Rabin Mondal has almost completed seven decades of a glorious journey with his art without a break. In August 2015 he had a solo exhibition at Gorky Sadan of Kolkata, titled ‘Colours of Freedom’, organized on the occasion of the 68th anniversary of Indian freedom. At the inauguration of the show he said in his speech that the basic inspiration of his creativity has been from a patriotic song by Rabindranath Tagore: ‘whoever may quit you, I will never depart, Mother’ (‘Je tomay chhare chharuk ami tomay chharbo na, Ma’). There was no dearth of problems and impediments in his life but he had never taken leave from his creativity. Consistency is his basic trait, consistency not only in practice, but also in form and expression.
Rabin Mondal generated a new sensibility in his paintings through transformation of the various forms of primitivism, folk and aboriginal art. As in the West, in India also primitivism has been an important feature in transition from modern to modernism. In the West assimilation of primitive form started with Gauguin and culminated in expressionism and cubism, as Herbert Read had written in his ‘Concise History of Modern Art’ ‘…there was a search for a new art formula and this formula had to be in some sense super-real, some archetypal form in which the disinherited spirit of man could find stability and rest’. Picasso’s painting of 1907 ‘Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon’ was a landmark, where African mask and Iberian sculpture played a crucial role. It is well known that cubism started at that point. Primitivism in the West gradually took a wider form. It turned to be a consciousness about the oriental wisdom. The Russian artist Alexander Shevchenko (1888-1948) coined a term neo-primitivism. In an article titled ‘Neo-Primitivism; Its Theory, Its Potentials, Its Achievement’ written in March 1912 he wrote: ‘Thus neo-primitivism is born of the fusion of oriental traditions and the forms of the occident’. He also categorized folk (in his coinage ‘lubok’) as an expression of the primitive, while the former depicts ‘simple and innocent beauty’, the later gives rise to ‘austerity’ and ‘mechanical precision of construction’.
This concept of neo-primitivism was adopted in our country during the decade of 1940-s. But before that a refined kind of neo-primitivism was practiced by some of our important artists, where essences of cubism, expressionism and Indian folk, tribal and village art were nurtured to a great extend through proper assimilation of local and global concepts and influences. Gaganendranath inculcated a very refined form of cubism. Amrita Sher-Gil looked towards the realities of village life in her post-impressionist technique. Jamini Roy completely devoted himself to folk and village art, where he thought, the real Indian visual wisdom still persists. Rabindranath brought a resurrection in our art through expressionist primitivism, which was never devoid of his contemplative wisdom generated out of his lifelong faith in the philosophy of Upanishad. But here his indigenous values were so dormant that it was difficult to detect by a casual observer without sincere contemplation. He was, in true sense, the first modernist in Indian art. Indigenous primitive life and art played a prime role in the sculptures and paintings, particularly oil paintings, of Ramkinkar. Some quintessence of cubism was also there in his paintings.
With this prelude concerning the primitive, the artists of 1940-s appeared in the field of their creativity. They experienced an insolent, troubled and most complicated world both nationally and internationally, which made most of them rebellious in expression. In constructing their forms they took spontaneously the help of cubist and expressionist primitivism, very often assimilated indigenous folk with it. Somenath Hore resorted to violent distortion through Western expressionism. Cubist angularity was also there in some of his works. Chiittaprasad, albeit being rebellious to the core depended on folk sobriety in many of his paintings. Other artists of the forties who came to the field through group activity borrowed from Western primitivism and assimilated it with Indian folk. M.F.Husain and Paritosh Sen are two of the important personalities in this respect. The artist of Bombay Progressive Group who made structural primitivism as the primary form of his expression was F.N.Souza. Out of the violent he often extracted the benign face of beauty. All his endeavors were to create an uncanny, enigmatic face of realty, where influence of Picasso was extensive. Yet he was very consistent with the primitive.
Rabin Mondal, an artist coming to limelight during 1960-s, also has such a consistency with the primitive, but he has created an entirely different kind of forms, where engagement with the life through rebellion and love has flowed like a fountain transmitting reflection of multifarious realities of life. Before coming to his nature of form and expression we have to traverse through the passage of his life that has brought him to his artistic creativity.
Mr. Mondal is a very good writer also. He writes on art in clear, lucid language. A few of his writings were compiled in a book ‘Amar Katha’ (My Statements) published in 1993. There was a piece, whose title was same as that of the book itself. There he intimately described the process of his becoming as an artist. We may follow this text to have the idea of the background of his creativity. He was born in 1932 in the town of Howrah just at the western side of the river Ganges opposite to the city of Kolkata. However his year of birth has been mentioned in Wikipedia as 1929. Somewhere it is mentioned as 1928 also. He was born and raised in a joint family, where there was an environment of musical culture. His father’s elder brother had fame as a classical musician. His father was a Engineering technician by profession. Yet at the end of his day’s work he concentrated himself in the playing of musical instruments like violin or clarinet. His father’s engineering drawings encouraged Rabin to build up many child like artifacts like houses, boats, aero planes etc. These he has called his first artistic creativity. In 1941 when poet Rabindranath died Rabin was a student of class six. He wrote a verse on Tagore. It was displayed in his school for which he was asked to make a painting of Rabindranath. He did it. He says it was his first exposure as a painter.
Just after this incidence in 1941 itself he fell seriously ill, which made him confined to bed for four years. He looked at the world through a window only, which he called the window of Amal remembering the drama ‘Dakghar’ by Rabindranath. This confinement deterred him from normal education. Howrah was then a dingy town with its narrow dirty lanes and mechanized environment with small scale factories. 1941 to 1947 was a tumultuous time for our country. Rabin Mondal remembers the disastrous environment of famine of 1943, communal violence of 1946, the stream of refugees from East Pakistan after fractured freedom of 1947. He wrote a few short stories based on famine, title of one of which was ‘Ma Ektu Fan Dao’ (Mother, give us a bit of rice froth). All these realities experienced during his childhood and adolescence made up his world outlook, made him an introvert, pensive, skeptical and painful about the human predicament. His forms and norms of creativity grew out of this world outlook. When he reached his original mode during the end of 1960-s his forms and expressions turned to be rebellious, melancholic, yet structurally bold and confident. The primitive forms gave rise to vigor, strength and toughness in his expressions. This tough and pessimistic rebelliousness gradually got transformed into sober and lyrical beauty transmitting his positive faith on the possibility of this life.
He had an inclination for artistic creativity, which induced his seniors to send him to Art School. When he tried in 1945, he was denied admission, as he did not pass Matriculation examination due to his disruption of studies for his physical ailment. So he again took admission to school and passed Matriculation in 1947 and got admitted to Government Art School of Calcutta in 1948 but could not continue due to financial strains. He then took up a course in general commerce stream and passed B.Com. from Calcutta University in 1952. During 1953 and 54 he took up teaching job in a local high school. In 1955 he joined in a service at Calcutta. Simultaneously he attended evening classes in Indian Art College during 1956 to 58. By that time he made some mark in his artistic activities also. His first solo exhibition of paintings in water colour and mixed media was held in 1961 at Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta.
During 1950-s Mondal was trying with impressionist and post-impressionist modes, which were like his apprenticeship. A water colour painting of 1955 titled in Bengali as ‘Rupacharcha’ showed two girls, one was fixing a flower on other’s hair. Another water colour of 1957 titled ‘Lovers’ was also lyrically built up in small strokes of colour mosaic. Overcoming this lyrical period, he came to cubist phase during early 1960-s. Oil on canvas of 1962 titled ‘Brothel’ was exemplary. He distorted the women figures drastically, where there was an effect of Picasso’s analytical cubism that transpired into dinginess and gloom of life. From 1960 to 1965 he tried with cubist form. Paintings like ‘Imagination of Disaster’ (1964) and ‘Frustration’ were also examples of this trend. After 1965 till 1969 he came to another phase, where he was trying to build up his own primitivist form through influence of Roult and the German expressionists. Paintings like ‘Night Fishing’ (1967) and ‘Nocturnal” (1967) carried such a formal structure. During 1968-69 he came to his original form assimilating the forms of the primitives, tribal and mythical archetypes, where he lashed the realities around him. One of the characteristics of this phase was that he avoided the narrative style that was a major trend of the artists of 1960-s and created a pure painterly and symbolic metaphor.
His ‘King and Queen’ series that started around second half of 1970-s and culminated during 1980-s was his magnum opus, as Siddhartha Basu truly indicated in a catalogue introduction on Mondal’s art. Mondal had written an article on this series in 1985, where he mentioned of the tragedy behind the devastating power that the king embodies. He told of the treatment of space in these works, where he kept the background untreated to highlight disastrous void from where ‘power’ asserts itself. In a painting of 1982 titled ‘Man Acting As King’ we find the king, who is our day to day known character, sitting pensively on a chair with a blooming flower in his hand. Here is a contradiction between the beauty and the void. This is an example of an ideal work of Rabin Mondal, where in spite of presence of cubist angularity there is dominance of Indian tribal and folk form. In this neo-primitivist attitude Mondal unites the local and the global.
After second half of 1980-s the violence in his forms was gradually receding to give rise to a beauty, which generated out of turmoil of life, yet posited the fact that behind the darkness there were some rays of light. In a painting titled ‘Still Arrangement’ he shows a triangular flower-vase with sticks of flower in it. Beside this there is a hanging bird cage and a bird by the side of this. In ‘Deity’ of 2006 the primitivist form gets refined towards an ornamental rendering of a goddess. This is how beauty generates from void. Here Rabin Mondal arrives at a point of resurrection, where against the spread of all evading violence and ugliness the life is not devoid of a positive spirit.
Rabin Mondal is a very competent organizer of art activities. In 1964 towards the establishment of the artists group ‘Calcutta Painters’ he had a pioneering role. And throughout the following years he has nurtured the group through various odds and ups and downs.
The paintings that are presented in this exhibition at Aakriti Art Gallery are the products of his late life done between 2008 and 2016. Most of the works are in small format and depicts human faces. Only three paintings are there that deal with different subjects. There is an image of Ganapati, a running bull and one early painting of 1989, which is narrative in nature, where a tribal woman offers flower to a tribal man. An old man sits on the floor beside them. Above him a sarcastic cat casts a humorous look at the couple. Here the artist shows the beauty of love in the life of people near to the soil. This is an example, where the artist creates a positive attitude to life. Despite an environment of tribal folk, cubist angularity is minimal here. The artist creates his own concept of beauty. In the running bull, which was done in 2011 there is force and dynamism but no violence. In the construction of the face of the bull there is some sort of cubist angularity, but in the remaining part of the image the linear movement is the point of prime attraction.
The remaining works are of various sorts of faces, some are mask like, some are melancholic, some appear happy and enjoy the light of life. What engages the spectators is there process of construction, their linear attributes and the conversation between linearity and chromatic exposure. With all these the artist creates multifarious expressions of life where tribal forms are synthesized with lyrical village folk forms. He thus projects an attitude and ideology of neo-primitivism.