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The plaintive calls of rural Bengal descend upon Chennai this week, at Paresh Maity’s largest show yet in South India

It’s an eminently cited verse by Rabindranath Tagore, recited on his deathbed, as legend has it, through the Hindu season of Baishakh (March to May) in 1941, in the town of Santiniketan, West Bengal. Published as a slim edition in Bengali titled, Shesh Lekha (The Last Poems), and translated by Pritish Nandy, the verses served to inspire a series of paintings in 2011 by Paresh Maity.

“Jonmer prothom gronthhe niye aashe olikhith paatha, deene deene purno hoy baithe baithe,” begins the verse. In translation, it reads, “At birth the book is brought, its pages blank : it slowly fills with words each day.” It continues, “Stringing bead after bead about oneself / the portrait emerges at day’s end. / The painter recognises himself / by his own signature. / Then he lines through the words, the forms / with an indifferent stroke of black. / Only a few words in gold remain distinct : / they wake radiant beside the pole star.”

“Jonmer prothom gronthhe niye aashe olikhith paatha, deene deene purno hoy baithe baithe,” begins the verse. In translation, it reads, “At birth the book is brought, its pages blank : it slowly fills with words each day.” It continues, “Stringing bead after bead about oneself / the portrait emerges at day’s end. / The painter recognises himself / by his own signature. / Then he lines through the words, the forms / with an indifferent stroke of black. / Only a few words in gold remain distinct : / they wake radiant beside the pole star.”

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The artworks of Maity, who hails from the artisan’s town of Tamluk in Purba Medinipur district of Bengal, inevitably invoke Tagore’s sentiments and the folk tunes
of Santiniketan. At a retrospective-sized exhibition that opens this week, co-hosted by Gallery Sumukha Bengaluru, Maity will present an extended collection of drawings, watercolours, mixed media works, oils on canvas, bronze sculptures and large-scale installations, spanning four decades of his highly prolific career.

Bells and whistles
Maity’s massively scaled paintings are the show’s main attractions, remindful of his landmark 800 foot-long work, The Indian Odyssey,
permanently on display at the New Delhi International Airport.

The show’s centrepiece, however, will be his installation Sounds of Silence, created entirely out of brass temple bells. “The bells
symbolise the presence of something mystical,” offered Maity, in a telephone conversation from Singapore, a few days before the show’s opening.
Maity also spoke of a similar work of his, Mystic Abode (which unfortunately will not be on display at the show), of a life-sized room constructed with 8,500 bells, very similar in structure to Sudarshan Shetty’s Taj Mahal. Even as he employs temple bells, his intention never was to be overtly religious, clarifies Maity. Rather, he chooses to play up his Indian identity in his creations, he says, in a manner that can derive universal appeal.

If the Lalit Kala Akademi does permit a gust of wind into its historied halls, the tinkling of the bells from Maity’s creations may well transport viewers, however momentarily, to the banks of the River Hooghly, were the artist is known to seek his inspiration.

The nature of things
Maity often quotes Aristotle to make the assertion, “All art is imitation of nature”. “Everything comes from nature,” reaffirms the artist, speaking about his
fascination for the play of light on colour. Maity’s landscapes, which kindle rustic impressions from Bengal, are generally the toast of his shows, made out to the artist, who has lately been making quite the presence in his trademark patched-up Boho-chic ensembles.

Maity now rightfully stands among a handful of artists who’ve taken the naturistic edicts of the Bengal School across shores, alongside the likes of veterans such as Ganesh Pyne, Paritosh Sen, Lalu Prasad Shaw, Sakti Burman and Jogen Chowdhury.

Never one for exalted critical appraisals, Maity remains down-to-earth in his approach. “Art has no vocabulary, and it should speak to you in a language of its own,” he insists. While his avowed Indian-ness defines his art, Maity promises to keep up his output. Maity also urges his viewers to seek out a sense of silence that rests at the heart of his artistic motivations — silence of an all-encompassing kind, which he takes particular delight in, while evoking the poetry of Tagore.

At Lalit Kala Akademi. January 24 to February 5. Details: 044 2829 1692.

—Jaideep Sen

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