Paritosh Sen: Painter and illustrator who co-founded the Calcutta Group

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The Independent Online

When Paritosh Sen sat down with Pablo Picasso in the 1950s, the master had only promised the younger artist 15 minutes of his time. The two men talked for five hours, and the meeting left a deep and lasting impression on Sen. "Picasso's works and methods taught me more than what I was prepared for and it took me some time to assimilate the concepts and integrate them with my own work," he recalled.

Sen met Picasso at his studio in Rue des Grands Augustins, having left the subcontinent to study art in various Paris art colleges. He spent five years in the city before returning to India. In Calcutta, he joined a newly opened school of printing and technology, and worked as a professor of design and layout. Several years later he returned to France, where he was commissioned by the authorities to design Bengali typography based on a script by Rabindranath Tagore.

His association with Tagore, the Bengali poet and playwright, was entirely fitting. Born in Dhaka (which is now in Bangladesh but was then in the eastern part of Bengal), Sen came to be considered the high priest of modern Bengali art. During the various phases of his career he worked with different media and the nature of his work changed, shifting from the highly stylised to the impressionistic. He always liked strong, sensuous colours and human figures.

Throughout his life he was prolific. An early-to-rise routine that involved painting for four hours each day meant that every year he could produce up to 130 works. "My technique is such that I am a very fast worker," he once said. "My experience of over 60 to 70 years is a valuable asset. It has given me a certain facility."

Sen was born one of 20 children in a family well known as ayurvedic healers. He later wrote a memoir, Jindabahar Lane, named after the street where his family lived. After finishing his schooling he ran away from home to join the Madras Art School, which was headed by Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury. His fellow-students included the painters K.C.S. Panicker and Prodosh Dasgupta.

After completing art school he went to teach at a college in Indore. Then in the early 1940s he and others formed what would be known as the Calcutta Group, a movement that infused the already flourishing Bengal school of art with new life and expression.

Having returned to India after his visits to Europe – in 1969 he received the French Fellowship for Designing and Typeface – Sen received a Rockefeller Fellowship grant enabling him to work in New York. On his return to India he created an installation on violence. His link with the United States endured; in 1981-82 he was the artist-in-residence at the Maryland Institute of Art, in Baltimore. Four years later he accepted a similar position at the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, where he taught a course in illustration.

Sen had held a major exhibition two years ago and friends say he had been working shortly before he was taken ill.

Andrew Buncombe

Paritosh Sen, artist: born Dhaka, India 18 October 1918; married; died Calcutta 22 October 2008.