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Reflections now and then

Sanjay Bhattacharya - Brooding Bricks

When I was requested to write on Sanjay Bhattacharya, the first thing I did was burn the search engines for critiques on and images of his work. Indian painters are ill- represented online and more often than not, what stares you in the face are stingy little thumbnails unlinked to larger versions. I guess this is to thwart the faking industry or for some other obscure paranoia. On the contrary, huge Andrew Wyeth or Lucian Freud images are easily available for download on the net. Thankfully, Sanjay does have a few moderately sized pics available online. The reason I am saying this is because the internet has made it possible to view and appreciate an enormous and diverse body of work previously accessible only to those who had had cash to burn on expensive tomes, or lived near well-stocked libraries. Of course, the best option is to view these works directly, but retrospectives do not happen at your doorstep or every other day. It is far more convenient to simply surf to an internet gallery and try your luck on the thumbnails.

Whatever critiques I could find ranged from the informed to the ludicrous. Consider this insightful - "Even the vibhatsa (horrifying) is not to be glossed over, for it is as real as the finest of sentiments on earth," as compared to this terribly self-contradictory - "I prayed he never turn an impressionist or inscrutable," (I will come to this later).

Vibhatsa is what Saatchi cherishes in the Jenny Savilles, and why people flock to see her shows the way we cross murderous streets to join crowds revelling in a gory human roadkill on the other side. The limbic system needs adrenaline kicks to make us feel alive and Saville's exquisite renderings of physical realism squarely puts us in that place. Bhattacharya has the skill to take him there but as yet, has chosen not to make art history. If you think this is personal prejudice, or punkish rant from a contemporary 'realist' twelve years younger than him, you are entitled to your opinion. I am taking the uncommon step of writing on a vastly admired and well-collected fellow-painter.

I discovered online a photograph of Sanjay which shows him with a heavy camera dangling down his chest. Some of his architectural scapes hauntingly remind me of that equipment. Harsh, burnt-out passages of white on dusty grounds make me feel uneasy and exploited. These whites are supposed to represent the sunrays streaming through wrought iron bars . He has this technical facility of infusing illusory depth to a flat plane, hallmark of a classical realist, which somewhat ameliorates the disappointment of viewing a work possibly tarnished by careless use of two-dimensional references. But again I was viewing this work on the internet, jpeg images are terribly dodgy if improperly processed, and the original photograph (of the painting) itself could have been faulty. I accept all these pitfalls of third-hand appreciation of art. But I did have an opportunity to view one of his shows in person - a series of predominantly umber-white oils based on Satayajit Ray classics. What had bugged me most about that show was an indifference to the discerning viewer. Here was a painter in a hurry, not the kind which artistic passion inspires, but in a hurry to cover as many canvasses as possible within a deadline. The paintings were for the show, and not the other way round. Sanjay Bhattacharya probably has the ability to make me stop dead on my tracks, like a Guan Ze Ju nude from the 'timeless' series definitely will, or in the way the tiny Vermeers did (until a fat and liveried guard had to politely but firmly goad me on to keep the line moving) or Bikashbabu, his Guru, has repeatedly done with works such as 'Agnipurush' or 'Antarjali Yatra'.

But there is, as yet, something missing in a collective appraisal of Sanjay Bhattacharya the famous painter, something so teasingly evident in certain individual works. Such as the one in which an ancient widow sits awash in a blue-white light, a meandering stream of sepia toned photographs floating past her and out of the edge of frame. Or this other work, which I call the 'telescopic doorways' in which one open door leads to another, and an oblique sun is casting transparent shadows on a greenish wall, the mellow sunlight bouncing off in a series of counter-reflections down the passageway.

I value his work to an extent that I would not accept Sanjay being dubbed a late 20th century Indian painter of balloons, derelict temples or moss-covered plaster-shorn brick walls. These works are too easy on him. He must erect his own frontiers, and cross them one by one. Perhaps portraits is the direction he ought to be looking at, intimate close-ups as brooding as some of his dark, low slung archways, and definitely not like those (albeit superbly executed ) official ones - may God rest the soul of the late former President. Norman Shanks has painted a Pope, a Princess and a President, and all three are dead. But he also paints 'other kinds' of people, works which posterity will remember him by.

I will end without commenting on his fluid brush work, or his sense of color. Fellow-painters do not do such things, brought up as we are in a world alive with the Sargents (John Singer), the Zorns (Anders) or the Monets (Claude, who else!). But I will definitely share an imaginary goblet of absinthe in an imaginary cafe, the likes frequented by Manet and his gang of renegades, and raise a toast with the Impressionists for anyone who brackets them with the "inscrutables." Amen!

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