’Art & soul
Between heaven and earth

The works of Bireswar Sen continue to beckon and excite, writes B. N. Goswamy 

" ... what does a Poet or an Artist really see? Is his vision the same as ours, a matter of fact optical impression of the fleeting moment, or something deeper and different?" Bireswar Sen

Memories being, as a matter of course, ruefully short, and the noise in today’s art world so raucous, it is no surprise that very few people today remember, or even know, who Bireswar Sen was. And yet that artist (1897-1974) deserves to be in our thoughts, for he was a remarkably gifted man, who engaged himself in investing paintings ‘with a light that never was on sea or land’, and had clearly something to say. Fortunately, there will be an occasion to hear his thoughts through his paintings soon, for a show of his works is going to go up in Delhi soon. But of that later.

A Kulu Courtship. Painting by
A Kulu Courtship. Painting by Bireswar Sen; ca. 1940

To recall, briefly, his life first: born in Calcutta, Bireswar Sen grew up in stirring times. The atmosphere around him was charged with art and thinking about the arts; men of striking stature who were celebrated in their own times and in those that were to follow — the poet Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath the painters, ‘master moshai’ Nandalal Bose, the Japanese ideologue and aesthete Okakura Kakuzo — were, among others, active; there was much coming and going between India and the outside world, especially with Japan. The ground was fertile, sensibilities were being shaped, and experiments carried out. What is more, the environment in young Bireswar’s own home was highly conducive to the arts. His grandfather, a solicitor, as well as his father, a professor of literature, were men of fine taste. There was a rich library of books at hand, of course. To go to see exhibitions at the Indian Society of Oriental Art was a pleasurable routine in the family. To read Ramanand Chatterjee’s Modern Review, and its Bengali sister, the Prabasi, in which paintings of the Bengal masters were frequently featured, was almost a requirement.

In 1918, when Bireswar was still a bit short of taking his bachelor’s degree, he came under the influence of Abanindranath Tagore and his foremost pupil, Nandalal Bose: two ‘icons’. He must have made an impression on the older masters. For, some years later when Abanindranath was issuing a ‘testimonial’ or letter of appreciation, he was to write that he had "known Bireswar Sen very intimately for a period of six years or more"; on his part, Bireswar Sen regarded Abanindranath as his guru in art, having ‘sat at his feet’, and learnt, among other things, the ‘wash technique’ of painting.

From the very beginning, there were two clear, if not necessarily competing, interests that Bireswar Sen had: painting and the pursuit of English literature. Things resolved themselves soon, however: for, after a short stint of teaching literature, Bireswar committed himself entirely to painting, joining the Lucknow School of Arts and Crafts as a teacher in 1926.

The year 1932 was, however, what changed his life as far as art is concerned. For that is when he met the great Russian painter, Nicholas Roerich, to whose Himalayan landscapes, and whose world of thought, Bireswar Sen completely succumbed. Years earlier, someone, writing on Roerich’s paintings, had remarked upon "the tender violet-like amethysts of his snows at dawn, the emerald-like grass of his prairies, the pale turquoise of his northern skies, the mother-of-pearl of his clouds, the jasper and malachite of his rocks, the amber and rubies of his sunsets ... ." When Bireswar Sen saw all this for himself in Roerich’s landscapes, it was akin to a revelation. The luminosity that he had been searching for in art, the seeking of the connection between Man and Nature, was all here. Here was the path to finding his own still centre, as it were, the way to do something ‘deeper and different’.

Inspiration is one thing, but never at any point did Bireswar Sen try to imitate Roerich. The fountain of his own ideas was different, his understanding of life of another order. Even in sheer physical terms, Bireswar’s work looked very different, small in scale as it was, and painted on paper in the wash technique. Whatever his reasons for choosing that miniscule a scale and that technique, there was something compelling about the work he began to do, rendering in image after image majestic mountains, lowering skies, sweeping vistas, tangled forests. Interestingly, however, the landscapes he painted appear, for the most part, to have been memory-images or recollections: evocations, in a manner of speaking. He observed nature with great sharpness but, in his paintings, he also kept on doing things to what he saw: adding, enhancing, taking out, abbreviating, transforming. In his hand, oranges would suddenly rise and fill the sky and loom over naked rocks, cobalt blues would set up a clash with grainy browns, forests turn a flaming red, salmon cliffs capriciously slope and part as if to allow someone to pass. There is drama in his paintings, but no theatrical effects. Consciously, he let ancient, timeless images rise in his work and occupy spaces in our minds against the backdrop of heaven and earth.

To take just one example from his large body of small works: the painting bearing the somewhat obscure title, "A Kulu Courtship", evidently pointing towards the Kulu-Naggar region in the Himalayas which the Roerichs had made their home. Under a rich, orange-yellow sky looming over distant grey-green peaks, a curious Stonehenge-like silhouetted structure stands in the foreground. Very close, almost touching it, one discerns the figure of a man — primitive, wild-looking, judging from the animal-like head or mask — standing, legs lightly parted, hands extended as if to carve. At a slight distance, behind him and also silhouetted, is a woman’s figure: seated on the ground and looking up, supporting herself with one arm.

A small bundle-like object rests on the ground directly behind her. Nothing else is stated; nothing is clear. However, as one takes in the wonderfully mellow colouring and the hazy outlines of mountain peaks, questions keep rising in the mind. Is the painter telling us a story here? Who are these people? What is it that the man is doing? Is that little projection atop one of the ‘Stonehenge’ columns a carving that he has been working on? Is that his wife/beloved, who has brought him his mid-day food, and now sits waiting for him to finish whatever he is doing? Again: is the sun beginning to set? Is the intention of the painter to set up an interplay between action and inaction here, between energy and stillness? For us, viewers, does the dark silhouetted foreground with figures on it help the painting, or does it hinder? There are — perhaps can be — no clear or uniform answers. But Bireswar Sen’s work continues to beckon and excite.