The plant does not know when it blooms. Nor do birds sing deliberately. They are active with their whole and inmost being and need no reflective intellect. Sunayini Devi paints her pictures in the same way. She was never taught how to draw, and so her untouched spontaneity directly blooms in colours and sings in lines.
“Her pictures have no design for they have grown. Unbroken and unswerving is the flow of the lines, for no hesitation deflects them from the course of they take as they well forth out of her very nature; they surge in grave tranquillity and clasp groups and figures; they are forceful and languid, self-asserting and full of surrender; their curvature is the same which the passing breeze gives to the heavy ears of corn; all the warmth and light which surrounds ripe fields shines forth from these lines” -- in these words, Dr. Stella Kramrisch introduced Sunayini Devi and her art to a wider world.
In the art of Sunayini Devi we see no influence of any of the leading artists of the Tagore School. She was the first artist to go to the village Pata art for inspiration. She has copied types of faces from them which are delightfully unconventional. Indian artistic convention demands that certain shapes of eyes be drawn for certain ideal types and expressions. The Indian “artistic anatomy”, which permits copying of “ideal forms” from all the kingdoms of nature, gives Indian artist greater freedom of choice and more variety of forms.
The half-closed, elongated eyes which give an introspective look, for instance, are used for portraying divine beings; the fish-shaped eyes with long eyebrows for women and royalties; the eyes of a deer in springtime for lovers; the almond-shaped eyes for men of pleasure, and the lotus-petal eyes- for gods and girls, and so on and so forth. Every conventional type in Indian art has its deeper significance and purpose; and Sunayani Devi, with the imagination and instinct of a born artist, has coined her own type for her human and divine subjects, which are at once suggestive and significant. Her head-studies of Radha and Krishna have the eternal charm of the divine lovers, tender, compassionate and full of mirth and innocent mischief. All these are indicated by the peculiar shape of the eyes drawn on those faces. Sunayani's special charm lies in her free and flow-ing lines and vivid colourings. She is a great admirer of the folk-art of Bengal, and a close analysis of her work will reveal the basis of her art in that. Indian art, like Indian life, is rooted in the villages, and with the gradual impoverishment of that life followed the inevitable decay and degeneracy of Indian art. Indian civilisation was, and still is, to a large extent a rural civilisation and not urban and Indian art, therefore, was and still is the art of the people. Its exponents were not and could not be produced in the academies or be turned out of art schools as so many ready-made goods. Mass production is the keynote of present day civilisation. Not only food and clothing are made to order but scholars and artists as well. This is an age of robots and talking machines. Man or machine is the big question mark before humanity to-day. The supreme struggle of the 19th century was between religion and science, and the struggle today is between humanism and machinery. It is, therefore, very refreshing to come across a painter of Sunayani Devi's type, whose art is rooted in the soil and is a joyous expression of the natural impulses of an unsophisticated heart and mind.
Sunayani is a primitive, in the sense Ajantan and the mediaeval Italian masters were primitives. Spontaneity, freedom, naturalness, unsophistication, directness, simplicity, boldness, these characterise primitive art. All folk-arts, like ola paintings, pottery paints, cloth paintings, share these characteristics. This art is practised even to-day by the village folks, especially by women, and Sunayani, with her unerring instinct for line and form, movement and rhythm and her creative imagination has raised it to the level of classical art.
A fine example of this can be seen in her simple study of a Baul singer, in delicate lines, as tender and true as any to be seen on the walls of Ajanta or Bagh. The young wandering minstrel is full of animated movement, skilfully shown by the gentle bend of the neck and the stoop of the head, while with eyes closed, right arm uplifted and an ektal lightly held in his left hand, he drinks deep of his own music. There is vigour and at the same time a repose in the lines and curves that compose the picture, like the gentle breeze over a golden field, and the charm of it is compelling.
This is the secret of the greatness of Indian masterpieces, whether they be stone or bronze images of the Dhyani Buddha in deep meditation, or the dancing figure of Nataraja in rhythmic movement or the dynamic form of Mahishasuramardini. This “life-movement” of lines can be seen in the miniatures of Jain manuscripts and early Rajasthani pictures and in the works of modern painters like Nandalal Bose or Sunayani Devi.
There is a vigour about her drawings and a naive simplicity of colour and composition like the early Indian miniatures. Details are reduced to the minimum and figures are not over-burdened with ornamentation. This is especially noticeable in her studies of women and girls, which, with the minimum of lines and colours, produce such rich and pleasing effects. Face, full and round; eyes, long and passionate; mouth thin and sensitive; sarees draped in flowing lines, her women are full of the abundance of life and not the ethereal creatures that Indian artists love to create.
Dr. Stella's astounding intuition which gets direct at the inner significance of things, pointed out this long ago: “Vigorous fatigue, the relaxation of a fully grown, fully ripened life, clings-dark red, dark green-round girlish faces. Their sarees are not made of cloth but of some tender mood-so expressive are they. They are no longer garments, but cradles which rock with motherly solicitude the pensive, mysterious being of young girls who have learnt the secret before it is told. Therefore their eyes do not look about; they know where they are; they are messengers from world within, the world veiled by the -sweep of red and green sarees. It is through these eyes, long .and steady, yet alert like wagtails, that their thoughts and feelings are sent out and enliven the picture.” Her “Radha”, “Village Maid”, “The Votress”, “Mother” beautifully exemplify this.
Sunayani paints no more in the enthusiastic manner of her earlier years. Family life is very exacting in India, and freedom for self-expression is at a discount in this country. Art is a jealous mistress and is exacting in her own ways, and no one can serve both with equal zeal and sincerity. An artist's life is, at no place, a bed of roses, and in India it is a prickly field which cuts and bruises without mercy. Still, Sunayani blazed a trail of her own as significant as that of any of her great contemporaries.
Published in Contemporary Indian Painters, G Venkatachalam, Nalanda Publications, Bombay