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Jatin Das retrospective: Poetic insight into art, existence

A retrospective of the works of Jatin Das is a testament to his vivid oeuvre

Jatin Das retrospective: Poetic insight into art, existence

Flights of Steel, Jatin Das' sculpture in Bhilai, was named by author Dom Moraes. Photo by Raghu Rai.



Monica Arora

The vibrant tapestry of artist Jatin Das’ creations comes alive at a retrospective of his works being held at the sprawling National Gallery of Modern Art, nestled amidst the verdant surroundings of Lutyens’ Delhi. An encapsulation of his seminal body of work, ‘Jatin Das — A Retrospective: 1963-2023’ is an amalgam of drawings in conté, ink, oils and watercolours.

From the ‘Labourer Exodus’ series

His artistic realm extends beyond mere two-dimensional expressions, delving into sculptures, graphics, terracotta, ceramic, porcelain platters, and even whimsical pinch toys. A true polymath, he also adorns the exhibition with his reflective musings, offering a poetic insight into both art and existence.

At 82, Padma Bhushan awardee Jatin Das defies his age with his exuberance and energy that punctuate every body movement, every sentence he utters and every brushstroke he creates. Born at Mayurbhanj in Odisha, young Jatin left for the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay in the 1950s and his early years in cosmopolitan Bombay hold a special place in his heart. As he writes in one of his lyrical musings,

“I draw with pencil, pen and conté

Painting is narrative and like prose

Drawing is like a poem…”

A few months ago, at a meeting at his studio, he shared how he would do about 300 sketches a day in Bombay. “I am a taskmaster, an enemy of myself. When something excites me, I decide to do something. Then I run and follow like a dog sniffing a bone. I know nothing anymore,” he said. No wonder he has exhibited his work at more than 80 solo shows, not just in India but also internationally, including in Venice and Tokyo Biennales.

Artist Jatin Das.

This retrospective, on till January 7, is a testament to his enduring legacy. It brings to life the modernist painter’s exploration of the human form, weaving tales of love, loss, loneliness, and life in an array of colours, from vivacious splashes to sombre olive greens and moody blues.

His paintings transcend narration, becoming metaphoric, poetic and expressions of human emotion. “Human anguish, pain, affection, tenderness, it is all expressed through these energised bare figures. Some people call them nudes. But they are not, as they have not been disrobed. They are beyond any concept of time and space. When I paint, my colours, my tone, the movement of the body, they are all of concern to me.” He goes on to describe how Michelangelo’s paintings or sculptures in Indian temples or any form of figurative art is about the rhythm of the body. He believes that “the brahma rekha or the key line is important in every body’s movement”.

Ceramic platter, 2014

Amidst the various unidentified figures, one can spot some familiar faces, such as poet-lyricist Gulzar, artists Bhupen Kakkar, Anjolie Ela Menon and Gurcharan Singh and photographer Raghu Rai.

As one meanders through this lifetime of sheer effervescence on display, it is interesting to observe the stark sketches in ink created during the lockdown in a series entitled ‘Exodus 2020’, or his works bearing imprints of his childhood and early years in mofussil Mayurbhanj.

A curated corner unveils the artist’s life, complete with paint-stained gloves and the tangible tools of his trade, inviting viewers to stand and stare, enchanted by a lifetime encapsulated within the walls.

There is a wall dedicated to stoneware platters and Jatin Das writes, “I buy towdis from roadside vendors, clean them and paint on them. I have also painted ceramic and porcelain platters. If an idea excites me, I immediately start working on it. I treat every medium with respect.” Be it honouring the tradition of Odisha, evident in the clay figurines coated with vibrant-hued lacquer paint that comprises his pinch toy renditions, or his experiments with ink and watercolours where focus is the key. As he opines, “The wild water has to be tamed and stopped from spreading… one needs to be focussed.”

Here is a retrospective of an artist, a thinker, who believes “genuinely not in talent and inheritance, but in practice. My classical musician friends do riyaaz in the morning and evening… I value drawing as the crux of the matter, and the strength of an artist can be seen in his lines”.


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