Gobardhan Ash: A portrait a day

Gobardhan Ash began painting his self-portraits at the age of 27 and continued till he was 89 years old. These portraits could be lessons in self-love and awareness for future generations. Executed in various mediums, these portraits span decades and don’t just highlight Gobardhan’s changing facial features but his evolution as an artist. Most of his portraits were pen and ink sketches, while only a few were in oil and pencil mediums. These self-portraits put a face to the man who carved a unique artistic language and formed an essential part of Gobardhan’s oeuvre

Gobardhan Ash painting his self-portrait in his bedroom in Begampur in 1993

Even though self-study has long been a popular subject in literature and art, Gobardhan’s hundred-odd self-portraits produced over sixty years are episodes in a saga of aging. Like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, and Goya, one could say that Gobardhan Ash also used himself as a model. Gobardhan captured his changing visage in his self-portraits that he’d often draw in the mornings. These portraits would help retrace his steps to who he was at the end of the day. 

See, doing this is like exercising every day. Exercising relieves us from all our worries for the remainder of the day. Similarly, by sketching the self-portrait, I become aware of who I am or what I have to turn into over the duration of the day. [1]

The artist would write notes along the margins of his sketches. He’d say that these writings were intimate conversations with himself. A natural recluse, Gobardhan spent a lot of time alone and demonstrated his techniques with as much flair as he displayed his various moods.

Gobardhan Ash, Face-5  (Self-Portrait), 1936, Pen and Ink on Paper

Notice how the heavy repeated lines form dark shadows around and on his forehead. Also, his round-framed glasses stand out in this self-portrait and quite a few more. Dense thickets of crosshatched lines which ultimately became his signature style intricately show the shape of his face.

I think this is true of all great portrait painters—is an insight into the commonality between being and being depicted, between, if you will, identity and portraiture. The person in the portrait says, ‘I am here because I have been seen. I  exist because I have been painstakingly acknowledged to exist. [2] 

Gobardhan's self-portraits, like Rembrandt's, were created after looking into the mirror, which is why the sketches and paintings reverse his actual features. Through these self-portraits, we explore the curious custom of depicting oneself through visual art. Gobardhan practiced them as exercises in self-introspection and recognition and as a way to stay in touch with himself. These were self-conscious acts of self-discovery. Maybe they even revealed his acceptance of the truth of life as he faced the easel and his fate every day.

Two self-portraits by Gobardhan Ash drawn in 1941, Pencil on Paper 

What remains common in both these works is the artist's unwavering gaze being a rendition of his reflection in the mirror. Many of Ash's portraits are studies depicting light and shade. In the above pictures, Ash uses the pencil to create deep shadows across the face. The shadowed eyes (right-hand side) are windows to the artist's soul. His hair is neatly combed back around the sides, hinting at his calm demeanor. 

Gobardhan Ash defined painting as vital as the act of breathing. The artist's morning routine was different from ours. At dawn, he would peer into the mirror and sketch a self-portrait before tea. These portraits that he began painting in 1934 elicited a sense of self-awareness. However, it was in the 1960s that he infused sketching self-portraits into his daily routine, describing the act as calming as meditation. In an interview, his son Nirban Ash revealed how Gobardhan continued to paint until the day before he died in 1996. There was nothing decorative about these portraits - except translations and transitions of the artist's memory of his changing face. 

Even if it’s with just a batasha [a kind of sweet] as an offering, you have to pray to God. I pray thus by making a sketch every morning. It makes my day. I might create several pictures after that. But whether I do so or not, sleep or do whatever else I please, it doesn’t matter. I must turn on the radio to get news about the world. I gain that information from making my portrait. [3]

Forty years later, you see old age weave its way into these self-portraits. In the work above (left-hand side), Ash uses an oil brush to accentuate his now more angular face, the receding hairline around his forehead, pursed lips, and his bony jawline. These self-portraits were unlike the academic portraits made back then, being more naturalistic and more concerned with the artist as an individual depicting the inevitable reality of life. Look at the portrait made months before his passing in 1996. Notice the scribbles on his gaunt face, his eyes that look like question marks enclosed within the circles of his spectacles. And since Gobardhan would look at his face in the mirror and draw his face simultaneously, these were live portraits susceptible to the inevitabilities of old age. His later self-images are a combination of frantic attempts and childlike doodles to capture the remains of the fading memories of his face. Here he would have two mirrors in front of him: his mirror reflecting a pre-existing likeness, while his portrait created one. 

Gobardhan drew himself in his 20s with as much passion and dedication as he did days before his death leading to a life-long pursuit of self-portraiture. He gathered himself in his self-portraits, making him the one to turn self-portraiture into an autobiography representing a profoundly personal and introspective journey. 


[1] An interview with Nirban Ash 

[2] Maleuvre, D. (2016). Rembrandt, or the portrait as encounter. In M. HINKSON (Ed.), Imaging Identity: Media, memory, and portraiture in the digital age (pp. 15–36). ANU Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1rrd7ms.

[3]  An interview with Nirban Ash

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