By Anasuya Bhar
1964. Tapan Ghosh (b. 1943), a final (fifth) year student in the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, has just completed a painting for his assignment on free Composition. The painting is entitled ‘Two Horses’ and is done in the Cubist style, which was inspired by the works of Paul Cezannne (1839-1906) of the post-Impressionist school. Chintamoni Kar (1915-2005), the then Principal of the college, and renowned sculptor, walks into the classroom and, quite stunned by the piece, launches into a lengthy and scholarly discussion on Tapan’s painting, vis-à-vis the technique of cubism, which has been given shape by Picasso (1881-1973) and Braque (1882-1963). Ghosh was always a promising student, and he would graduate with a First Class, in the following year. ‘Two Horses’ would be later selected as an exhibit for the Annual Calendar (1966) of a Private Company situated in Kolkata. The painting was a representative of the best works of Indian students around the leading art institutions of the country at that time. Tapan was also rewarded with a cash prize for his contribution.
There are two things to be noted here: one is the selection of the style, which is Cubism; the other is the selection of the subject, which is an animal, the horse, for study. The painting was done very much within the academic and curricular limitations of the young artist but, what is interesting is that he took the plunge of experimenting and taking a bold step, at that early age.
Cubism was not new in Bengal. In 1922, the 14th Annual Exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental Art showcased about 250 works of Bauhaus artists, including some works of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Paul Klee (1879-1940), among others. The exhibition was arranged through the enterprise of Rabindranath Thakur who had visited Weimar and Bauhaus the previous year. There was, in the exhibition, along with the Bauhaus artworks, some cubist paintings by Gaganendranath Thakur (1867-1938) as well.
Gaganendranath had started experimenting with the cubist planes and frames, since the 1920s after his stint with cartoons, caricature, and scathing commentary on contemporary, and nineteenth century Bengali society. He began experimenting, in order to break away from the contemporary naturalism and usher in an era of abstract painting. The subject matter of Gaganendranath’s paintings was Indian, but the treatment was a breakaway from the erstwhile narrative and representational style. This was, however, far from a case of western influence. Cubism, being the popular style of Pablo Picasso, in the contemporary culture of the arts, was most suitably available for observation by the artists the world over. What Gaganendranath was experimenting with, was perhaps, an attempt to break away from the contemporary ‘academic naturalism’, and create a distinct non-representational style that would also spell out the language of an Indian modernity. This would, in turn, keep pace with the global modernity and the spirit of the avant-garde.
When Tapan Ghosh was painting his horses in the Cubist style in the early 60s, in Calcutta and well within the precincts of the academia, he has already had forerunners in the craft of Cubism in the works of his other Bengali predecessors like Sunil Madhav Sen (1910-1979) and Paritosh Sen (1918-2008). Beyond Bengal were other senior contemporaries like M.F. Hussain (1915-2011), K. K. Hebbar (1911-1996), who were not only enamoured and influenced by Picasso, but were also painting horses. Back home, Ghosh also had senior contemporaries like Bijon Chowdhury (1931-2012) and Sunil Das (1939-2015), who were also painting horses. In fact, Ghosh himself admits that he was inspired by Sunil Das’s horses in the early 60s, while he was still a student. Hence, Ghosh’s preference for the cubist style or even horses was not new. What was new, however, was his own foray into a world little known, and beyond the periphery of the academy. It was an early identification with a metaphor and a genre, which would be suited to his world-view and his personal angst. It was a mode of expression that Ghosh learnt to identify with from a very young age.
Ghosh’s horses were noticed in other fronts as well. It was again in 1964 that his painting, of a horse and a man, won the ‘Rathin Maitra Award for the Best Work’ in the category of ‘Modern Style’ of painting in the Annual Art Exhibition of the Government College of Art and Craft. (The black and white photograph of this painting is given below.)
Horses have, ever since, haunted his imagination and exhausted his creative energy in a most harmonious manner. What began as part of academic study, with a careful observation of the anatomy of the animal in the stables of the city, being fed with the books on art theory and curriculum study, soon evolved, with considerable practice, into an individual style and genre for expression.
The 1960s, which formed Ghosh’s artistic and aesthetic personality, could, best be described as an era of utmost disturbance and political crises in Bengal, with severe social unrest and chaos bundled together. Ghosh’s childhood, like others of his generation, was frustrated with middle class wants, and various degrees of incompleteness consequent of the famine (of 1943) and the refugee crises that followed. Communality, too, could not be written off. Nevertheless, even in the middle of all these attendant difficulties, there was the dream of a new India, as well. The 1960s also nurtured the first adult generation of free and Independent India. Hence, the dreams and ambitions of the contemporary youth were big and the values and idealisms were bigger. Ghosh belonged to this generation of the young Indians.
It was again in 1964, that the group ‘Calcutta Painters’ was founded, and Tapan Ghosh became its member in 1967. He has been an active member, ever since. The expression of the modernist-contemporary, sometimes with the harmonious fusion of the traditional and the new, was the founding metaphor of this group. Tapan was then a fresh Fine Arts graduate and a teacher of art in a school located in central Calcutta. Nevertheless, he had, by then organised as many as three solo exhibitions of his oil paintings in Calcutta and New Delhi. His works had attracted the attention of the art reviewers. It was at this juncture that Rabin Mondal (1929-2019), one of the founding members of ‘Calcutta Painters’, invited him to be one of them. His artistic ideas and expressions underwent many changes consequent to this association and the ‘horse’ yet again emerged as one of his central metaphors.
The horses that I painted in 1967 were totally different from the ones that I had conceptualised previously. I was totally absorbed in imagining a new reality, distinct and independent from the previous one. It was a kind of anti-establishment thought, where the old must give in to the new. And the horse became one of its metaphors. It was as though, to have the horse as the subject matter of my paintings, would mark the self-consciousness that lay within me. It was as if Reality burst forth through the fantasy, only to give rise to a different and new fantasy and dream. This was the decade when my ideas went through a series of changes, which were reflected profusely in my paintings. (Ghosh, Memoirs)
Even while Ghosh’s artistic self was going through its pangs, he was thinking of going to France for higher studies in Art. And it was in this connection that his horses again received a fresh impetus. Among his earliest collectors was Smt. Vijaya Mulay (1921-2019) who took possession of one of his paintings in December 1968. She was, at that time, acting as the Advisor to the Ministry of Education, Government of India and was also the Chairperson of the Board of interviewers for the ‘French Government Scholarships for Higher Studies in Painting in France’ in 1968. Ghosh was an applicant for the same. Smt. Mulay was genuinely enamoured of the painting ‘Man with a Horse’, and later, after the interview, offered to ‘buy’ the same at the artist’s quoted price. She stuck to her words, much to Ghosh’s embarrassment and reluctance. Ghosh eventually earned the French Government Scholarship (1969) and headed to France for further studies. The brief interaction with Smt. Mulay, however, began a time-honoured friendship between them, with an intimacy even at the level of the family.
Ghosh specialized in Graphic Art and Printmaking under the guidance of Professors Stanley William Hayter and N. Krishna Reddy in Atelier 17, Paris until 1971. On his return to India in 1972, Ghosh’s palette found different strokes, now rejuvenated by international exposure to the various art centres of Europe and enriched by prolific success as a Printmaker. Nevertheless, Ghosh’s speciality always lies in his dynamism and creative agility. He has distinguished himself in several media of expressions. His range of experimentation and research lies in equal capacities with different media of art, namely, oil paintings, acrylic on canvas and paper, graphics and printmaking, charcoal painting and later, pencil drawings. The effortless sojourn across the different media allowed him to explore the limits of his artistic creativity. But even across several media Tapan Ghosh’s ‘horse’ can be counted as one of the major genres of his art.
How does the horse continue to inspire Ghosh? Beginning from the Chinese artist Xu Beihong (1895-1953), also nick named as Ju Péon, to Hussain, to Bijon Chowdhury and Sunil Das, the horse to Tapan Ghosh, too, has had the same appeal of strength, speed and energy. “To me the horse, is always an emblem of energy and strength,” says Ghosh. At times, he visualized the horse even as a symbol or metaphor of life. “It also emblematised the very concept of speed.” The horse, always hardworking, could have signified the struggling self of the artist as well. To Ghosh the horse is also an emblem of fantasy, those creatures of the imagination who he could always saddle with a pair of wings reminiscent of the fabled Pokkhiraaj or the Pegasus. Sometimes the horse also carried a man or a woman, destitute, impoverished and neglected, often recalling an apocalyptic ‘Death Rider.’ Some of his graphic prints illustrate this very well.
While he was in Pune, Maharashtra, Ghosh began his foray into pencil drawings in the 1970s. With age and maturity, Ghosh’s works moved away from the emblematically academic and evolved into his own individual stylization. He moved away from ‘cubism’ and came closer to the narrativity of Indian myths, legends and designs. The depiction verged on the romantic, the mythological and the fantastical, as well. Horses had human companions and angels; they took on the shape of a magical and fantastical encounter. These motifs continued for a reasonably long period of time and well into the present century.
Back in Calcutta in the 1980s, Ghosh continued with the medium of oil and acrylic on canvas. The horses evolved with bold outlines, with gnarled forms regaling not only in their anatomical correctness, but also expressing their angst in the tortuous dynamism of their forms. The regal stance of the animal with its sheer grandeur also made an important statement of the passions of the artist.
In his long career spanning to almost six decades, Tapan Ghosh has won many accolades, awards and commendation from critics and collectors of his work alike, from around the world. He has had thirty solo exhibitions to his credit. Yet, he continues to seek after the truth of his own philosophy, never tired, never complacent, but ever restless in the energy of his creativity. Somewhere, the metaphor of the horse lives on.
The copyright of all the photographs of the works of Tapan Ghosh used here solely rests with the author of this piece. The author is indebted to the artist for his views, which are either inscribed in his unpublished memoirs, or which she has gathered by way of conversation with the artist.
Key to Tapan Ghosh’s works used as Illustrations in this essay, in chronological order
i) An example of Tapan Ghosh’s recent painting of the horse. Acrylic on canvas, 2008.
ii) The picture for the Annual Calendar could not be located. This one, an oil painting of two horses in the cubist style, was done in 1966 and approximates to the style mentioned above.
iii) This is the photograph of the painting that received the ‘Rathin Maitra Award for Best Work in Modern Style’ in the Annual Exhibition of Government College of Art and Craft in the year 1964. This is an oil painting, and titled ‘Composition’, showing the figure of a horse and a man.
iv) This is the picture of the oil painting collected by Smt. Vijaya Mulay in 1968, entitled ‘Horse with a Man’.
v) Photographs of graphic prints, ‘Death Rider I and II’. Impressions taken by the artist in 1999, Kolkata, at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Keyatala.
vi) Both are photographs of pencil drawings showing the depiction of the Horse as an emblem of the fantastical. The second picture shows an interesting amalgamation of the figure of a woman within the horse.
vii) The two concluding pictures would show, once again, the power that the horse emblematises. The medium is oil on canvas.
Dr. Anasuya Bhar is an Associate Professor of English Literature in a Kolkata College. She has two books, many published papers to her credit. She takes a keen interest in the visual arts and its interrelationship with literature.
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