‘Scenes from Santiniketan & Benodebehari's Handscrolls’
Curated by R. Siva Kumar
In the words of the curator Prof. R. Siva Kumar,
“The landscape handscroll is an East Asian innovation. While ancient Indian artists were keen observers of nature, landscape as a distinct genre was unknown in India before itinerant European artists brought it to India during the colonial period. While European landscapes presented appealing views as a framed scene, East Asian landscape handscrolls allowed showing a place in its totality.
Modern Indian artists became familiar with East Asian handscrolls and landscape tradition through early 20th-century Pan-Asianism. But none used it as imaginatively as Benodebehari.
Although later handscrolls by him were known, the discovery of this handscroll offers an insight into his early career, which was devoted to exploring nature as locally manifested. The present exhibition exploring Benodebehari’s handscrolls provides new insights into his engagement with landscape as a means of self-expression and a record of the evolution of his inner self.”
The influence of nature on the work of Benodebehari and his outlook towards his life has been of primary importance. In fact, emphasis on Nature was central to Rabindranath Tagore's vision for Santiniketan School and the community growing around it. Tagore’s love of nature was profound. For him the wide-open skies, spaciousness, and tranquility of the countryside symbolized freedom. His paintings of nature are evocative, filled with a sense of mystery and longing, often depicting large, old trees by a river. Tagore believed that “nature [is] the greatest of all teachers” and that “children should be surrounded with the things of nature which have their own educational value.”
Benodebehari responded to Tagore's call instantaneously unlike any of his contemporaries from Santiniketan. While Nandalal Bose also responded to Tagore's call and engaged with nature, it was a practice that evolved with time as he moved away from the trappings of the Bengal School. In contrast, Benodebehari took to Nature like a duck to water.
In his formative years, Benodebehari spent a considerable amount of time between Godagari and Pakshi—small towns on the banks of river Padma. As Prof. R. Siva Kumar points out, geographically this was not far from Kushita and Shelaidaha, where in the early 1890s "Rabindranath had developed his empathy for nature and the vicissitudes of rural life".
It is perhaps not without a reason that Benodebehari's student Satyajit Ray mastered the skills of portraying nature in all its shades and significances. Recalling how seeing Benodebehari’s Birbhum Landscape mural changed his view, Satyajit Ray wrote: "The first person whose work I noticed within five minutes of my arrival at the ashram was Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay. Arrangements had been made for me to stay in a new three-room hostel in Kala Bhavan. I had to climb three steps to get to the front veranda. As soon as I did, my eyes went automatically to the ceiling. It was covered with a mural… gentle yet glowing with colour.... It was a painting of such calibre that none of the definitions of Oriental Art [meaning the Bengal School] that had once poisoned my mind could be applied to it."
In 1971 Satyajit Ray went on to make The Inner Eye, a documentary film on Benodebehari. During the making, Benodebehari identifies himself as a palm tree wrapped in the surrounding Khoai landscape. He says, “a stretch of Khoai, and in the middle of it, a solitary palm tree… If you wish to look for my spirit, the basic essence of all that my life stands for, you will find it there. You could say, I am it!”
The emphasis on nature's educative agency that facilitates, through intimate interactions, the extension of the self, stretches from Tagore to Ray through the scrolls of Benodebehari.
About the Artist
Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904-1980) was a painter, muralist, scholar and teacher whose lifetime of work has been crucial to the development of Kala Bhavana, the art school at Santiniketan, that was founded by Rabindranath Tagore in 1919. As a young boy, he lost vision in one eye and was myopic in the other, which kept him from pursuing a normal school education, and instead joined Rabindranath Tagore’s newly established Visva-Bharati at the age of thirteen. Here, under the influence of greats like Tagore and Nandalal Bose, he took up painting and moved to the arts school Kala Bhavana. After completing his studies at Kala Bhavana, he soon started teaching at the school and became one of the most important faculty members who shaped the institution in the 20th century. He travelled to Japan in 1937 which had a profound impact on his art, bringing more synergy between his drawings, sketches, murals and scrolls.
He started by assisting his teacher Nandalal with murals around Kala Bhavana, and went on to making some of the most iconic murals of Indian art. This includes the Birbhum Village, on the dormitory ceiling (c.1940), Life on the Campus (1942), and Life of Medieval Saints (1946).
In 1949 Benodebehari left Santiniketan for Kathmandu, Nepal, to take on the role of the Curator at the Nepal Government Museum. Inspired by the landscape and people of Nepal he created a vast number of sketches and watercolour paintings that are defined by their simple lines and lightness of spirit. In 1952 he moved to Mussoorie where he continued painting the beautiful mountain landscapes of the region, but soon left for Patna on an assignment to revamp an art school. In 1957 he lost his eyesight completely after an unsuccessful cataract surgery.
He didn't let this loss get in the way of his creative expression however, continuing to redirect his practice into making smaller drawings and sculptural works, paper cuts and prints. He soon returned to Santiniketan to teach art history at Kala Bhavana, where he was made Professor Emeritus in 1970 and also elected a Fellow of Lalit Kala Akademi. In 1973 he left Santiniketan for Dehradun, and in 1976 the whole family moved to Delhi.
The loss of his eyesight also pushed him to try his hand at writing, with a collection of his writings titled Chitrakar being published in 1979. This publication enchanted the literary world and won him the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad in 1980 and the Rabindra Purasakar in 1981.
Until the 1970s Benodebehari's practice was known to a select group of artists and friends, but with the making of Inner Eye by the renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray in 1972, his life and work became recognized nation-wide. In 1974 the Government of India recognized Benodebehari's extensive contribution to the arts in India by honouring him with Padma Vibhushan. Soon after this he was conferred the honourary doctoral degree of Desikottama by Visva-Bharati in 1977.
About the Curator
Born in Kerala and educated in Kerala and Santiniketan, Prof. R. Siva Kumar is a noted art historian, curator, and author. He has written extensively on artists associated with Santiniketan and the Bengal School and has seminally remapped an important trajectory in Modern Indian art.
Besides authoring over twenty books, he has also curated several seminal exhibitions, including Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, K. G. Subramanyan: A Retrospective, Benodebehari: A Centenary Retrospective (co-curated with Prof. Gulam Mohammad Sheikh), and The Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, which was shown at nine museums of the world besides four museums in India.
He was, until recently, a professor of Art History at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. He has also held the Mario Miranda Chair Professor in Arts at Goa University and the ICCR India Visiting Chair at Carleton University.