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The Rational Path

The trajectory of an artist’s creative life and the choices one makes to shape the art practice are evident through Sanjay Kumar’s life led by example of his firm moral grounds and the rational belief system

Bihar Museum, Patna, hosted a midcareer retrospective of painter-sculptor Sanjay Kumar (b. 1964) of the Antilia fame – his works decorate the walls of the swanky Mukesh Ambani home in Mumbai. Curated by Mumbaikar Nikhil Purohit, the show “Of Walking the Rational Path &…” carried on till January 28, 2023. A book compiled by Purohit titled “Sanjay Kumar-The Traveller of Rational Path” was also released on January 7, at the start of the show, which was a good opportunity to experience four decades of art practice of Mumbai-based Kumar from art school till today. The show revealed the journey of abstract compositions to the iconic “Statue of Peace’ via installations like Bhikshandehi and Bhiksha Patra (Bihar Museum Collection). The show was an extension of the Bihar Museum’s role as a modern-day cultural hub and to honour the legendary works of artists from the state. The trajectory of an artist’s creative life and the choices one makes to shape the art practice are evident through Kumar’s life led by example of his firm moral grounds and the rational belief system. The book records various anecdotes of humble beginnings and his acts of giving back to the society through various self-initiated and self-funded engagements in Patna and Mumbai. The exhibition served the purpose of offering local citizens, art-students, art enthusiasts, and connoisseurs an opportunity to learn about Kumar’s art practice, and philosophical ideas through the display of about 80- plus artworks, curator’s walkthrough, panel discussion, book release, and workshops for school children. The viewer could witness the gradual shifts in the artist’s oeuvre from 1983 to 2022. The exhibition was classified into five different sub-schemas, namely:

  1. Early Academic Works | ca. 1983 – 1992
  2. Formative Years in Mumbai | ca.1993 – 2001
  3. Founding of Buddha Series |ca. 2002 – 2013
  4. Sculptural & Large-Scale Works | ca. 2014 – 2022
  5. Sketches & Singular Works.

The exhibition had infographics written in English and Hindi for easy access to regional audiences. About the Book: The book “Sanjay Kumar-The Traveller of Rational Path” is an ode to the artistic endeavours of Kumar and his characteristics ingrained in the rational, moralistic values formed over years through exposure to philosophical thoughts of Rajnish -Osho, Buddha and other schools of thought. The book is illustrated with about 150 colour plates of artworks and archival photographs compiled in 204 pages. It offers insights to the formative evolution to Kumar’s artistic career, his journey of making the iconic ‘Buddha’, the Bhiksha Patra, the installation Bhikshamdehi, and other works that define him. It records various anecdotes of humble beginnings and his acts of giving back to the society through various self-initiated and self-funded engagements at Patna and Mumbai. It was the urge of printmaker Rajesh Pullarwar to present the undocumented aspects of a Bihari artist who not only makes a living in a city like Mumbai, but resonates with the Darshan ideologies connecting the lands and roots of Bihar and Maharashtra through his modern iconographic contribution.

The exhibition and the book were supported by The Bihar Museum, Tao Art Gallery, Studio Pannadwar, Faandee AADAR, International Print Exchange Programme, India, Aura Art, & Transport Partner: Transworld Group.

Kumar began the use of charcoal and ‘sauce’ (black) powder during his second year of the course. He used his ‘thumb’ and cotton swabs as primary tools for his artworks. He made portraits, abstractions and mythology-based compositions in black and white. Achromic and charcoal later became the pictorial essence of Kumar’s practice. The medium is used with command and subtlety rendering a range of tonal values, yet maintaining a harmony. All works in this section are about his formative years where he experimented with a variety of ideas and compositional techniques.

Formative Years
Kumar was exposed to the wider world of art in Mumbai and more importantly to philosophy of Rajnish Osho through the book Jeevan Kranti. This was a period where he experimented with the language of geometric abstraction. We notice a meditative poise in these works which could be observed in the later Buddha series too.

During this phase, the artist seemed to enjoy mostly the vertical compositions where the plane was divided into two or three sections with a circle or suspended organic forms. This is also the phase where the initial works of the Buddha series were made.

Founding of Buddha Series
The ‘Buddha’ in Kumar’s work was an incidental discovery that gained appreciation at all fronts. The frontal face with meditative and symmetrically balanced works with a variety of surface ornamentation and icons in each work is the key feature of the series. Soon after Kumar made the first Buddha in early 2000s, the elegant, long necked cross-legged Buddha became the identity of Kumar as an artist. This section is dedicated to the various explorations of the Buddha compositions with keen iterations.

Large-Scale Works
The paintings and sculptures in this section resonate the philosophy of Samyak Sakshi (Unified Conscience) but through unique and individual compositions. The Alms Bowl, once bought from a local market, stayed in the artist’s studio for a while. One opportune moment Kumar intuitively decided to make a large size work incorporating his Buddha icons onto it. Thus, after several challenges, he sculpted the sculptural installations of the bowl. The Bhiksha Patra (Bronze) is now in the Bihar Museum’s collection on permanent display.

The installation Bhikshandehi is a special work that was devised as a response to the Mumbai Terror attack in 2008. Kumar urges all humanity, especially the terror groups, to give up the arms race and resort to peace walking the eightfold path of Buddha. Similarly, the sculpture Statue of Peace (Samyak-Sakshi) urges humanity to unite with the virtuous ideals preached by each religion across the globe by identifying oneself with the mirroring face of Samyak Vyakti.

Sketches & Singular Works
This section particularly is a curious sight as it displays some small arbitrary sketches and singular works. Though they are not thematically in line with his style, they represent the experimental attitude of the artist exploring unconventional subjects within the experiences of his lifetime.

Kumar, who is also a poet, is known for his black and white large-scale charcoal works representing his interpretation of the form of Buddha. He hails from Sahibganj, a city from undivided Bihar (now in Jharkhand). With a strong interest in art and craft since teenage, he eventually sought education at the Patna School of Art, Patna, in 1983. He was awarded with a residential scholarship at the Lalit Kala Akademy, Lucknow, and eventually moved to Mumbai to test his mettle in 1993. He was also awarded a Junior Fellowship, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Culture, Government of India, in 1995.

He has set up his studio Pannadwar at Naigaon (Mumbai) as his personal studio as well as opened it to the community of artists to practise their art via the Sambhavna Artist Camps arranged periodically since 2001. Working in sculptural forms has been his primary theme of work in the past decade. Kumar’s works have been exhibited in India and abroad and collected widely across including the Ambani Collection.

Purohit is an artist and arts administrator with interests in art archiving, education, art writing, and curatorial practices. He is the founder of art-initiative, Faandee, dedicated to documenting the arts to promote heritage and its management through a wide range of interdisciplinary practices. He is a recipient of the research scholarship by Asiatic Society, Mumbai 2019 titled, “Visitors Accessibility in Current (Contemporary) Art Exhibitions and Art Programming of Mumbai Region”. His publications include the biographical essay on artist Prabhakar Barwe in The Blank Canvas, 2013, Art Mediation Tool Kit, in collaboration with the Kochi Biennale Foundation and FICA, led by Art Mediators from University of Lucerne, Switzerland, 2016.