Saturday, March 23, 2002

A wizard with watercolours

Derek Bose

Samir Mondal AT a time when art dealers in India talk of permanence and lasting value for paintings, Samir Mondal would seem to be ploughing a lone furrow. As the nation’s best-known "watercolour man", he has few peers and today, makes it his mission to promote the medium to the exclusion of all else!

Catch him at his studio in Mumbai’s northwestern suburbs of Goregaon and before you are aware, he would steer the conversation on to how watercolour has become a much misunderstood medium, under-exploited, completely neglected, that it is not as transient or flimsy as it is made out to be ...

With the passion of a man possessed, Mondal argues that sheer ignorance about watercolours has led to misconceptions regarding its durability and costs — factors, which have deflected public attention to "lazier mediums" like oils, pastels and acrylic.


"Did you know that the earliest available watercolour paintings date back to 31,000 BC?" asks the 50-year-old artist, while reading from an Internet site. "On December 1994, three amateur archaeologists came across the Chauvet Caves in the Ardeche region of southwestern France."

"The cave walls are painted with hundreds of animals," he continues. "There are buffaloes, bears, stags, lions, a red panther and a towering woolly mammoth. All of these are signed with the handprints of the painters who belonged to the Ice Age."

Referring to himself, Mondal says the medium beautifully complements his expressive and restless nature. "I love the naughtiness of watercolour, its activity and liveliness. The pigments play with me, as I anticipate its behaviour and try to remain a step ahead. Watercolours suit my temperament."

A product of Government Art College in Kolkata, Mondal belongs to the generation of Bengali painters who had rebelled against the so-called Calcutta Group in the mid-1970s and with youthful verve, could cast away the stylistic baggage imposed by their seniors.

However, unlike his contemporaries who drifted into acrylic and oil, Mondal grappled with watercolour, beginning with the conventional route of depicting nature — pretty landscapes, birds, flowers and so on — only to find himself being overwhelmed by the weightless and transparent nature of the medium.

So he studied the structural quality of oils and drew upon their richness and density. Over time, he could develop textures that were hitherto not seen in watercolour. Even in his last exhibition, "Here Civilisation Ends," he makes particular use of features like opacity and solidity, traditionally associated with oils.

All along, Mondal has been garnering rave reviews for shows like "The Performer" and "The War and the Butterflies." In the series "Women in Nature," he clubbed various female types against their natural habitat. There was also "Shelter" on people seeking accommodation while "Alisha" was built around an image of a teenage girl having a hesitant relationship with her mother.

One day Mondal saw a lame peacock and was so intensely affected by the sight, that he promptly created the image of the lame bird searching for food in a garbage dump. This became a metaphor for all living creatures struggling to survive and led to the highly acclaimed series — "Birds of Paradise."

Through all this, if Mondal should feel obliged to anybody for shaping his artistic sensibilities, it is his childhood art master, Gopal Ghosh — a man whom he remembers, a man who forced him to "sit out in the blazing sun to get the feel of what mid-afternoon sunshine meant". Only then, could he attempt a painting on the subject.

"You see, I come from an obscure village, Balti in West Bengal, completely cut off from civilisation," he narrates. "There were no shops in those days. The villagers got their stuff from ‘boat hawkers’ who called out from the riverbank. I grew up in this village, amidst nature, watching the river and the hills .... "

The first paper that he saw was of a foreign magazine, which his father brought home. He took the back of the cover, borrowed his mother’s alta (colour applied by Bengali women on their feet) and drew a red band. With crushed leaves, he made another band at the bottom, leaving the middle of the sheet white.

Thus Mondal’s first painting was the Tricolour!

From that humble beginning, Mondal has kept the Indian flag flying high at shows in Paris, Berlin, New York, London, Hong Kong ... In India, his works are displayed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, state museums and art galleries, besides, of course, in countless private homes.