Abani Sen in the Eyes of a Son: In Conversation with Prabir Sen

Abani Sen in the Eyes of a Son: In Conversation with Prabir Sen

in Interview
Published on: 09 November 2018
An interview with Prabir Sen on the life and work of artist Abani Sen, New Delhi, 2017.


Jigisha Bhattacharya: Today we willl be speaking about the artist Abani Sen to his son Prabir Sen, with regard to his life and his work. Would you like to say something, at a primary level, about the work of Abani Sen, when considered as an entire oeuvre?


Prabir Sen: To cover this, one would have to take different aspects with regard to his work. If I speak about his subjects, then it was once said of him that he drew whatever his gaze fell on. Meaning, there was no specific subject which he considered to be worth drawing. Although, a large number of his works are about animals and birds, but there is a variety: all kinds of paintings, in different styles, different media. What appears to me, though I’m not an artist, that he endeavoured to experiment with everything, be it media, styles or subjects.


JB: One of his students, (historian) Narayani Gupta mentioned that he would often ask his students to draw images of shoes. So he had a unique way of teaching his students. If you would like to say something in that regard...?


PS: Certainly, Narayani Menon (Gupta) must have spoken about being asked to copy one his paintings named ‘War Worn’, it is also referred to as ‘A Pair of Boots’ in some places. But whatever subject he took up in his own life…. He would teach whatever he himself did. There was no difference in his practising and preaching. When he would draw cows, it would be a few hundred cows; when he drew horses, there would be a few hundred horses. Or even when he would have models sitting down in order to be sketched, there would be countless of them.


There would be a sheaf of papers stuck to the drawing boards. He would time his students; whenever he would say 'turn', they would turn a page and begin sketching on the next. It was his firm conviction that in every instant, subjects would change, light would change, if one were sketching living beings, its movements, however slight, would be included too. How does one, in minimum time, observe and understand all this, and try to capture and reproduce it on paper or any other medium, and go on practising this? The more one practises thus, the more one’s skills at drawing and painting improve. So there are countless drawings of his on so many subjects.


JB: How would you look at stylistic influences on his work? Especially, since at that time, there was an emerging Bengal school of art, representing a stream of influences, along with elements of Western art. So how were these various influences come through in his work?


PS: There were many artists who influenced him. He’d studied the work of many, both native and foreign artists. As far as I know, he was influenced by (Paul) Cezanne and (Vincent) van Gogh, definitely. But there was no specific style that he worked in, say, for example, only a wash painting, or only an Indian style of painting, there was nothing like that. There is folk art made by him, but that folk art is different. He has brought in elements of Western art into it. Just the same for oil paintings…


There may have been some artist who might have drawn an image of card players at some time. He too drew an image of native card players. The theme being common, but the locale is absolutely Indian, with Indian people, in their attire, their mood; that is completely Indian. Now if we were to interpret it as being influenced by another artist…but it is completely different. I, at least, would never compare it.


JB: No, what I meant was that at the time, there was a new school of thought that developed, among his contemporaries. So in such a context, how do you look at his experimentation? Like, for instance, his experiments with folk art, as you stated earlier.


PS: I won’t say, in any specific manner. But at that time there were a number of classes like say, Oriental art... He never stuck to any particular style of art. What I feel is that he constantly experimented within different ‘-isms’, trying to understand each of them by himself, and give them his own interpretation.


JB: In an earlier conversation, you had said that Abani Sen had lived in several places and that he had moved around a lot. How do you see the development in his art and his pedagogy vis-à-vis the changes in place and his lived environment?


PS: Well, he really blended into any environment that he lived and worked in. He was born in Tagoria village, near Dhaka, where he grew up. His life was one of great struggle. Hence, he kept company with and observed people from various levels of society, lived in various environments. The result of him blending into a particular environment could only be expressed through paintings. There was a period during which he lived with his family members, those of his elder brothers. So being in the midst of his nieces, nephews and their neighbours, he produced a lot of drawings of human figures. There was a cow-shed nearby, so that showed in his work too, accordingly. He has drawn cows realistically, but over the course of many drawings, he has strived to express the essence of a cow- the cow-ness, so to speak. Like in the case of drawing a bull, its strength, gaze, its moments of stillness, he has tried to capture all such aspects.


JB: Along with these, his pedagogy and teaching…


PS: Yes, his teaching. I think, right since his college days, he was part of a group, much like many other artists. This is what I have heard, since I am his youngest son: I saw him much later in his life. But what I have heard from his friends is that everyday they would leave together for outings to practice sketching. This had started right from the time he was living in Bengal. Other artists would join him of these trips too. He believed a lot in sharing. I wouldn’t say all of them were his students. Even towards the end of his life; there have been a lot of artists who have come in contact with him, not really learning from him. But they were influenced by him. His manner of teaching, speaking and sharing, that’s where his life started. I have read in several writings that such and such artist would come over, and together they would learn drawing and painting.


Several years later, around 1942-43, he moved to Lucknow. There was a rich family there named Isfahani. Since he was freelancing, he had to move there. Like most artists of that time, he too had to struggle a lot for his existence, which was drawing pictures. Drawing 60-70 sketches a day, that was his priority. There was a doctor named Cunha. He was the physician of the Isfahani family. He had seen my father at this place called Photo Society at Dharmatala (Calcutta). The owner of that place was a friend of my father. So this doctor had seen my father paint on easels, and had been quite impressed by his work. So he told my father one day of this family whose daughters were very interested in drawing and painting, but their father was very keen on them being taught by someone who could himself draw and paint very well. ‘I have given your reference to him. Would you take it up?’ asked Dr Cunha to my father. My father went and spoke to them, and was informed by them that they were planning to shift to Lucknow.


I think, to me, this was the first instance of my father earning an income by teaching art to others. There may have been other instances of this, but I don’t know of them. He completely uprooted himself and went to Lucknow. In his two years in Lucknow, he made acquaintance with many reputed artists, had several exhibitions and received awards. Then, he moved to Delhi in 1948. In between, he had returned to West Bengal in 1944. He first came to Delhi on account of an exhibition and found that were many more opportunities in Delhi. The Sarada and Reisner schools of art, both very old, then employed him. That was his first and last job.


To teach at the school level requires a different kind of mentality. But the kind of environment he was able to create in a school, the way he could enlighten students - he was also given a lot of freedom to create an art studio - resulted in several students from that school becoming established artists later in life. The Sarada school obviously had students who were a bit more mature in their abilities. After some time, he found it difficult to continue teaching in two places at once, so he left Sarada school.


A lot of students from Sarada later used to visit him at home in order to learn art. I have seen them stay in touch with my father until the end of his life.


He held quite an unusual view that we are all born artists. He loved to teach everyone to draw. Another habit he had was like whenever he came to know someone was good at singing, he would request the person to sing. Some of them may have become accomplished singers now, but he felt that if a person had even a little interest, he should encourage it further. If it helped them find their talent, they would probably pursue it earnestly.


Sometimes we at home would say of someone, ‘Oh! He can’t do anything much.’ And he would simply laugh. We would find out over time that they indeed became established artists. He never paid attention to what strata of society a person hailed from, or never looked at a person’s work and dismissed him or her. We are still in touch with those who do draw and paint, but are not established artists, meaning they are not earning their bread through art. But they do draw, they have a love for art, attend exhibitions, all for their own satisfaction. That was true for my father too: he drew for his own joy, then of course, he had to earn a living too. That a piece of art must be made so that it may be sold - other than portraits he was commissioned to draw - is something he never subscribed to.


He had a huge circle of students. Difficult to count. I’ve seen it from my childhood that his students would certainly visit him on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. There would be those who would visit everyday, whenever my father could give them time. Indeed, there was such a bond between them and my father, that if anyone failed to turn up, he would feel quite uneasy. This is how he continued till the end of his days. After his retirement from the Reisner school, such activity increased a lot.


Since our home had an environment quite steeped in the arts, most of us drew and painted. If a (female) dancer were to turn, she would be made into a model and sketched, after which she would proceed to give us a demonstration of her art, while explaining its background and form. Sometimes, there would be singers. Sometimes, a beggar would turn up with an instrument I don’t even know the name of. He would be made to be a model and then sketched. After offering him his payment and having tea with him, my father would often ask him to play his instrument, and ask him questions about it, such as what it was made of, where did he purchase it from? This kind of an environment he would always manage to create. And he wanted everyone to have an inquisitiveness - the desire to know. Hence, many of his students would call him ‘pitaji’ (father), since we were in Delhi. Or ‘mashima’ and ‘meshomoshai’ (maternal aunt and her husband). My mother was a huge support for him. Without my mother, it would not have been possible for him to sustain this, or indeed, his whole life. His initial struggle…of which I haven’t seen anything at all. When I arrived, he had already started earning.


His students would develop an intimacy with him and become quite close to us. Like they would have to have dinner with us after finishing their practice. Like sometimes, if they would get late to return home for lunch, word would be sent that he or she hasn’t yet finished drawing, and so would be late. So this kind of bonding, though he passed away in 1972, I can avail of even now. We address them just as we do our own family members.


JB: There were several artists working at that time, alongside your father: Gobardhan Ash, Prodosh Dasgupta and others. How were your father’s relations with them and their work, as fellow, contemporary artists? How did their work speak to each other?


PS: See, my answers will be those of a lay man. It would be difficult for me to interpret it fully. One thing is that a lot of people would visit him regularly. But we have never heard of him being critical about anyone, like, this is the style that his works have, and so on. He firmly believed that everyone had his or her definite place to work in. But he would steer clear of politics totally. During his younger days, he had served as Secretary in various art organisations. But later, he never went even went close to any of them. All his time was spent on drawing and painting. He would receive other artists at his home, irrespective of where they came from, be they foreigners - I remember a few Japanese and American ones - or from Delhi. When he first came to Delhi, he was associated with AIFACS. A lot of artists from there too were his acquaintances.


You mentioned Gobardhan Ash - he was quite close to my father in his early life. But I never saw my father going out of the way to meet anybody. But whenever they have come to Delhi - for instance, Gopal Ghose, he has come home. ‘Boudi (sister-in-law), I want to eat this and that’, he would say. There was an old camaraderie between them, born out of having spent some good times together.


Then there was the cartoonist, Rebati babu (Rebati Bhushan). When in Delhi, he would visit us almost everyday. Shaila Chakraborty, we have seen him quite closely.


So it’s difficult to say, really, because the environment was such that at any given time, there would be some artistic activity going on. I think that many people found this to be a unique state of affairs. Several of my father’s friends too found it unique. Because there were a lot of artists among them who held regular day jobs. So they could not really avail of such an environment. Just a regular office environment. Of course, if it was an advertising agency, that had a different environment too. But here, at our place, there was a very different environment. Sometimes, they would, perhaps, demonstrate their own work too i.e. draw and sketch pieces of work in their own manner by looking at that of the artists who would come to learn from my father. Thus, there would be a sort of value addition to their work. So this kind of an open environment attracted a lot of people.


JB: Tell us about his association with the Calcutta group of artists.


PS: He wasn’t with them for very long. Because, it was only by the end of the 1940s that he was selected by Prodosh Dasgupta (one of the founding members of the Calcutta group). My father used to live in Lilua (Howrah district, West Bengal). He had liked my father’s paintings very much. Gobardhan Ash too had joined the Calcutta group then. My father must have participated in 3-4 exhibitions by the group. After that, he came to Delhi. Due to the distance, his association with the Calcutta group weakened.


JB: He had exhibitions at AIFACS too, I think.


PS: Yes, at many places. Abroad too. Both as part of the Government-outfitted exhibitions and AIFACS- sponsored ones. He has had one-man shows as well. Several places hold collections of his work.


JB: At this juncture, could you tell us what efforts could be taken towards archiving his work? Especially, since, as you say, his work has been distributed across so many places.


PS: I would like to start with a generic answer. At this age, I feel, not just for Abani Sen, but for most artists - barring a few who have had the opportunities and facilities, or who have been duly recognised by the Government and hence, their work is well-maintained - one cannot find their works anymore. Even those who have done very good work. I do not know why there has been no effort to preserve their work. We have been trying to preserve his work. It is only while doing this that I have felt that the work of a lot of artists - I have myself looked for the works of several of my father’s contemporaries - are not to be found.


There are those artists who have gained a lot of fame, and their art is very expensive, and hence their work has been very well preserved. That is very good. But the other artists of that time, they probably were quite well-know too. Now, nobody might know them. I think, there must be an organization that makes collective efforts in this regard. If we are to create history, so that students and enthusiasts may view these works, that is what I have been trying to do in my small way.


JB: The fact that the work of several artists is lost and cannot be found anymore, or is not archived properly, amounts to a loss of time itself, one can say…


PS: Yes, yes, I would say that it is a loss of history.


JB: At that time, the country went through a series of political upheavals - the famines, partition, riots…


PS: The great wars, the world wars.


JB: So how did these reflect in his work? Especially, since you said it is a loss of history. How do you look at this?


PS: Yes, it was fully reflected in their work. Actually, I do not have a solution to this, so I don’t raise this issue much. Only saying this since it has been asked. It’s a difficult task. Even reputed artists wonder what will become of their paintings after them. If we believe in that aspect of Indian philosophy speaking about the idea of ‘maya’, that one must not fall in its clutches, that is truly a very powerful idea, no doubt.


But someone striving his or her entire life to create work that is appreciated by a lot of people, and then, over time, it cannot be found at all, that is where I feel some effort must be made. And now, technology permits…. in a jiffy, we can digitize them, keep them, store them…enormous amount of work in such a small volume or space. If we can try do so, to whatever little extent we can, I think, it will be useful somewhere.


And the ones researching about this, they need it very much. Barring a few, whose work has been preserved very well, there are many other artists whose work, if it is to be compared, will be done only with that of a foreign artist. But there might well be many artists who have done that kind of work in our country itself. That’s where my point lies.


JB: What was the effect of cataclysmic events - the famine, partition, riots - on him and his work, since he was originally from Dhaka?


PS: We can gather from his paintings, and from conversations that we had had with him… He never really wrote about himself, neither did he write much about his paintings. At that time, there wasn’t much of a practice of explaining a painting, or explaining the intent of an artist, what an artist is trying to say. I have heard from a few of his students that he would instruct them in a certain way, that’s all.


Actually, though he hailed from Dhaka, he had moved to Calcutta long before the partition of the country happened. He joined the Calcutta School of Art in 1925.


There is a famous painting of his named ‘Greedy Cow’, that is with the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata at present. It shows a cow, green in colour, but its calf that is suckling, is red. I’ve heard it being interpreted as the calf surviving with the help of the cow, and the blood flowing in the body of the calf is that of the cow.


Just to digress briefly. He was quite rebellious, in his youth. Later, he mellowed down. I’ve heard that during exhibitions held in the pre-Independence period, if a senior British officer were to be in attendance, Abani Sen would not be allowed on the premises. He had lots of friends whose names were in the lists of revolutionaries. The hostels he stayed in were frequent haunts for them. He also participated in several protests. ‘Oh you think you cannot let this happen? We will show you how it is done.’ Along with Gobardhan Ash and several others, he had formed a society named ‘Young Artists Society’ in 1931. Atul Bose was a teacher then. Jamini Roy too was a teacher. As Joint Secretary, he would collect money, say Rs 5 or Rs 10, from people and organize a large exhibition for their paintings. There was another group formed after that… the Calcutta Rebel Group, I think, can’t remember it exactly. There too, he would visit several of his artist friends, collecting their works, and with the support of a lot of people, would organize exhibitions.


I think, it was a constant desire of his to showcase and encourage the work of other artists, and not just his own… as could be done through a one-man show. And given the number of drawings he made, he could have easily done one-man shows. He always felt that as many artists as we are, we must present our work together.


This spirit, if it could be fostered now… I know it is easier said than done. But if we want to keep our history, to create a history of paintings, then we must preserve the work of different artists belonging to different times. Because, otherwise, the next generation can never know. For instance, the new generation has not heard the name of Abani Sen. Similarly, there are other artists who were his contemporaries, whose names would not be known by them.


At one point of time, a lot of artists, sculptors were produced in Bangladesh, their contribution was immense. Because a group like the Calcutta group was formed, their name has been present in history.


JB: How do you look at the interaction of Abani Sen with his students who later became established artists themselves, such as Manjit Bawa, and his elder brother?


PS: Yes, Manmohan Singh Bawa, he is still around. All these people would come to my father as students, but would end up becoming household members. Manjit ji is no longer with us, but the close quarters we have seen him and his family from, no one knows. But if his history were to be written, we would probably not feature in it. Naturally. But the kind of bonding he was able to forge… till date, we know all their relatives, their whole family. It wasn’t as though we would know only the student himself or herself. Their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, we know them all. He isn’t there anymore, but we still have a strong connection with them. This has been enabled by the many days spent painting and drawing together, and an environment of love, respect and artistic creation. If instead, it were simply a student-teacher relationship…


Like the schools we have studied at, how often have we gone to school? How strong has the bonding between students and teacher been? It is simply not there. But in this case, I have seen it repeatedly, and it surprises me, that he could form such lasting bonds with people. And not just the students. He included all those who visited us.


My elder brother Ranjan Sen is an artist himself. He earned quite a lot of fame at a young age. Now, since he has lived abroad for many years, people here don’t recognize him and he too does not bother much about it.  His friends, also artists, would also come over. Among them, those who are left in India, we continue to have close relations with them. I am sure that we have such relations with many artists. But for all of us to come together in highlighting these bonds in order to - loosely speaking - create a history of art, that is very necessary.


JB: How do you view his legacy as a teacher and as an artist, especially through his students?


PS: Of course, now that they have established themselves in their own right, they have developed a style of their own. But it becomes clear to me when I speak to them, how close they were to this artist. Since Manjit Singh’s (Bawa) name came up, I will speak about him. I have seen him state the name of Abani Sen in lots of his interviews. I think, in almost all of them. But he has created his own form. Growing up, he went to England. That kind of travel to our home became nearly impossible after that. Even then, there must have been some impression somewhere in his mind that continued.  


Similarly, there are lots of other artists who also speak about him. They may not be earning their livelihood as artists. There was another gentleman named Ramnath Pasricha, who was an acquaintance from his days at the Sarada school of art. Their whole family- except for him, since he’s no more - his sister Usha Biswas, who is also an artist, we have that kind of a relation as in earlier days. That was a bond that was formed through art, that is continuing. As an art teacher, I find him really amazing, truly. How much of that recognition he has received publicly…But he was not bothered. That’s for sure. He felt that if I have been able to enlighten someone, awaken the desire for art and its practice in someone, for him that was enough.


He might have been criticized for such behaviour too, that he’s wasting time on people who won’t become an artist. But he never believed that at all. And he gave opportunities to people from such different strata, from the lowly to children, to those of the highest levels, all of them have come here. That is what I find wonderful. I’m not merely saying this as his son. 


JB: Speaking of his complete dedication to the arts, how do you see the difference between artists of an earlier generation - his generation - and those of the present one?


PS: There are certainly many involved artists today. There is no doubt… they draw and paint regularly. The good side is that, the amount of struggle he had to put in during his time, the artists of today do not have to. Which is a very good thing indeed. That society has accorded recognition to them as an artist, that is remarkable. But, in today’s time, the tendency that has developed of taking short cuts… it might be due to the fact that I have seen his side of things that I feel this… the will to plumb the depths of one’s knowledge and practice, to be exposed to a vastness of knowledge, that has reduced to some extent, I think sometimes. It can be debated, I am sure.


JB: In your personal experience, what would you say of him as a teacher?


PS: We have not been taught by him as a teacher. I think nobody in our family has. We have all seen him as a teacher, and as an artist, from close quarters. Because, in that sense, he never made us sit and learn from him, formally. While others were being taught, we too would try to learn from him, depending on our individual capacities, to imbibe of that spirit.


But the kind of environment that he was able to create… and in which, I will say repeatedly, my mother had an enormous role… an artist who is struggling, the kind of support he needs so that he need not bother about anything other than his art… even his students agree with this. That environment was very unique. I don’t know if the art studio kind of space exists anymore, but my knowledge is limited in these matters. All of us - including all his students who would come home - would set out on picnics. There would be paintings, there would be khichuri cooking alongside that would be served on leaves to everyone. I think it leaves a different kind of mark in life, such experiences. That, I would think, is something the children of today are missing out on.