A restless maverick, artist Jatin Das has an innate preoccupation with the human figure. He sketches and draws figures in motion with conte and ink and charcoal and has a sharp eye for tonal variations. He paints with water colours – his most cherished medium – oil and acrylic, using colour wash to reach the desired texture.

Das’s long-awaited retrospective, which opened for public viewing on November 8 at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, is a riveting time travel through 60 years of the celebrated artist’s remarkable oeuvre.

There is an undercurrent of drama in the drawn forms hung across the museum gallery. They give the sense of timeless figures lost in space that occasionally seek to withdraw into their own essence, keeping their distance from the viewer. Often, the figures seem to emerge from the blurred edges of the artist’s consciousness, giving us a glimpse into the psyche of a poet who lives within the obdurate fault line of the boundary between implosion and harmony.

“My paintings are not narrative,” said Das. “They are metaphoric, poetic and suggestive. Human anguish, pain, affection, tenderness… it is all expressed through these energised bare figures.”

The artist’s body of work subverts the need for rootedness and fixity. He seems to search for irreverent ruptures that explode into lines of flight. His lines do not walk languidly – they seem to run, drawn so fast that ideas cannot keep up.

“When I look at an empty canvas or a bare sheet of paper, I feel I am starting to paint or draw for the first time,” Das told this author in an interview at his cluttered studio near the Qutub Minar in Mehrauli. The space doubles up as the chamber of his mind, a laboratory of creative ideas. “It is important to learn, unlearn, reflect and then do what the inner mind says.”

American writer Susan Sontag voiced the need for art criticism that would essentially let the artwork be what it is and not convert it into a field of ideas. Das too scoffs at art theory and an excess of interpretation. “Art is a visual medium that speaks for itself,” said Das. “It does not need to be dominated by art theory.”

Bold in his pursuit of visual language and in his escape from banal compositions and techniques, Das gives his visceral, erotic forms the freedom to emerge from the constructs of memory, somewhat like reverse origami.

Keen to keep political reference or social commentary as oblique as possible, Das underplays the political element in The Exodus 2020 series of 200 ink paintings on acid-free paper. The series – a visual diary filled with images created day after day during lockdown in the forced confinement of his home – is one of the starkest and most definitive chronicles of the plight of penniless migrant workers leaving the city.

This might appear to be a sudden seismic shift in the oeuvre of an artist who has created the myth of drawing with no reference to time and space, but it isn’t. Thirty-three years ago, Das produced a poignant painting that depicted the brutal killing of street-theatre playwright and director Safdar Hashmi during a performance on the outskirts of Delhi.

A painting from the 'The Exodus' series.

Maintaining his fidelity to human figures, he has recently drawn more than 150 images of manual scavengers who live on the margins, risking death every day while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Fifty of these are ink on paper, 100 made with charcoal on newspaper.

The lesser-known facets of Das’s oeuvre have also been highlighted in the exhibit – his murals, graphics, platters, pinch toys and sculptures. His surprise debut as sculptor took place in 1996 when he was commissioned to create a mammoth welded steel installation in Bhilai christened the Flight of Steel by Dom Moraes. Three years later, he created a series of steel sculptures in Israel. He has recently completed a bronze sculpture but confesses that he needs to do more. He has also found comparable epiphany in his murals – the largest of them created for the old Parliament House in Delhi.

Flight of steel by Dom Moraes, photographed by Raghu Rai.

His portraits stand as riveting outliers in his oeuvre. Most of them are quickfire profiles of writers, artists, musicians and friends. The lines are minimal, yet they encapsulate not just important physical traits but also the essence of the people he draws. This is the first time his works from his student days are being shown. Portraiture was one of his subjects at the JJ School of Art. The artist reminisces, “When I was at the JJ School of Art, all artists sketched each other – between work or over a drink on napkins, in sketchbooks, on scraps of paper, even on walls.”

He remembers sketching vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan at the ustad’s studio near Opera House. This portrait, signed by the legend in Urdu, was eaten by white ants. Partially restored, it is now a precious part of his collection. He continued to paint portraits in oil at his tiny studio at Mumbai’s famous Bhulabhai Institute, including those of artists and painters FN Souza, Ramkinkar Baij, Paritosh Sen and Lakshman Pai.

Since then, he has made hundreds of portraits in oil, watercolour, ink, charcoal and conte, many of which have been showcased in the retrospective beautifully co-curated by his son Siddharth and daughter Nandita.


Credit: Raghu Rai.

Should one look at meaning in a work of art or let it exist for its own sake?

Looking for meaning or interpretation is anathema to me. Art is a visual medium that speaks for itself. It does not need to be dominated by art theory.

Would it be right to attach an experiential cognitive value to art?

I do not believe in evaluative judgements. Yes, art does have the ability to trigger emotional responses. But any attempt to define it would be arbitrary.

[Portuguese-British artist] Paula Rego said that making a painting can reveal things you keep secret from yourself. Do you agree?

I have no secrets. I paint without a preconceived plan. Sometimes the painting guides me and often I guide the painting. I sign the painting only when I am satisfied. Once it is done, I turn the canvas around to face the wall. There is nothing that is premeditated – the lines, colour palette, brush strokes, composition, rhythm, materiality – they find me.

I was looking at the cubist element in works like Magical Man. When did you contemplate fusing figuration with abstraction? Was it a tightrope walk?

I have never shuffled between the two. For me, there is nothing like standalone abstraction. My body of work wanders between freewheeling expressions, moods and emotions.

What is your relationship with colour? You seem to like grey, auburn, blue, black, yellow-certainly not pallid colours. Much of your work is monochromatic.

I like nature-inspired colour palettes but have no real preferences. My colours exist in relation to my painting. If for some reason I do not have a certain colour, I improvise.

Do you get influenced by the work of other artists?

I am deeply interested in looking at the work of other contemporary artists. I am influenced by everything in the universe. And I love stealing the energy and aura of others. I do not over-analyse anything. I learn, unlearn and that’s how it goes.

In classical Chinese, Arabic and Persian poetry, calligraphy connects the text and visual in ways that make poetry and art converge. You are a poet and an artist.

The interplay of art forms has always been there in eastern cultures. The relationship between painting and poetry is especially close. The artist’s gaze and the poet’s intense engagement with words and images are very similar. For me, there is no separation between the blank page and the blank canvas.

Rabindranath Tagore began as a poet and writer before he caught himself doodling on the margins of the proofs of his written text. What about you?

I think I was born with a visual imagination. My poetry and art have consistently drawn from each other.

Does it bother you that the contemporary art-universe is not only made up of artists and curators but also art-dealers, theorists, historians, judgemental aesthetes?

I have successfully insulated myself from commodification of my work. Art has been eroded by the market. I find it laughable that art buyers treat works of art as alternative currency. I have never cared about the noise of the art world. I paint the canvas and then disengage.

You have a prodigious collection of pankhas. How did the journey begin?

It started rather fortuitously more than four decades ago. On a summer afternoon, a friend came over to my studio in Nizamuddin. He was in a woeful mood. To cheer him up, I picked up a pankha and said with mock seriousness, ‘let me stir the still air’. The ubiquitous pankha became my obsession. I sourced them from village haats, from homes and city bazaars. I searched for pankhas when I visited different countries in Africa, Middle East, Far Eastern countries like China, Korea and Japan, South-East Asian countries like Indonesia and nearer home from Nepal and Sri Lanka. The collection over the years expanded to include paintings, miniatures, photographs, prints and poems related to pankha.

You reimagined pankha in a way that it is now an art form in its own right?

Yes, the first exhibition debuted at the Crafts Museum in 2004. It travelled to Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, museums in London, Zurich, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and to the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. More recently, a show was held at the IGNCA [Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts]. We have made documentaries on the craft of pankha-making and a collection of pankha poems was recently published by the Sahitya Akademi.

You have also been deeply interested in other traditional art forms. Do you wish to preserve them too for posterity?

Yes, indeed. I have been collecting art, rare and dying crafts and antiquities for nearly half a century. I have also been researching and documenting them. I have donated my collection to the JD Centre of Art created by me in Bhubaneswar. They are in the process of being displayed in dedicated galleries.

A former civil servant, Sujata Prasad is an author, curator and columnist. She is also the founder of Ahad Anhad, a forum for creative instigations.

The exhibition will be on view at the gallery till January 7.