It’s a cold windy afternoon in November and we are seated outside the Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan on the eve of Jatin Das’s solo exhibition titled Portraits: Artists and Friends: 50 years.
The exhibition consists of the whose-who of the Indian art scene, with photographers, poets, writers, dancers, art historians, and aficionados thrown in for good measure from painter Krishen Khanna to photographer Raghu Rai, from poet Dom Moraes to dancer Uma Sharma. The portraits of film-stars Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu, theatre personality Alique Padamsee to the yoga guru BKS Iyengar are arresting and intuitive.
Artist Jatin Das is prolific. His hands are always busy and if you leave him alone at a table in a coffee shop, you can guarantee that he would have made a drawing on a napkin or pulled out his sketch-book to capture the personality of people of interest in quick, deft strokes.
Drawing to Das is the daily riyas that according to him, which 99.9 percent of the young artists today have neglected to do. In the age of the selfie, Das is a great proponent of portraiture for he believes portraiture is an art form in its own right.
“I challenge this belief that portraiture died after the advent of the camera. Portraits are not just about capturing the likeness of the sitter before you, but of interpreting their personality through your own subjective gaze.”
True enough the portraits are not slavish copies but have the artistic flair that is characteristic to Das’s works. In some instances they are fully fleshed out paintings with mise-en- scène in other instances they are quick line drawings. There are also some gentle ink paintings of his daughter, actor-producer Nandita Das and his son Siddhartha Das. The fatherly love bestowed on these two paintings is quite evident. One can contrast this with the sharp wit and dark humour he has exercised with the portrait of Rajeev Lochan, the former director of the National Gallery of Modern Art. One would expect the venerable director to be depicted with his pin striped suite, braces and pinscher spectacles but Das has rendered him as a portly Sumo wrestler. Das has clearly made this connection because of his Japanese wife, Yuriko Lochan.
Sometimes it takes one misfortune to lead to the discovery of a wonderful new saga. In the case of artist Jatin Das this was somewhat the case, “I have never had the money to buy my own studio, so I have rented several across the city of Delhi,” says Das “My first studio was in Nizamuddin East in 1968. The area was full of poets, dancers, writers, and fellow artists. We had quite a bonhomie going there. There was Tyeb Mehta and Nasreen Mohamedi…” he recalls. “Then I had moved all my artwork to my studio in Shahpur Jat, where I came upon a big ply box that contained all my drawings that I had done over the years. There were around 500 portraits of friends and artists. The white ants had eaten it up and I had to burn almost all of them,” he says with a glimmer of sadness in his eyes at having lost such wealth.
The next move to a studio in Mehrauli, found for him lovingly by his dear friend, Rahgu Rai, had another surprise in store. “My young art student Aalap Shah who has been working with me for years and is an artist in his own right found hundreds of portraits during the move. Many were surprises to me. I even found a portrait I did of Ram Kinker Baij I did in 1962!” Says Das. It is quite pointless to ask him if he has a favourite, because according to Das, every artwork he has created till date is important to him.