King Without a Crown

At the turn of the last century, when New Delhi became the Capital and Bombay emerged as the cultural centre, with its Art Deco architecture and films, Calcutta took a step back. Indian modernist Rabin Mondal’s work fell under the same shadows that were cast upon his city. Even though his predominantly figurative work was considered landmark by the art community in West Bengal, national recognition came much later, in the early 2000s, with the boom in the Indian art market. His choice to live in obscurity also kept him away from the expediency of self-promotion, but never dissuaded him from wanting to share his work.

“Every artist wants to show his work; it would be destructive to keep them hidden at home,” says the 86-year-old painter from his Kolkata home, as he remained absent from the preview, allowing his art to speak for itself. While art critics, curators and students have been exposed to Mondal’s art, now the general public too can learn of it as over 100 works by the artist — also a founding member of the Calcutta Painters; the first group of modern artists in India, formed in 1943 — are housed at the Delhi Art Gallery Modern (DAG), Mumbai, in its retrospective exhibition, titled “Kingdom of Exile”.

Spanning three floors of early academic drawings and paintings in oil, acrylics and gouache, the exhibition is a culmination of almost seven years of acquiring and archiving by the gallery. “Rabin Mondal has been a brilliant modernist, but due to a lack of documentation and engagement with galleries, he fell off the map,” says Kishore Singh, Head of Exhibitions and Publications at the gallery.

Albeit in the varying narratives of kinship, power, violence, despair and loss, the human figure remains Mondal’s primary subject. Irrespective of their medium — thick, impasto oil on canvas or fluid, watercolours on paper — Mondal’s paintings are always rendered in firm, scathing lines. His figures, with their deformed, disproportionate bodies, have claw-like feet, swollen heads and bare limbs. But even beyond the explicit representations of form, lay further evocative symbols. In a certain painting, the use of a beautiful red seems appeasing from afar, until one notices the dove — a symbol of peace — that is hidden within it.

Mondal’s works are drenched in despair and darkness, exposing the sheer brutality and horror man and his world are capable of. “My paintings are not beautiful to look at,” he admits. For a man of such gentle demeanor, his stance on art not yielding to the merely decorative has stood the test of time and temptations. “Despite the market demanding something more playful and flirtatious, he remained committed to his body of work,” says Singh.
Born in Howrah in 1929, Mondal grew up in a place where the sheer density of people clustered within brothels and factories fed claustrophobia. He lived during a time marked by the impact of Bengal and Indo-Pak partition, the Naxalite movement and the famine. His art is an uninhibited observation of the sociopolitical, but also an expression of his psyche that has been home to anxiety, fear and disillusionment. Overwhelming upon first sight, Mondal’s art is able to evoke impact and conversations. “Even though his works are largely autobiographical and relevant to the time at which they were made, they communicate to the viewer, which keeps them contemporary,” says art historian and critic Nandini Ghosh.
A close look at the exhibition’s “King Series” from the 1970s reveals how — as art critic, curator and author, Ina Puri says — “the existential crises of Mondal’s subjects have their resonances in the present times”. A set of eight paintings depicts the isolation and wretchedness that people in power finally live with. The outward grotesqueness of the humans in his paintings is symbolic of the corruption and immorality that lies within. Portrayed within the narrowing walls of dark rooms, Mondal’s figures are eventually captured in the exile and horror of their own abuse of authority. The “King”, through his rise and fall, becomes both the perpetrator and the victim of his power.

With two publications and multiple exhibitions focusing on Mondal, DAG continues in its efforts to offer his work its due visibility. The exhibition, on till September 12, is from a collection that covers all periods of his career, from speaking to peer artists, curators and finally examining literature including sketchbooks, notes, letters, catalogues. While the exhibition may have taken its form as a retrospective, in many senses it is only the beginning of discovering Rabin Mondal.