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Amitava Das – From Silence to Screams

Amitava Das, the quietly introspective painter, has for years created images of haunting isolation on simple and silent canvases. But suddenly there has been a radical change in style- the silence has given way screams

It is as if the silence has suddenly become a scream. The man, who for years stood in an isolated melancholy, bent over by unseen burdens, is now being violently pushed to the edge of his world. Innocuous animals have turned bestial, and even lines acquired a killing edge. Violent red and black have pushed out the muted tones that once dominated the palette.

To anyone familiar with the work of Amitava Das, (44) his new paintings are nothing short of a radical change. For years now, Das has worked with little fanfare and less media attention. Quiet and deeply introspective, he has chipped away at creating his own vocabulary – far from the madding crowd of he boisterous art market. The inner world of the sensitive urban Indian – this is what has preoccupied him for years. Now, in a fury, the conflict between the inner man and the outer forces of aggression seems to explode on Das’ canvas.

“In, my earlier paintings, silence was the language. They were noiseless, but not dead. Now there is violence, borne of protest. There is no celebration in this work. I am indignant that we are losing our values.”

Such black despair has perhaps gradually grown out of a childhood mind set with a sensitivity to melancholy and man’s essential loneliness. Reticently Amitava Das recalls his childhood in Shimla. The son of a government official, he lived with his family above the railway station. In the 1950s the walks in Shimla were still abundantly wooded, and amid the leafy deodars and tall pines, the young boy walking to and from school felt a nameless melancholy. Moreover, nature in Shimla is civilizied. It hasn’t a coastal ferocity, or the terror of a jungle, but the clean lines that we see in Amatava’s earlier animals and tree forms.

During art college in Delhi, Amitava had his first exhibition at the Kunika Chemould gallery- and his horizons began to expand-and his horizons began to expand. From Tagore he moved on to the more surreal poetry of Jibanananda Das, and the modern Bengali writers Sudhin Dutta and Shakti Chattopadhyay, whom he strongly identifies with. Camus, Sartre’s essays on artists, and the lives of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, the quintessential writers and rebels fascinated him.And in music, if Mozart was a favourite , so was Mallikarjun Mansoor.

In the mid-70s Amitava’s years at College of Art in Delhi coincided with a ferment in the art world. A younger generation of artists experimented and reached out with a newer confidence. “There was a great change in direction”, says Das. In 1974, he became a founder member of New Group, a Delhi based forum for artists. And between 1976 and 1978, he joined hands with Manjit Bawa in organizing nearly 20 group shows of artists.

Amitava’s own growth during this period contained the seeds of his evolution for the next one and a half decades. His format on paper or canvas gradually became less and less cluttered to contain the simplest elements- man, a tree, a bird, and the vast silent sky. “I started using texture as an element in itself-surface quality became the language,” he explains. Equally at home with pencil, ink or pastel, he developed a vocabulary of dots, dashes and arabesques to create images of haunting isolation. This language also lent itself well to printing, which Amitava has done quite consistently over the years. Amitava also created his own earth coloured hues, to create through subtle tonal differences a tension between tree, wind grass and man. “In those days I taught at Jamia Millia Islamia and the drive through the open fields on the ridge gave me a clue”, he says. Visually, the small careful strokes built up a spare vocabulary. But the images and emotions spoke of devastating loneliness. With his hands and feet, quintessential man stood vulnerably against the most basic elements. And though Amitava’s treatment was primarily figurative, his style and symbolic approach veered more and more towards the abstract.

In 1990, this formal tight structure began to undergo changes, as the dots and dashes made way for more serpentine sinewy lines that charged the pictures with an electric vitality. Similarly, his symbols- the tree or animals forms became more distorted. The struggle between man and shrinking environment to maintain their identity became more intense.

In the most recent crop of paintings, which were recently exhibited at New Delhi’s Art Heritage gallery, and oppression to violence. From small canvases Das changes his format to large life-size paintings dominated by different shades of thick impasto black paint. The single innocuous bird or goat now assumes a hideous bestial form. The man, instead of being bowed down by a weight, is being pushed hard out of the frame of the canvas. Lines and columns that earlier had an abstract balancing quality turn into piercing arros and spears. Instead of silence an unquiet rages both within and without. Nowhere is this more evident than in his use of symbols of destruction- the Goddess Kali with her garland of severed heads, and her consort Shiva, represented here by the moon. In another canvas, severed heads and hands speak their own language, while a single bird plummets from a Darkened sky.

As is this strength, Das uses his brushwork as a language in itself. Thick reds and blacks swirl and rise from the canvas. Man’s deepest sensibilities are being assaulted, and the tones of black against black convey these layers of despair.

Of these 14 new works that he displayed, Amitava is typically reticent. “Painting is one way of coming to terms with life around you”, he says. For an artist concerned with the inner reality as much as with the outer, these paintings are a profound comment on life as he sees it. But in the context of his body of work, this phase perhaps contains a violent crescendo that is the logical point to which tension must rise, to spend itself. In the work that will follow, it will be interesting to see what emerges, after the storm has spent itself.

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