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Amitabh Sengupta: Explorer of Art

Born in Calcutta in 1941, Amitabh Sengupta studied art in Calcutta and Paris and completed his Masters in Educational Policy Analysis in USA. He worked in Nigeria for eleven years, becoming Head of the Department of Visual Arts at Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He has held shows in India, Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, and Singapore. After his return to Calcutta in 1988, Amitabh had been painting and writing. He has published three books so far.

1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?

AS: As far I can recall, I've been drawing and doodling since childhood. As a seven-year-old in Shibpur, Howrah, I did them more passionately; reading, drawing, and roaming around the neighbourhood were my other favourite explorations. After my family shifted to Raiganj, a high point was receiving a school prize in painting and sports at an annual programme of Coronation High School. My father bought me a pack of colours, a sketchbook, and Nandalal's drawing book with the linework of classical Indian figures. Soon, drawing and painting began to take increasing prominence and consumed much of my free time. I was not very good in studies, yet perceived as a "good boy".

After about two years, my father was transferred to Tufanganj, and I joined another school. Meeting Rabi Roy in Tufanganj was an exciting moment – he was the first educated artist I met. He had just returned after his studies in Santiniketan, and looking at his paper works and wash paintings filled me with amazement. As a result, the application of colour took on a new turn and meaning in my artwork.

Because of low scores in maths, the warnings from the maths' teacher however continued. My father was a sub-Dy Magistrate, and his following posting was in Cooch Behar, where I was admitted to Jenkins School. Cooch Behar was a beautiful, planned town in the mid-fifties – very scenic with large ponds, and it became an inspiration for me to start work on watercolours. And then, next door was a library, the most prominent in town, which became my other haven. I became engrossed in assorted literature and old journals, like Probasi, Modern Review, etc. The Jenkins School was full of bright students, and while my teachers were cognisant of my deficiencies, they noticed my interest in art. The Principal introduced a special class on art. Whenever we met during his evening walk in Sagardighi, our history teacher talked about European artists, mostly unknown; he also mentioned Abanindranath Tagore.

I got a new set of oil colours and a canvas board. From watercolours, I went on to exploring oils, painting the flowers in our garden and faces. While the techniques were nowhere proper, what was more exciting was the feel of the medium and new surface, how paints changed shape, and all that. It was another experience to observe the opacity of oils and the transparency of watercolours. My father continued to give me more art materials and paper, but he always asked questions about my works such as, "Why, is the river water all lines," and so on. I could not agree with many of his perceptions.

Everybody was surprised when I completed my School Finals in one shot, even though I was the last student to walk out of the gate in Jenkins School! Earlier, I met a few art students who were on vacation. Talking to them, I was somewhat disappointed with their narrow views and limited information – they'd developed some kind of apathy to reading books. Good books on art are mainly in English, so language was also a barrier. There were no theoretical classes or language studies in the art college, as I found later (they were introduced decades later). I was a bit confused then, and I decided to study science for another two years. My father was surprised but happier. I joined I.Sc. in Victoria College in Cooch Behar. My history teacher was disappointed, perhaps angry: what has science to do with art? Are you afraid to join an art college? I remained silent. I could not explain that I needed the base, a preparation to enter the world.

He didn't know, but my mind was already set on art, and there was another reason. In Cooch Behar, the Palace of the Maharaja was a prototype of the Buckingham Palace. When I was in school, the Palace was still maintained as a royal property. The Maharaja would come home from Europe with his European entourage for a short period during the winter. Meanwhile, I came to know Bhugu Saheb, who was employed as the Court Artist. His job was to restore and maintain artworks in the Palace. He was highly proficient in the academic style of oil painting and had studied in the Government School of Arts in Calcutta in the forties. I visited him often and showed him my works; so, we had frequent chats. Sometime in 1957, he planned to take me to the Palace to show the art collections, despite all risks. The Palace was a prohibited zone for the public. The visit, however, turned out to be an extraordinary experience for me, as if I was entering a dream world. Room after room, I saw collections of ceramics and those of the Bengal School, European paintings, family portraitures, and many more. The thought came: there could be no other world but this. After over three decades, I visited the Palace, now a museum, but I could not find any trace of those art collections.

During my Art College, art was generally a vague point in ordinary life. On a cultural gathering, even on those rare occasions, they were somewhat nebulous, around Abanindranath-Picasso-Van Gogh vocabulary; so, none of these created a role model in my mind. Belonging to a district town as I was, away from the Calcutta environment, I also had little idea about the contemporary art profession. When I joined the Government College of Arts and Crafts in 1959, my relatives were highly disappointed since I was also eligible to study architecture. "Your father and your uncle are both such good scholars, what happened to you?" they said. So, as I entered art, its social alienation became evident and experiential day by day.

However, art college turned out to be a disappointment except for the explorations with friends and my interactions with senior students. As I think now, art education in the sixties continued with colonial ideas and Western academism. Moreover, there was no correlation between the two departments – conspicuously termed Western Art and Indian Art. While the Principal busked in European mannerism, the teachers were more of the 'Deshi' kind. Between departments and teachers, art was a prevalent divide, Indian and Western, with undefined arguments. Since I disagreed with the teaching, the classroom methods and information, I spent most of my time in the canteen – the adda – or going around Calcutta and sketching the refugees in Sealdah railway station.

Another memorable experience during the period was my trips to the villages with my friends, mainly in Bengal-Bihar-Odisha. I also received awards for these outdoor works. My travels those days did not particularly observe the folk life of the art. I was not aware of it. Art college equipped me in one direction with Western methods. But, again, we saw very little of original contemporary art. So, I was always eager to visit exhibitions, whenever ongoing, mainly the annual shows of the Academy of Fine Arts, the art groups of Calcutta, or the occasional exhibitions of visiting artists at Artistry House. The reviews carried the vocabularies of western terminologies. The writings on art aligned contemporary art towards western language rather than to any local explorations whatsoever.

Completing the art college with a high score was a breeze, and I received all kinds of scholarships throughout the five years. I also did a short course on Art History at the Ashutosh Museum at the University of Calcutta, where I got a Distinction. Still, there was an inexplicable vacuum in my mind about my education: a fear of becoming a prototype. Soon I went to Delhi to find a job and imagined de-educating my art. My works explored scribbling/writing on old pieces of plywood, using any common materials I could lay my hands on, but not Winsor & Newton oils. These works were the early stage of my Inscription Series, which found further direction in Paris.

When I left my job in Ahmedabad after receiving the French Government Scholarship, my father retired from his service. So, leaving the job and accepting a scholarship became a dilemma. My father understood and wrote, "We don't know how life takes a turn; you do whatever you want, we will survive." So, I left for Paris, to the dream world. My sisters never wrote to me about their economic hardships, how they were subsidising to support their studies or the agony of finding a job. They only wrote to inquire which country I was visiting and asked me to send photographs.

The scholarship was for one year, 1966-67, but I returned from Paris after three years. It was a historical period in Paris because of the Spring Revolt of May 1968. Being a student in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the student revolt events were closer to experience within the Latin Quarter. Besides the fights between Police and students, road blockade, and so on, there were debates held in different Schools. The group discussions were most provoking, because of topics like social change, consumerism, feminism, sexual liberty, capitalism, socialism, and anti-Vietnam. Questions were raised against all established ideas. Another memorable experience was listening to Jean-Paul Sartre at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris. Museums were another fantastic experience in Paris and Europe.

Revolt in Paris, May 1968

Students gathering at Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Jacques Sauvageot, centre right leader with students

When I returned home, my mind was charged with ideas, and I was impatient to have a studio, do experiments, study and research. But there was another significant scenario happening in Calcutta; the clash between the government and student-rebels of the Naxal movement had a devastating effect. There was a total breakdown in the state economy and social life. However, the art scene was alive with group activities, art fairs, and some significant cinemas. But I found myself completely unsettled. For the next five to six years, with temporary jobs, living was just a compromise. During this period, I developed a series of small drawings and some photographic experiments.

Drawing in the second phase of the Paris period, 1976

Man with Drawer, Water colour on paper, 22 inches x 30 inches, Delhi period 1971-76

Second sojourne in Cite Universatire, 1976

In 1976, I took a desperate and uncertain journey, leaving everything in Delhi, and once again, left for Paris. But the reality was different. About the hardship and survival, I have written the period in my published Memoire. Finally, I found a position in a University in Nigeria, under a UNESCO project., joined in 1978. Later, after two years, I received a fellowship to study the Masters in educational policy analysis at the University of New York, Buffalo. Then, life took another turn; I joined as the Head of Visual Arts at the University of Port-Harcourt, a federal university in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, my work began – having a studio in Nigeria, a darkroom, cameras, and so on. The university provided an environment that I always longed for; I discovered African literature in English, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, et al. The famous theatre person Ola Rotimi was the Dean and my mentor. After eleven years in Nigeria, travelling in Africa, Europe, and the USA, I thought of returning home. So I came back to Calcutta in 1989.

Colleagues, first university in Nigeria, 1979

With students at the second university in Nigeria, 1986

2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

AS: In Delhi and Paris, between 1964 and 1970, I was developing my works with scripts as form and textural surface mixed with doodling readable words. But these disappeared within the period of my wandering until 1978. In Nigeria, I started a series of canvases, the Interiors, which were in oils; simultaneously, the mixed media and watercolour on paper. I also did photography, experimenting with sequential prints of an object to get a sense of movement. I then experimented without negatives – projecting light over various translucent and solid objects, arranging them on photo-paper, and then developing the exposure in the acid bath. Since my expectation of the imageries was speculative, the outcomes were always a surprise. This was the time I also started making movies.

Interior Series, Nigeria, 1988

Wall Series, after returning to India, 1990

The next series of work developed after my return to India. In Calcutta and other cities, the city walls fascinated me as they reflected life, effects of weather, events, and social habits as well. So, Walls became my next series, which soon transformed into Mythscapes. As I was travelling across India, observing the ruins of heritage sites, the haveli doors, or the abandoned forts, they found another pictorial transformation in my Mythscapes.

Mythscape Series, Sentries of Time, Oil, 1999

The changing period - to the Inscriptions Series, Moving Sun,

Acrylics, 34 inches x 34 inches

Inscription Series, Pyramid 6, 36 inches x 39 inches, 2014

My process cannot be interpreted as projects; instead, themes emerge within my journey, environment and emerging thoughts. My works have no brand style as such. After the new millennium, I returned to the Inscription series. It was not a planned journey either, but flowing into it and merged with my earlier thoughts, and simultaneously, evolving new meanings and forms. Inscriptions are now an ongoing series. With my present travelling in the Duars area in North Bengal, I observe the tribal life, the forest, rivers and the fields; the colour and imageries all merge on the canvas and turn into the inscribed surface. My motivation and inspiration, both, are linked to my experiential environment.

3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?

AS: There has been a fundamental flaw in the educational policy that has never been addressed. What needs to be noted is that contemporary art is a trend that evolved from institutional education, a framework created by British administrators. This prototype and unplanned classroom work took various shapes in later institutions, in sync with the market or global art trends. It does not have any socio-cultural and pedagogic relevance. It has a low stereotype application in general education. As a result, we have educated urbanites, administrators, politicians, business people, and clients incapable of differentiating quality but interfere with their views and choices. What is known as visual literacy, such as identifying an aesthetic object and making a critical assessment, is not developed. The workplace in most art professions is chaotic. The cities are bursting with ugly statues, odd structures, shops and billboards.

Inscriptions, Digital on Canvas, 24 inches x 48 inches, 2015

Landscapes start to merge with Inscriptions, Terrain 3, 58 inches x 44 inches, 2018

Script-1, Acrylics, 12 inches x 18 inches, 2008

On the art educational front, India is languishing with the same 19th-century classroom thinking. It is no surprise that contemporary art in India has various misperceived frames, even to comprehend the global trends. Art trends accept signals from the market and galleries. In the case of art writers in India, most are non-viewers of art, but they have the language, western vocabulary, and prototype history to configure Indian contemporary art. The scenario is a make-believe world. The arrival of the auction houses – Sotheby's and Christie's – enhanced this chaotic phenomenon even more. Remember, there are no economic benefits of auctions for artists since money is exchanged among the rich. The same art is sold and re-sold umpteen times, focusing on 30-40 names. Neither does art have any copyright in India. On the other hand, the survival of the much larger group of practising artists all over India – how many we don't know – is another reality but this has not been in focus in the society.

With artists from other cities. Art camp in Jamshedpur

Interactions with young artists continued for about ten years, with Art Trust

Video Installation at the Ganges Gallery

Artists and visitors at the show

4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?

AS: Art emerges within the social dynamics, and the social use of art is within this organic process. At the same time, the cultural-intermix is a common phenomenon, like merging with alien elements and evolving another stream of art which later becomes acceptable through time. But it contrasts with contemporary art, a product of institutional art, which remained without dialogue in the larger life. Institutional art was a colonial plan aligned to European educational format, art movements, and it derived its objectives from the industrial and market needs. The west has no more vernacular culture, as it is now urban-centric. The art movements in the west do not have the identical context in Indian life yet followed in institutional and individual adaptations. The issues and consequences are not addressed in any policy.

Continued links with friends

Art in India also has two historical fallouts, created by religion and the Orientalist paradigm. For instance, the discourses of the Sastras did not mention an even more comprehensive range of art in life, the vernacular traditions that grew within the village society. As they are the untouchables, so they could not be part of Sastric discussions. The emergence of Indian Classical art was an outcome of Greco-Persian influence, was primarily the Orientalist interpretations. It does not talk about the relevance of local and cultural intermix that might have happened. Colonial scholars also saw vernacular art as the material evidence of lower societies. Thus, the British did not find art institutions worth giving attention to indigenous trends; this continues even now. The folk studies are now a separate theoretical area, that hardly looks into visual elements. The ideas of Havell and Abanindranath were resisted by the Indian artists and teachers who demanded Academism to move forward. So, the discourse did not grow. The neo-modernist artists of the fifties, in Calcutta-Bombay- Madras were single-minded to follow Europe.

5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?

AS: My dream of having a studio never materialized in India; I work wherever I live. I'm right now in a village, in a small room, but my plans are large. So, I use multiple canvases that will need to be added together to view the complete work. My computer is multi-functional, writing books and articles, editing movies, making art videos, and communicating with the world.

Workplace, 2021

6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?

AS: I don't think that there is a chance that Covid will significantly impact Indian contemporary art within a short period, except worsening the economic state of artists. Thematic change, more than visual art, may happen in parallel cinema. Social suffering is not the same at all layers of life, but new information and understanding of reality may open up new experiments and themes. It may take time to realise, not immediately. Like all other economic slowdowns, the art business suffers from the physical absence of clients. Many museums and galleries in Europe-America are now entering the virtual platform, making art continuously visible to the public and the client. Some of the Indian galleries are also adapting to the process.

7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected

in your art?

AS: My interpretations of the outer world relate to the visual feeling of fleeting imageries; meanings are shaped after the images are definite on a canvas. As I interpret society, I write, but my views constantly evolve as I discover my inadequacy or find new information. I have a journey without a destination.

Published books

(All images are courtesy of the artist, Amitabh Sengupta.)


The artamour questionnaire is a regular series of interviews with visual artists across disciplines, who share their views about art, their practice and their worldview on a common questionnaire template. Like, comment, share and subscribe to stay updated.

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Very interesting.

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