It has always been Gopal Ghose's landscapes that have attracted the spotlight – characterised by vivid hues, experimental lines and suffused with a sense of serenity, these canvases depicting everything from the forts of Rajasthan and temples of 'Madura' to the pleasant idylls of nowhere, have been defining him for over three decades now. But, as an exhibition celebrating his birth centenary clearly depicts, the master's form far overreaches this imprecise labelling.
It seems fitting that the National Gallery of Modern Art began its year with a tribute to the man who is often credited with triggering India's modernist art movement. Titled 'A Jubilant Quest for the Chromatic', this exceptionally comprehensive show is curated by Dr. Sanjoy Kumar Mallik, who was first acquainted with Ghose five years ago, while working on his PhD, exploring visual art in 1940s' Bengal.
"I had the fortunate opportunity to personally examine a substantial cross-section of his works carefully preserved by his family in his Kolkata residence. To a Bengali, the name Gopal Ghose is certainly not alien; however, he is usually identified by a signature style that is marked by brilliant passages of pure hue and the élan of flourish in the calligraphic line," notes Dr. Mallik, adding that Ghose was a rebel of exceptional perseverance in his time.
Although Ghose started off training at the Maharaja School of Art and Craft in Jaipur and then the Government School of Art in Madras in the early 1930s, he eventually rejected both – the romanticism of the Bengal School and the realism of the traditional schools as well as the 'progressive' ones, says Dr. Mallik. With the foundation of the Calcutta Group in 1943, he established, both personally and institutionally, a quest for an entirely new language in art.
Presented in association with Akar Prakar, a Kolkata based art gallery, and featuring a lot of works contributed by Ghose's family, the show flows between chronological and thematic categorisations that break up his rick oeuvre. Each one of the long rooms in Jaipur House is dedicated to the four decades of his artistic life – beginning with faint sketches and barely-there landscapes from the early 1930s and 40s, he shifts to a more consolidated image formation, in the 1940s-50s, through heightened chromatic accents and freely conceived forms, as in the images of the 1943 riots, featuring emaciated human figures in bleak desert-like backgrounds.
In the 1970s, his increasingly inward-looking gaze is crystallised further as abstractions begin to replace locale-specificity, of which, surprisingly, his nudes are a shining example. Unlike his European, or even Bombay contemporaries, these are deliberately rough sketches, where precision of line is overridden by the idea of the body, thus making it a purely sensory experience. His works on nature too are cloaked in this shroud of the abstract – flowers, birds, trees and meadows continue to live but seem just that little bit wilder in time.
"One of the main problems with the way we study our artists is our constant attempt to box them up in labels, fish out one particular aspect of their work and identify them with it. I wanted to know Ghose in terms of all that he did, not simply what he was famous for," observes Dr. Mallik. His story, "one of moving out of the academic and into modernism" as Dr. Mallik puts it, is still a quest for colour in everything, as his diligently painted watercolours and pastels will always depict.
Venue: Jaipur House, NGMA
Date: Until 22 January