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Missing in the shadow of Jamini Roy - story of a deleted genius

Missing in the shadow of Jamini Roy - story of a deleted genius

Flowers bloom in the forest. Some flowers are used for worship in the temple. Some settle in flower vases. But some flowers bloom in anonymity. In a while, they dry and drop dead on the ground. Nobody notices their coming and going. But that does not make their blooming a lie.

Said Basanta Jana, an artist of rare novelty gone missing for good in the annals of history. Living in an obscure village of Bengal, the young man could manage only the job of a daily laborer. Extreme crisis to manage a square meal for the family crushed his spirits but still it did not deter the young man from painting. He could not help but paint in passionate gusto. The calling of art was inviolable for him though he knew that such luxury was way beyond his means.

It was 1948. One fine day, he noticed a painting in Jugantar newspaper. The artist was the living legend, Jamini Roy. The simplicity of the painting mesmerized him. It resonated with the way he himself painted.

Thrilled, the poor young man from the village, wrote a letter to the newspaper requesting for address of Jamini Roy. Let me not narrate every specific detail but in short, soon Basanta Jana arrived at the studio of Jamini Roy with his paintings.

That was the beginning of their relationship which lasted until the legend passed away. Basanta kept visiting his house at Ballygunge Place in Kolkata on a regular basis. Jamini Roy appreciated his art. Basanta was obliged. He conveyed the agonies of his financial struggle to Jamini Roy. The legend often sent him money. Well, not a lot of money but fifteen Rupees most often for a month. In the meantime, Basanta managed a job as a security guard for a school nearby. That salary and the pittance offered by the legendary artist somehow kept his family afloat.

But what exactly transpired between them is not very clear, but we have some ideas. The lack of clarity is due to the loads of letters found from Basanta Jana. All those letters that Jamini Roy wrote to him in response to his letters. The resounding emptiness in the information exists because none of the letters could be recovered from Jamini Roy’s house.

But from the letters written by Jamini Roy, a few inferences can be drawn with conviction.  Basanta Jana sent by post as well as carried his paintings in person to show to Jamini Roy at regular frequency. But those paintings remained with Jamini Roy. What happened to such artworks? We do not know because none of it could be found with Jamini Roy after his death.

Often Jamini Roy asked the younger artist to send paintings in the form of rough sketch. What was the utility of such request is not clear. In the letters written by the legend we find frequent assurance that something would be done by Jamini Roy to bail Basanta Jana out of his misery. In fact, there are hints of assurance that the young and poor artist was on the right track in terms of his painting. And something was to happen in that regard too. Nothing happened until the end of the life of Jamini Roy. Rather all the letters written by Basanta and the paintings handed over to the legend simply vanished into thin air.

At some point, Jamini Roy kept insisting Basanta that he should paint a few versions of the Christ. In one of the episodes of my podcast, Art Beyond Canvas, I spoke about the nuances of the paintings by Jamini Roy. I mentioned that the legend did several paintings of the Jesus. The reason is unclear anyway as for how his concern for the tribes made him paint Jesus Christ! But this request for some sample paintings of Christ to the poor artist from village raises some unanswered questions.

Now, let me mention something very important. The styles of painting by both artists were almost identical except for the fact that Basanta’s paintings pulsated with way more vitality and spirit than those of Jamini Roy. Also, it looks like Basanta did not adopt the total replacement of shade with flat colors. We cannot access many of Basanta’s paintings because most of it was handed over to Jamini Roy. And as I said, the paintings disappeared from Jamini Roy’s custody!

During the entire stretch of almost two decades, Jamini Roy kept giving assurance and little bit of money to Basanta. The legend definitely saw the greatness in the paintings of the poor young artist. But not even once did he expose Basanta to the powerful circle he was living in.

Almost in each letter, Jamini Roy spoke about his ill health as an excuse of not being able to send the money he promised. But peculiarly, when he was actually very sick that led to his death, he did not informed Basanta. Why? We have no idea. It appears as if during his severe sickness whose who of the city would have dropped in and the presence of Basanta might have exposed some mystery that he was guarding with care.

We shall probably never get the answers to these why and what? Both artists are dead.

Some years ago, when an exhibition was organized to bring the paintings of Basanta Jana to light, there was vicious and savage criticism by so called expert art critiques of Kolkata. They said that Basanta was a copycat, and his paintings were shameless imitations of the legend’s works. Ironically, though, paintings by Basanta are far more alive and spirited.  Unlike Jamini Roy’s beautiful compositions Basanta Janan’s artworks are not skin deep. They don’t come dressed in beautiful clothes and stand dumb, but they engage in dialogues with the viewer.

Later, there had been attempts by some people of authority and power to purchase his entire lot of paintings at some ad hoc prices each. As if someone or some set of people were eager to make the paintings disappear off the face of the earth. This attempt partially succeeded. Thankfully some paintings remained in existence that did not disappear through such a mysterious buyer.

We come to know about these details from the extensive research and pursuit of truth by Artist Pradosh Paul and his brother Atish Paul. They were silenced by a large section of art community. However, they wrote a book at a later date with every detail they could gather.

However, I was also cautioned by some well wisher while I was working on this episode. There are rich and powerful communities heavily invested in Jamini Roy’s paintings. Too much awareness about the existence of another hapless artist in the shadow behind his paintings may rattle the image and thereby crash the prices. What about the investments then?

After all, money is a more powerful truth than truth itself. No?

You can listen to this episode of my podcast from Spotify or Amazon Music or Apple Podcast. Following is the link from spotify -

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