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'He was reaching his Mount Everest'

Last updated on: December 23, 2006 14:05 IST
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Painter Bikash Bhattacharya, who died in Kolkata on Monday after a long illness, was considered one of India's finest painters. Realism was his special gift but he was equally well-known for his portraits.

Dilip De, chairman and managing director of shipping firm RST India Pvt Ltd and art enthusiast, was one of the first connoisseurs to collect Bhattacharya's work and popularise it. He is a staunch admirer of the painter and considers him one of our country's top painters.

De recalls his association with this great painter:

He came and lived with me in Mumbai when he was doing a portrait of my mother. He stayed with me.

He also did a very rare painting for me of the port of Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1865. It was of the clippers and of Princep Ghat (on the Hooghly). Ships used to go from there with tea, clothes to UK and America.

That painting is my favourite painting, well because my background is shipping and nobody else has a painting like that. It is a fantastic painting, which opens up like a book -- if you take a closed book and slowly open it up, like that. If you stand 30 yards from the painting at the far right and you start walking around you will see the painting opening up. Fantastic. Unbelievable. I have shown it to people and (it has left them in) a state of bewilderment. It is now in the Alibag house. All my paintings rotate from place to place.

He did portraits for many of my family members.

I met him 30 years ago in Calcutta. I cannot exactly remember where it was. Maybe at a gallery. Or at an exhibition. I think it was his own art exhibition.

He was a rising star then. He was a very sought-after painter. When I first bought a painting of his, his art was distinct and separate from others and surrealism was there (in them).

He was also the best portrait painter in the country. In our Lok Sabha -- till he fell ill and stopped accepting commissions -- he had painted all the Presidents of India and the leaders of our country including Indira Gandhi. And Indira Gandhi's painting was handed over to Rajiv Gandhi at the Raj Bhavan in Calcutta. So, by far he was the most acclaimed and accepted portrait painter in the country. Nobody -- nobody -- can come anywhere near his standard.

He did very high quality work. His treatment of the canvas, his technique, his surrealism was of a standard that surpassed any other painter. There were many pretenders who tried to copy his work and call it their own, but they were fakes.

When I first met him I wanted to know more about him. I belong to Calcutta and used to live there. I instantly liked him. The way he talked. His vision as a human being. He had a very strong personality and very strong integrity. I like honest people and strong personalities. He was at the time doing some of the best and most path-breaking work in the country.

I paid Rs 4,000 (for my first painting). Now? Now he is dead. But the last price was some Rs 60-70 lakh.

Poor chap, his father died when he was very young. He came from north Calcutta. He lived very close to Shobha Bazaar, Rajbari -- this was near the house of the biggest zamindar of Calcutta. He used to tell me -- he was so fascinated by the house -- he said the house was bigger than a football field. Which was true. He came from a poor family; I would say a middle class but humble background. Humble beginnings, because his father died early and he always wanted to be successful.

I met him last a few years ago. Unfortunately he had very high blood pressure. And he had suffered multiple strokes. And he had diabetes also. That was a lethal combination.

A great loss. He had already been a great loss from the time he was in a wheelchair. Because the man was reaching his Mount Everest. At that time he stumbled and had that heart attack. A great loss to the Indian art world.

Yes, I think he was one of the most original painters we have had. Forceful. People either liked his work or they did not like it. That was the kind of feeling it generated. But I would say his was absolutely tremendous work.

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