* Partha Pratim Deb frustrates those who try to pigeonhole him

* The constructions are fantastical and unfeasible chimeras, probably springing from man’s hubristic belief in his own powers

* He had turned his bed into his studio during the pandemic


With other artists the adjective may sound like a hyperbole, but when one describes the rainbow hues of Partha Pratim Deb’s creativity, “protean” is the epithet that fits his innovative nature like a glove. Emami Art’s exhibition at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity of his largish drawings done over the last four years, titled Gestures ( Rupabhangi ), provides viewers with just a glimpse of Deb’s superior skills as a draughtsman.

His tremendous ability to make art seemingly out of nothing — from discarded household objects, junk and leftover pieces of canvas to odds and ends — the kind that is furthest removed from “works” lovingly displayed in galleries and sought after by collectors, remains unseen.

Deb (77) has quite a fan following on Facebook where he displays his dizzying range of works almost on a daily basis. He, however, frustrates those who try to pigeonhole him.


The magician: Partha Pratim Deb has quite a fan following on Facebook where he displays his dizzying range of works almost on a daily basis


The artist had once nurtured a wish to become a cartoonist and tread the boards as well. Little wonder his drawings come so close to caricatures and are fraught with drama. His mostly out-of-shape human figures of indeterminate gender and from whose faces emotions have been wiped out clean wear form-fitting running togs. They seem to inhabit a world of their own, even when huddled together. Those in feminine attire, too, have the same vacuous expressions.

Rendered almost entirely with bold black lines (Indian ink) of unerring precision (with rare touches of gouache colours, mainly red and yellow), either in flowing, undulating strokes or grids, and occasional stabs at op art, they suggest animation although the figures may seem to be in a state of stupefaction. A few are engaged in constructing humongous structures of mesh and mammoth bars in complex and impracticable shapes that have little or no link with human realities and conditions. These are giant drawings — the largest being 41.2 x 29.2 inches — suggestive of megalomania. The constructions are fantastical and unfeasible chimeras, probably springing from man’s hubristic belief in his own powers.

The drawings — on display till January 30 — are just one facet of Deb’s many talents. I was in for a surprise when I first went to meet him about 15 years ago at his quarters in Jorasanko, adjacent to Rabindranath Tagore’s home in north Kolkata, which also served as the humanities wing of Rabindra Bharati University from where Deb retired as dean of faculty of the visual arts section. He had displayed his art works fashioned from diverse materials on the staircase. The interiors of his flat and its walls were cluttered with more such creations. Some of these works were displayed at an exhibition called Play for Joy of Seeing at Kolkata’s Aakriti Art Gallery in 2012-2013.


Bits of imagination: Deb is a master of creating variegated textures and surfaces


When I met him recently at his own flat in south Kolkata’s Bansdroni, where he has been living since his retirement in 2005, I was in for another surprise. The interiors were as neatly arranged as in any other middle-class home. In the course of the interview he disclosed he sat down to work whenever he wanted, sometimes immediately after getting out of his bed and on the bed itself. He had turned his bed into his studio during the pandemic. His studio was in a flat close by. It was now chock-a-block with carefully packed works. Only one work was hanging from a wall — a likeness of Rabindranath, his flowing beard created with remnants of canvases.

Deb said his ability to work playfully in various media using unconventional material stemmed from his training at Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan where they were not expected to specialise in anything. The only qualities that all his works have in common are his clarity of vision and a cheeky sense of humour that makes light of catastrophes. In all his art works made with found objects, his human figures seem to be hanging, quite literally, by a thread. Yet there is always a burst of rainbow colours.

He is adept at making figurative drawings that turn abstract as his quirky lines go for a roller-coaster ride at breakneck speed. As his current exhibition shows, he is a master of creating variegated textures and surfaces. Pulp, terracotta, glass bottles, pieces of rejected cloth, leather and canvas are ingredients that create fascinating objects in psychedelic shades.

Sedate and affable, quite in keeping with his image of being one of the teachers responsible for turning Rabindra Bharati into a renowned visual arts institution, Deb never reveals his wacky side.

Born in Sylhet, Bangladesh, in 1943, his family moved to Agartala in Tripura when he was five. Drawing a portrait of Rabindranath for the poet’s centenary celebrations was the only aptitude he showed for art. But his art teacher, Sailesh Chandra Deb Burman, himself from that institution, advised him to join Kala Bhavana at a time when Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee were going strong. Deb went to Baroda thereafter, but Santiniketan always acted as an impetus.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist