Jamini Roy: The celebrated modernist who brought ‘India’ to art by Indians

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Manasa (The Snake Goddess) by Jamini Roy

April 11, On This Day 

 

Jamini Roy

Did you know that renowned Bengali artist Jamini Roy’s magnum opus, the ‘Ramayana’ (1946), is spread across 17 canvases (106×76 cm), characterized by decorative flowers, landscape, birds and animals typical of the Bengal School of Art, drawn with simple, bold and roundish lines initially derived from clay images? His rendition of the epic begins with sage Valmiki and completes the circle back to his hermitage after Sita’s agnipariksha — today, the complete set is on display at Rossogolla Bhavan in Kolkata, the residence of Sarada Charan Das (polymath and grandson of the sometimes-disputed creator of the rasgulla).  

Jamini Roy was born today, April 11, 135 years ago in 1887, in the small village in Beliatore in West Bengal. A graduate of the Government Art School Kolkata, he found a mentor there in Abanindranath Tagore, the founder of Bengal school, who was vice-principal at the institution at the time. 

Most of Roy’s initial paintings — mainly portraiture and post-impressionist landscapes — were in Western styles. 

But inspired by the growing surge of nationalism around him, Roy charted a different path. He consciously searched for a more ‘Indian’ form of artistic expression, seeking out East Asian calligraphy, terracotta temple friezes, folk arts and crafts traditions. This lone departure marked a new beginning in the history of Indian modern art. 

Circa 1925, Roy had begun experimenting along the lines of popular bazaar paintings sold outside the Kalighat temple in Kolkata. By the early 1930s, he made a complete switch to indigenous materials to paint on woven mats, cloth and wood coated with lime. 

From calligraphy, to animals, to Jesus Christ, his work encompassed many different subjects and motifs, inflected with a unique modernist style. According to Google Arts and Culture, Roy “reinterpreted South Asian iconography and subject matter with modern, graphic lines”. 

Two cats holding a large prawn by Jamini Roy

The Santhals, a tribal people who live in the rural districts of Bengal, were an important subject for Roy. A series of works done a decade before World War II is a very good example of how he captured the qualities that are a part of native folk painting and recombined them with those of his own. He fused the minimal brush strokes of the Kalighat style with elements of tribal art from the state, and referred to himself as ‘patua’, after the artisan community. 

Roy is sometimes described as an art machine as it is believed that he produced 20,000 paintings in his lifetime — about 10 paintings daily.  

Mother and Child, oil on canvas, mid 1920, by Jamini Roy. National Gallery of Modern Art collection

In 1934, he received a Viceroy’s gold medal in an all-India exhibition for one of his works. In 1954, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India, the third highest award a civilian can be given. In 1955, he was made the first Fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the highest honour in the fine arts conferred by the Akademi, India’s National Academy of Art, Government of India. 

Roy passed away on April 24, 1972 in Kolkata, where he had lived all his life. 

Stamp of India – 1978 – with Jamini Roy artwork
Jamini Roy’s signature