Will a forthcoming retrospective shed light on Shuvaprasanna’s confusing legacy?
Most artists are well-entrenched in their careers by the time they hit middle age, but in his mid-sixties, Kolkata-based Shuvaprasanna’s muse remains elusive. He could have chosen to be the bearded mystic painter, but is also embroiled in politics; he could have fashioned a career selling to the rich and famous, but he enjoys a cache among the middle and lower middle classes; he could have taken a lucrative turn in moving out of the City of Joy, but though a frequent visitor to Delhi, he has remained firmly entrenched in Kolkata. Not all his alternative forays have been successful — he is disenchanted with politics, his work is regarded as inconsistent by his critics, and his romanticised idylls of Krishna and Radha seem to be painted for commercial rather than artistic considerations.
Shuvada is the sum of all these parts, and yet somewhat detached from them.
In his early years he supported himself by painting portraits, but remained unsure about the direction of his art. The sixties and seventies were years of turbulence and violence when the Kolkata art community found itself shorn off idealism and intellectualism. Shuvada joined the Calcutta Painters Group that propagated socially-committed art rather than modernism for its own sake. He also formed the Society for Arts and Artists in 1969 and, in 1987, Arts Acre, which had the support of Gunter Grass (though it shut down following various controversies), and as recently as 2008, the Arts Acre Foundation.
Has this activism affected Shuvada’s painterly career? For many art-lovers, he is the painter of crows, often as studies, and sometimes perched over the empty, haunting streets of Kolkata. His charcoals of crows defined him for a while – and these are still in demand – but he also did a series of studies of owls, other birds, and even cats. Few know that some of his most serious work also features the crow, but as an observer of a city ransacked of human presence. It is perhaps to this that his friend and poet Ted Hughes was referring when he wrote of the crow “nailing heaven and earth together”.
At the same time Shuvaprasanna’s still-lifes were becoming known. Invariably, they seemed to consist of a vase with a few drooping flowers, but with faintly erotic overtones, almost as if they constituted genitalia. His ‘80s work was more haunted, filled with hopelessness amid the grime of the city in which the wretched eked out their lives, though it seemed to be documentative and didactic. But the last decade has seen him emerge as a decorative artist, painting Krishnas with levitating heads, which has found a huge and ready market, but raised the hackles of those who consider it a waste of his talent.
So, which is the real Shuvaprasanna? In the recently launched book, which accompanies his forthcoming retrospective at the Lalit Kala Akademi in the capital (Black Brown & The Blue), Shuvada points out that “the desire to speak out is born of a personal need… Sometimes it makes for art. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I play judge as to whether it does or doesn’t.” In being the final arbiter of this “conflict”, has Shuvaprasanna been less than demanding on himself, less than fair to his collectors?
Only Shuvaprasanna can answer that, but at a time when his peers are well settled, his prices do not reflect the potential the artist showed early in his career. Charcoals of his seminal crows are offered on various sites for as little as Rs 55,000, his still-lifes come with a figure of Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh, his oils of owls and other birds command between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 4 lakh. His Abode and Metamorphosis series, considered serious by even his critics, are only a little more strongly priced. This is a fall even from 2007 when works from his Abode and Aves series were estimated for as much as Rs 8 lakh by auction house Sotheby’s. It is his playful Krishnas that are higher priced, going up to as much as Rs 20 lakh, works that have disappointed serious collectors, but which have found him a new buyer base. Whether he steers this commercial course or resurrects his heritage is, of course, something only Shuvada can tell.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.