The life of 90-year-old Kolkata-based painter Paritosh Sen, who passed away on Tuesday, seems to express in one mortal span an unrepentant, irrepressible notion of India: that amid the chaos, short fuses and thrift, there can be romance, adventure and a glad spirit of change. In this one life are found Partition, an all-India connect, tradition and modernity, the great Indian love of story-telling and its attendant fondness for adda — the true sociability that vivifies the Indian nature.
Sen took the best of the west yet went within to make something of his own, though his sharp, bold style of caricature began selling well only in the last five years. (A 40x50 inches painting, for instance, that fetched Rs 80,000 five years ago could go for Rs 18 lakh today in a Delhi gallery). He was an old-style Kolkata personality, fond of classical music, Tagore and Maupassant.
Not surprisingly, everyone important who came to town wanted to meet him, be it Kumar Gandharva or Salman Rushdie.
Sen’s Alipore home, where he lived with his wife Jayashree (they had no children) was the bastion he sallied forth from despite an acutely bad back, while dressed impeccably always, say Calcuttans.
Born to an Ayurvaid’s family in Dhaka in 1918, he ran away after school to Madras, to the art school run by sculptor Debi Prosad Roy Chowdhury. After teaching art at Indore for a while and forming the Calcutta Group of artists in 1943 with his friends, Sen went to the painterly dream destination of his time, Paris, in 1949. He studied art and the history of painting, before coming back home to teach art and paint for the rest of his days.
Sen’s favourite story was of his encounter with Pablo Picasso at his studio in Rue de Grand Augustin, Paris. Picasso’s friend and secretary, the Spanish poet Sabartes, guarded the maestro’s privacy most strictly. But when Sen disclosed he was Bengali, it worked the right spell, for it was Sabartes who had first translated Tagore into Spanish. Moreover, instead of the promised 15 minutes, Picasso spent five whole hours with the young painter.
Many in the art world today will miss this straight-backed, feisty elder.