Depicting life with colours and lines

In an interview with the Bangkok Post in early 1980, painter Kalidas Karmakar said, "I find it difficult for me now to look at the moon and the sky and paint them. Those days for an artist to paint beautiful things are over."

One can certainly argue with the second part of his statement, but it is to be accepted that he is an artist who does not depict things realistically. For nearly forty years he has been creating visual experience without any obvious reference to the world around. He can always explain the story behind his work of art or explicate the hidden message; however, the story is not so conspicuous: a circular shape glimmering in a beacon of light with string-like creatures in a darker colour surrounding it is apparently an exercise in abstraction with no discernable, relatable objects in there. But if you are lucky, the artist will convincingly explain how he conceived the innermost part of the circle as a mother womb and the string-like creatures as sperms swimming towards an ovum.

Unfortunately, the artist is not always available there; neither should he be expected to explain his work of art. So, in absence of any referral or a point of recognition on the canvas, a viewer is left to see and feel with heightened senses whatever he can feel from viewing like he does while watching varicoloured wings of a butterfly or nicely drawn Islamic calligraphy. All in all, works of Kalidas Karmakar pose a challenge to art-lovers who seek a straight-forward meaning in works of art foremost of all.

Standing before a work of Kalidas Karmakar, an art-lover is obliged to remain happy with what shapes, texture and colour are seen by him rather than what the painter intended to portray and convey. That he rarely gives any title to his work and, so, leaves no clue to the signifier problematizes a viewer's situation further. Till his death in 2019, the artist believed that abstraction can say more about human experience than reproduction of nature and objects of some kind or other. During thirty-five years since the interview with the Bangkok Post, Kalidas Karmakar has played with different mediums, drifted over different styles, and has taken increasingly more artistic liberty in creating his works. In the meanwhile, he has traversed the entire galaxy of Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee (Mystical-abstract period: 1914-1919), Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Robert Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow and Jasper Johns, and many more modernists; and breathed in their innovativeness and radicality of approaches. Intensive exposure to the world of modernist art has rendered him the most innovative, inventive and evolutive of Bengal artists who emerged in Bangladesh towards the latter half of the twentieth century. A truly international artist, the range of his play goes beyond brush on paper to colour etching, metal collage, miniature works, fusion, and more-the latest addition being installations. Creating installations became his favourite pastime during the last decade of his life. All along he has endeavoured to create a new reality on canvas solely based on imagination-inspired by feeling. Over the years, Kalidas Karmakar has seen colour in newer and newer shades; in the same vein he has shaped line in newer and newer contours. Thus, in his hand, compositions have emerged with unprecedented relationship between colour and lines, between shapes and colour, between colour and colour, producing a variety of visual experiences.

Often initial geometric angularities have been replaced by soft creepers or roots into soil. Often it seems, particularly in the case of works of mixed media, that his compositions are layers of painting, one partially overshadowing another. Sometimes this overshadowing is overwhelming, sometimes tangential.

One cannot miss that the artist is prone to produce a colourful two-dimensional surface-sometimes plane-sometimes ornamented with a layer of lines or strokes of paint with resemblance to undulated alluvial land along the river bank that surfaces following recession of tidal surge. He is prone to frame a pasture of colour, overlaid with a labyrinth of fine lines, intercepted with specks of paint, rich in gestural nuances. Hand-made paper is his favourite medium which he frequently likes to develop into a colourful background to accommodate a motif or a symbolic object. Sometimes, he prepares a collage by planting an exotic material-pieces of bandage or jute sacking-on thickly painted surfaces. This way, passionately painted images are born with total control on the brush. However, total abstraction as such is also enlivened with figures thoughtfully schematized to create an obscure version with subdued existence. Often, he resorts to self-portrait to capture the helpless existence of modern man: his suppressed sufferings, his soundless cries and his unshed tears. His series titled 'Alluvial Faces', exhibited in 2003, is a class by itself, in which a human face hangs out on the canvas with speechless eyes.

Sketching of a face against a splash of colour is a recurring motif that is very characteristic of Kalidas Karmakar. The artist, who says his works are images of his own life, never makes a layout, an outline or a sketch for his work. It is from the feeling that he paints over the night. What does this mean? His process of painting is an inner transformation of feeling into visual expression in colour and lines. Consequently, the piece of art-work is transitory, fleeting and subjective in nature. His symbolism is frequently more than Vincent van Gogh's personal vision of the sky at night (The Starry Night) or Edward Munch's scream of nature. His figurative works are apparently a superimposition of a figure on a pasture of colour and lines. However, faces are essentially undeveloped or underdeveloped, obscure or stinted, and occasionally purposively defaced- always positioned in the foreground of the paintings.

Born in Faridpur of Bangladesh in 1946, Kalidas Karmakar went to art school in the 1960s and started to hold exhibitions in the 1970s. He got the bug of art in his adolescence and wanted to be an artist. In course of formal studies and numerous tours to the art galleries around the world, he was fascinated by twentieth century modernist art movements and sought to get out of the strait jacket of Bengal artists. Staying in Poland in the late 1970s earned him the exposure he needed to adjudge his own works against those of the world and adapt accordingly.

Kalidas Karmakar is one of most significant and influential Bangladeshi painters of the late twentieth century. With more than 40 years of fruitful art making, he has emerged as the major artist of his generation having international stature. The entire work of Kalidas Karmakar constitutes a serial narrative of private experience transformed into a universal story of mankind: the story of suffering human seeking freedom from all sorts of bondage and restrictions. Although derived from perennial nostalgia rooted in the alluvial soil of Bangladesh, the power of his work lies in ideological mystification of his feelings. He has by dint of his work identified himself with the rank of painters like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Jean Mtzinger, Roger de La Fresnaye, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still and Richard Pousette-Dart in the horizon of abstract expressionism of various shades. However, works of Kalidas Karmakar perhaps are less representational and more abstract in approach. He is a minimalist like Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, at least in a certain portion of works.

Throughout his career Kalidas Karmakar expressed himself purely through the use of form and colour- essentially non-representational and non-objective. Nevertheless, his thematic emphasis has remained untitled. It is man struggle for physical existence, fight against injustice, and cry of the victims that make up the pivot of his artistic philosophy. He has all along strived to capture human suffering and struggle, agony and anguish, despair and disappointment through the maze of lines and dots and mysticism of colours and their shades. However, what emerges at the end of the day is the work of a stout existentialist who seeks to reproduce.

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