Jamini Roy – A Treasure of Modern Folk Art

Being a full-time artist is a tough job. Financial suffering aside, what breaks an artist, or simply makes it harder and harder for her to continue, is the state of not being able to find appreciation, or in worse cases- even acknowledgement. But some artists break all these barriers to become truly celebrated and their work becomes world renowned. Jamini Roy also belongs to this league.

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Boating – Image Credit: The San Diego Museum via Flickr

Roy was born in the Bankura district of present-day West Bengal, and at an age 16, joined the Government School of Art and Craft at Calcutta (Kolkata). This was a time when the Indian elite was showing greater participation in patronizing and creation of new art, as is evident from the fact that Abanindranath Tagore became the first Indian to join the school. During his time here, young Jamini studied the western academic styles, particularly the post-impressionist style prominent in his early works.

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Jamini Roy – Image Credit: alchetron.com

But that style wasn’t to be permanent, and only a few years into his professional career, he started experimenting with various styles, eventually finding inspiration in folk art. This led to the complete turnover of western style and materials. Soon watercolors were substituted by tempera on diverse materials, from simple paper, to canvas, cane weaving, boards, and cloth.

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Five Women – Image Credit: CEA + via Flickr

Direct associations can be drawn between his paintings and the Kalighat style. His treatment of subjects, which ranges from the early-career commissioned portraits to the Santhal tribal life, is defined by strict lines, fluid calligraphic strokes, simple symmetrical, and high-value colours.

His oeuvre features a simplification of human expressions, with eyes being emphasised through size. This can be ascribed to his experience with impressionism, and is probably meant to communicate what he thought of as the simple nature of his subjects- the Santhals in particular, or women in general. One can find this feature in the tempera on paper work titled ‘Santhal Dance’.

Santhal Dance, tempera on paper CREDIT: National Gallery of Modern Art

‘Santhal Girl’ on plyboard is another example of Roy’s proficiency in combining the western and folk styles. Curved line of the woman gives a sensual, youthful appearance, leading the eye to the decorative head flower. The posture of hands makes the subject appear as if she is self-aware of the beauty. Expression details and bodily features have been masterfully kept subdued in favour of the carnal posture.

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Santhal Girl Image Credit: Blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com

Other than the Santhal lifestyle, his works frequently dealt with religiosity. Examples are the works depicting the Hindu God Krishna like the ‘Kalia Mardan’ and ‘Yashoda and Krishna’ and those depicting Christ, like the one titled ‘Crucifixion’. The painter apparently also had an affinity to the mother and child relationship, and his works frequently depicted a mother caring for her child, almost always with a gesture of protection combined with the characteristic purity of his style.

Yashoda and Krishna painting by Jamini Roy
Yashoda and Krishna, tempera on cloth Credit: National Gallery of Modern Art

Before laying down the brush in 1972, this great artist would have received accolades like the 1935 Viceroy’s Gold Medal and the 1955 Padma Bhushan. Today, he is one of the only nine Indian artists whose works have been regarded as ‘art treasures’ by the Archaeological Survey of India.