Sunayani Devi was born in Calcutta in December 1875.
She was the daughter of Gunendranath Tagore and the younger sister of Gaganendranath, Samarendranath and Abanindranath Tagore. The setting is that period of Bengali History which in the sphere of Art came to be known as the ‘Bengal Renaissance’. Abanindranath was the well-known founder of the Bengal School; his delicate, lyrical and exquisite compositions were known, discussed, and greatly appreciated in literary and social circles at the turn of the century. Her eldest brother Gaganendranath, now considered one of the pioneers of modern Indian painting was an innovator in a different and less theoretical kind of way. Versatile, bold and brilliant, he was interested in new effects of line, colour, perspective, being noted at the time for satire, caricature, as well as landscapes, portraits, and genre.
In a way, the whole Bengal Renaissance as it is called paralleled the movement organised by the Pre-Raphaelites around 1849. The basis of that movement lay in the ambiguous positions of the arts and culture generally in mid-19th century Britain, when the transition from the age of the craftsmen to the machine age had finally begun. The study of nature, the revival of craftsmanship were basic ideas, and in Art, the painters aimed at a return to a purer ‘Pre-Raphael’, that is ‘Pre-Renaissance’ type of expression. Intellectual circles in India in this century may have felt the same need to define their position, and their ideas, in the face of onslaught of western ideas, theories, and attitudes. This reevaluation, however, was not accomplished without the aid of the Britishers, who were keenly interested in art movements in the country. Indeed a return to the inspiration of the Mogul or Pahari qalams, could not have been very different from the return of the English painters from ‘realism’ to the simple decorativeness of Gozolli.
Sunayani Devi, grew up by the side of these two overpowering personalities at the house at Jorasanko, (the ancestral home of an affluent family). She was married at the age of eleven to the great grand son of Raja Ram Mohun Roy. It must be remembered that in those days the women of the house kept mostly to the inner apartments, and that she was much less exposed to the social whirl where the famous, the great, or the talented met, than she might have been had she been a boy. It was unknown and unheard of for women to do anything, even ‘Art’ on a professional basis, and they remained very much in the background, occupied by household and devotional activities. Yet it is precisely this sheltered ‘hot house’ atmosphere that has contributed to the particular appeal her pictures make.
While Abanindranath was exploring the Silpa Sastras, ancient texts and epics, or the linear possibilities of Mogul or Rajput painting, - trying to bring about a synthesis complicated by intellectual ideas and literary theories, and while Gaganendranath was experimenting with linear perspective and Cubism, her works remain tuned to a different key - that of the age-old religious themes, the deities of the Hindu pantheon, - the innocent faces of children and mothers curiously invested with an aura of divinity.
While she was not in any sense an experimenter, and may not be famous for establishing a new school of painting, over all her work hovers a genuinely simple and contemplative spirit which charms us with the naturalness and spontaneity of its expression. Her figures are symbols of resiliency and refinement, the rhythmic, though not regular lines suggesting the vitality and grace of fragile plants blowing in the wind. There is none the ‘mannerist’ element that disconcerts us with some of the painters of the Bengal School, and if some of the gestures are graceful, they are also completely natural. Next to Rabindranath, she is the true ‘primitive’ of the Bengal School, we refer here to the art of the province as a whole, and not to a particular type of artistic expression. This ‘primitive’ unspoiled quality in her work is to be cherished on two counts, and for its psychological and philosophical implications. First that of uncivilizing the too civilized, and secondly, for the formal and technical possibilities inherent in an art which is not limited by intellectual concepts and theories. In the latter sense, her drawings achieve and express, not only a freshness, but the type of simplification which has interested painters like Modigliani, Kirchner, Matisse, and others. In her simplicity we find an antithesis of the stylised forms and gestures that were later to become so typical of the Bengal School, and in some we find evidence of the subtlest intuition and great emotional intensity.
Her paintings seem to be almost like monochromes with pale washes of colour, over which float the linear movement. She herself confessed that she never drew a composition later to be filled in with appropriate colours. Rather her method was to apply colour washes, subsequently ‘drawing out’ the forms that slowly revealed themselves in the process, on the surface of the paper. One is reminded of the ‘boneless’ style of the 13th century Chinese painter Chi’en Hsuan, whose method was that of colour application without any outline in the first place. Light and dark washes merged into each other, - solids becoming voids and vice versa, until form revealed itself in a moment of “sudden enlightenment”.
Her work published in some Bengali periodicals has been compared to the Pat paintings of Bengal but the comparison does not hold ground, and a differentiation has to be made between folk art and the art of the ‘primitive’. The verve, the dash, the virtuosity of the Bengali Patuas, unsophisticated and direct as they may be, are far removed from the absolute simplicity of spirit of this type of expression; and her supersensitive rarefied world has little to do with professional virtuosity or full blooded ribaldry of the Bengali Patuas.
She started painting comparatively late in life, when she was 30 or 35. Her first signed pictures appear in 1923 and she seems to have been most active between the years 1923 and 1940. Her production cannot be divided into periods where one can discern different and diverse influences. All are tuned to the same key. Nevertheless within this framework there are those types that reveal her qualities as a ‘primitive’, and those that show a greater or lesser influence of the production of her contemporaries.
This head study of a Sadhika or devotee has been executed in tempera. It is almost monochrome, with washes in varying tones of sepia and brown, relieved by light pinks and ochres. We have here a world of calm contemplation, a collectedness, and yet a fixity of purpose; the gaze if fixed, the attention gathered to one-pointedness. The hands are poised with an unconscious grace, as if she were unaware of them, or indeedofhercorporeal self, while the third eye on the forehead marks the opening of the inner sight of spiritual consciousness. The purity of line, the composure of the face, the gentle turn of the head, contribute to the creation of a type of Madonna, closely related in spirit to the ideal types evolved by the Siennese painters of the 14th century. The artist seems to have painted to express some inner experience, and this lofty quest for fundamentals is reflected in all her work. The pale colour washes are most certainly derived from the technique of Abanindranath perfected, but the naïve simplicity of linear expression is her own. And if she is preoccupied with the vivid trance-like immobility of a world she paints, she organises the moving linear forms to best express a lyrical ‘quietism’ that may have been a characteristic of many women of her type living in the seclusion of her home.
The artist here achieves a pure and delicate line that builds up a restrained emotive tension. The head seems to materialise out of the atmosphere with a simple desolation of mass and void and extreme economy of line. Colour washes define certain areas, - background, halo, head but there is an avoidance of interior of even linear modelling. The mood is calm, the colour subdued.
Poetic, sensitive in feeling, in this painting perhaps more than any other, we have the inheritor of the family tradition. It is related to the Ardhanarisvar and other divinities depicted by Abanindranath and Nandalal. But there is that economy of line, that extreme simplicity of attitude which sets this work apart from other products of the Bengal School.
It is characterized by broad treatment of masses and voids, untrammelled by details. The gentle curve of the half oval behind the head, the lines of the hair and cheek, are counter-pointed by the simple triangular forms of the crown and the lotus. Where the painters of the Bengal School would have devoted much time to the delineation of the decorative details, by reducing these details to simple abstract pattern, the attention is held by what seems to be most important, - the expression of the being. It is related that Gaganendranath saved this picture by asking for it when Sunayani Devi was about to throw it away. One is tempted to think that the fact that it conformed more nearly to the ideals of the Bengal School, may well have influenced him to do so.
Mahadev-Sati or Satir-Dehatyag
From the point of view of composition, her individual style is summed up in this painting. The picture is cut almost in half by the figure of Sati, defying all the primary rules of composition. Yet the broad areas of light and dark, are played against each other with telling effect. Apart from the subject matter, the imperfect oval of the halo, the round form of the head of Siva, - the lines of the serpent coiled around his head, the dark triangle of the floating mass of hair, the simple curve of the orange drapery, project a life of their own. The painting represents Siva with the corpse of his dead wife held out before him, - Siva and his Sakti are presented as two complementary poles, Prakasa and Vimarsa. The body of Siva glows like the light of conscience that is Prakasa, while that of Sakti is dark, consumed by fire. But the atmosphere is one of Samata. One thinks of the verse of the medieval Kashmiri poetess Lalla - ‘the whole universe as it were, dried up within me. My heart was consumed by the fire of love. It is thus that I found Siva.’ In this work the sharp and brilliant contrasts of light and shade are different from the subdued tones of most of her paintings. The universe reduced to the simple pattern untrammelled by unnecessary detail rests on a counterpoint of line and mass and she endows the straight forward posture, and simple silhouette, with peculiarly personal and rhythmic grace. In this she differs from the painters of the Bengal School, (who often seems bound to the theories and rules of a self-evolved ‘tradition’,) and this strange poetic quality lends an intensity of feeling that recalls the ’Neue Sachlichkeit, (new objectivity) of the modern Germans.
Portrait of a young boy
In this painting, fine tonal values are achieved by transparent washes of colour, and combine with a delicate linearism to create a poetical, even mystical mood. Though we have here, a completely personal style, the tonal subtlety alone recalling the Bengal School. The frontal pose, the emotional intensity of the expression, the simple linear composition are all most characteristic of the true ‘primitive’. The force of the lies in the delineation of the head. In its directness and intensity, it is reminiscent of the personages that look out upon us from primaeval jungles painted by Rousseau. But there is something here that is very different from the violently primitive quality of artists like Rousseau, Bambois, or Vavin. Though emotional intensity of expression is common to most primitive painters it is here tempered by introspection, and combined with a fine and delicate intuition. In this softly harmonious composition, the flower and the rattle are held as if they were divine attributes, while the head invested with an inherent spiritual quality could be that of Krishna or Kartikeya or any of the other deities she paints. As elsewhere the eyes are the remarkable features of her paintings. Gaganendranath is known to have remarked ‘No one can draw eyes or eyebrows like Sunayani’. One is reminded of the ‘Fayoum’ portraits with their disproportionate haunting emphasis on the eyes which by the Pharonic tradition were considered to be the ‘mirror of the soul’.
The painting depicting Kartik shows again the idealised type of her personalities. Kartik is shown as a child, the plumes which form part of the background being those of his Vahana, the peacock. The young war god is provided with his traditional weapons, but the bow is a graceful decoration and the arrow held as if it were a lotus stalk. The devotional, and at the same time intimate nature of her work is here apparent.
In the painting where the child Krishna is shown with his playmates, or the drawing where Yashodha plays with the child Krishna on her lap, we have the same attitude, oblivious of detail, the background voided of all extraneous things. With this beautiful and simple line drawing (and this may be the type that inspired or prompted a comparison with Bengali Pat painting) we are reminded of the remark Ingres made to Delacroix; ‘line is poetry itself’.
Sunayani Devi was influenced to a certain extent by the activities of her brothers; as we know she started painting late in life. She used to collect reproductions and prints from the vernacular reviews of the period, - Probasi, Modern Review, etc., and would sometimes copy them. She was conscious however of the gulf which separated her from her brothers.“Theyworkin the midst of the hustle of the outside world, - and I work in an inner world.” And again, “My pictures don’t reflect their influence, they are entirely different.” But with the true humility of a ‘primitive’ she is said to have added: “Had I worked under their guidance and learnt from them, perhaps my paintings would have been better.” She herself maintained that her paintings were the expression of a dream world. “Most of my paintings I have seen in dreams, - after seeing them I have then put them down, - the greater part of my paintings I have ‘found’ in my dreams.” She also reveals how far her work was removed from the mundane world and ordinary pursuits, when she says, “At His (God’s) request I have painted, - Mother and Child, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Mahadev, Radha Krishna, - all these.” “I have never painted landscapes. Once ‘Chotda’ (Abanindranath) said to me, ‘you must paint other things as well, birds, cats, and so on, - your work is all of a kind and beginning to get monotonous’. ‘So I did a drawing of a horse, but to tell you the truth I have never painted things other than the subjects I have mentioned.’
Her sources then were not many nor her motives complex, - without venturing out of her narrow field, and without accurate knowledge of drawing or linear perspective, she nevertheless achieves at times a transcendental effect. Certain later works, like those inspired from fairy tales, or that picture of a Japanese girl (done in response to the demands of a grandson) show that had she turned to other subjects she may have produced much of great charm. But in general they lack the interest and conviction of her religious themes. A surprising feature of her work is that though many of her figures have haloes round their heads, the iconic quality is avoided, and it is clear that the mythological, ritualistic and biographical character of the subject matter has to be sensed as narrative. In this, as in other points already discussed, her contribution to the art of the period lies precisely in the fact that it is the antithesis of the sophisticated and intellectual art of the period.
Her elder brother Gaganendranath is reported to have given her special encouragement. Her paintings are in various private collections mostly in Bengal among members of her own family. Her son took a group of her paintings to London in 1927, and held a very successful exhibition there. In the same year Stella Kramrisch wrote of her work in her German publication “Kunst”. She traces an affinity with the painters of Ajanta, and the medieval painters of Sienna and Florence. She observed that Sunayani Devi was self-sufficient, able to draw on her own wealth. She had only to continue to listen to her own inner voice for genius to find expression.
Her paintings have been published in the vernacular periodicals from time to time. Sunayani Devi was represented at a group exhibition held at Trivandram, one of her paintings of Krishna is in the Mysore Art Gallery, and another in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Many years later a retrospective exhibition was held at Calcutta a few months after her death. She died in the year 1962 at the age of 87.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1966