BREATH OF ART
(AN ARTICLE ON PULAK GOGOI) BY RUPANJALI BARUAH
Art can provide the right k8ind of salvation to a lonely ravaged soul. It illuminates life and bestows the rare gift to dispossess sadness, regrets and disappointments and replace them with a positive zest for life. It was just this that artist Pulak Gogoi of Assam discovered through his tryst with the brush and the palette of colors and canvas. Painting became a means to uplift him emotionally when several hardships in his personal life had almost defeated his spirit.
The artist in him slowly and certainly found the merit that lay in his own handiwork. For him, his art works at two levels; his aesthetic sense as an artist is enriched with successful brushstroke and it gives him the recognition that is truly due to him.
There were many difficulties and disappointments strewn in Gogoi’s path to success but his positive attitude of accepting life and its happenings in a lighter cheerful vein has enabled him to maintain a joyful disposition – almost a kind of bonhomie that always comes to his rescue.
Born in 1940 at Jorhat in upper Assam, Pulak Gogoi grew up in a family which gave him the right kind of artistic ambience which came to be nurtured through him in later years. His professional involvement in the genre of art began in 1961. He joined The Assam Tribune in 1962 as a commercial artist and contributed political cartoons that helped him to develop a sense of illustration and design. He was the first artist in Assam to pick up political cartooning as an important medium to comment on contemporary issues.
In 1963 Pulak Gogoi took up oil painting and began to pursue it wholeheartedly. In 1966, he held his first exhibition in Nabin Bordoloi hall, Guwahati. He still rues over the low attendance of viewers then as he says ‘ that was a time when art was given a backseat and it was hardly understood or appreciated as an important facet of life.’ However such disappointment as could not deter him from his quest. Towards the end of that year, he shifted to Kolkata and began after much financial hardships to edit and publish a political magazine titled Cartoon.
Gogoi had by then married and had a daughter. The family lived in a small motor garage paying Rs. 20 as rent – living conditions that would have crushed the spirit of any other man, but Pulak Gogoi ‘s indomitable spirit withstood all these difficulties and came out unscathed and brave. At Kolkata, he joined as chief editor of Amar Pratinidhi, an Assamese magazine edited by Bhupen Hazarika.
Sometime in 1968, Gogoi returned to Assam and resumed his old love of oil painting and this time with more devotion and seriousness. During this phase, he was much inspired by renowned artist late Pranab Baruah. He exhibited several of his art works and began to be oticed as a serious, consistent artist with a deep, vision. He co8uld sell many of his paintings and that earned him a regular livelihood – a possibility which would had seemed remote and quite impossible only a few years ago.
In 1971, Gogoi held his exhibition at AIFACS, New Delhi. He was the first Assamese artist hold an exhibition in the reputed Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai in 1972. That year he also exhibited his work in The Academy of Fine ARTS Kolkata. Soonafter, his focus shifted to another distant horizon – the West.
In 1972, Sri J.G.Borpujari an economist got The Art Society of the Washington based International monetary fund to sponsor Pulak Gogoi’s visit to the US. The artist held a month long exhibition at the Hodges Gallery, Washington where he sold out all his 27 paintings within two hours of its opening. In the January issue of Desh, Pulak Gogoi was featured among 40 celebrated artists of India based on a study by Ashok Mitra on the artists and their trends from 1937 to 1987.
When Gogoi returned from the US, He took up a new line of interest – film making. While in the US he had seen a good many films that inspired him to make films on similar lines. He experimented with this new genre in his debut film Khoj. Gogoi explains ‘ I wanted to see how those figures that I had so far captured in my canvases would look like if they are given a life and become animated on celluloid. So in Khoj, I chose a sprightly girl and to dramatize her awareness of social injustice practiced by the men folk in her surrounding, I used the fixed images of scare crows and I also gave a quick motion to a flight of birds and the ripple of a river, elements which I had so long treated in a particular dimension on my canvas. Film making thus became a different and challenging oeuvre altogether.
Though Khoj did not see much success, it gave him the experience of handling a medium where the possibilities of exploring themes, patterns and emotions were endless. It was like another lens that opened a wider vista to the artist in him.
His later films – Srimati mahimamoyee, Morom Nadir Gabhoru Ghat, Sadori, Suruj, Relor Alir Dubori Bon, Patni were the results of his consistent effort to refine his treatment of this new genre.
In 1993 his Relor Alir Duboribon won him the Rajat Kamal award for the best regional film. Gogoi has also directed several documentaries and Television serials for Doordarshan. He was twice the jury in Indian Panorama.
Pulak Gogoi believes that there must be a difference between a mere craftsman and an artist per se. He marvels at Pollok’s handling of abstract themes and says it is a kind of original genius that every artist seeks to discover within himself. The search for that perfection may take a lifetime but when it is achieved then one can say positively that an artist like a true pilgrim has progressed and arrived at his revered spot.
El Greco, the 16th century artist and his figures with impossible heads and color dissonance inspired Gogpi during his early years. But then, Gogoi believes that while an artist may look for motifs in great masters, in myths, legends, parables of his own homeland, he must work finally within his own vision and discover a particular message to deliver.
Most of Pulak Gogoi’s subject matters are derived from his own understanding of social values, relationships that have him drawn from contemporary events, people and their lives. Talking about his growth as an artist Gogoi says ‘my drawings have changed over the years. I see a maturity in my line movement in fact I still see myself growing as an artist. This is so because once a work is over, a sense of incompleteness haunts me as it were there is much to be said yet; it is often a very gripping feeling.’
Gogoi’s motifs are drawn mostly from tribal folk sources, he looks for rhythm and a joi de vivre in every life movement and consequently his figures whether it be a drummer or a dancer, communicates spiritual ecstasy. This arises out of the artist’s own spiritual affiliation with a system of belief where faith, tradition, roots and religion do matter. He confesses that he is hurt when he sees people disrespect tradition and culture as he says ‘one should not be superficial, it kills the joy of loving.’
Gogoi has lived life on the edge. He has worked with line and color explored film making and both have involved him in an intense exhaustive manner.
Pulak Gogoi’s earlier handling of lines and their movements were sketchy and experimental, in his ‘Horse’phase, the influence of M.F Hussain as he confessed was very distinct and clear. And this horse was his own horse it is rather wild and reckless that would not accept the shackles of change, the chariot that is harnessed to him is broken, it reflects that it revolts against imperialism and bondage, the horse is often seen kicking and protesting and refuses to pull the cart. There was then a thirty year gap in between when Pulak Gogoi went to explore another arena, that is, film making. Later when he went back to his earlier passion of oil painting the same lines from his brushstrokes took on a rapid, spontaneous feel where he could handle a large panorama of landscapes as a background to the figures whom he had studied in great details.
In handling his themes for the ‘Bhakti’ series, the artist brings in episodes from scriptures and mythologies of the Mahabharata, Geeta, Buddhism, the endless search for Maya, and the love of ‘Rasa’ through devotion. In them Pulak Gogoi incorporates the sense of devout feeling and reverence through the portrayal of dance movement of Sattriya dancers and drummers that is a joyous celebration of true spiritual bliss where the realm of the divine and the temporal come together; this the respectful homage to the spirit of Vaishnavite cult in Assam. His work is the true mirror image of a particular way of life in the Sattras of Assam..
In his ‘Peace’ series Pulak Gogoi works towards accepting the contrasting and complimentary side of human experiences because his whole psyche encompasses the whole gamut of emotions, celebrating change and exploring ways towards an optimism in spite of the inevitable tragedies. To him, his art is an essential part of him, like breathing, it gives him an ability to live. The violence and the dichotomy of ideals that clash, the doubts that assail the complacent sensibility of the artist and yet he holds on to the good old faith. Though his emotional anguish hightens with every episode of struggle and yet he discovers a kind of salvation by portraying those episodes on the blood stricken figures on his canvas; this is the only way the artist in him can raise a word of protest; his colors must speak to the world. However, there is always an underlying aloof detachment as he handles these stark realities, the figures sometimes have a blurred definition, the tones and forms are subdued implying that the artist does not wish to dwell too much on the gory details, instead interprets them in his own sublime cool climates. He moves away from the intricacies of psychological dilemmas, he invites the viewer to catch a glipse of his own interpretation of those maladies and death scenes that prevail. There is indeed a sense of his smoldering anger in the series titled Peace’ where with his longing for peace we understand his quiet protest against those elements that come in the way of peaceful living. The artist has truly resolved the conflicting ideas of his time through the harmony of his lines and the hint of sublimity in his use of colors. Perhaps he is looking for a kind of salvation through his meditations on the conflicting episodes of our time.
In his recent art works still untitled, Pulak Gogoi deals with the lives of the expatriates , the muslim minorities who settle down to a nomadic way of life with very little complaints and regrets. These men, women and children are caught in the whirlpool of a life by the river side, most of the year, they survive on dry sands and when the river is in high spate then their only resources are a bundle of clothes and beddings, a few sheaves of rice grains, a goat and a boat - their survival kit. The artist captures every facet from this bohemian way of life, shy demure eyes of the women, the men unerringly drawn towards the constant challenges from the floodwaters, where every moment is uncertain, inconstant. These figures came to be a source of constant revelation – there is revelry and mirth, and then there is hostility and cries and in between one is to make the choices of good over evil. There is a distinct economy in his treatment, he uses the precise colors for the contours and their expressions so that the figures are clearly and logically related to the real ones.
With meager resources at his disposal he had set out on his journey in search of true colors from the lives of others and at the same time he has distanced himself from being a firebrand artist and so he has settled down to a way of life where the boundaries between aesthetic development and personal pursuits are ever wide , always challenging.
His struggles have given him a leavening effect to his art , he has found a new breath in art to push ahead , follow his dream with grit and gusto. His primal tryst with colors and his subsequent experiments on celluloid are to many of his critics and admirers pointers to the striving spirit of this celebrated artist from Assam.