Apr 12 2011

Biren De (1926–2011)

by Hemant Sareen

BIREN DE, Untitled, 1973, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 133.4 cm. Copyright the estate of the artist. 

Biren De, a pioneer of Indian modernist art, died on March 12 at age 85 in South Delhi. He was known for his paintings of saturnine geometric, symmetrical patterns with luminous effects achieved by grading the edges into lighter colors and a central bindu or spot of intense white light against a dark background. More recently, until his death, De’s paintings were more reminiscent of ghoulish, experiential landscapes with pagodas and eerily lit dark tunnels. The effect these works achieved was of ethereal interiority and a throbbing potency. De’s use of mandalas, phalli and vaginas has resonance of Hindu and Tantric Buddhist symbolic representation of the universal male and female energies, which create the cosmos through proximity or union with one another—to the extent that popular discourse still tags De with the “Neo-Tantric” label. However, such faith-based associations were an anathema to him, and he even stated in a 1993 interview: “I am an agnostic…I don’t talk about these [Tantric] things, but I know about energy.” 

It seems strange that an artist whose work is in the permanent collection of India’s National Gallery of Modern Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and has been shown in the Mainichi Biennale, Tokyo, in 1959, the Venice Biennale, Italy, in 1962, and the “Neo-Tantra: Contemporary Indian Painting Inspired by Tradition,” exhibition at the Fredrick S. Wright Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, in 1985, has been so misrepresented and misunderstood.

Born in 1926 in the small village of Faridpur in Bengal, De began studying fine arts in 1944 at the Government College of Art & Craft in Calcutta, but left without taking the certificate following a spat with the principal in the final year. In 1949 De left Calcutta for a commission at the University of Delhi to create a mural outside the convocation hall, which he would later offer as early evidence of his experiments with inner space. His early minimal figurative paintings gave way to more abstract works, such as Apparition (1957), made during De’s tenure as a lecturer at New Delhi’s College of Art and Polytechnic. It is a brooding arrangement of abstract forms—primitive representations of the vaginal black parabolas, mustard bindu and a penile lilac wedge in the background with a dismembered half red, half turbid-olive human figure that exist at once in the background and foreground. De regretted the fact that “the shapes continued to be reminiscent of known images.” During these formative years, De’s personal idiom was still very much a work in progress. “The most important development in my paintings at this period was the appearance of streaks of light in the distant horizon.” 

While groping for resolution of his aesthetic conundrums, De went to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar for one year in 1959. The American experience was initially unsettling, but “introspection led to a strange feeling . . . to start afresh I had to reject both the figurative and the abstract.”  Made two years after his return from the US, in You, July (1970) De established the vocabulary and style that he continued throughout his career.  Based on the mandala, You, July shows floral concentric rings in red with yellow edges and at its center is De’s effulgent, white focus point. 

In 1966, just a year after De’s post-America works that deployed Tantric-like elements within the paradigm of modern art shown at the New Delhi’s Kumar Gallery, De was included in an exhibition on Tantric art at London’s Hayward Gallery, curated by Ajit Mookherjee. The show sparked international interest in Tantric art, which in turn claimed Mookherjee’s selected artists into the exemplars of Tantric works and leading to De being labeled a Tantric artist . De later commented on the exhibition: “[Mookherjee] thought I was his guinea pig, but I am not a Tantric artist.” Unlike the hard-core Neo-Tantrics, like GR Santosh and J. Swaminathan, De chose to follow his own inner urge rather than toe the line of an aesthetic ideology.