Rabin Mondal was born in 1932, in Kolkata, in a poor government official's family. He graduated with Diploma in Fine Arts from the Vidyasagar Art School.His works exploit the grotesque to express inner turmoil and human struggles. His feeling towards his environment has been rather queer. Perhaps the milieu in which he spent his formative years has something to do with it. Mondal grew up in a populous industrial town of Howrah, near Kolkata. "I know the big city across the Ganga intimately," he says. "In the dark alleys of the city, nightmarish poverty stared one in the face. I saw the poorest of the poor and the affluent live within a stone throw away form each other. It was tragic to watch some lying untreated, while those who could afford it continued to spend money on even a dead man."
The industrial belt of Howrah, with its inherent tendency towards violence, anguish and suffering influenced him deeply, and found its way into his works. So did ugly street battles fought by political parties. Mondal discovered that his artistic temperament was out of keeping with the hostile environment and situation.
Besides a debilitating knee injury in his childhood created a sense of isolation in the artist, which also finds expression in his canvas. He says what saved him from sheer madness was his talent in art. In 1949, he joined the Vidyasagar College of Art in Kolkata. At that time, a festival of French artists was being held in the city. It exposed him to the works of French modernist artists. Prior to this, he had no exposure to the international art world. He was only familiar with different schools of Indian art, particularly the Bengal school.
As a young painter, Mondal was attracted by Jamini Roy's folk style and Rabindranath Tagore's disquieting paintings and drawings. But the show by French artists was virtually a turning point in his artistic career. "This was like opening a window to an astounding, astonishing, unsuspected world," he says. This encounter with avant-garde Western art helped him to later incorporate elements from it in his own work.
His works were first displayed in 1955, as part of a group exhibition along with other leading artists of Bengal school. He held his first solo exhibition in 1961 at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata. Mondal's works are mainly figurative. He paints in bold strokes and creates tableaux, whose themes are universal. The faces of his figures stare at you out of the canvas, strange and pensive, but also strong and defiant. Not yet beaten, surviving by sheer force of spirit. He mostly uses dense pigments in blacks and reds, with only occasional moss green and turquoise colors seeping through.
For someone who hates all forms of pretentiousness, he has done a series of painting on queens and empresses. "Though they belong to the past, queens live in virtual isolation, and I feel sorry for them," he says. "It is this isolation that makes the queen, for me, a fascinating subject." One of the criticisms leveled against him is that his works are not pleasing to the eye. To which he replies, "Painting is for communication and not for decoration."
Samir Dutta, art critic of the Kolkata based Statesman newspaper, who has also made a TV documentary on him, says, "Mondal has evolved a signature of his own. His style over decades of defiant, bold experiments takes in imagery of primeval humans asserting themselves against great odds in a dense palette of both pure and mixed colors. Here you have formidable drama, a throbbing theatre of primitive that has its basis in remorseless jungle of today's urban existence."
Mondal has also been quite active with the avant-garde artist's organizations in the city. He was a Lalit Kala Akademi member from 1979-1982 that has also published a book of his drawings. It has taken Rabin Mondal decades to emerge as one of India's leading modern painters. Almost 70 years old now, he is based in Howrah, Kolkata, from where he began his artistic career.
"For me, art is an expression of my inner most self. This is the only medium I know. With my brush, oils, pencil and charcoal, I portray emotions. And before I know it, I am transported into another world. I gradually find my canvas coming alive."