Portrait of a master

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He made calendar paintings an art form and was as well-known for his abstracts as for the publicity designs he created for films. J.P. Singhal was an artist with a difference. Pradeep Chandra profiles this prolific artist.

Hailed as the Raja Ravi Varma of the century, Jayanti Prasad Singhal (1934-2014) popularly known as J.P. Singhal was the highest paid artist of his time, and when he was painting for calendars, the waiting period for his work was a minimum of two years. Since the time he landed in Mumbai till 2002, his paintings were in homes, shops, hospitals, offices and everywhere else that one could imagine. “That is the power of Calendar painting,” he told me once. When I asked him why he never exhibited his work, he replied saying, “I don’t need to. While most other painters have to exhibit to sell their work, my work is sold even before I paint it.”

J.P. Singhal, the prolific artist

J.P. Singhal, the prolific artist

However, at the end of his career, he held his first exhibition on Ajanta and Ellora at the Jehangir Art Gallery and only last month i.e., in December 2015, his family hosted a retrospective of his work at the same venue only a couple of months after holding it at the J.J. Institute of Applied Arts. About his work on Ajanta Ellora, Alyque Padamsee once commented, “Not the gloom of depression and negativity but the shadowy world of mysteriousness…an out of earth experience that envelops one like a magic shroud. This is the world that J.P. Singhal has captured…a gift of eternity. The eye speaks directly to the heart. Words constrict the experience. Let these visuals impact your emotional retina. It’s as if we are seeing Ajanta Ellora for the first time… As Picasso said, “It took me sixty years to see life through the eyes of a child. To discover the wonder with which J.P. Singhal saw these paintings and sculptures is to relive history. Truly the dark is light enough.”

Humble background, large canvas
Born in a middle-class family in Meerut on October 24, the son of a halwai which he was proud of, he once mentioned, “Kya ameer log meethai nahin khate?” Singhal once said inferiority and insecurity were his lifelong friends, so when he saw that his drawings attracted his classmates and teachers in school, he decided to take this up as his profession. He was the first renowned painter from this small city and this made him very happy. He got married at the young age of 18 years and his wife

Another ‘realistic’ painting by Singhal

Another ‘realistic’ painting by Singhal

Maya was just 16, so he had to think of how to run the family even though he lived in a joint family. Charging Rs. 6/- as fee from each of his students, he opened an art school which eventually became quite famous. Although, as much as he enjoyed and loved teaching art, there came a point where he realised that teaching alone won’t support his family’s livelihood. So, he began sending his paintings to Dharmyug, a Hindi weekly,and in 1954, his first work Satyavan Savitri was published which eventually opened the door to success. From here on, he regularly received assignments to illustrate poems of well-known poets including the likes of Dr. Harivanshrai Bachchan among others, which he was very thrilled to work on. In 1958, he was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation letter from a client in Dhulia who had seen his work and wanted to meet him personally. A money order of `80 was also received as advance travel expense. JP travelled for the first time to Dhulia and to his surprise, the client who was an industrialist, Seth Maganlal Motilal, bought his paintings worth Rs.5000. At age 20 years, he had made the biggest sale of his life and on his way back he went to Nagpur where he sold another five paintings and returned to Meerut one happy man. One of these painting was Shiv Puja of which 60,000 copies were printed and then there was no looking back for Singhal, the artist. Singhal received a lucrative job offer from Bombay Fine Arts Offset and Lithoworks at a salary of Rs.1500 plus Rs.300 rental allowances, and so he shifted his base to the city with his wife Maya and son, Dinesh.

Although, Singhal was not sure if calendar art is what he wanted to do, but that’s what he was employed for, and calendar art was the cheapest way of advertising for a lot of companies at the time. A calendar would cost a mere Rs. 2 or 3, but would be in front of people’s eyes 365 days a year. After 12 months, if you like the picture get it framed and put it on a wall and Singhal’s paintings were so realistic that often it was retained on the walls instead of being discarded after the calendar year.

The renowned Ajanta Ellora painting by Singhal

The renowned Ajanta Ellora painting by Singhal

Another plus point with Singhal was that he used to paint all sorts of subjects across the spectrum like mythology, beauty, nature, tribals, and never limited his works to any typical subject. Top companies like Britannia and Advani Oerlikon would buy his paintings of children and adivasis respectively. In his life time he painted almost 2800 original paintings and worked only with water colour. He would create even an oil painting effect with this colour by adding glue to it and make it look very thick and work with knife as well to render the desired finish to his paintings. Specially adivasis or Indian tribal paintings made him famous across the globe and won him many awards. He felt he was recording a part of history with his work on this subject and did so with first-hand experience by venturing into unexplored rural territories.

The crossover
There was also a time in his life when he was drawn to films when Raj Kapoor approached him while making Satyam Shivam Sundaram and asked him to conceive an adivasi look for Zeenat Aman for the movie. Thereafter, Singhal worked for almost 200 films and made his name in the industry as a top publicity designer.

Once, while working on a calendar painting he called the famous Reza. While in conversation, Reza commented on him being a calendar artist, implying it was inferior work and this made him take up the challenge and JP started painting abstracts to prove that he was much beyond painting for calendars. M.F. Husain, who was Singhal’s good friend and for whom Singhal had done the publicity work of the film Gaj Gamini, encouraged him to do this. Surprisingly, all his work in this genre too was sold out at the first show held at Jehangir, and this made him immensely proud. Singhal used to say, “I got more than I deserve and beyond my expectations, for which I am thankful to God.”


Pradeep-Chandra

Pradeep Chandra

The writer is a photojournalist and an author, and is presently working on a book on J.P. Singhal.

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