There has ever been some disagreement about paintings and pictures between Asu Dev and me, although the former is an artist in his own right and the latter just a callow but honest critic. Yet when Dev did me the honour by requesting me to write about his paintings, I readily agreed, for the simple reason that I have at least been trying to follow Asu Dev’s paintings more seriously than following the artist himself for over a decade now.
When Asu Dev started painting some twenty-five years ago, I am not sure if he took it seriously. It is not difficult to imagine, however, some of his well-wishers must have then grown apprehensive about the non-textile passion of an apprentice cotton mill technician, which Asu Dev actually was at that point of time.
Today Dev is no more Sunday painter. The passion has in the meantime developed into an article of faith. Painting, he feels, is but an expression of that conviction.
The process has, however, not been easy enough, particularly because like the very few un-academic artists who achieved eminence, he had never been to what we call an academy and gone through its cast-iron courses. He had to go the whole hog himself learning to wield the brush and the palette the hard way and, of course, learn how to paint a tree unlike an academic tree.
This mainly explains why his paintings may appear to some as rather unconventional. Technically speaking, it was an initial advantage for Dev to start uninhibited and un-handicapped by some set patterns and dab his brush in paints not taught to him, thus bringing in a freshness which might have otherwise been difficult to achieve.
Freshness is the term by which one could almost sweepingly characterise Dev’s whole range of works, whether it is ‘Spread Eagle’, or ‘If winter comes’, his earlier paintings, or ‘Harvester’, painted much later, or say, ‘Life to the lees’, among the latest. The same freshness marks the distinctiveness of his fresco reproduction (in tempera) of some of the miniature paintings from Bhagabata Purana by Srimanta Sankaradeva.
I had the privilege of seeing the artist at work when some of these enlarged productions based on Bhagabata Purana were being done. I had a feeling then, these were more than photographic enlargements in colour. In these murals Dev made a distinct departure from the originals by using mostly straight, bold lines, which the original miniature illustrations, – all in profiles, lacked on account of limitations both of space and surface of the manuscript.
It is very difficult to place Asu Dev in any known school of technique. The technique of the palette he employs – painting laboriously with paints in his earlier works, and later with the palette-knife and whatever comes in handy, or directly from the pigment tubes on canvases done in oil – have sometimes driven people to conclude that he is an adherent of pointillist Seurat or colour-breaking Cezanne, nineteenth century French Impressionists. (Who does not follow broken colours and light since the Impressionists started it?) Although Dev also paints impromptu like the French Romanticists, the total visual effect of his works is mostly three dimensional. Most of these have a perspective with the minutest detail and a depth, never sought after by the Impressionists.
Like the nineteenth century French rebels again, Dev went out of the studio (he had none!) into the open to paint the ripening corn fields shimmering under the golden sunlight, women harvesting crops or fishing in a pond, a happy valley dreamily nestling under a mellow sky, sturdy hill folk carrying timber to town and innumerable landscapes typical of this part of the country.
These by themselves constitute a group of paintings in which colours are bright and canvases smooth, attached not to any school of painting but to the artist’s objective emotions. Incidentally, lf winter comes’, one of this group faintly recalls Cezanne’s ‘Chestnut Tree…’
In the second group of paintings done later, Dev emerges with more social awareness and projects his thoughts consciously and forcefully, as in ‘Self Portrait’ and ‘Life to the lees’. Sometimes he invokes a sort of symbolism ’Desire’, ‘Birth of a new Life’, or’ All the faces’ to portray his subjective realities to the extent of an imaginative bias that drives him farthest from the Impressionists, but neither nearer to any other school.
This group of canvases is heavy with brown, blue and green pigments, relieved with ochre and occasional orange, a break with the past both in content and colour. These paintings seek to primarily convey a meaning beyond and behind their visual images and have an unmistakable appeal to the intellect.
‘BIRTH OF A NEW LIFE’ c.1962
In these meaningful paintings, one could easily see the artist’s developing sophistication and a style of his own. There will not be a few to think with me that the later group of canvases shows a surer signs of the artist’s maturity and his ability to convince.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
NILKAMAL DUTTA: Was a Journalist with The Hindusthan Times, Shillong in 1965. He had closely seen the early years of the artist at work.