Tribute to Hemanta Misra: the “Calcutta Group” Painter

by- Maushumi Kandali

While we look back to the last two decades in this issue of the Art news & views to take stock of the things that had “happened” in the Indian art world – I take a quantum leap back to the forties. Those who were witness to the pulsating art scenario in Kolkata in the forties with an ideological departure initiated by a new group of artists called the progressives/ Calcutta group, perhaps remember a young man from Assam who was one of the members of the group. For the subsequent two decades he was an active integral figure in the art scene exhibiting in the major shows and had been featured with critical acclaim in the major art journals and magazines of the time such as the Lalit Kala Contemporary, Samkalin Kala among which an elaborate appraisal by artist Pradosh Das Gupta[1] is worth-mentioning. This surrealist painter, so called by Pradosh Das Gupta, played a significant role in ushering the hybrid and inter -lingual inter- textual character of Indian art in the modernist phase. Let me go back to a few more decades in order to pay tribute to this artist of true calibre, on the occasion of his first death anniversary in 31st December 2010.

That Hemanta Mishra (1917 - 2009) chose to join the Calcutta Group is itself a pointer to his relentless quest for an art which is synthetic, vast and unbounded. His historical significance lies in the fact that though his lingual idiom was surrealist, temperamentally his works were very much Indian. Of course surrealism was the final phase, which he reached after traversing through two different phases. In the beginning, like any other artist, Hemanta Mishra too was interested in the academic studies of figures, objects or nature. Such naturalistic representation comprised of landscapes, natural settings of forests, hills, rivers, valleys and human figures. His technical skill and capacity for enhancing the theme with a fine blend of colour and form received rave applause and critical acclaim. But his artistic quest seemed unquenched as he tried to break through the forms and colours and took to the cubist mode of expression. Probably all modernist distortions of forms start with cubist tendencies or its impact is felt at least once a while at some point in the career of a modern artist. Hemanta Mishra was no exception. But his cubist phase was more ornamental in nature. As if the artist sought something deeper and different as his medium of expression and Cubism acted as only an intermediate phase in the search. After about a decade of an extensive quest, he finally arrived at that language which enabled him to express himself with utmost vigour, both at the conceptual and aesthetic levels. That Hemanta Mishra is also a poet perhaps accounts for his lingual choice of surrealism. Surrealism which surfaced in the 20's and became even more popular in the 30's as an offshoot of the Dada movement, had always contradicted rationalism for its belief in the irrational aspect of life and human psyche. Surrealists attempted to find truth in the subconscious impulses, dreams and fantasies of human mind. The central idea of this art movement was to release the creative powers of the subconscious mind, or as Andre Breton pointed out in the manifesto, “to resolve the contradictory conditions of dream and reality into absolute reality a superreality”.