Remembering Damyanti Chawla

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Aug 22 2004, 05:30am hrs
With the passing away of Damyanti Chawla, we find an important era of our art coming to a close. Born in Lahore in 1920, she died at her home in Delhi a few days back, painting till the very end.

Her dedication to art was exemplary. A student of Bhabhesh Sanyal in Lahore, she was a neighbour of Amrita Sher-gil.

And indeed, Lahore of the 1930s and 1940s had an ambience like few other places in India. Damyanti was a true representative of it.

Lahore of her time was a curious blend of horsey and hunting types with modern and even avant garde professionals sharing the limelight with strong-willed nationalist and lefties revolutionaries.

Damayanti was the daughter of a leading surgeon and the cousin of the trade-unionist and leftist, Ramesh Chandra. But her mentor was none other than the grand old man of Indian art, Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal; whose student she became after graduating in 1938.

In 1942, she got her diploma from the Lahore School of Fine Arts and launched a series of figurative works in which the influence of both Sanyal and the Oriental traditions of painting is evident.

Pines: oil on canvas (1965)
This was the art of the national movement, looking East to China and Japan, as well as to Europe. Damyanti emerged as a powerful water-colourist and oil painter.

In 1960, widowed and a mother of two children, she went to the State School at London and took a four-year diploma course and took to mural painting at the Hammershmith College of Art and the Central school of Arts and Crafts, London. Between 1969-71, she worked in Paris. From the late 1960s on, she painted her best works.

She exhibited at Londons well-known Woodstock Gallery, the Friendship House, Moscow, Gallery Haus Am Lutzowplats in Berlin, at the Kunsthaus Fishinger in Stuttart and at the Eduard Sandoz in Paris.

She also executed a number of murals on public buildings. Her paintings are in the collections of a number of museums including the Punjab Museum, West Berlin Museum of Modern Art, and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in Paris.

In this period, she went beyond the figurative and painted abstracts in which forms like those of Japanese art predominated as did the image of the sun in different colours. But her best works are those that show a scatter of vertical forms, like pine trees in a snow-storm.

Her capacity to reduce the huge trees to mere straws in the wind will remain her main message to the future. She is the artist who has portrayed the lightness of being at its best, especially in her studies of trees.

It is interesting how her presence in different places seems to have been just when they were launching into the future, like Lahore before partition, India before Independence and London just before The Winds of Change spoken of by Harold Macmillian.

Her work carries with it the seeds of the future rooted in the soil of the present with a remarkable lack of self-consciousness.

Her donning the lightness of being as a drape around her, despite the many painful episodes of her life assures us her art will survive and increase its importance in troubled times when people must learn to take themselves lightly to carry on.

Indeed, the fact that she has produced enough work and it survives is a sure sign her art will be cherished as investment in the future too.