By Vinay Seth
I had the privilege of having a heart-to-heart conversation with Ina Puri on her upcoming retrospective on the Bengal master Lalu Prasad Shaw. The show is subtitled ‘Early and Recent Works’. The ‘Early’ part largely comprises Lalu’s prints from the 70s and 80s, and the ‘Recent’ works mostly consist of works done 2010 onward. The exhibition also showcases academic studies by the master done in his student days in mid to late 50s.
Even before commencing our talk over the phone, Ina was generous enough to share the show’s catalogue with me through Whatsapp. And upon just a cursory glance upon the works, I was left surprised.
A realistic crow by Lalu Prasad Shaw?
I expressed my bemusement to Ina Puri, stating how I found it surprising to come across an elegantly painted crow by the senior artist, and that too from not long ago, done in 2015.
You see, Lalu is popularly known for his colourful stylised figurative works, often imbued with delightful humour. So a realistically painted crow caught me off guard. Ina felt pleased with my reaction, as she said that this is exactly what she’s looking forward to during the show. When you view her selection from Lalu’s diverse oeuvre spanning decades, “you will be surprised,” Ina commented. She is looking for the ‘wow’ factor, she stated, adding that this will not be a predictable exhibition.
Ina very rightly pointed out that when one thinks of crows in Indian Modern Art, the mind usually runs to Anjolie Ela Menon. But Lalu has also been drawing and painting birds, something very inimical to Bengali culture. She mused that it was perhaps this same shared Bengal connection that drove Anjolie to be fascinated by crows as subjects for her art. Ina stated that birds, and cats and fish (all visible in this show) are quintessentially Bengali painterly subjects, and that it was natural for Lalu to have drawn from this pool.
But what is perhaps of note is that while Lalu was earlier painting birds in a style clearly reminiscent of Indian miniature and folk painting, this recent work is mostly stripped of those associations, apart from the borders and an exquisite elegance inherent in the native traditions he has been drawing from.
Ina pressed on to emphasise that not only is there a painting of a crow in the exhibit, but one will find mating dogs as well.
The Bengal connection
When I asked Ina about her curatorial process for the show, she informed me that she has personally known and been talking to Lalu Prasad Shaw for about twenty-five years now. She candidly told me that being from the same Bengali milieu, she has known the artist as Lalu ‘da’ (‘elder brother’ in Bengali). Later on in the conversation, I also learned that Lalu now refers to Ina as ‘didi’— a term usually reserved for an elder sister, indicating the respect the artist has developed for the curator over the years. Ina’s interactions with Lalu have taken place over the artist’s studio as well as other places like Santiniketan.
Having known the artist and his work on such an intimate level, the curator has done her very best to faithfully portray him, through her selection and curation, in a way that highlights the linkage between his works and his life. She has been particularly insistent on bringing his early, unseen works to the table.
From our overall talk, I got the impression that Lalu was influenced by Bengal in more ways than one. He was inspired by what he saw around, as well as the cultural tome he acquired over the years. Ina told me that Shaw was not only inspired by what he encountered in the fine arts, but also influenced by Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak’s movies that he saw in his youth. As far as the influence of the region’s culture goes, Ina pointed me to the beautifully rendered sarees worn by Lalu’s painted women, which are quintessentially Bengali.
Personal Relationship of the Curator with the Artist
Ina informed that she herself has been collecting Lalu’s works over the years, especially his prints. The curation for this retrospective, then, was an organic continuation of engagement with the artist, rather than a recent project. Ina also mentioned that Lalu had called her earlier in the day, to take stock of the progress so far. It is good to look forward to a retrospective where the artist himself is involved in the storytelling about his journey, thus the show not only presenting the curator’s selection but also putting on view an autobiographical take.
Ina informed me that many months of conversations had gone into the final selection of works. She stressed that this entailed extraordinary involvement from Lalu’s end— the artist is 85 years old!
Lalu Prasad Shaw, the Abstractionist?
Another surprise I came across in the catalogue was a series of abstract lithographs, etchings and linocuts done with monochromatic tones of black on a white background. Many of these date from the 70s and early 80s, but some have, again, surprisingly, been done in the 2010s.
While the art market at large is familiar with Lalu’s gouache paintings, these colourful paintings belong to a much later phase in his journey. The painter actually started off as a printmaker in Santiniketan, even teaching there for some time.
Ina told me that after his prints failed to sell and sustain his livelihood, the artist moved to painting, especially in gouache. During Lalu’s early days, full of financial struggle, India did not have any significant market for printmaking. Times have changed today, and it’s good to find a greater visibility of Lalu’s abstract prints, linguistically very different from his figurative works.
Unseen Phases of Lalu’s Art
As mentioned earlier, Ina has taken special care to bring unseen works to the display. This ambitious display shall exhibit a variety of works, from abstract prints in black, to line drawings of animals, to paintings from the artist’s more widely known Babu-Bibi series. The curator has painstakingly made the selection in collaboration with the artist, to bring in the pencil drawings, lithographs, etchings, linocuts, crayon drawings, in addition to the more familiar gouache and tempera by Lalu.
Ina told me that the works displayed range from the abstract to the slightly abstract to the surreal. Yes, this show will also present to you Lalu Prasad Shaw the surrealist!
And then, of course, there’s the Babu-Bibi series, displaying Lalu the figurative painter lampooning the class divide in Kolkata through satire. These paintings arise from a past that Lalu has witnessed at close hand (The curator told me that the artist had to change jobs just to be able to move to Kolkata). Lalu’s figuration isn’t restricted to people though, as mentioned earlier. He has also been elegantly rendering birds and animals.
Ina stated that there are many different narratives to be seen in the show, and she wants to engage the audience in complex ways of looking at Lalu’s variegated oeuvre.
As far as a chronological evolution is concerned, Ina did suggest that an unfolding could be discerned, with the artist moving from the dark, monochromatic works in the beginning to his colourful paintings today.
Lalu, a doyen of a unique era in Indian Modern Art
During our free-flowing conversation, Ina mentioned the likes of Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chowdhury, Ganesh Haloi, Nikhil Biswas, and Bikash Bhattacharjee as significant contemporaries of Lalu. She said that this was an important period in Bengali art. but then she also mentioned Manjit Bawa (and at the time, her Whatsapp profile picture comprised a painting by Manjit). I felt that her categorisation then, contains Bengal, but also expands beyond, whereby a generation of Indian artists were tied together through a common thread of powerful, expressive draughtsmanship. Ina confirmed that this is what she was alluding to, and we even discussed that this era of poignant, often lyrical drawing should be looked at separately as its own category, and not as a subset of any Western canon.
Ina stressed though that each of these artists should be looked at very individually. I suggested that Lalu’s colourful works being in contrast with his struggle-filled life, could perhaps point to a painter fighting adversity through the creative process. Ina disagreed with me and told me that this is too simplistic a reading. The artist’s work is the result of a continuous undaunted decades-long immersion in the graphic arts of drawing, printmaking and painting. Ina emphasised that despite the contextual background, at some point the artist’s own visual narrative and visual language take over. While I agree with her on this, I wonder what the viewer will make of the visual journey from Lalu’s dark prints from his dark days of poverty, to the colourful works that flowered during the more stable times in the artist’s older years.
Lalu Prasad Shaw, the ever-young painter at 85
I could not help but marvel at the freshness of Lalu’s recent paintings. The fresh colours he chooses, seemingly inspired by the bright colours of indigenous Indian painting traditions, are more reminiscent of today’s vibrant digital-era graphics, than what a layperson would expect from someone aged 85.
‘Lalu Prasad Shaw: Early and Recent Work’, curated by Ina Puri, and exhibited by Gallery Art Exposure, previews at the Bikaner House, Delhi on 16th September ‘22. It continues till 25th September ‘22.