Holding a prism to the twilight sky
As united as the art critics were in lambasting Bikash Bhattacharjee's work in his early days, in his later years they were as divided in interpreting his work. Because, it's a common ailment of the common art critic not to rest in peace till he has categorized an artist and put him in a pigeonhole, neatly labeled and cross-referenced. And Bikash Bhattacharjee was not particularly willing to get inside a box.
Did the eyes “…ancient and dry."* with " something troglodytic about them.”* in his paintings point to expressionism? Did the dystopia on his canvas strewn with eyeless heads signal surrealism? Didn't the Doll, showing up at the most unexpected of places in his Doll Series clearly say magic realism? Could the exaggerated highlights and the metallic overtones be anything but photo-realism? Do the breathtaking detail of textures and almost cinematic quality of light and shadows suggest a whole new-genre altogether, hyper realism? Or is it just plain old realism? His inspirations, as diverse as Abanindranath Tagore, Hemendranath Majumdar, Edgar Degas or Andrew Wyeth, didn't make the job of art critics any easier either.
The answer to all the above questions are simultaneously yes and no. There are no silent screams, no painful distortions, no absolute helplessness on his canvas - a hallmark of expressionism. As far as surrealism goes, let's quote the artist himself: "I could not avoid getting influenced by surrealistic elements, especially in the memorable creations of famous filmmakers. I am an incurable optimist and surrealism and optimism are poles apart." Magic realistic art gently pushes the boundary of realism and depicts situations that are improbable but not impossible. Though some of Bikash Bhattacharjee's art can be classified as vaguely magic realist, his whole oeuvre can hardly be called so. And last but not the least, the words photo-realism, hyper-realism and realism are mere wordplay rather than a valid style, genre or movement.
Instead of looking at his art through tinted glasses of existing genres, we should look at it with a wider gaze. The core from which his art originated was his superlative draughtsmanship and absolute command over almost all Media. And these impressive tools were guided by his deep care and concern for the city of Calcutta, uninfluenced by any subscription to avant-garde or overseas influences. His oneness with common man's feelings drew him to leftist ideology but his simple and traditional upbringing stopped his paintings from becoming political pamphlets. He painted only what he knew - the sunless bylanes of North Calcutta, the artless man in the street, the turbulent times and the everyday mundane. That is why one needs no degree in art appreciation to understand the housewife with Durga's third eye, the eyeless socialite or the anemic lady next to a dilapidated marble nude. If we really have to look for a theme in his art - it is people and how much he cared for them.
His care for all things human didn't end on his canvas. Being a true friend, philosopher, and guide to his students at the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata and standing by them not only in matters artistic but also emotional and economical, being a champion for city-related causes - by roaming in the streets for donation or painting portraits in record time, being abundant with praise even for rivals or deserving juniors, buying paintings from young artists - the stories of Bikash-da's generosity are as abundant as his paintings.
Once when he broke his leg, the young doctor in attendance injected anesthetic in his hand by mistake. While everybody else presented drew a collective sharp breath, Bikash Bhattacharjee broke into peals of laughter at the comedy of it all. This small incident brings in sharp focus the essence of his life and art. Life is hard, unjust and full of heartbreaks. But if you look closely enough, you will never run short of reasons to live with hope in your heart. This is in short, is the essence of being human.
The night comes early
But destiny had the last laugh when the right side of his body was paralyzed by a cerebral attack in 2000 and brought a premature ending to his artistic career. The last triptych, ironically named Bisarjan (Immersion of the idol of Goddess Durga) remained unfinished. Though his admirers insisted for him to start painting with his left hand, incurable optimist that he was, he kept expecting his right hand to revive. After five years of wheelchair-bound life, on December 18, 2006 he breathed his last. Even with more awards, more masterpieces and more appreciation than anybody ever wished for, he left art connoisseurs wanting for more. He also left behind a heartbroken family, mourning colleagues, students who would become masters soon, and last but not the least a thriving small industry dedicated to forging his paintings, that continues bearing witness to his popularity.