The Atlas of Painting

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Artist Paresh Maity documents his travels on canvas, capturing sights and sounds beyond the seeing eye.

Even while a major showing in decades of artist Paresh Maity’s works, featuring his travels etched on canvas, attract art lovers in droves, the artist himself is already off on yet another jaunt. This time it’s Japan, where his broad brush and sketch book, his canvas rolls and his travel halts will see, savour and then keep captive, canvas memories of cherry blossoms in that land. This strong urge to paint sights and sounds beyond the seeing eye reflects the persona of the artist. A people-friendly artist, Maity is known to meet his muse in market squares, on fishermen’s boats, inside village huts and cobbled streets in places as far apart as Tamluk, his hometown in Midnapore district in West Bengal, Venice, London, Kerala…

And as the travel experiences roll on, the artist is caught ruminating on the wellsprings that marked his journey from Cancun to Mexico City. Closer home, the experiences are bitter sweet. “I was painting in Talsari, a seaside town close to Tamluk, a town visited by tourists during the winter. A child had stopped to watch me, when the mother virtually dragged him off, remarking: ‘Come away at once. No studies will get done if you begin to paint and you’ll simply starve to death later.’ I was shocked and dumbfounded.” In contrast, the simple village folk were his strongest ‘critics’ as they watched him include tidbits from their lives into his canvas world. “They spot a dog or cat or cow in the painting and are convinced it is their pet or their cow.”

Besides memorabilia, the on-the-spot works capture the essential tenets of art. “Painting in the settings, I look for the right moment for capturing the light, movement atmosphere and the direct transformation such inputs bring to my work. I recall a mother and daughter in Venice who stopped and enquired if I could paint the daughter. She was like a model and doing her in the midst of the Venice setting was a fascinating experience,” Maity says, the recollection bringing a broad grin to his face.

Paradoxically, the artist is a compulsive photographer as well. So why not recreate the still photographs as a canvas treasure? “If I try to paint what I shoot, I will lose the atmosphere that made that moment in-situ magical. If you see a tree move in the wind, like a palm tree, when you are painting it, that movement will be indelible. On camera, it will be a still shot without the magic of movement.”

That is what unravels the uncanny freshness that pervades familiar landmarks in the works. “Visiting the same spot and doing the same sights over and over again is because these places, like Santiniketan, Venice, London, are in my blood. I might have done the same landmarks, but each time I return to them, I feel that I have something unfinished. Even the shape of familiar buildings leave a different mental impression, which I attribute to progression. The fogginess, the mist, the colours, flat surfaces, combine to create a changed course. For instance, I had done a large canvas of Venice in 2001 but found that I couldn’t finish the painting at that time. Just the other day, I finished the remaining 2-3 per cent of the work. The spontaneous feeling that marks the finishing step dictates when a work is complete for me.”

Fortunately for him, his medium has not remained rigid. “I’m comfortable with any medium. The work, in a way, directs the choice of medium. Naturally, the indispensable parts of my packing are round and fat brushes, water colours and some paper. The watercolour portfolio dominates. Then, when back at my studio, all those memories and sketches come back to form a giant canvas work, where the singular memories are merged, blended sharply, disparate but conjoined, to form large canvases, that are the hallmark of my art today. So while I have, say, several individual watercolours of my journey to Kerala or London or Venice or Tamluk or elsewhere, there are a few giant canvases that combine these memories into a distinct work of giant proportions.’

And in an altogether new avatar is his showing as a sculptor with giant, ceiling-high sprawls depicting ‘dinosaur’ ants, mammoth figures and motorcycles as forces of kinetic energy. “As a child, the clay images of potters fascinated me and that’s the inspiration behind the these sculptures. The bike is a symbol of movement and the ants are a direct throwback to our village home where I used to spend hours just watching the remarkable discipline of these tiny creatures as they went about their daily routines— gathering food or protecting their young or other tasks.”

Thus, within the broad context of paints, sketch book, sculpture and camera, there is an artist with a difference. While art provides his materials, for Maity the medium for his creativity is the everyday life of the world, the “ordinary manush (man), within a patina of nature where man is not another being, but only a part of that wider nature”.