Old Man Art
IGNCA prepares to felicitate the still sprightly
painter-sculptor on his hundredth birthday
his meticulously sculpted beard and swaggering moustache, his deep-set
eyes and erect frame, he remains-even at 100-an active, genial and handsome
man. Till but a few years ago he would drive his own car though these
days, much to his irritation, he has to be ferried by friends and relatives.
Residents of the Hazrat Nizamuddin area in Delhi can still see him most
mornings at around 7.30 a.m. taking a brisk walk around Humayun's Tomb
before returning for breakfast by nine. "It is such a delight to
start my day by greeting this familiar figure who symbolises so many vanishing
values that we cherish," says painter Anjolie Ela Menon, who lives
in the vicinity.
Bhavesh Chandra Sanyal, painter-sculptor and
guru to three generations of Indian artists, is to be felicitated by the
revamped Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) on April 22.
Menon, a trustee of the IGNCA, is organising a special exhibition as a
tribute, for which 100 artists have contributed a work each. The proceeds
of the show will go to the Nora Centre for the Arts at Andhretta in Himachal
Pradesh, a dream of Sanyal and his eccentric friend, the late "memsahib"
of Punjabi theatre, Nora Richards.
The morning walk over, it's breakfast time at
the Sanyal household. "The newspaper, like morning tea, is a habit
difficult to give up," he complains, adding, "these days I can
only read the headlines, and all this loot, murder and rape! Poor Bharat
Mata!" The grand mascot of Indian art is not amused. Looking back
over the decades, what would he recommend to aspiring artists today? "Don't
think of taking up art as a profession," he replies flatly without
A colourful life: The artist's self-portrait
Both the purpose and practice of art have changed
so radically since the early 1920s when he was a student at the Government
School of Art, Calcutta, that the doyen is bewildered and ill at ease.
But he quickly clarifies his view. "Art students today are much more
aware and better educated than they used to be. There was a time when
you were sent to an art school if you failed at everything else!"
Besides, he also points out, art today is reflective of the social situation:
"If confusion and corruption mark our lives generally, the artist
can only image that." It is no longer the purpose of art to depict
a picturesque utopia.
Born in Dibrugarh, Assam, on April 22, 1902,
Sanyal came into his own in 1929 when he was asked by a Punjabi firm by
the name of Krishna Plaster Works to go to Lahore to make a bust of Lala
Lajpat Rai (who had died after a police lathi charge a year earlier),
timed for a Congress session. A marvellous and witty raconteur, Sanyal
retells tales of those early days in Lahore with deadpan humour.
Krishna Plaster Works, it turned out, supplied
zoological and botanical plaster models to educational institutions. Had
this ambitious young sculptor travelled 900 miles to prepare laboratory
models in Lahore? Oh no, that was their routine business, "But now
we wish to break new ground," assured the owner, "We wish to
capitalise on the overwhelming popularity of Lala Lajpat Rai, and with
your assistance a huge fortune can be made. I will make you my partner
... I want to see a bust of Lalaji in every Punjabi home." Besides,
a full-scale statue of Lalaji was to be unveiled by Jawaharlal Nehru at
the forthcoming Congress session and Sanyal would be responsible for making
that as well.
Sanyal stayed on in Lahore for 18 long and eventful
years till the partition of India in 1947. He had joined the faculty of
the famous Mayo School of Arts and later set up his own atelier, the Lahore
School of Fine Arts, in 1937. His school-cum-studio became a lively salon
for artists, writers, theatre people and left-wing intellectuals to meet
and exchange ideas. A keen organiser of art events, he was actively involved
in organising the early exhibitions of artists like Sudhir Khastagir,
Paritosh Sen, Kanwal Krishna and also the posthumous exhibition by Amrita
Sher-Gil in 1945.
Arriving in Delhi with his actress wife Snehlata
and daughter Amba "with just the clothes that we were wearing"
he soon joined what was then the Delhi Polytechnic (now upgraded to the
College of Art) at Kashmiri Gate as its principal. "He created the
most wonderful atmosphere any art student could wish for," recalls
senior artist Paramjit Singh who studied there along with many other important
names of the art world. "He gathered some great teachers and artists
including Sailoz Mukherjea, Biren De and Avinash Chandra and was a very
liberal principal." Sanyal was also generous and affectionate to
his students, as painter Arpita Singh remembers: "When I could not
afford to pay for myself, he gave me the money to go on the college tour
to Ajanta and Ellora." Those were definitely Sanyal's finest years.
As an artist Sanyal will remain a great portraitist
in both painting and sculpture. His eye for posture and rhythm in form
is indeed remarkable. His role as a catalyst and orchestrator of the creative
momentum alone could be marked as a great contribution. Revelling in multiculturalism
he ensured space for a creative dialogue across the arts. He founded the
Delhi Shilpi Chakra, a highly active artists' cooperative-adda-gallery
all rolled into one. But Sanyal was not always a great judge of human
character as his choice of successors both at the Shilpi Chakra and the
College of Art later proved. The former is no longer an art institution,
with its prime space having been usurped for other businesses.
As the man who created and nurtured so many
active and seminal institutions enters his 100th year, it is perhaps time
to acknowledge the institution he has become in his own lifetime.