Different strokes

Print edition : November 15, 2013

The exhibition ‘Forms Within' opened at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in Kolkata on September 12. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Soumitra Chatterjee's paintings and sketches are as diverse and interesting as the roles he has played.

A painting done in 2013. Only 150-odd paintings remain from Soumitra's work over the years.

A 1987 drawing. "The shadow of Tagore was always there," says Soumitra of his work.

A 2009 sketch.

As an actor, Soumitra says, he feels the urge to constantly draw human faces.

Soumitra Chatterjee addressing the gathering at his first ever painting exhibition, at the ICCR in Kolkata on September 12. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

An exhibition of Bengali screen legend Soumitra Chatterjee’s paintings reveals a new facet of his genius. But Soumitra is dismissive of the critical acclaim that he is receiving and even appears a little amused.

THE name Soumitra Chatterjee is practically synonymous with Bengali cinema. One of the greatest stars of the screen, known the world over for his collaborations with Satyajit Ray, Soumitra is also one of the symbols of Bengali art and culture. His talent is not restricted to acting; it has also found expression in writing and directing plays, writing poetry and, most recently, painting. A recent exhibition of his art in Kolkata revealed to the Bengali public an aspect of his personality it had never before been acquainted with. The revelation came as a surprise. It turned out that Soumitra Chatterjee’s paintings and sketches are as diverse and interesting as the roles he has played. In vibrant colours or in quiet lines, they display an astonishing variety of emotions and styles. They may be beautiful, strange, or even eerie, but they are arrestingly unique in their originality; and that is what has captured the attention of both critics and connoisseurs alike, who have not been sparing in their praise.

However, seated in his tastefully decorated drawing room and talking about his new avatar as a painter, one got the distinct impression that the screen legend was not taking the whole thing too seriously. “I had never really thought of exhibiting my painting because this was something entirely personal, private and meant to please myself rather than anyone else. It was basically a means of keeping myself busy during my unoccupied moments,” he told Frontline. He admitted that he never really took it seriously and for him it was “play”, rather than a conscious effort. There was an amused glint in his eyes when he acknowledged that his talent as a painter was as much a revelation to him as to the general public. By his own admission, Soumitra has always been a restless man and cannot sit idle. “There is always a push from within to do something with my time. That was what made me draw and paint things. But I did it for fun,” he said.

His love for art began to blossom during adolescence, under the influence of two young painters who were his relatives. “They were two brothers and more my friends than relations. I used to love to go and watch them paint, and sometimes, I would also try my hand at sketching under their instructions,” he said. Though subsequently his life took him down a different route to international fame and public adulation, Soumitra did not altogether give up his interest. “Inspired by the two brothers I would continue to doodle in my spare time and even venture into colours from time to time; of course, the shadow of Rabindranath Tagore was always there. I never learnt to draw, and I was more interested in scribbling on papers—and I have been doing that for the last 40 years,” he said.

Only 150-odd paintings remain from his work over the years, and Soumitra admits that he must have lost at least four times that number. A habit that he had picked up was filling up the blank space on the back of invitation cards with sketches and paintings. “This was simply because the surface was thick and conducive to illustration. Sometimes I would write a few lines of poetry along with the drawings,” said Soumitra. He would give these little artworks to his children and friends as cards or presents. But, at the core of all these creative efforts was essentially, as Soumitra puts it, the idea of having fun and play.

For many years he kept a journal or a notebook, in which he would jot down his personal thoughts and his schedule for the next day, or make a small sketch. In these notebooks he would sketch the preparations for theatre. He would make drawings of the stage, costumes, self-portraits with make-up, and such like. These have been contributing to the development of his unique style.

As an actor, Soumitra has always been a consummate craftsman constantly working on his talent and honing his skills. For a role, he would deeply study and analyse a character, try and understand him from his background, and find the human being within the fictitious figure. This kind of mental discipline that is used in his acting may not be present, at least consciously, when he is painting.

“When I make my drawings, I look for a rhythm, an existing face to emerge. I feel all arts are inter-related. As an actor, I feel the urge to constantly draw human faces, both male and female; and sometimes these funny unknown creatures, bhayanak [terrible] creatures that reside in the deepest corners of my mind [smiles]. Inspiration for all these came from Tagore’s paintings as well. I am conscious that I do not know drawing, but sometimes there is an attempt to capture forms which are not realistic and come from within me,” he said.

An actor requires an audience and a poet requires a reader or a listener. So does Soumitra, who is both an actor and a poet, paint with viewers in his mind? “Very temporarily,” he said. “At the beginning I do not think of the viewer at all; but as a form emerges, I perhaps think that it may please or shock someone looking at it.”

Even if he appears dismissive about his own paintings, his love for art is all too apparent in the décor of his living room, whose walls are adorned by eminent painters, including Rabin Mondal, who is also a close friend of the actor. In fact, it was Mondal and the painter Jogen Chowdhury who were instrumental in having Soumitra’s paintings exhibited. Chowdhury had even sent a curator to the ever-reluctant Soumitra to persuade him to hold an exhibition of his artwork.

“The curator gentleman was after me for a few months, until out of exasperation I told him: If Rabin Mondal says they are worth exhibiting only then can they be displayed,” said Soumitra. After sending the curator to Mondal, Soumitra tried to scuttle the project by calling up the latter and telling him to be as critical as he could about the paintings.

But Mondal was not to be dissuaded by Soumitra. The exhibition took place and was a great critical success. The eminent painter Wasim Kapoor was ecstatic in his praise. “The world knows him as a great actor. He is a painter of the same level. This is the first time I am seeing his artwork and I am astounded by its power,” he told Frontline.

Soumitra, of course, rejects outright the idea that he is as good a painter as he is an actor. “At the risk of sounding immodest, I can say that as an actor I am completely in control of my medium. I do not exercise the same kind of power in painting,” he said.

It is evident that he would much rather talk about paintings other than his own. He loves the Impressionists and the Surrealists and delights in pointing out a particularly rare painting of a seascape by Rabin Mondal hanging on his wall.

“My favourite, if at all I have to single out any artist, will have to be Van Gogh. From a very early age I loved looking at those prints. Even now I feel amazed at the power of those paintings; the versatility and vigour. All kinds of emotions are expressed, even in a landscape —the joy as well as the pain within the joy,” he said.

So, after all the critical acclaim, will Soumitra Chatterjee now be taking his artwork a little more seriously? There was that smile again that mesmerised and melted the hearts of generations of moviegoers. “I don’t know. I have already started taking it so seriously that I have stopped painting. I feel my inner mind has been exposed and I know what to paint now. I feel under a lot of pressure as I feel people will be now more scrutinising.”

So what is a delight for art lovers in Kolkata has turned out to be a curse for him? He laughs and says if not a curse, definitely a pressure. “When you do something and people like it, whether you yourself like it or not, you are bound to respect their appreciation. And that is the reason why I feel the pressure,” he said.

Throughout his life Soumitra has been a most reluctant superstar. In fact, even in the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s, he consciously rebelled against his image as a matinee idol; yet his appeal has not diminished over the decades. The man who continues to stride the world of Bengali cinema like a colossus and whose star appeal can only be compared to that of the timeless Uttam Kumar has remained an unwilling enigma that the Bengali public love to keep unravelling. His paintings are their latest source of delight. But he resists this notion. “ Eiee painting shudhu amar khela,” (This painting is just play for me) he said.