Samir Mondal has endowed watercolours with the status of oils by developing textures and structural features, but never losing their originality and elegance, says Saswati Chaudhuri
Samir Mondal has a name that is hard to forget, and the same could be said for his glorious artwork. It is not easy to forget the beauty of it once you have cast your gaze upon it. Hailed as the watercolour man of India, 70-year-old Mondal is an artist evolved by nature. Much before his paintings for the 2007 Bollywood blockbuster, Taare Zameen Par, became the talk of the town, the illustrious painter started his artistic odyssey from Balti, a small Bengali village in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.”It was such a small village that there was no trace of town-like features and no facilities. In fact, there was nothing,” recalls the Mumbai-based artist. “But it was rich in terms of nature’s bounty. It was an undisturbed rural location with a small river, ponds, boats, trees and plants, a village temple, rituals and local festivals, customs and traditions, and simple people living friendly with each other. It was like growing up with nature freely without any restriction. No light, no noise like cities, it was so untouched by modernity that there was no paper,” he says. Can you imagine that he used to write on palm leaves in his childhood? “It sounds like I was born a thousand years ago,” says the artist credited with a continual revival of watercolours. He describes the Sonai River in a very artistic manner, reflecting his deep observation from early childhood memories. “Sonai with its crystal-clear water without any undercurrent was the lifeline of that small village. It was not very broad and its water was very sweet which was used by the villagers for their daily life, he remembers. Mondal was the eldest among six siblings and his father was a teacher at a school in a different village. That school had a pucca building and that is where Mondal started his schooling. Although no one, including himself, knew that he would be an artist of this stature as we know him today, being close to nature definitely helped lay the foundation. His family shifted to another village near Basirhat town as his mother wanted better education for her children. Basirhat was well connected with Kolkata by road and train. Many significant Bengali families lived there. Mondal joined Basirhat High School, which had a grand building and he found people using the radio and reading newspapers in many houses near his home! It was a progressive change for him but as a whole, the financial condition of people was not so good because it was just after independence and the country was yet to develop a proper system for better public life. During his growing years, there was no understanding about becoming an artist, butkeen observation towards nature in detail gave him pleasure. His narrative description about the flowing water in the river, playful fish near the boat, colourful flowers and foliage gives the impression that he always had an artistic sensibility and spending time with nature was the formative chapter for today’s Samir Mondal. In school, art as a subject was not very significant, but he used to draw on plain white or ruled school notebooks, which left his father fuming as he considered it was a waste of stationery. Buying colours was an expensive affair. So the only available colour was wax crayons, not good enough for colouring. “Those crayons were like colourful candles,” he says. But he noticed some of his friends using watercolour cakes to paint with a brush mixing water and using thick quality papers. He used to draw with ink and pencil and watched movies with neighbourhood friends and listened to city-stories from a relative of his friend who lived in Kolkata. “Sulekha inkpot and writing tool, which was dipped into the ink to draw or write was the reality at that time. Along with that, local cultural events like yatras, meaning watching village theatre at night, was extremely interesting,” he says. Like every Bengali teen, story illustrations and Bengali comic book pictures were his favourite. These events gave him exposure about the creative world, but it wasn’t much for him to decide to be an artist. His art teacher at Basirhat High School, Sri Sudhir Sarkar, was from the Government College of Art and Craft and was a batchmate of many well-known artists like Ganesh Haloi, Sarbari Roychowdhury, Uma Siddhanta and others.
Mondal saw some watercolour paintings done by his teacher, which were framed and displayed. But he was shy to interact with the teacher and also felt those artworks were of a very high level for him. Moreover, the weekly art class was not very impactful, though his friends appreciated his drawings and other craftworks. Kolkata was completely unknown to him and for someone from a low income family, it made more sense to go to the Basirhat college for graduation, learn typing and find some job as a teacher like his father, or a clerk to earn and support the family. But as luck would have it, one day a relative of his friend from Kolkata asked him something specific about his plan for further studies. No one ever asked him this and his next question was “Would you like to try studying art?” Mondal didn’t know the answer because he didn’t know anything about it. Next, the same person offered to arrange a meeting with a teacher of the art college in Kolkata. This conversation created curiosity and a new direction. When he told this to his father, his parents also started thinking on those lines and enquired about the course from their sources, but the information was not very positive, so there was no clarity. For Mondal, however, going to art college was destined. He met with his friend’s relative, who happened to be sculptor Sunil Paul, Head of the Sculpture Department, at the college. At the same time, another friend invited him to stay with him in Kolkata as a guest for a few days to see the city before making the decision. Mondal recalls these two events changed everything. He joined Indian Art College, which was the second popular fine art institution in Kolkata, but after a year he got admission in Government College of Art and Craft. So it was a six-year study for him. He lived in his uncle (mama)’s house in North Kolkata and used to walk more than 8 km everyday to reach his college to save money. His walking route was through Bidhan Sarani, which gave him a deep understanding about the city and as an artist that was a true depth of his passion. He feels this was the most valuable period of learning and inspiration. Crucial statements from teachers gave him artistic wisdom. He recalls how eminent artist Gopal Ghosh, his teacher in the second year, once did a watercolour painting in class that left Mondal mesmerised. “The way he applied the strokes, put colours on the paper and continued to look at the painting for a while and worked on it again to finish taught us how a human touch creates a piece of art,” he says. Mondal, on his part, has given a new dimension to the watercolour medium, which is generally considered second-rate, or less vibrant and difficult to handle compared to oil on canvas medium. He learnt continuously by watching the works of other painters throughout his journey, got influenced by some of them and over a period of time came out of that influence as well. Not only paper, Mondal has done watercolour paintings on leather, wood, canvas, glass and even on mirrors. At his alma mater, there was a trend of regular watercolour practice for students. It was the British school technique of transparent watercolour on paper with colour perspective and depth. Everyone used it with a minimal palette in an almost monochromic way. It was mainly a practice medium, not exactly classroom syllabus. The main academic medium to learn was oil on canvas. Being part of the same GCAC alumni, I have known Samir Da, who used to create beautiful watercolours and we juniors used to watch him paint during outdoor practice. He perceived watercolour as the main working medium, discovering its true essence and exuberance, asserting through his dynamic style that we see as his signature or identity. Many learning spaces and workshops around the world observe his style and contribution are discussed during scholarly lectures for next generation artists. More than any awards, this is the greatest achievement for any artist. “Do we artists really need to create an identity? I don’t know. I do not take pride in being famous. I don’t think I have reached the highest point,” he says, “Is there any rule to find an individual style for an artist to authenticate or he can go any direction to explore creativity as it comes naturally. In reality, there is no definite formula. An artist’s identity can come into reality in many ways that may be in terms of popularity, in terms of grace or presentation. If an artist works continuously, it shows a flow and a signature style finds its way,” he says, adding, “If an artist works taking a long break in between, the same thing may not be visible in the artwork. So it depends on the workflow of an artist and also it is not always a conscious development for an artist to create a specific identity. As it is a lifetime commitment towards a field of work, after the academic learning there are periods of search, research and a responsibility to do something meaningful.” He agrees that while we create art, it is a dialogue between the artist and the artwork. If that communication is established, creation happens. He also says there is no good art or bad art but he does not believe that ‘skill’ prevents us from being creative, which has been a popular opinion recently.
He started his solo artistic endeavour in 1980 with an insight about the resurgence of watercolour painting. Although some of the predecessors worked on the watercolour medium very seriously and watercolour exhibitions were organised to acknowledge its importance, the oil medium was always dominating. Studio painting using watercolour was less visible. In annual shows at art galleries like Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata, the prominent halls were dedicated to the artists, who created large-size oil paintings which have a great impact on viewers. “As if watercolour belongs to a minority community,” he says. This scenario disturbed him, made him angry and he was determined to take watercolour paintings to that large prominent exhibition space. His aspiration was, “Bado ghare jete hobe” means “I have to reach to that large hall”. Mondal says his style today involves the influences of different cultures, themes, styles and techniques that he has been exposed to throughout his career. “I’m forever evolving, learning from the medium itself. I love the accidents and unpredictability of the medium, the happenings from the mixing and merging of the medium beyond our control. I am merely guiding these processes to a meaningful conclusion,” he says.”I believe the biggest deciding factor about the evolution of my style is the unpredictable nature of the medium. I start out expecting or anticipating a certain result, but the outcome is sometimes far from what I initially set to achieve. I do not consider this as my failure, but a positive new knowledge for me. I have incorporated this in my style as well, the unpredictability of watercolours.” He recalls how he once threw water hopelessly on his incomplete painting and left it on the floor. After a few days, when he looked at his work, the textures and effects amazed him. It was a new experience. This event gave him fresh energy, as if he found that missing link and his own style was born. It was accidental, but it was the beginning. He continued working and he also thought watercolour would be economically supportive compared to oil. He used to do large size watercolour paintings on full size papers, even joining papers together, using paper rolls. He intensely observed the attributes of oil painting masterpieces and noted the richness, depth and substance. He desired to achieve similar qualities in watercolour medium and experimented with textures and constructional features; not losing the original classic grace of watercolour medium and developed a contemporary method. As he pursued his work, he received opportunities to exhibit and appreciation and achievements followed. He created the ‘Shelter’ series paintings which were 4’ X 4’ that were not in practice at that time. In his peacock series, he even experimented with a combination of bright and subdued shades; in ‘Faded Manuscript’ series, he made brilliant use of black with red, ultramarine and rich yellow. He created a magical yet powerful statement. He introduced a kind of building up process in watercolour, bringing a weight just like oil paintings. Shyamal Dutta Roy’s concept driven water colour was his inspiration. He says, “Finally my work started being displayed in the large hall,” which he determined. Sandip Sarkar, one of the most reputed and learned art historians and art critics of Bengal talked about his work; later few of his works, some of them are portraits of personalities, were published as the cover pages of Desh Patrika and The Illustrated Weekly of India, which was a great honour. Desh Patrika cover page used to be for very senior artists of Bengal, which was considered a highly prestigious event of that period. Mondal’s work reached there at a very young age. He feels very lucky that there used to be a regular column on watercolour in the reputed Illustrated Weekly in the form of a full page painting by him. In Sunday Observer, his portraits of famous actors and actresses were regularly published during the 90s. Besides, many commission works in the form of calendars, greetings and illustrations for books, magazines, periodicals and newspapers published in India and abroad made watercolour to be mainstream and an established medium like oil on canvas. He created his own strategy about using pigments to bring in the weight and luminosity that was acknowledged as pioneering and original. He often works in a planned manner in layers, sometimes it takes several days to complete one painting, yet it looks ‘finished at one go’. Spontaneity is a natural quality of watercolour; he plays with this quality and manipulates it gradually in his own mastery. He breaks the traditionalism embracing bold colours and definite structure. He has gone through several changes. Besides orthodox British method of watercolour painting, which has a fresh transparency and dynamic three-dimensional look, he studied many techniques like Chinese watercolours with bold brush strokes, Egyptian simplified motifs, Ajanta Cave paintings etc., to experiment. This learning made him realise that watercolour medium is still very much unexplored. He also spent a good time learning performing arts like mime; the body movement of mime looked like moving sculpture to him. He also learnt classical dance like Kathakali from guru P. Govindan Kutty to understand body movement and anatomy. He even worked on animation for eight to ten years.
All these activities influenced him as an artist. But his humble conclusion is, “I have not yet reached a stage where I can say I am a great artist. I am happy that I am doing it, art is uncertain but I am still holding it. My medium is my friend, I can play with it without getting bored. It is an ongoing process.” His recent works came out to be completely different due to the lockdown period, when he was in Western Australia visiting his son. He did not have access to his own watercolours. He created small black and white sketchbook works using charcoal and some digital works inspired by Aboriginal Art of Australia. This new approach is also expected to be continued because that is the basic nature of evolving artists.