Portrait of - Bala Dasi

Portrait of - Bala Dasi
signed and dated 'Bikash '80' (lower right); further titled and inscribed '"PORTRAIT OF - BALA DASI" / ARTIST:- BIKASH BHATTACHARJEE / ADDRESS:- 1D NABO KUMAR RAHA LANE / CALCUTTA - 700004' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
42 x 40 in. (106.7 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1980
Acquired in Bombay by a Swedish collector, while stationed there from 1979 to 1982
Thence by descent

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Lot Essay

“Bikash Bhattacharjee’s fantasies are the most this-worldly and also other-worldly. [...His paintings are of] subjects where the known is seen in an unusual setting; one’s imagination is stimulated or disturbed. Each scene is painted with a loving attention to light, texture and detail. The compositions are very stable, the unreal is cradled in the real, the pictures are the starting point of questions and reveries which linger in the mind” (J. Appasamy, ‘New Images in Indian Art: Fantasy’, Lalit Kala Contemporary 15, 1973, pp. 6-7).

Unlike his predecessors, Bhattacharjee was neither interested in traditional Indian painting techniques nor the trajectory of the country’s modernist art scene towards abstraction. A humanist at heart, his meticulously executed photorealist paintings attempted to capture the sociopolitical realities of his time through macabre and often chimerical portrayals of subjects usually omitted from Indian visual culture, such as the urban destitute and average, middle-class men and women. The artist noted, “I see myself as a sort of painter journalist, using paint and canvas as a photo-journalist might use his camera. What I have to say is right there on the canvas” (Artist statement, Indian Painting Today, Bombay, 1981, p. 17).

According to the critic, Pranabranjan Ray, “Portraits serve Bikash specially well in extending his basic conceptual understanding of relation between appearance and reality. He transforms the perceptible appearance by clever juxtaposition of comprising parts and play of colour, tonality, light and shade to visually objectify the hidden reality. Representational photomorphic approach to images makes the men and women of Bikash’s paintings real individuals of flesh and blood, even when they are not. But these individuals are at once identifiable as representatives of certain social types with definite roles. As soon as the individuals get identified with certain archetypes, the particular attains generality” (P. Ray, ‘History: A Pictorial Survey’, Indian Contemporary Painting, Ahmedabad, 1997, p. 144).

Complicating the natural progression from youth to old age, the present lot fits into a larger body of work by the artist that offers as an empathetic yet insightful lens into the suffering and repression of women. Here, an elderly woman dressed in a widow’s white sari has had her face replaced with that of a young girl, in remembrance perhaps of the carefree days of her youth. In her hands, she holds what appears to be a mask, a truer representation of her age. “To a careful viewer, the mask turns out to be the aged face of her widowhood beneath which survives the face from the days of her vibrant youth. ‘She has been coerced by societal constraints,’ as Bikash himself explained later, ‘into being something other than herself: her spirit and aspirations are still young’” (M. Majumder, Close to Events, New Delhi, 2007, p. 158). Bhattacharjee’s surreal scrutiny of the female condition in this painting is likely inspired by his memories of his mother who became a widow when he was a young boy. In his memory, she was the ideal “self-effacing and self-denying widow, who would bend her back to protect and take care of her children” (P. Ray, ‘Remembering Bikash’, Bikash Bhattacharjee: A Retrospective, Kolkata, 2009, p.13).

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