Paritosh Sen (1918 - 2008)

- by Goutam Datta

I have a catch in my throat as I write this note. The painting that I use on the cover page is a gift presented to me by that legendary and most beloved painter, Paritosh Sen, who is now no more. I feel urged to give him a phone call, to let him know that his gift has been well used. But sadly, I do not have that opportunity. He had towered over his contemporaries with that timeless quality of a creative personality untouched by age, exuding a joyous aura which drew countless to his side. Sen participated in the social and cultural milieu of his time through the splendors of his decades-long experience as a sensitive, experimental, and adventurous painter and writer who was never without humor. He established cultural links from Picasso to other great painters of his time. As a versatile artist, his varying styles ranged from the Mughal paintings of the 1930's to his 1980's renowned works such as, "Blue Nude under the Shower", "Through the Revolving Doors", "Woman Drinking Coconut Water", "Self Portrait with Monkey." Again throughout the decade of the 90's he reinvented himself and championed the life force in "Self-portrait against Red Background", "Dancer with Flying Hair".

Coming from a poor economic background, I had no clue about painting during my formative years and, least of all, the affordability to collect paintings of great value. It was certainly not in my league. My basic education in painting came from New York's MOMA. Through my friendship with the celebrated poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, I was made familiar with the greatness of Paritosh Sen's works. Yusef Komunyakaa and I visited the Kolkata Book Fair for the inaugural ceremony of the first African-American poetry anthology in Bengali, Ami Amar Mritur Por Sadhinota Chai Na (I Do Not Want My Freedom When I Am Dead), published by Ananda Publishers, the largest publishing house in West Bengal. Sunil Gangopadyay, the famous Bengali poet and novelist, and I jointly edited this anthology. Yusef was the guiding force for this anthology. Yusef told me, “Goutam, you need to make sure I can meet Sen while I am in Kolkata”. I clearly remember the day we were to meet up with the painter. Our appointment was on January 30th, 2005 at 6PM. Yusef seemed quite excited, reminding me several times that we should not miss our appointment with him at any cost. Already, he had grown to realize that the concept of time in Kolkata differed from New York – it was, in a few words, chaotic and irregular.

The day passed by without any major upsets. However, just before 5PM, our sponsor Poet Subodh Sarkar came to Yusef's hotel room with a photographer and reporter from a leading newspaper to interview Yusef who looked visibly upset about the possibility of running late for the appointment with Sen. Subodh asked me to convince Yusef for a short interview. Yusef said to me, "Goutam, please tell them no interviews today. We must leave now." Anyway, to keep a long story short, after a quick photo shoot, Yusef and I hurried to our destination. Sen lived in an apartment complex at an exclusive neighborhood in Kolkata.

We reached Sen’s apartment and rang the doorbell. Paritosh Sen opened the door. He took us to a big room inside the apartment. The room was dimly lit with curtains drawn and a few large paintings were haphazardly lying on the floor at the right corner of the room. There were two small chairs (Mora) near the door. A bottle of cheap and popular Indian whisky, Royal Challenge lay on the floor. His wife was calmly sipping whisky from a typical Kolkata street vendor’s tea glass. He offered us a glass each. I took a glass.
In the meantime, Yusef seemed mesmerized with Sen’s paintings. Sen seeing his interest modestly said, “ I am extremely sorry. My painting exhibition has just ended and unexpectedly over 90 percent of my paintings have been sold. These are the only ones left”. Those remaining paintings were huge and there was no way to carry them back home in a plane. But Yusef was taken in by a large, three-part series of painting. The price was rupees five lakhs. To make it easier to be carried home, Sen agreed to undo the frame and separate the three- part painting into their separate components.
Now my middle class mind kicked in and started to poke, - “Hey- get a painting for yourself. Don’t miss this opportunity”. Well, It didn’t work out for me; the paintings were too large and too expensive for me. But overall it was an enjoyable visit and I remember Sen taking down our departure information. Yusef, no doubt, looked very pleased with his newest acquisition and while I shared his sense of wonder and happiness, I was feeling quite a bit sorry for myself.

On February 15, I was at the house of my friend and mentor, Sunil Gangopadhyay. He, his lovely wife and I have maintained a ritual every year of eating out at a new restaurant the day before my departure. Being the much acclaimed poet that he is, Sunil-da's phone never stops ringing and he has this incorrigible habit of answering each and every call. But this time when the phone rang, it was for me. And guess who was calling? Who else, but Paritosh Sen. How did he know I was at Sunil-da's house, I was perplexed. Well, as die-hard Kolkata people will tell you nothing is ever impossible out there. Over the phone he told me in a gentle voice, "I know that you are leaving tomorrow. I was feeling upset when you left the other day and I didn't have any paintings to give you. Now, I have made one especially for you." I was speechless.
"What about the price," I asked timidly.
"You don't have to worry. Look at the painting and see if you like it. You can come anytime today and pick it up." I went for the appointed lunch with my dear friends but could hardly concentrate on the food. When I went to Paritosh-da's house, there stood the painting of an ordinary Bengali housewife cutting a whole fish using a typical Bengali knife,"Bonti", painted in his unique style. Paritosh asked with a smile, "Do you like it?" I had no words; my glowing face said the rest.

Paritosh Sen was truly one of a kind. His endearing ways were unmatched by any other. He pulled me close, gave me a gift of great beauty and love, leaving behind an indelible impression in my life. Now, as these great souls leave us one by one, we can do very little but remember in our hearts their humble humanity.