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Eleena Banik: An artist who painted her SELF

By Monali Biswas | PUBLISHED: 28, Aug 2010, 13:29 pm IST | UPDATED: 28, Aug 2010, 18:33 pm IST

Eleena Banik: An artist who painted her SELF

She is of average height and looks much younger than her age. Her artistic works in the form of her canvases and sculptures are scattered in different nooks and crannies of the house. She thinks art begins at home. Eleena Banik is a young artist based in Kolkata. Having grown up in cosmopolitan Kolkata, the daily trials and tribulations of the working urban woman informed Eleena Banik’s works. Here she found women who thought and acted like men, but who were forced to realise their alternative identities every day of their lives. She faced it in her practical life.

Her mentor was Prof. Jogen Chowdhuri from her student days at Santiniketan. She was also fortunate to get the guidance of Prof. Emeritus Somnath  Hore, Ms. Reba Hore and Prof. K.G. Subramanian from time to time. She did her graduation (1995) and Post Graduation (1997) at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, of the Visva Bharati University. Later on she studied at the Glasgow School of Art, U.K (1998-99) with a Charles Wallace India Trust scholarship as a visiting MFA student during 1998-99. She also received the National Scholarship (1994-97) and Junior Fellowship (1997-99) from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Culture, Government of India during her academic years.

Until now she has received some awards including the President of India’s Silver Plaque (1996) and the Governor’s Gold Medal (1996) from the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata. She did 23 solo exhibitions in different cities of India and abroad including New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and London, Glasgow, Moscow etc.

A restless, effusive and prolific artist in search of some indefinable goal, Eleena Banik seems to wear her heart and her art on her sleeves. Always in a hurry, this spirited young woman is unconventional with a mind of her own and seems confident enough to try out every possible material, medium, technique or idea that comes her way. Still in her thirties, she has already covered much ground with a considerable body of work to her credit and comments to offer on most issues of current interest ranging from child abuse by teachers, violence to environment, while feminist concerns and sexuality continue to be the undercurrents for much of her distinct work.

Her mediums are diverse from monochrome oils to conte (crayon), charcoal and tempera on papers, plywood and canvas. Eleena casts her sculptures in bronze. Her figures are stark conveying death and decay in almost every frame. But the women are strong.

To critics, her medium and large canvases have a strong looming presence. She creates expansive, richly coloured washes and strange combinations of hues to give shadows and highlights to her expressionistic markers providing the installation with a pleasing overall unity. For now, the once-married artist prefers to make her presence felt, through her art, not through her gender.

Eleena has shared some facets of her life with Face n Facts.

Here are some excerpts of the interview:

At what age you began painting seriously?

My inclination towards painting was from my childhood. All started at Partho Bhavan School. I began painting seriously at the age of 16, right after school. It was at that point of time I shifted to Shantiniketan from Kolkata. For me, it was a paradigm shift as the wild and tropical sweep of Shantiniketan and the four seasons that were so pronounced in the area were diametrically opposed to the concrete jungle I was born into. It took me some time to imbibe the spirit of nature as I felt its overwhelming presence around me. The colour of the soil, the multi-hued skies, the foliage, the flowers, the Subarnarekha river, and a feeling of freedom combined beautifully to shape my mind. The colours run in my blood vessels and the foliage still rustles in my heart.

What was the MF Hussain incident?

My world changed one day in 1998 when M.F. Husain came to Kalabhavan in Shantiniketan in West Bengal to receive the Deshikottama award. I was then a sixth year fine arts student. He was moving in a group of senior artists and black cat commandos.

He was carrying a huge brush that was as big as a walking stick. It was a German brush. I walked up to him and asked why he’s carrying such a big brush. He gave me the brush and said ‘keep it’. Husain autographed the “brush” and subsequently visited my studio in Kolkata later. He told my father, ‘you have a talented daughter’ and my teacher, artist Jogen Chowdhury that ‘Eleena has grown up’. Later he mentioned me as a budding talent to the Kolkata media. I was very young and he was like a king. Husain and his brush proved the midas touch. That year, I received 3 awards, including the President’s award, a gold medal from AIFACS Gallery in New Delhi and a silver medal by the West Bengal government.

What do u portray?

I mostly portray my inner self or even my physical being in my art works. My art works are mostly myself expressions. Having grown up in cosmopolitan Kolkata, the daily trials and tribulations of the working urban woman informed and inspired me a lot. I found women who thought and acted like men, but who were forced to realise their alternative identities every day of their lives. I personally faced it when I used public transport and found men taking advantage of crowds, and also while dealing with changes in my body during adolescence. I expressed these feelings through art.  You will see human figures, everyday life, characters, real expressions in my art works.

Your works have a distinct western influence?

 I often pick up themes from the compositions of great romantic poets like John Keats and William Wordsworth and scribbles stray verses in my works. My works are influenced by the great European masters and the 19th century modernists. While doing Masters at the Glasgow School of Art in the UK, I did a workshop on decorative objects. In addition to everyday objects like a telephone or a kettle, I painted a woman because I feel that the predominantly male society looks at a woman as a decorative object that responds to touch, something that I observed even in Picasso’s works. During this period, I travelled to different regions of the world—from Glasgow and Paris to St Petersburg and Hanoi. So, it is natural for me to pick up the positives of the western world. Oil being my medium, vibrancy is automatic.

Tell us about your learning period…

I was the naughtiest student in the class. I don’t like rigid or strict teachers. I used to run from my academic studies. I never bunked classes but was never attentive. But my English teacher Madhumita Das changed my approach. 2-3 minute talk between us made a magic and I started loving all subjects especially English. Got outstanding results. During my Partho Bhavan days I used to do innovative things for the project assignments given by the teachers. I was always appreciated and inspired to brush-up my art works…

Shantiniketan days…My parents wanted me to go for academic studies but I wanted to join Art college. I never wanted to go to work 9 to 5 and come back home. Joining Shantiniketan was my dreams come true. It was like Alice in Wonderland. Initially I had problems coping up with hostel life. I never liked the building. Roommates weren’t cooperative. Students were jealous. But then my teacher’s words came true. Once she has said “shantiniketan tomar shrestho jaigah (shantiniketan is your place)”. And a day came when I fell in love with that place and that was the turning point of my life.

I was trained by the renowned Jogen Choudhury. It was wonderful time as Jogenda is not rigid as a teacher. Jogenda has taught us not to keep our minds closed. He always lays emphasis on individual talent, the urge of the mind, and personal goals. He wanted us to flourish the way we wanted to, in the same fashion that Rabindranath Tagore had introduced in Shantiniketan. In fact, the time I spent under Jogenda’s tutelage helped me blossom as a human being first and an artist later.

After Shantiniketan, I did a course at the Glasgow School of Art, UK, from 1988-99. During this period, I travelled to different regions of the world—from Glasgow and Paris to St Petersburg and Hanoi.

I have even taught in JD Birla Institute, Kolkata. I started exhibiting after my post graduations.  I had 21 solo exhibitions in different cities of India and abroad including New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, London, Glasgow, Moscow etc. I have also participated in a number of group shows at Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, London and New York.

For a while, I painted everything in red. That was my way of depicting the pain of menstruation. Though I used other colours, they were all mixed with red. You will see the mediums are diverse from monochrome oils to conte (crayon), charcoal and tempera on papers, plywood and canvas. I usually casts my sculptures in bronze. Figures are stark conveying death and decay in almost every frame. But the women are strong.

About criticism?

I got the worst criticism after the MF Hussain’s Brush incident. But I feel Critics are like lawyers. And they are also aware of the global happenings and in a way or through their criticism they are updating us.

Where do you see the Indian art scenario going?

Art is not getting proper importance and proper money specially in kolkata. Bengali artists do not get good reach. It is still screaming for clarity. It’s clearly divided between the art lover and the signature buyer, the former being fewer in number. Signature buying is an investment for art dealers and I still have a long way to go to catch their fancy. But no matter what the trend is, I will not allow myself to be dictated by the market. I will paint what I want to paint, and maybe, some compromises have to be made.

Sometimes I feel ‘to reach a perfection we need a peaceful country’. And may be all such terrorist and Maoist problems are affecting the art works.

About family life

I was married for sometime. I can’t stay in ties. No one can contain me in a container I will overflow. I like designer dresses, organic material, clean and well decorated house, nice car, travelling abroad. I like literature and dinning in good hotel or restaurant.