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Romancing The City

Arpan Bhowmik’s paintings are poems on romance, realism, and serenity, but his loudest declaration is his romance with the city space, says Dr Satarupa Bhattacharya

Realism and romance have had an interesting engagement for centuries now and given the propensity of the arts today, we are, yet again, at the throes of the ushering rage of revisits to realism that combines with romance. Arpan Bhowmik (b. 1977) is one such particular case in point who has always been in love with both areas since the time he has been five years of age. The gorgeous hints of shadows carved around trees arranged side by side till they reach an arch of old architecture standing behind a deliciously yellow taxi has become a Bhowmik special that no one can miss in the busiest of walls nailed with different artworks from different artists. This speciality is so particular that one can spot it immediately and keep it in memory easily. One may see this as a remarkable feat to be so easily memorised, or as an act combining the popularist interception with the realist genre: in either case, Bhowmik remains poignant as a language interspersed with several possible meanings.

Bhowmik says that he began his artistic career sincerely after he joined the Government College of Arts under Calcutta University for a BA degree. It took him six months to prepare for the entrance exam when he was pursuing a programme at the Indian Art College under Rabindra Bharati at Dumdum. Even though he cracked the exam, he still got a seat in the applied arts department and not in the fine arts department: something he remembers fondly as he remembers the toughness of clearing the entrance exam. It became an important moment for him and it helped him realise his art career and practice.

He won several awards and accolades during his stay in college for his elaborate watercolours on paper. In those days, paper was only available in the standard size of 21×29.7 cm sheets. So, he decided to join four to eight of them with (Fevicol) adhesive and create a large sheet to give the feel and look of a canvas and created large works, which, at the time, seemed like very big feats. The annual show of his college had so many beautiful works that it was important for him to make a mark along with his peers who were also very powerful artists. Their efforts were very inspiring and Bhowmik felt elated every time he won an award for his work. He found it challenging to keep up with his fellow students, but he was always very piqued by those challenges. As soon as he passed out of college, Bhowmik began to look for platforms to showcase his works and he did. Then he felt that a lot of his works, at the time, were not being included in galleries because of his medium. His favourite medium had to change and he found his famous medium of acrylic on canvas.

Despite this change, Bhowmik wanted to keep his skills intact. He didn’t want to lose the bold to faint effects of colours on paper that he loved so much and so he began to paint in various shades of the same colour in acrylic. So much so that his canvas today doesn’t really explore more than three to four colours and each colour is muted or to create light and shadow effects of watercolour on paper. A striking yellow or a muddy red or a brisk shade of blue definitely takes a central seat in the narrative and becomes important to his paintings. During college, he had drawn realistic images to compliment his surroundings from his village – Janai, Dankuni in Serampore. Here, he learnt to visually recreate the hubbubs of the locale, such as the railway station and the thatched roofed homes. After his college, he felt the need to capture the essence of Kolkata. Nostalgia and the public commute systems began to intrigue him. The very best way to portray his thoughts on city life was captured through technique mostly while his paintings did portray architecture as landmarks and the pace of a city through technology simultaneously. The yellow taxis, the bright trams, the hand-pulled rickshaws, and similar other vehicles represented his idea of speed and commuting that is so essential to city living. It also signified the ease in movement and quality of life that is so present in cities as opposed to other places. The landmark architecture placed around these moving vehicles stands for the monumental history of the city that has aided in the politics of the space and adds to the telling of the enormous significance of its temporal function. Eventually, he travelled to other cities and his works captured those city spaces as well while keeping his subjects and romance in place. Bhowmik’s paintings have a tranquil quality which is hard to miss in his portrayals of a misty morning or a rainy day in the city. The darkness of the night or the pungency of the afternoon sun are also important features that help him in his cause to explore the city through his art. The weather and the time of day are all very visible subjects in his works. They evoke the sense of romance of an old city with its past set-in stones. Interestingly, this romance is evocative of the Durga Puja season, too, when foggy mornings warn Bengal of the deity’s yearly visits, or just the winter season laying emphasis on the fertility of the season and land.

When asked about his inspirations then, Bhowmik says that he had always enjoyed looking at Atul Bose’s oil paintings, Bikash Bhattacharya’s enormous body of works, and Abanindranath Tagore’s brilliant renditions of the Mughal arts. He finds Tagore’s miniatures so fascinating that he still remains transfixed by the artist’s skills. To him, such skills are celestial inspirations and he can witness the miracles of art in his predecessors.

Interestingly, Bhowmik does echo the Bengal renaissance in his artworks and his school is imbued in the depiction of cities as a reflection on Bengal’s progress as an artistic language and subject. The same city, often, picturised in its festivities and its rush is now being visualised in the most tranquil manner when a certain season sets in or a moment of the day becomes important.

Bhowmik’s portrayals are a reminder for art watchers to look at the simplicities of the cities too, when in its most serene moments, the city becomes less cruel in its pace or less complex in its means. Since, in a painting, Bhowmik is caught depicting this perfect moment, this image becomes quite close to a photograph. The realist genre – as ascribed to the likes of Rembrandt – has always dabbled at depicting reality in the most innate manner while engaging with the miracles of forms, shadows, and lights. Bhowmik builds on it while he brings elements of the miniature styles and the watercolour skills together on the acrylic on canvas medium. To him, his skill is not just about depicting, but about feeling the inebriant qualities of an artist’s journey. Of course, not to forget that Bhowmik’s paintings are a poem on romance, realism, and serenity, but his loudest declaration is his romance with the city space.

The artist is represented by Easel Stories Art Gallery, Noida