He was 90. Born in 1932, in Howrah, Rabin Mondal was deeply affected by adverse living conditions around him. His grotesque and bleak figures symbolised human suffering. Chiefly expressionist in its form, his art was also influenced by cubism. In 2014, Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) organised his retrospective, titled Kingdom Of Exile, in the city. Kishore Singh, Head of Exhibitions and Publications, DAG, thinks that Mondal was truly a global artist.
“Rabin Mondal’s art was dark, melancholic and it expressed his rage towards society. It pointed to elements like authoritarianism and the vulnerability that comes from it. This made him an extremely significant artist for society. I think it is very important to view his art and understand his practice because his works speak to many globally. We are also planning to take his retrospective to New York,” says Singh.
The human suffering became the artist’s lifelong theme as he lived through a number of difficult times seen by the country. He saw the dark underbelly of Kolkata when he came across the poverty-stricken people of the city. The 1943 Bengal famine and stark violence during the Indian independence struggle also on left a permanent impression on his psyche.
The artist also trained Chandan Nayak to become an artist who had come from Orissa to Kolkata in order to find a job as a driver. Today Nayak is called for solo exhibitions and interviews. Nayak recounts, “I was introduced to Dada (Mondal) in 2007 and till his death, I was working as his secretary. He taught me to draw and we started with landscapes. Dada also told me that you don’t need a degree to be successful in life. He had said that your work will create your identity. He used to inspire me.”
Supriya Banerjee, Founder of Kolkata’s Gallery 88, has been showing Mondal’s works for 30 years now. According to her, the artist was quite spontaneous in his art and had his own personal style. “His bold colours and strokes said a lot. He only made what he wanted to. As a gallerist, I always take the permission of an artist before selling any of their artworks. Once when someone was interested in buying Mondal’s painting, wanted to pay less than what his usual price was. Mondal gave me permission to sell it. ‘It doesn’t matter, the work should move and people should see the work,’ I remember him saying at that time. He was a simple man with simple thinking.”
Delhi-based artist Manu Parekh also knew Mondal quite well. “He never behaved like a big shot artist even though he was the founding member of Calcutta’s Painters Group. He also worked in railways for survival. Mondal’s behaviour and appearance displayed simplicity. At the same time, he used to create such great paintings. His environment was very different the whole day and that too reflected on his art. Despite dealing with difficult subjects on his canvas, he was never depressed about it. And I always used to admire this quality in him.”