Blind painter’s forgotten scroll found after 100 years – BBC News

  • By Monideepa Banerjee
  • Kolkata

image source, Scenes from Santiniketan

Image caption,

A man on a bullock cart rushes by in one of the scroll paintings

A 44-foot-long Japanese-style hand scroll painted nearly 100 years ago by a famous blind Indian artist has resurfaced and gone on public display for the first time in his birth city of Kolkata.

Born in 1904, Benodebehari Mukherjee was blind in one eye and severely nearsighted in the other. He lost his sight completely at the age of 53. Mukherjee, who died in 1980, created groundbreaking works as a landscape and fresco painter. He was also a sculptor and muralist, and he defined modern art in 20th century India.

In July, the scroll, just six inches wide, will travel to Santiniketan, a university town founded a century ago in West Bengal by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, where Mukherjee was a student and later a teacher. The scroll, the longest the artist has created, is titled Scenes from Santiniketan.

The scroll changed hands twice before reaching its destination in Kolkata, where it is currently on display.

It appears that Mukherjee either gifted or sold the scroll to Sudhir Khastagir, an art school graduate in Santiniketan as early as 1929. Later, Hastagir moved to Dehra Dun to join a leading school as an art teacher. He gifted the scroll to another artist, who eventually sold it to Rakesh Saini, an archivist and owner of an art gallery in Kolkata, six years ago for an undisclosed sum.

At the age of 20, Mukherjee had created this mesmerizing scroll using ink and watercolors on carefully layered sheets of paper. In the first shot, there is a figure sitting under a tree, who could be the artist himself, taking the viewer on a journey through Santiniketan. This is a common motif in Japanese and Chinese scrolls, where strategically placed figures guide our viewing.

As the viewer moves from right to left, a journey through time and space unfolds, taking her into a forest of sal trees depicted in black ink, gradually transitioning to touches of green that represent the changing seasons.

image source, Nemai Gosha

Image caption,

Oscar-winning director Satyajit Ray (left) made a documentary about Mukherjee (right)

A man on a bullock cart rushes by. The viewer stops at a village where they boil date palm juice to make the local brew toddy. The ripening paddy turns the rice fields into shades of light pale green, while the once lush leaves of the trees turn an autumnal brown. Winter is coming, which creates a kind of desolation that is captured in the final shot that depicts khoia canyon-like terrain of laterite soil near Santiniketan

The scroll contains 22 human figures, 22 cattle, three chickens, one dog and one bird. There are stretches of emptiness that Mukherjee uses to represent the earth and the sky.

Permeating the reel is the artist’s “loneliness, a sense of isolation, delicately expressed and presented … as his state of life, without pity or bitterness,” notes leading art historian Siva Kumar. The reel, he says, “bears all the marks of an artist’s genius that blossomed in the following years.”

Until it appeared, Mukherjee’s tallest work was a depiction of a khoai, painted in the mid-1930s and measuring just over 10 feet tall.

Mukherjee’s teacher at Santiniketan was one of India’s greatest artists, Nandalal Bose, who ran the Kala Bhavan, an art school. Bose had expressed his concern to Tagore about a visually impaired art student, says Siva Kumar. Tagore replied, “Is he sincere? Is he interested? Then let him be.”

image source, Scenes from Santiniketan

Image caption,

The reel takes the viewer through Santiniketan, the university town founded by Tagore

image source, Scenes from Santiniketan

Image caption,

A landscape scroll depicting a khoai, a canyon-like landform of laterite soil near Santiniketan

image source, Scenes from Santiniketan

Image caption,

A scrolling panel takes the viewer into a forest of sal trees depicted in black ink

Almost as famous as his mentors were Mukherjee’s students at Kala Bhavan. Among them were artists like KG Subramanian and Somnath Hore, as well as Oscar-winning director Satyajit Ray. In 1972, Ray made a documentary about Mukherjee called The Inner Eye. The moving tribute put the moving artist and his work on the world stage.

Mukherjee may have inspired the hand scroll prints that Tagore and Bose had brought back from their visit to Japan. “Mukherjee was particularly interested in the reel format, an art form that has certain possibilities unlike any other form [showing] passage of time,” says Siva Kumar.

“You can recreate the experience of walking through a landscape instead of just standing somewhere and looking at it. In ordinary landscapes, you fragment nature. But in a hand scroll, you can show continuity and transformation.”

image source, MONIDEAP BANNERS

Image caption,

Mukherjee painted the scroll when he was 20 years old – it has been on public display for the first time

So where did the scenes go for nearly a century?

Rakesh Sahni, owner of Rasa Gallery in Kolkata, bought the scroll from a collector in 2017. “I could have exhibited it earlier,” says Mr. Sahni, “but I lost three years because of the pandemic.

The Kolkata exhibition also features reproductions of Mukherjee’s other scrolls, including The Khoai, Village Scenes and Scenes in Jungle. The latter is painted on a semi-circular banana tree base and belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Image caption,

The jungle scenes are painted on a semicircular banana tree base and are owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum

image source, Nemai Gosha

Image caption,

Mukherjee painted on the walls of his art school in Santiniketan – this is where Satyajit Ray is shooting for his film

Mukherjee’s other famous works are at Santiniketan: the frescoes on the walls and ceilings of buildings in and around Kala Bhavan. Perhaps the most famous, the Lives of Medieval Saints on the walls of Cheena Bhavan, the Center for Chinese and Indian Cultural Studies, is almost eight feet tall and spreads over a whopping 80 feet. The frescoes and scrolls were made long before the artist lost his sight.

After surgery destroyed his functional myopic eye, Mukherjee continued to create murals, collages and sculptures with the same artistry as the works he had created when he could still see with that one eye.

Ray’s documentary quotes a rare comment from Mukherjee about his poor eyesight.

“Blindness is a new feeling, a new experience, a new state of being.”

It is perhaps Mukherjee’s best epitaph.

Monideepa Banerjie is an independent journalist from Kolkata

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