Home and the world of Jamini Roy, India’s first private single-artist museum

Delhi-based DAG has acquired modernist Jamini Roy’s 75-year-old house in Kolkata to transform it into India’s first private single-artist museum
Jamini Roy’s house
Jamini Roy’s house

When it comes to art, beautiful is a word that is thrown around rather casually. It is a term that, when said with a pensive expression, will let almost anyone fit in with an intimidating art crowd at a gallery. It is also the instinctive adjective to describe artist Jamini Roy’s paintings, not because you don’t understand them, but because you do, almost as soon as you lay eyes on his soft lines, bold curves, rustic palate and, most of all, his almond-eyed faces. 

Roy’s legacy is just that —making art for all—something that Delhi-based DAG has taken upon itself to preserve by turning the artist’s 75-year-old home-cum-studio in Kolkata’s Ballygunge Place, into 
a museum, making the artist’s over four-decade-long practice available to the rest of the world.

untitled painting; the artist in his studio
untitled painting; the artist in his studio

Trained at the Government College of Art, Kolkata, Roy started his practice, like most artists at the time, by painting portraits and landscapes in the impressionist style of the West, only to give it all up, in a sort of resistance, sometime in the 1920s. He turned to rural Bengal and its folk traditions. His iconography borrowed from the terracotta art of the state’s Bankura district, which he grew up around as a child, and his figures depicted the “Santhal (a tribal community) way of life”. 

“The reason for doing so was to appeal to a larger group of people who could understand the art immediately. So, instead of making large oil and canvas paintings, he chose local mediums such as watercolour turned into tempera, and painted on cloth, therefore, logically retaining his own costs. This was a practice that he picked up from the Kalighat pat paintings,” says Kishore Singh, Senior VP, DAG, adding, “He also ensured that prices of his works were kept low. Roy wanted people to have a sense of wonder about art in their lives, and that could come only if they were able to take originals home.”

Padma awardee Roy moved into the house, which DAG acquired from the artist’s family, in 1949, prior to which he lived in Bagbazar in north Kolkata. As his practice and family (four sons and a daughter) expanded, additional floors were added. The three-storeyed, over-7,000-sqft home is in itself a teller of the time that was. It has both colonial louvered windows, locally known as ‘khorkhori’ and a typical feature of Kolkata homes, as well as present-day glass windows with grills. As one moves up from the ground floor—which eventually became his studio—to the second, the flooring too changes from traditional red oxide to wooden tiles. A noteworthy feature is an expansive courtyard. The artist lived in the house till he passed away in 1972.

The Jamini Roy Museum—the first private single-artist museum in the country—is a fitting tribute to the artist, not just because he is a ‘national treasure’, but also in the way it will make his life’s work accessible to the masses, like he did his art. “Opening up a single-artist museum allows more people to visit, look, interact, as opposed to a gallery, where the atmosphere is a little intimidating. No matter how much we try to reach out, the voluntary nature of people walking into a gallery is still small,” says Singh, adding, “And we couldn’t have done better than Jamini Roy. He is simply the most loved of our Indian modernists, his work doesn’t require an understanding of art history to react to it. It speaks to you. It’s rooted in the soil.” 

The museum is expected to have multiple galleries, including a permanent collection on the life and works of the artist, as well as rotating exhibitions that will enhance visitors’ knowledge and experience of Roy’s practice. It will also have community spaces a resource centre, library, museum shop and café. 

“We have asked for proposals from conservation architects and designers who specialise in single-artist museums. We would like it to be on the lines of the Frida Kahlo museum in Mexico,” says Ashish Anand, CEO, DAG, adding, “We want to create the museum without interfering with the essence of the house. Certain things need to be kept intact.” The Jamini Roy Museum is scheduled to open next year around Roy’s birth anniversary on April 11. 

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The New Indian Express