We live and serve the slice of time we are placed in. The life of artist Abani Sen unfolded in an agitated, catastrophic and clouded period of India’s history. The times posed many challenges for Indians of all hues and calling. The most important was to unite India as a nation of people to fight the demeaning imperialist yoke of British Empire.
The year 1905 in India’s history is important. It was the year of first partition of Bengal. It also effectively implemented in Bengal the policy of divide and rule by British Imperialists. But it also fired the Indian Nationalism against British rule. In this year of political turmoil was born Abani Sen—the artist whose sterling contribution to art of the period was substantial. Somehow he seemed to have been consigned an opaque, nearly forgotten existence in the annals of art of the period. While we know a lot about his famous contemporaries, the students of art and art history seem nearly ignorant of his contribution at least outside Bengal. Vijay Lakshmi Dogra the soft spoken suave Art Indus gallery owner in Delhi should be thanked for removing the dust of time on Abani Sen’s art by organising a large exhibition of his work and bringing out a professionally produced book Whispered Legacy edited by Ina Puri.
Reverting back to backdrop of times in which Abani Sen waged aesthetic battles through his creativity. We know that first five decades of twentieth century were full of upheavals and trauma for humankind. The first partition of Bengal galvanised Bengal and the rest of India in a nationalistic fervour and led to the birth of Swadeshi Movement. It was during this period that Indian National Congress emerged as a pan India entity to fight for freedom from the yoke of British Imperial bondage.
It is necessary to be familiar with other catastrophic happenings till about India’s independence from British yoke. The First World War and the 1920’s Great Depression caused havoc to people and especially to peasantry. For Bengal the misfortune was accentuated not only by the II World War but far greater was the misery to people because of the manmade or rather British Raj made Bengal Famine of 1943-1944. Around 4 million people died of starvation; the civilian and military sexual abuse of starving women and girls was the side show of this imposed inhumanity. (Refer Jane Austen and Black Hole of British History a book by Dr Gideon Polya)
How could the artists remain aloof from this chain of upheavals castrating the social psyche of an ancient proud people?
The early Bengal school and the later day Avante Guarde Bengal artists explored new vistas, styles and fresh expressions to translate the mayhem wrought on the innocent people of their land. The artists working during this epoch especially Nandlal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Hemen Majumdar, Ram Kinkar Baij, Pradosh Das Gupta, B.B. Mukherjee, Abani Sen, Nirod Majumdar, Gobardhan Ash, Chitto Prasad, Zainul Abedin, Somnath Hore and many more would provide a new freshness, national and social concern to the Bengal art. The last three artists would paint the Bengal famine with power and telling effect.
Abani Sen thus inherited the socio-politico-economic situation of his times to which he was a witness and a sufferer. His art from the beginning did not focus on depicting the dark happenings of the time. Abani chose instead to work through evocation and metaphor. He did not directly paint pain and suffering of the people as did Chitto Prasad, Zainul Abedin, Somnath Hore and others. He painted from his subconscious. As a child he had grown in the verdant nature-kissed land of Bengal. It was this he drew upon as a source for his art forever. He painted landscapes, animals birds and ordinary people in the street. He did not overtly record the happenings of the period. But in a subtle depiction of moods he conveyed sadness and melancholia that inhabited whole society. His agitated handling of pictorial space, use of black and grey, and whimsical line albeit suggestive of Chinese and Japanese style rendering conveyed a sombre mood.
His bulls, horses, elephants, birds and the lion family (1968) are rendered to bring out the character of the animals and their moods in nick of time. There is strong element of expressionism in many renderings of animals specially when he works in water colour.
Abani Sen’s art was influenced by a variety of movements and styles. You can find semblance of the BATHERS by Cezanne in his 1962 oil painting or the touching simplicity and directness of naïve and folk art in his ink drawing from 1962 of a woman holding chicken. Looking further on his oeuvre you come across his minimalist handling and control of line like a Zen maestro (page 48 watercolour in Whispered Legacy). He also uses geometric linear simplification of forms like in the cowherds of 1965 watercolour. Apart from KS Kulkarni one finds the resonance of this geometric divisionism of forms in the works of Prof. Niren Sen Gupta and the young artist Neeraj Goswami.
A theme that Abani Sen painted persistently and repeatedly is the mother and child. He focused on the gestural rendering of line to convey the soft mother child relation. Like always he excelled while working in water colours and ink. In most difficult of the times a mother is protective of her child and the Bengal Famine was a period when the motherhood and human values were tested to the core. Abani Sen’s mother child works from around this period are highly evocative of love, care and protective shield of a mother for her progeny.
Abani Sen worked in variety of styles because as a guru he taught his students differing paths to creative expression. But if you look around you can find his best. His man with a rose and seated woman in a landscape (page 29) is a masterpiece of expression, modernity and exquisite emotions. His 1968 watercolour of lion family is a powerful work. One has to understand that all works from great artists are not masterpieces, whether you talk of Picasso or Hussain. It will require effort to cull out the best of Abani Sen and to focus on his creative journey that was not only modernist but visionary. There are traces of academism in quite a few of his works but they are not the foundation of his art.
For long (since 1948) he worked in Delhi where he had a long association with fellow artists and his students. On the opening of his retrospective exhibition by Art Indus at LKA recently I discovered many a senior artists who were associated with him as students or otherwise. The nostalgia flowed back about an artist who worked hard for his art and to create a new generation of artists in his studio.
I do not know whether all the works in the exhibition have been documented/exhibited earlier? The efforts of Ms. Ina Puri and Ms.Vijay Lakshmi have created documentation which would help build authenticated pricing for his works in future. Few words on the book by Ina Puri. All paintings are without titles. In case there are no titles to the works, for easy reference they should have been numbered. Also for some works there is no detail i.e. year medium size (works on pages 11, 27, 34-35, 48, 66-67). There is a blunder in the 12-14 lines of third paragraph on page 17. Abani Sen was now much married and father of four children. As I understand that Abani Sen was married only once and never was much married like Picasso, Bertrand Russell or Salman Rushdie.
These glitches can be taken care of in the next print of the book. Though one can say some of the archival photographs of the time of Abani Sen are really precious. Also useful are the analysis and impressions about the impresario Abani Sen by Santo Dutta, Prof.Rajiv Lochan’s account saturated with childhood memories retailed from his father Ranvir Saksena—another illustrious student of the maestro, K.K. Nair’s comments on Abani’s art and his son Ranjan Sen’s empathic memories of his father. It is unfortunate that another bright and famous student Manjit Bawa (brought to Abani by his elder brother Manmohan Singh) lies seriously ailing. Well known artists Jagdish Dey, Umesh Verma, Ranjan Sen and many others found their artistic rudders in the studio of Abani Sen, Art historian Sovon Som’s writing on Abani Sen’s art is incisive. I hope this exhibition and the book will awaken interest in the art of Abani Sen and allow art historians to take a fresh look at the oeuvre of this forgotten genious.