakravarty

You can find Rukmini staring through a translucent marble or sitting by the Kopai river in Santiniketan and her artworks here.

II. Devi Ganguly

Devi began drawing as a child, illustrating tiny comics. Although an ardent lover of art from a young age, Devi spent many years in academia and literature. Her initial years as an academic formed the backbone of the theories reflected in her practice. At the age of 27, she joined art school. The artist describes herself as “obsessed with her art” and a big fan of experimenting with oil, ink, pastels, and primitive mediums like charcoal, which is difficult to control.

 Her self-portraits capture the ever-trending modern phenomenon of taking a selfie as she draws inspiration from the age-old practice of self-portraits by artists like Bacon and Rembrandt and attributes it to the selfie phenomenon of today. For her, the face becomes the seat of one’s identity and there is a lot of authoritarian exercise over what one can and cannot do with their face. Good societal morals look down upon a large face tattoo or if you remove your eyebrows. Devi’s portraits counter this angst around facial identity by painting distorted faces, not realistic ones. “Faces sometimes become redundant when you are inside a crowded train, a bustling space, or when you are tired and nothing catches your eyes; all faces become a prototype. They are multiplied numbers and not specific identities anymore. My paintings play around that.”, she says in a candid interview. She looks at still portraits, portraits of subjects unaware of being captured, and also portraits in motion. The artist, borrowing the title from famous surrealist Luis Bunuel’s film, did a series called ‘objects of desire’ which portrayed a series of male nudes. The series highlights their masculine features and their faces are invisible. The artist objectifies the men with a feminine gaze, where their face becomes irrelevant as faces keep changing but the nature of desire stays constant. 

l: A photograph of Devi r: A self-potrait by the artist
l: A photograph of Devi r: A self-potrait by the artistDevi Ganguly

The stark dichotomy between humans and nature in her work is seen when she approaches landscape paintings. She views landscapes “as the need for humans to capture vastness; through painting or photography.” Much like the Impressionists, the artist is drawn toward portraying how light affects landscapes and colors— how a particular mountainscape or a wheat field would look different during the day and under the moonlight.

A landscape painting
A landscape paintingDevi Ganguly

Devi refrains from categorizing her work as propaganda art but subtlety is key as her works reflect a feminist fervor. She identifies institutional patriarchy as the enemy rather than a particular gender in the context of equality in society. Over the last few years, her body of work has thoroughly expanded and when asked about her future plans she says “I am a people’s artist and not a big fan of galleries and white cube spaces. My art is very personal and those who like it, buy it. My aesthetic landscape paintings sell more as people love to hang something beautiful on their home walls rather than my dark paintings, which most of my friends buy or relate to. My future plan is to simply work, work and work.”

Know more about Devi and her art here.

III. Subhadeep De

When asked about his introduction to the world of art, Subhadeep shares a funny anecdote from his childhood. “It is funny when I say this but what got me into painting was Jurassic Park. As a child, I was so mesmerized by the movie, that I started drawing dinosaurs and mountains everywhere. No one in my joint family was artistically inclined except my mother. She nurtured my interest and introduced me to a relative, who was an experienced artist and had his own art school. For a long time, I learned under his guidance.”

l: A selfie with his cat r: A portrait in acryclic
l: A selfie with his cat r: A portrait in acryclic Subhadeep De

The artist approaches his works in two ways. If he’s in a “scholastic mood”, following the path of the old Renaissance masters, he takes a figure for reference, studies the light and its forms, and paints it. The more preferred approach for Subhadeep is to paint from imagination and let the forms take shape as the painting progresses—he describes the process as “like watching clouds”. He is heavily influenced by the works of Edvard Munch and Salvador Dali and when he was first introduced to their works, he was enamored by the magic that paint brushes can create.

For Subhadeep, the entire act of painting is political. To pursue paint living in a household, expecting a doctor or engineer out of you, as is common in most Indian households, became an act of resistance. The artist believes that pursuing painting subverts societal expectations. Also, whenever there is a political upheaval in the country or worldwide that he aligns with like the anti-NRC CAA protests or the Shaheen Bagh protests, he makes compositions in solidarity with the protests. The forms/bodies in Subhadeep’s works are genderless or non-binary and he blurs these lines of gender on purpose. Although he works with any medium, he can get his hands on, he has a weakness for oil pastels and soft pastels. De says that he has a “symbiotic relationship with a white piece of paper.” He enjoys painting more with his hands and fingers than with a brush as the feeling is more visceral as the painting unfolds before him.

A pastel painting
A pastel paintingSubhadeep De

Throughout the years, Subhadeep has collaborated with several art initiatives in Kolkata such as Artism, Eye Art Collective, Art Story, and CCU. As an artist, De has often struggled with the eternal dilemma that an artist faces—do I paint for myself or what my audience wants? He tackles it by making commissioned works according to the client's needs but when it comes to his own practice, he throws his own subjectivity onto the paper without much consideration for the viewer. De maintains that there comes a time when an artist must choose between the honesty of one’s art and sellability. Many have advised him to go for exhibitions or stick to a particular style to improve marketability. However, he has stuck to his own diverse approach without paying heed to such advice. When asked about his future plans, De says “ As the artist grows, so does the canvas. Even with a full-time job, I want to devote more time to painting.”

Find out more about Subhadeep’s artworks here.

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