Titled Scenes from Santiniketan, the monumental work also gives a glimpse into the mastery of the legendary artist.
The discovery and exhibition of a handscroll painted a century ago by the legendary artist Benodebehari Mukherjee is one of the most exciting events to happen in the recent history of modern Indian art.
The scroll, titled Scenes from Santiniketan and probably done in 1924, is 13 metres long. The exhibition, organised by Kolkata Centre for Creativity in collaboration with Gallery Rasa, showcases this scroll along with the reproductions of other available scrolls of Benodebehari.
The erudite texts that accompany the show and the twin books published on the occasion written by art historian R. Siva Kumar dwell in detail upon the historical and aesthetic aspects of the handscroll. They take the viewer on a virtual journey through the artist’s oeuvre and the nuanced layers of the imagescape on show, and its art-historical significance.
The unfolding visual experience
The horizontal leftward movement of the eye that the scroll invites us into is akin to the slow pan of the camera—a long take—across a vast, sprawling landscape unfolding endlessly towards the horizon. As the eyes move across this space along with the direction of movement of human figures (the “characters”, as it were), one also comes across moments in time or points in space where the flow of our gaze is interrupted to pause and ponder upon certain enigmatic details that very much form part of the web and weave of the image-flow, yet hold our attention as “narrative junctions or junctures”.
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What then happens is the movement of our eye or mind “deep” into the image as against the lateral pull of the narrative or visual flow of the painting. The man sitting under the tree in deep thought (the artist himself at work?), the two figures strolling across, women carrying water pots, the children playing in the veranda, the woman hunched over daily chores, the tappers having a chat over a gulp of toddy, the cart trundling past the village path—these are images that form part of the landscape that punctuate the pictorial narrative with indications of direction, rest, or movement.
The visual experience that the scroll offers is like an elaboration upon a raga that soars and meanders freely, yet holds on to the basic tonal or symphonic structure.
- A 13-metre-long handscroll, titled Scenes from Santiniketan and probably done in 1924 by Benodebehari Mukherjee, was recently showcased at an exhibition in Kolkata.
- The art historian R. Siva Kumar, who curated this exhibition, said that the handscroll format was particularly suited to convey a sweeping sense of time and space.
- Benodebehari’s Scenes from Santiniketan is notable for its scale, size, and depth, and the artistic tension it creates between plenitude and void.
Sweeping sense of continuity
Added to this juxtaposition of inward and lateral movement, of moments of stillness and fluid continuity, is the tension between the negative/vacant and filled/painted spaces in the scroll. Both these spaces flow and meld into one another, stark and diffuse, emerging and receding, forming and dissolving, all in a sweeping sense of continuity and oneness, the ebb and tide of Life.
Another striking feature is the smallness of human figures vis-a-vis the huge expanse of the earthly terrains they inhabit, as if indicating the insignificance of the human in the larger scheme of things, and relentless grandeur of the world. These tiny human figures are dominated, enveloped, and engulfed by overarching canopies of trees, sprawling landscapes, clumps of vegetation, huddling hamlets, and the uneven ridges that stretch to the horizon. They all form part of a single whole in one seamless continuity.
“I have sought to know myself and in the process unfold it to others, never forgetting that I am just one amongst many.”Benodebehari Mukherjee
Siva Kumar elaborates on the artistic choice of the handscroll format: “One, the format of the handscroll was appropriate to convey the character of the flat and barren landscape of early Santiniketan, which unhindered by trees and buildings, stretched laterally from horizon to horizon. Two, it allowed him to overcome the fragmentation of nature, the selection and aesthetic privileging of particular views that pictorial and photographic framing produces.
“In contrast to other formats, the handscroll gave a sense of uninterrupted viewing of the terrain and a sense of the unedited wholeness of the world embraced by the eyes in one big sweep. Three, it allowed the eye to wander from one object to another, from one view to another, introducing an element of change and thus narration into nature painting. Finally, it loosened the authorial control of the painter, and it bestowed on the viewers—by allowing them to choose the pace and shift of focus —a freedom similar to that exercised by the artist while pictorially inscribing his experience of nature. There was thus both an aesthetic and ethical underpinning to this choice.”
This sweep of spatiality is also one that evokes time. As we browse through this continuous and seemingly endless stretch of space, the element of time emerges gradually: one comes across different temporalities here in the form of various kinds of movements and transformations in nature and things, the type of activities the human figures are engaged in, their dispositions, and also through the flora in terms of seasons, like that of palmyra tapping, the green of the paddy fields, the slanting lashes of rain, the thinning of the stream, and so on.
As John Berger observes: “If one forgets circumstantial details, technical means, kinds of paper, and so on, such drawings do not date, for the act of concentrated looking, of questioning the appearance of an object before one’s eyes, has changed very little through the millennia… [they] carry with them their own ‘here and now’, putting their humanity into relief.”
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The very structure of the scroll, the intense feel for the landscape, and the eye for minute detail demand a meditative engagement from the viewer. The lateral movement of the eye allows a visual/virtual play with horizontal distances and vertical depths, stillness and movement, intensity and diffusion. It is orchestrated through and by the monochromatic shadowy blacks, earthy browns and withered yellows, and in some rare instances with light spurts of ochre and green. It is a play with colour tones, densities, and gradations that form undulating terrains, ridgy extensions, paddy fields, and vacant land that are briefly interrupted by random coagulations of life forms and formations.
“The very structure of the scroll, the intense feel for the landscape, and the eye for minute detail demand a meditative engagement from the viewer. ”
The sensations of scale, size, and depth are created through variations in volume and density, the tension between plenitude and void, the vastness of the world and the insignificance of man, the distant horizons afar and the pulsations of life punctuating it. All this creates a deep, profound, and all-pervading sense of the sacred, sans any theology, where everything exists for its own sake, fulfilled and complete in themselves.
In Benodebehari’s own words: “My objectives have always been around an artist’s ultimates. I have sought to know myself and in the process unfold it to others, never forgetting that I am just one amongst many.”
C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic and documentary filmmaker based in Thiruvananthapuram.