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Essentially a Lyrical Painter

Cosmopolitan Bombay of the 1950s–60s is where Jatin Das’ career begins. As late as 1986 Christopher Levenson in a poem to the painter, reminds him of ‘the sleepless night of the sidewalks’, subject of many early canvases. The artist recalls his technique training under SB Palsikar’s tutelage.


With the 1980s Das returns to portrait sketches, while temple studies examine how classical sculpture handles the body. Through the 1990s brushwork image frees itself from formal strictures, wash becomes more playful, colour affect enters, and with it the painter’s renewed sense of scope. This is not to suggest that the decades close in on themselves like boxes impermeable to underlying continuities. What is retained is the use of conté to define the body’s planes, the rippling musculature running through flexed pelvis and shoulder into sit of head.


Tonalities already begin to slip and slide in the ink wash: green-black olive, sepia greys, or a drench of blue. As colour wash enters it raises the pitch, both ink and pigment continue to configure rather than to back the image, its white surround startlingly fresh. This, typically, is how Das explains it. While he was a resident painter in Bali, the incessant pour of tropical rain made slow drying oils on canvas practically impossible. It was then that he returned to colour wash after an interval of twenty years.


Ask Jatin about the persistence of the figure in his work and he consistently replies ‘the human predicament’. While his early canvases begin with social identification, and no one knows better how muscle is pelted to bone, a sense of human archetype is presently conveyed by the finest in his recent work.


The human subject is never too far away, whether it in be his 68 by 7 ft mural completed for the parliamentary annexe last year, which reflects issues of socio-culture and artistic Heritage, or in prototypes for Alembic Glass that intercalate broad-brushed calligraphy with images of human eventfulness. The 30 ft high environment of birds and flying arcs for Bhilai Steel is defined by the human occupants walking through and around it. Das’ attitude to work is always buoyant, workman-like and intense.


Although Das left Mayurbhanj in his mid-teens, the district writhes with cultural influence: wall painting, rapid ritual calligraphy, the linear narratives of palm-leaf manuscripts – grading from the robust to the pale gouache of approved Puri style. While Das maintains, as we all do, his right to assimilate from visual cultures, contemporary and traditional, the discerning viewer may well catch a fleeting sense of these impressions as they come and go in the body of the work.


Das has uniformly identified with public need and exigency: human rights, drought relief, Kashmir relief, and through auctions and donations of his canvases, supported work for cancer patients, children, slum dwellers and the blind. When the devastation of the Odissa cyclone became fully apparent Das rallied support to rehabilitate an Odiya village. For Jatin art and life are mutually linked and one is a paradigm for the other. Jatin, unusually for a modern painter, has consistently supported traditional artisans by putting their work on view, by gifting away collections of their work and by insisting in Odissa that their work be seen alongside modern and classical Indian art.

In 1990, Das for the first time began to suggest publicly that his interest in the body concerned issues of embodiment. The modernist painter interrogates the body, deconstructs it, invests it’s vulnerability with passionate outrage. But Das’ concern with predicament is direct and off the page. He is essentially a lyrical painter.


Pria Devi

New Delhi, 2002

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