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Date of Publish: 2015-08-14

Art & Artists:

(This section on Art -Discourse features noted artists of the north- eastern region with art historical significance. The focus of the section is to critically review their artistic endeavors and their contribution to the production and intellectual development of art to create a definitive contour.)

 Moushumi Kandali, Editor, Visual Art & Culture Section, nezine.com





Those who were witness to the pulsating art scenario in Kolkata in the forties with  an ideological departure initiated by a new group of artists  famously known the   ‘ Progressives’  or  the ‘Calcutta group’,  would  remember a young man from Assam who was one of the   prominent members  of the group.  Founded in 1942 by likes of  Nirode Majumdar, Gopal Ghosh, Paritosh Sen, Pradosh Dasgupta etc, this group came up to  achieve a significant  place in the modernist discourse of Indian  art. Artists like Ram Kinkar Baij, Govardan Ash, Abani Sen, Sunil Madhav Sen and Hemanta Misra joined them later on.  For the subsequent two decades  this young artist from Assam called Hemanta Misra became  an active integral figure in the art scene exhibiting in all  the major shows and featured  with critical acclaim in the major art journals and magazines of the time such as Lalit kala Contemporary, Samkalin Kala among which an elaborate appraisal by artist Pradosh Das Gupta ( “Hemanta Misra , the Surrealist painter”, Roopa-Lekha ,Vol XL no 1 and 2, Chief Editor, M S Randhawa , Editor, Krishna Chaitanya, All India Fine Arts And Crafts Society, New Delhi ) is worth-mentioning. This surrealist painter, so called  by art critic Pradosh Das Gupta, played a significant role in ushering the hybrid and inter -lingual inter- textual character of Indian art in the modernist phase.

It was a February morning of 2003 in a Flat at Jadavpur. The room was adorned with his paintings and cabinets stacked with books and art works of varied media – Bronze, Wood, Terracotta. The man, tall and solemn with a pair of deep penetrating eyes seemed to be lost in the days of yore – days long lost on the banks of Dikhow. While he sat reflecting upon his journey – and eventful journey of an artist, we looked at him with  a deep sense of regard, for before us stood a path breaker who not only chose a rare calling but also brought in a whiff of freshness and modernity in the world of Visual art in Assam. Hemanta Misra, who settled   at Kolkata was perhaps the first Assamese artist to carve a name for himself at the national art scenario. In fact, he was a pioneer in more ways than one – the first Assamese artist to exhibit in the First International Triennale held by Lalit Kala Academy in 1968; first Assamese to display at National Exhibition of Lalit Kala Academy or in the galleries abroad. He was also the first Assamese artist to be included in the archives of National Gallery of Modern Art, National Academy of Art in India as well as the Museum of Oriental Art and Culture in Russia. Moreover his name has been included in the international anthologies of artists published by various  prestigious institutions of USA and UK ..    For a person who started his artistic journey five decades ago, in a peripheral place   within an environment un-conducive to art practice, it is indeed a great achievement for the artist and a matter of pride.

That Hemanta Misra chose to join this Calcutta Group is itself a pointer to his relentless quest for an art which is synthetic, vast and unbounded . As  stated in the manifesto of the group “…the guiding motto of our group is best expressed in the slogan Art Should Aim to be International and Independent. In other words, our art cannot progress if we always look back to our past glories and cling to our traditions at all costs. The vast new world of art, reach an infinitely varied created by the masters of the world over beckons us, we have to study them deeply, develop our appreciation of them and take from them all that we could profitably synthesise with our own requirements and traditions …”

His historical significance lies in the fact that though his lingual idiom was surrealist, temperamentally his works were very much Indian. Of course surrealism was the final phase, which he reached after traversing through two different phases. In the beginning, like any other artist, Hemanta Misra too was interested in academic studies of figures, objects or nature. Such naturalistic representation comprised of landscapes, natural settings of forests, hills, rivers, valleys and human figures. His technical skill and capacity of enhancing the theme with a fine blend of colour and form received rave applause and critical acclaim. But his artistic quest seemed unquenched as he tried to break through the forms and colours and took to the cubist mode of expression. All modernist distortions of forms  starts with cubism and almost every modern artist can be seen undergoing a cubist phase in their career. Hemanta Misra was no exception. But his cubist phase was more ornamental in nature. As if the artist sought something deeper and different as his medium of expression and Cubism acted as only an intermediatory phase in the search. After a decade long quest, he finally arrived at that language which enabled him to express himself with utmost vigour, both at the conceptual and aesthetic levels.

That Hemanta Misra is also a poet perhaps accounts for his lingual choice of surrealism. Surrealism which took rot in the 20’s and 30’s as an offshoot of the Dada movement, had always countered rationalism for the belief in the irrational aspect of life and human psyche. Surrealists attempted to find truth in the subconscious impulses, dreams and fantasies of human mind.  The central idea of this art movement was to release the creative powers of the subconscious mind, or as Andre Breton pointed out in the manifesto, “to resolve the contradictory conditions of dream and reality into absolute reality – a superreality”.

The quintessential character of Hemanta Misra’s art is his poetic lyricism. Hence it is no wonder that he attained salvage in Surrealism where his poetic persona could completely complement his artistic persona. We should remember that the motive force of Surrealism was the French poet Andre Breton. At the very first glance one can feel a Salvador Dalisque mode of rendering in Hemanta Misra. To cite an example, the painting “A Rose Dew in the Bosom of Time” evokes a Dali like cosmic vision. But whereas Dali was preoccupied with the cerebral and cosmological queries, Hemanta Misra seemed to deal more with the psychical aspects. In this work, he seems to explore the multi-layered strata of memory, dream and fantasy.  It is also an intimate account of some existential conflict or inner turmoil. The motif of rose dew evokes an element of impermanence in contrast to the continuous flight of time. But what is it that is temporary like a dew drop? Is it love? Is it the relationship between man and woman? Or is love and relationship with the ideal other a conflicting experience like a rose that exude fragrance and beauty co existent with a thorfn of pain? Is it like the dew drop that sparkles only for a moment, yet leaves a mark in the memory forever? Like any Surrealist work this painting also presents it’s subject subtly, keeping the element of mystery or the Irrationale intact. Also motifs and images are pitted against a indefinite indescribable surreal background, thereby creating  a web of multiple suggestions. Of course, Heamta Misra’s Surrealism has an inherent Indianess in it. His treatment of colour, tonal variations, style of delineation and the specters of imageries manifests that inherent Indian ness in his art. His colours are never stark; but always subdued, smooth and translucent. This quality of colour and tonality evokes a deep sense of vastness and infinitude. The compositional pattern adds to the depth and volume to his psychoscapes giving it a dream like dimension. Amazingly at times Hemanta Misra sees to be more a symbolist where the motifs, images and the symbols act as coded signs of  certain hidden thoughts and impulses. For Symbolism, art is the visual expression of the emotional experiences where the idea is clothed in a sensuous form. Another interesting feature which sets Hemanta Misra apart from the western surrealists is his choice of motifs and symbols. Whereas the western surrealists symbols were derived from the natural and the modern mechanical settings, Hemanta Misra seemed to be inspired by nature alone. Stretches of land – streaks of sand, rocks, frozen rivers, trees, ruins, eggs are some of the recurrent motifs in his ouvre.

In most of his paintings one can discern the recurrent presence of a headless female torso. Herein one can draw a parallel with the Romantic painters for whom motifs like ruins, forests, barren land, rock formations or female figures were favoured images. For both these natural images are sites of hidden truth of the universe and inexplicable mysteries of life. Hence with a closer look, we realize that Hemanta Misra is an artist of eclectic vision. If lingually he is a surrealist, temperamentally he is at times a blended persona of romantic and symbolist disposition with a profound sense of rootedness to Indian tradition, culture and ethos. But these Indian roots never hindered his outlook, thinking and growth as an artist. Many quarters regret that Hemanta Misra did not get the due he deserved in his life time. However he had undoubtedly carved a fine niche for himself in the pan Indian art scenario and those who are aware of the developments in the modern   art discourse of India will certainly acknowledge his contribution.  

( * The Hemanta Misra Memorial Trust , founded  by  noted scholar Udayan Misra  and eminent writer Tilottama Misra at Guwahati archives all the art works, authored books  and other related  documents about Hemanta Misra. Those interested can visit the gallery space cum archive at the given address : House No3, Bylane 3, Mother Teresa Road, Narikal Basti, Guwahati-24, Assam.  The link to Hemanta  Misra’s website : www.hemantamisra.org  )


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