Prokash Karmakar (1933 – 24th February 2014) was a pre-eminent Indian artist from Kolkata, West Bengal. His work is in the permanent collection of several museums and galleries throughout India, including the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi and he is the recipient of numerous awards. Karmakar is best known for his landscapes and nudes, which are generally painted in vibrant colors with bold lines and intricate textures. His paintings reflect his perception and interpretation of nature (both orderly and chaotic), life (both rural and urban), and form (from soft to sharp), without reference to religion.
Prokash Karmakar learnt painting from his father, artist-teacher Prahlad Karmakar’s atelier, till the socio-political turmoil of the Forties and his father’s early death put an end to it. After his matriculation, Karmakar joined the Government College of Art & Craft, Calcutta, but quit soon after for reasons of poverty. He joined the army but absconded after two years, driven by his desire to paint. He learnt the techniques of transparent and opaque watercolours from Kamalaranjan Thakur, a former student of his father, and Dilip Das Gupta. However, it was Nirode Majumdar who acquainted him with artistic and philosophical concepts, techniques, coherence of lines and the breaking of form.
Karmakar held his first exhibition in 1959 on the railings of Indian Museum, Calcutta. His art emerges from a contemplation of life, through the prism of personal traumatic experiences intermingled with dark moments in our recent history. In 1969-70, Karmakar visited France on a fellowship to study art museums, an inspiring exposure for the expressionist artist who, being ‘primarily a colourist’, began in the Seventies to create his figurative monochrome paintings. He won the 1968 Lalit Kala Akademi national award, and his work exists in several collections throughout the world.
He was born in Calcutta in 1933. His father Prahlad Karmakar was a well-known artist of his time. Prahlad taught painting at the famous Government School (later ‘College’) of Art and Craft, Calcutta. He had migrated to the city from North East District of Mymansingh, East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in the early decades of the 20th century to study art. By stages his name spread far and wide. One thing led to another and he was offered a prestigious post at his Alma Mater, the premiere art institution of undivided India. In 1939, he won the bronze Plaque in the San Francisco International Exhibition. In his lifetime he received commissions to paint portraits of British administrators, nabobs and maharajas, while collectors bought his creative paintings.
He built a comfortable two storied house at the Eastern outskirts of north Calcutta. It had an atelier at front complete with a very large panel of glass panes letting in a steady stream of constant North light from sunrise to sunset. It was a time when Victorian ideas of sexual morality was strictly followed in British India. The Directorate of Public instruction would not allow nude study in art institutions throughout the country. Prahlad arranged for nude classes in his studio. Students from the art school came for the classes every evening. As the fee was not exorbitant, the studio never lacked students. Collectors, famous artists, critics and writers also visited the studio regularly.
Prokash grew up in this intellectual and artistic atmosphere. But there was certain tension within the home. Before independence, Hindus like their Muslim brethren, could lawfully indulge in polygamy. After independence it became illegal for the Hindus only. Prahlad died a year before India became free. He fell in love and married his first wife’s widowed elder sister. Prahlad had two daughters from his first marriage. Prokash was the eldest son of his second wife. Later she gave birth to two daughters and another son who died in infancy.
Prahlad doted on his son. Prokash’s mother, step-mother and their children loved him dearly too. The bouquet of family happiness had not only fragrance but thorns as well. A series of misfortune dried up the flowers. Only the thorns remained.
Soon World War II began in right earnest, bringing in its wake waves after waves of British and American soldiers, the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943, pestilence and death. More than a million died. Scarcity did not spare the urban poor and middle classes. The spectre of hunger visited them with full force.
Prokash felt his was on a sinking ship. There was enough trouble and the family members endurance was being tested. Imagined their horror when the doctors declared Prahlad had a fast-growing malignant tumour of the tongue. He was admitted to the Medical College and given the best treatment available at the time. Eventually he died and was cremated with full honours due to an artist.
Almost immediately after Prahlad’s death, his eldest son-in-law partitioned the house. Prokash’s mother lived in her half of the house. She did not have any income. She provided for her children’s need by selling her gold ornaments and jewellery.
The war was over, and India was on the threshold of political freedom. Suddenly communal riots broke out in the country. It was about to be partitioned and the two communities were killing each other with a frenzy of madness. There was looting, burning, raping in fact total chaos! The women and children were evacuated to safe pockets of sanity – at least the lucky ones were. The others had no place to go. Some were raped and others butchered.
Prokash remained behind to guard their half of the property. He had just turned thirteen! He joined the defence party. He was provided with a revolver, country made crude bombs and acid bulbs. Armed with them, the party would petrol the neighbourhood at night.
Prahlad’s house was like an impregnable fort. The only weak spot was the studio. It was slightly detached from the main building. The city was limping back to normalcy when one-night hooligans attacked the atelier. Prokash was asleep when he heard footsteps, whispering voices and muffled noises. He slipped out of the backdoor and climbed a tree. They broke the door, tore down Prahlad’s paintings from the walls and set them on fire.
The incident angered Prokash. Raging at his importance he was soon rioting in right earnest, hurling bombs and grenades and shooting from his revolver. Afterwards it took some time for things to cool off. Gandhi was in the city and worked hard to bring back the two sides to their senses.
The riots stopped suddenly, and independence ushered in the partition of India. Like Punjab in the West, in the East, Bengal was divided into two. The influx of tens of millions of refugees opened the floodgates for the onrushing waters of the politics of scarcity that would submerge West Bengal for next five decades.
Prokash at the age of fourteen found himself a virtual head of an urban poverty-stricken family. His mother became ill, but her love and tremendous will-power forced him to go back to school. He passed his school leaving matriculation examination. Hearing the news his mother was so happy. She looked at him wistfully through the tears in her eyes. Not long after this, she passed away. He now had two small sisters to look after. He joined Government School of Arts. For two years he struggled but as he had hardly any money, he found it difficult to continue his studies. Besides, he had the additional responsibility of feeding and educating his sisters. He entrusted them to a relative and joined the army. After a couple of years, he realized military service was not only boring but downright degrading. One day he could take it no longer and deserted. He hid and dodged the military police and surfaced only after they gave up the chase.
In between he worked in a block makers outfit, subsidizing his income by book cover designing and illustration. For a couple of years, he drifted with the waves, struggling hard to keep his head above water. Finally, he joined the art department of a large chemical firm that produced indigenous medicine. There heroes to become the art director and the manager of the company’s modern printing press. For almost twenty years, he was posted at the firm’s headquarters in the city.
For Prokash, a permanent employment was a promise of security. It was like reaching a safe shore after a rough journey through stormy seas. He held a responsible post and had to spend long hours in the office. Yet he strongly felt he should devote every spare moment to painting. After all, he had not finished his course at the art school. Kamalaranjan Thakur, Prahlad Karmakar’s student once, was the absentee art director of the company when Prokash joined on probation. Prokash trained under him, learning the tricks of applied art. Seeing Prokash’s interest, Kamalaranjan began teaching him also the techniques of transparent and opaque watercolours.
Prokash began sharing a flat in North Calcutta with a friend and his mother. She was an excellent house-keeper. His sisters were well looked after and began going to school regularly. Much of the rent and house-keeping money was met from Prokash’s salary while his friend made small contributions. He for once felt free to concentrate on his art.
He would set out very early in the morning and begun sketching the riverside, the buildings, the bathers, shops, cremation ground and temples on the waterfront. Later he began to paint landscapes and cityscapes directly in watercolours. Finishing promptly at nine, he would have a quick dip in the river, a filling metal at a wayside eating house on the banks and rush to the office. After a hard day’s work, in the evening he would set out once again to sketch and paint outdoor scenes and night views.
He married in 1959 and took a separate apartment firstly in the heart of north Calcutta and then in the Northern suburbia of Baranagor. In mid 1960s his company arranged for accommodation in a housing complex adjacent to the Sibpur botanical Gardens. This was in Howrah, the twin city of Kolkata, on the other side of the Hooghly. By then he had married of his two sisters and fathered three children, a son and two daughters. After his brief coaching with Kamlaranjan, he joined Dilip Dasgupta’s ‘Studio’. Here before and after office hours, he concentrated in learning the art of instant sketching, life drawing and the use of various mediums including oils. The other members of the group like karunaSaha, Arun Bose, SanatKar, Santosh Rohatgi and SukantaBasu, to name the few who would become famous later, were his classmates at one time. Unlike him, they were not dropouts but graduates who had finished their course. They were technically much advanced and mature. Prokash was very competitive and worked hard to cover lost grounds. He felt he had to train tirelessly to equalize and alter to outstrip them. Accordingly, he panted in every spare moment he could find. After each hard day’s night, he was ready to drop down dead, totally exhausted. His commitment to art very soon began to pay back rich dividends.
By 1954, he began exhibiting his paintings through solo exhibitions and all India annual expositions. By 1959, when he had his pavement show, he became famous almost overnight. The media acclaimed him as the new Messiah of contemporary art. The largest circulating Bengali newspaper even printed an editorial praising him for bringing art out into the open air.
Dasgupta took his students to various places to study the variety of landscapes and people. It was during his stint with the group that the Tata Company commissioned them to paint their giant steel works in Jamshedpur. Later the Tatas reproduced the paintings in the format of a calendar. It was during this period that he participated in the annual National Exhibition of the newly formed National Institution of Art, the ‘Lalit Kala Academy’, New Delhi. His watercolour depicting a two storied thatched earthen house won highest commendation. A steady stream of critical appreciation, praises and prizes poured in. He was not overwhelmed as he had seen his father Prahlad take everything in stride. Yet deep within Prokash felt dissatisfied.
As he mastered a variety of mediums and began understanding the aesthetical principles involved in pictorial delineation, he felt the urgent need to experiment with new modes and techniques of expression. He had to find adequate painterly means to deal with the tragedies and the comedies of human existence. He had learnt questioning the ultimate validity of illusionism of anatomical realism. The earlier European mirror image illusionism of anatomical and the later ‘slice of life’ naturalism of Emile Zola and his Impressionist artist friends that had influenced his father Prahlad’s generation, were for him again of historical significance only. He felt dissatisfied with the two types of approach. Up to 1914 there had been a sense of orderliness that permeated through art. The idea of utter and absolute chaos of contemporary times would be inconceivable to the artists of previous generations. For Prokash the ambience of harmony had been shattered. The event of World War II, Bengal Famine of 1943, communal riots just before independence and partition of India had shaken the very foundation of his belief. His personal life since his father’s death was a succession of persistent calamities. The idea of a harmonious value system lay in ruins. He had gone through the experience of Dantesque ‘Inferno’. He had visions of images and imageries that sprang from the depths of moral suffering. How was he to find form that could measure up to his nightmarish vision?
He felt expressionism of both kinds – the German variety of figurative expressionism and the American version of non-figurative expressionism, did not have the potentials to size things up. Surrealism, he felt was more a literary than a visual art movement, almost a rear-guard action of academic anatomical art. He wanted to speak of spiritual devastation and personal maladjustments in pictorial terms. He did not know how to go about it.
It was at this time of spiritual crisis that his friend Bijan Choudhury took him tone of the greats of 20th century Indian art, Nirode Mazumdar (1916-82). Mazumdar had returned from France in 1957 after a twelve years strange interlude. He had once worked with Abanindranath Tagore and his Neo-Bengal School. As a young man he was involved in their search for roots. At the end of his period of apprenticeship with Abanindranath, he rose up in revolt. He felt the school was a gymnasium that taught students the futile methods of rendering the ‘classics in paraphrase’. In 1943 he and his friends formed the avant – garde’ Calcutta Group that was later instrumental in inculcating the tradition of modernity in post-colonial Indian art.
Mazumdar invited Prokash and Bijan to join his studio and work with him. He gave them a thorough grounding of the Art of Man from the days of cave shelters to the most modern times. They worked from nude models. He saw to it that they rendered and understood the gradual evolution of form and composition from prehistoric times to the present. It was a practical course of visual art history.
Prokash and Bijan are eternally grateful to Mazumdar for imparting knowledge of ideas and ideals of art. After almost a couple of years, they left their mentor. Bijan was a politically committed artist. He found that Mazumdar saw art only as an integral part of the spiritual quest and ethos of mankind. For Bijan art was a permanent revolution with define undertones of political complexity that characterized an awareness of new ethical order. For Prokash, Mazumdar seemed too intellectual and sophisticated. Mazumdar like Georges Rouault saw art as a sort of religious movement in a post-religious world that signalled moral order through re-interpretation of myths and symbols. Rouault’s Catholic theology had similarities of tone and faith with Mazumdar’s Hindu philosophy. Prokash had experienced total decadence and the erosion of ethical, religious and political values. He came to believe art as a form of subversion that exposes entrenched fundamentalism, personal and social hypocrisy. His paintings are an explosion of savagery, an attempt at nihilistic barbarism that destroys symbology systematically by turning myths inside out and upside down.
Mazumdar made Prokash aware of forms, substances, concepts and techniques of art. In effect he helped Prokash to experiment and discover a significant personal style. But it was the sojourn in France some years later that gave Prokash another level of self-consciousness. The strange exposure to vibrant art and life, and life in art transformed him into a different kind of a person, turbulent and integrated.
Prokash Karmakar is considered a revolutionary in the sense that he doesn’t exhibit in art galleries. All through his artistic career he has always exhibited on street corners because he did not want his paintings to be imprisoned within four walls. Most of his earlier artworks capture remembrances from the past – some of them are very personal, and some are from the darkest moments of human history.