‘Benodebehari Mukherjee was a pioneer of landscapes’: R. Siva Kumar

In conversation with the art critic, historian, and curator of a recent exhibition comprising Mukherjee’s handscroll Scenes from Santiniketan.

Published : Jun 29, 2023 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

R. Siva Kumar

R. Siva Kumar | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904–1980) was a painter, muralist, scholar, and teacher who trained under Nandalal Bose in Santiniketan. His style is a complex fusion of idioms absorbed from Western modern art and the calligraphy and traditional wash techniques of China and Japan. The art historian R. Siva Kumar spoke to Frontline about how he chanced upon Scenes from Santiniketan, Benodebehari’s earliest and longest handscroll. Excerpts:

The discovery of Benodebehari’s scroll, which is about a century old, is a landmark event. How did you come to know about it?

It is a significant find. Rakesh Sahni of Gallery Rasa acquired it in 2017 from a collector. He showed it to me and asked if I would write something about it. I agreed, but the pandemic intervened. When normal art activities resumed, Gallery Rasa approached the Calcutta Centre of Creativity (KCC) and asked if they would be interested in hosting an exhibition in collaboration. Reena Dewan, director of KCC, agreed, and that led to this exhibition. The discovery of Benodebehari’s scroll, which is about a century old, is a landmark event. How did you come to know about it?

The scroll is titled Scenes from Santiniketan, and dated 1924. Do you think it was done by the artist himself?

It is undoubtedly by Benodebehari. I say this not because his name appears on the colophon, which could be in the hand of the first owner, or because of its provenance, but because it has unmistakable hallmarks of a Benodebehari work. We know from the writings of his contemporaries that Benodebehari started experimenting with handscrolls in 1924, and he pioneered this format in India. In Chitrakar, his autobiography, Benodebehari also writes about his early fascination with a scroll by the Japanese artist Sesshu Toyo, and there are other scrolls from a few years later which have come down to us from his own collection, and several of them are well-documented.

Besides, there are elements within the scroll that lead us to Benodebehari. The motifs tell us that it was painted by someone who had an intimate knowledge of early Santiniketan. Further, the rendering, the pictorial structuring, the pattern of imagination, and the personal vision that comes through clearly point to Benodebehari. It also carries the imprint of someone who has closely studied and drawn lessons from the handscroll of Sesshu, as Benodebehari had done. These are important artistic signatures and are more convincing than a physical signature of the artist. There are also details within the painting that tell us that it was done before mid-1926, if not in 1924 itself. And, finally, no other artist engaged with the East Asian handscroll format or took a similar approach to landscape painting in Santiniketan at that time.

R. Siva Kumar (right), the historian Sugata Bose, and a visitor looking at Scenes from Santiniketan on display at the exhibition.

R. Siva Kumar (right), the historian Sugata Bose, and a visitor looking at Scenes from Santiniketan on display at the exhibition. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Does the discovery of this invaluable scroll from the early period of his life offer new insights and perspectives into the art and aesthetic vision of Benodebehari ?

It does. Besides confirming what we knew of his early period, it helps us to understand better the place East Asian art played his career and the relationship between his later handscrolls and his evolution as an artist and person. For instance, it tells us that the reclusive and self-reflexive aspects that come through in his later self-representations go back to an earlier point in his life; it also allows us to map how it changed over the years and how his world view and works changed with it. Since it presents a comprehensive picture of the Santiniketan landscape in the early 1920s, and each of his later scrolls focussed on one of its aspects, the finding of this scroll allows us to read his landscape mural painted on a ceiling in 1940 not merely as the culmination of what he was doing in his later scrolls but also as a recapitulation of this very early and ambitious project. In short, it allows us to see a greater evolutionary wholeness in his early career.

“The handscroll allows one to unravel a whole terrain and communicate a sense of the place in a way that landscape painting conceived as a selected and framed view does not. ”

What is the significance of this scroll in the context of the history of Indian art, especially the Bengal school?

Although ancient Indian artists were keen observers of nature, landscape as an independent genre developed in India only after itinerant European landscape artists arrived. They came searching for picturesque and sublime scenes that exuded a quaint beauty or an awe-inspiring presence, and Indian artists followed them. That meant they painted attractive scenes rather than a place in its everyday wholeness, as the work of Benodebehari or Nandalal [Bose] does. Benodebehari found the handscroll especially suited to this. The handscroll allows one to unravel a whole terrain and communicate a sense of the place in a way that landscape painting conceived as a selected and framed view does not. Finally, unlike a scene painted by a stationary viewer, the handscroll synthesising varied terrains and seasons, as Scenes from Santiniketan does, introduces time and narration into its painting and viewing.

Rabindranath Tagore was the first to argue for bringing a sense of place into art. He tried to get his nephews, Gaganendranath and Abanindranath, interested but had limited success. He then turned to Nandalal, who, trained in the historicist style of the Bengal School, took time to move away from mythological and historical subjects towards nature and everyday life.

Benodebehari, on the other hand, had no such baggage. From the outset, he was drawn to nature more than the human world. Scenes from Santiniketan is the first definitive expression of the shift that Rabindranath wanted to see. There is nothing comparable in Nandalal’s work from this period. Although he has been interested in East Asian art since at least 1913, he did not paint handscrolls. However, he used the compositional logic of the handscroll in two murals from 1928 and 1932, and his striking representations of the local landscape are all from the 1930s. 

Thus, even within Santiniketan, Benodebehari was a pioneer of landscape painting. Further, Benodebehari brought into his landscapes, as Cezanne did in his still-lifes, an element of self-expression, and, like Cezanne, he did this while remaining restrained and objectively representational and without turning expressionistic in style.

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