All his life Benodebehari lived in a kind of hermetic solitude. A recluse by choice, nature was for him a pervasive presence that kept him company. He once compared himself to a solitary palm tree in a vast khoai - the expanse of eroded, arid, red laterite land that surrounded Santiniketan in its early years. [1] Living in self-reflexive solitude surrounded by nature, he responded to it and painted it, as other artists (Michelangelo, Rodin and the sculptors of ancient India) had responded to and employed the human body, to give expression to his deepest experiences, thoughts and feelings. The roots of this response can be traced to his early childhood and to his later apprenticeship in Santiniketan.

Subjected to loss of vision in one eye and severe myopia in the other after an early illness, Benodebehari was denied a normal childhood, and was forced, as the youngest of a large family, to spend his growing-up years among busy elders. It was during these early years spent at home that nature first gripped him, as a brooding and foreboding presence. Later, as he gradually began to step out and explore it, nature began to open up its heart to him like a boon companion, making him aware of both its harsh and enchanting sides. In Santiniketan, where he was trained as an artist and which became for him a spiritual home, he came to know nature at its starkest - its presence both overwhelming and theatrical.

The most enduring image of the Santiniketan landscape for him was the khoai the arid land that spread to the horizon on all sides, canopied by a cloudless steel-grey sky that radiated white heat and set the whole scene ablaze. The burning desolateness was almost eternal, broken only by short spells of rain in the monsoon. And when this happened, the change in the landscape was equally dramatic. Black clouds rolled in from nowhere, the wind howled through bamboo groves and across villages, and sand-storms churned up dry leaves, their crackling sound mixing with the pounding of thunder. For a moment this tumultuous band would drop into breathless stillness, and the next instant a cloudburst would leave everything wet and soggy, resurrecting life with short-lived splendor amidst the plants and trees. After the short season of rains, the heat and desolateness set in once again. This stark desolateness and its seasonal cataclysmic transformations, this encounter with the primeval face of nature, set the seal on Benodebehari's vision as an artist.

Recalling the early landscape of Santiniketan years later, he wrote: 'That desolation is perhaps one of the main themes in my landscapes. I often wonder where I got my early training from? From Nandalal, the library or this stark environment of Santiniketan? Without Nandalal I would not have learned my skills, without the library known what I know, and without the experience of that stark image of Nature, painted as I did.’ [2]

In art historical terms, choosing to be faithful to this experience of nature meant rejecting the historicist concerns and themes of his elders and peers. Existentially speaking, rejecting a shared sense of tradition and history at a time when these overwhelmingly defined the art community and its national identity meant opting out of the community and embracing a form of non-belonging. But this hesitancy to subscribe to a collective identity defined by a shared history became for Benodebehari an outsider's opportunity to propose an alternate form of belonging and community, based on a shared sense of place - a strategy, if we choose to call it one, he had intuitively internalized even before he chose to become an artist.

Long before he discovered his artistic talent, early in his life, nature and art came together to win him the friendship of his elders. While a shared interest in nature brought him close to one of his brothers who took him along on his explorations of the countryside, his interest in art brought him close to another brother who was an amateur artist. These early bindings were not only his first experience of human companionship, but also the basis of special relationships that lasted a lifetime.

Santiniketan gave him the social opportunity to develop his interest in art and nature, and to win the abiding friendship and respect of fellow-artists. Rabindranath Tagore had founded his school far from Calcutta in a rural setting, and also used nature as both classroom and textbook to learn from, at this school. Rabindranath tried, through his writings and especially through his songs, to lay the foundations of a cultural sensibility founded on man's responsiveness to nature. And when he founded the art school, Kala Bhavan, Nandalal Bose became his able lieutenant and carried forward his ideas into the practice of visual arts by giving nature an important place in the teaching programme.

Benodebehari not only enrolled as one of Nandalal's first students at the new art school, but also, given his predisposition, soon became his most gifted and dependable collaborator in this project. With Ramkinkar joining them a little later, they formed a trinity presiding over a new development in modern Indian art that gave precedence to a shared sense of place over a sense of a shared past.

While the overbearing presence and starkness of the Santiniketan landscape gave Benodebehari his main theme, his exposure to the arts of the Far East gave him the ideational framework for its pictorial articulation. As a part of Nandalal's pedagogic method, which was inspired by Rabindranath's efforts to relate literature to environmental realities and the Pan-Asian commitments of early nationalists, Benodebehari was introduced to Far Eastern art early on as a student. And as an artist trying to come to terms with the topography - the flat lateral spread - of Santiniketan, among the various pictorial formats used by the Far Eastern artists he found the horizontal hand-scroll especially useful. Among the several scrolls that he could study in the collection of the art school was a copy of one by Sesshu (the Japanese master) that showed the journey of a river through varied terrains. Such scrolls suggested to Benodebehari the possibility of painting landscapes that were not a framed view or even a panorama, but the whole land. This, in turn, led him to explore the Santiniketan landscape by tracking motifs like woods, village paths and village life that revealed their essence not in framed close-ups but in their spatial unfolding.

Benodebehari's Khoai is the most outstanding of his scrolls exploring the Santiniketan landscape; it is also the most expressionistic and personal, and thus stylistically one that recalls Far Eastern antecedents the least. It shows a rolling expanse of land with a few scraggy shrubs, young dates and distant palms - an image of unmitigated starkness, a relentless stretch of land eroded and turned inhospitable for vegetation. It shows a land that the peasant has failed to tame or reclaim and bring under tillage; a land that has resisted being softened and fertilized for life to germinate and flourish; a land so arid that even hardy palms and brambles struggle to break its governing horizontality and thrust upwards. The sun, not seen but omnipresent in its impact, has dried not only the river and the land, but also sucked out the moisture from the air and rendered the sky as arid as the land.

As we unroll the scroll from left to right, segment by segment, and journey through it, we are struck by both the interminable desolateness it represents and the terminological starkness with which it is painted. Done on unprimed Nepalese paper, the little trees and shrubs drawn in black, broken-edged, dry lines add teeth to the overbearing desolateness of the scene. The fibrous surface of the paper also carries something of the ruggedness of the land, and of the dry brush-strokes delineating it, on to the sky; while the juxtaposition of off-white, Indian red and black - three equidistant points on the tonal scale - without any intermixture or atmosphere, heightens the starkness of the image. Finally, its spatial organization with equal stress on perspectival and lateral movements makes it doubly encompassing.

Although there is no parallel to this in the paintings of other Santiniketan artists, we have an important literary antecedent in Rabindranath who provides a comparable model for representing nature in its vastness and richness of detail, especially in his letters collected under the title Cbbinnapatra (Glimpses of Bengal: an English translation). In one of the earliest letters in this collection, Rabindranath paints a picture of rural desolateness that anticipates Benodebehari's images of early Santiniketan: A vast expanse of sand stretches away out of sight on every side, with here and there a streak, as of water, running across, though sometimes what gleams like water is only sand. Not a village, not a human being, not a tree, not a blade of grass . . . there is an endless blue above, endless white beneath. Sky empty, earth empty too - the emptiness below hard and barren, that overhead arched and ethereal - one could hardly find elsewhere such a picture of stark desolation.’ [3]

Rabindranath had written this letter invoking pre-monsoon desolateness from Shelidah in riverine East Bengal (now Bangladesh). Benodebehari's scroll represents the pre-monsoon desolateness of early Santiniketan. In it the red laterite earth replaces the white sand of the dry riverbank, but the emotional resonances at the heart of the two images are comparable. There are two other things that Rabindranath writes about his own experience of nature that would make sense to the viewers of Benodebehari's Khoai. The first I shall quote at some length because the words articulate what could be our own vague thoughts as we look at the scroll. 'There are many paradoxes in the world,' he writes, 'and one of them is this, that wherever the landscape is immense, the sky unlimited, the clouds intimately dense, feelings unfathomable - that is to say where infinitude is manifest - its fit companion is one solitary person; a multitude there seems so petty, so distracting.'

An individual and the infinite are on equal terms, worthy to gaze on one another, each from his own throne. But where many men are, how small both humanity and infinitude become, how much they knock of each other, in order to fit in together! Each soul wants so much room to expand....' [4]

This gives a perspective to Benodebehari's self-image as a solitary palm tree in the vast khoai, which he believed communicated the essence of his life. The second thing Rabindranath realized from his own deep engagement with nature, and which is stated more diffusely in his letters, is this: nature is indifferent to human travails and this aloofness can make us ponder, and teach us to be human. Looking at the Khoai scroll we cannot miss this aloofness of nature - but will set us thinking, will it educate us? Perhaps that would depend on who we are.

Undoubtedly Khoai is one of Benodebehari's seminal paintings, and yet it was not exhibited for many years. The format, perhaps, made it difficult to be displayed. Perhaps, also, although the theme was landscape and thus generically impersonal, it was in a deeper sense a personal work and he hesitated to show it. It was, we know, along with a sketchbook of quasi-calligraphic watefcolour paintings of rural landscape and life around Santiniketan," girted to his wife when they got married. It was something he valued much, something in which he saw himself intimately present, both as man and artist. It was a painting, an image of a shared place, upon which he could draw a covenant.

But, undated as it is, where do .we place it in Benodebehari's oeuvre? Given his interest in Far Eastern art that took him to Japan in 1936-37, there is reason to place it close to those years. But then, as we have already noted, although he uses the hand-scroll format that is patently Far Eastern stylistically, Khoai is the least Far Eastern of his scrolls. His 1940 ceiling mural, for instance, is more calligraphic in style and a clearly post-expressionist vision of nature, celebratory in an oriental way. On the other hand, the aloofness the scroll radiates makes it less romantic than the 1932 brooding image of The Bridge, and less idealized than In the Studio (c.1934) which shows him as an artist-recluse in the Taoist mould. There is less despair in it and more of that inner strength that Rabindranath believed man gains from a deeper contemplation of nature. Khoai was probably done between the end of Benodebehari's expressionist phase and the beginning of his post-Japanese, celebratory phase, and we thus have in it both a culmination and a beginning. It is a singular painting that stands at a juncture of two different alchemies between nature and self.


[1] See, Satyajit Ray, 'Benodeda', Vishaya Chalchitra (Ananda Publishers, Calcutta, 1982), p. 123.

[2] Benodebehari Mukherjee, Chitrakar, translated by K.G. Subramanyan (Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2006), p. 34.

[3] Rabindranath Tagore, letter written from Shelidah in 1988, in Glimpses of Bengal (Macmillan, New Delhi, 1980), pp. 4-5.

[4] Rabindranath Tagore, letter written from Bolpur (Santiniketan) dated 2 May 1892, ibid., pp. 58 59.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Gallery Espace and NGMA (2007).
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