Explore the life and work of this pioneering Indian artist

Jamini Roy was one of the earliest and most significant modernists of Indian art.

Trained in the British academic style of painting, Jamini Roy became well known as a skilled portraitist.

After graduating from the Government Art School Kolkata, in 1916, he received regular commissions. Most of his paintings were in Western styles, like portraiture and impressionism.

However, influenced by the growing surge of nationalism, Jamini Roy consciously rejected Western artistic styles and searched for a more 'Indian' form of artistic expression.

He sought inspiration from East Asian calligraphy, terracotta temple friezes, folk arts and crafts traditions. From calligraphy, to animals, to Jesus Christ, his work encompassed many different subjects and motifs.

He inflected these subjects with his unique modernist style. Roy reinterpreted South Asian iconography and subject matter with modern, graphic lines.

Here we explore the different motifs, styles and stages that defined his work...

The Santal Paintings
From 1920 onwards, Roy’s work represented scenes from village life, reflecting the innocence and romanticism of the rural environment. Jamini Roy did a suite of paintings featuring Santal women. Sensuously painted with firm angular lines, the artworks show the women engaged in their daily chores.

In the first few years of the 1920s, Jamini Roy created several paintings with what he called his “flat technique.”

Roy said that, like Chinese landscapes, he wanted to discard nonessential background details.

The subjects were mostly Santal women. The Santal are a tribal community indigenous to India.

Calligraphic Brush Drawing
From the mid-1920s, his images were executed in sweeping, calligraphic lines showing the artist's controlled brushwork. Colour gradually disappeared from his paintings resulting in series of monochromatic pictures that hinted at inspiration from East Asian painting styles, like Kalighat pats. The imagery was drawn from everyday life, featuring mother and child figures, bauls, and so on.

From 1924 onwards, Jamini Roy experimented with a new, more simplistic visual style. His images for the most part became monochromatic – an austere play of white, soft grey and black.

With a masterly control of the brush, he created contours with fluid, calligraphic lines.

During this phase, Roy painted stark, graphic versions of images from everyday life, including seated women, mother and child figures, bauls, leaping deer, and crawling infants.

Portraits, Landscapes and Copies of European Masters
It is interesting that, up until the 1930s, along with his folk-style paintings, Jamini Roy still continued to paint portraits with European-style, Impressionist and even Pointillist brushstrokes. However, in later years, Roy's medium changes to tempera. Roy also made exquisite copies of European masters as a method for honing his visual language.

Even while Roy was exploring indigenous themes, he was simultaneously copying from the works of the great European masters. His studio was like a laboratory where he could study the elements of composition and how the paint was applied.

His mastery over the techniques of the great European painters led him to paint local landscapes using tempera. He also painted some portraits in this style.

Birds and Beasts

Given the air of solemnity in his paintings, the touches of irony, playfulness and whimsy come as a pleasing surprise. Roy's lighter touch is most clear in his paintings of birds and beasts. For instance, the cat in Cat and the Lobster has its tail ending in a colourful trefoil.

The bird here has a charming perkiness.

The solid presence of the bull here is contrasted by the light, free and colourful lines that surround its body.

Epics, Myths and Folk Cults

Along with his rustic figures, Jamini Roy also began to draw on the imagery of epics and mythology, introducing a narrative element to his painting. It also helped him to communicate with ordinary people by entering familiar imaginative space.

Through the 1930s, he painted scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Krishna Leela

The Krishna Leela series of painting is different to Roy's other work. Instead of the sturdy, erect figures in other paintings by him, in these the figures lie on a bent or dynamic axis.

With stylised birds, animals and suggestive tree forms, Jamini Roy created idyllic pastoral scenes, conjuring a romantic rural utopia of his imagination.

Life of Christ

In the 1940s, Roy painted perhaps his most powerful series of images, which center on the life of Jesus Christ. Although he painted occasional images of Christ in the previous decade, his work became preoccupied with this as a visual idea in the 1940s.

What was most thought-provoking about these paintings was Roy’s skill in adapting stories from an alien culture but giving them a familiar appearance, as if they were people from our own villages.

The language of Roy's Christ paintings is remarkable for other reasons as well. Roy invests the grave, contemplative faces, in their somewhat hieratic poses, with vibrancy.

Mother and Child

Roy's work also features infinite variations of mother and child figures. It is difficult to gauge from the present day what thoughts may have led to his interest in this theme.

Many scholars question whether the subject had an emotional charge for him. Were his experiments with the theme an outcome of Bengal’s obsession with mother worship? Or was it just an interesting juxtaposition of forms which allowed for endless artistic explorations?

Village Communities

From the end of the 1920s, Jamini Roy rejected the European oil medium and began to use traditional pigments from vegetable and mineral sources. And, in tandem with this, the imagery of these artworks was drawn from village life.

He invested the peasants, artisans, followers of religious cults, village women and adivasis with immense dignity. He represented in his paintings what they held sacred.

He painted from folk tales and narratives that permeated the rural consciousness.

Incorporating these symbols and images, Jamini Roy created a unique artistic style. By the time he died in 1972, Roy was one of the most celebrated modernist artists in India. 
Credits: Story

National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi on the occasion of the 125th birth anniversary of artist Jamini Roy organised a special exhibition from the Museum's collection titled JAMINI ROY (1887 - 1972) : JOURNEY TO THE ROOTS.

Curated by - Ella Datta

Credits: All media
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