Artists: Notes on Art Making

When I started to learn painting I had only my ideas and thoughts to depend on. I hardly knew of the importance of experiments. Fortunately our teacher Acharya Nandalal Bose was quite keen on technical experiments. It was with his encouragement that we made our first attempts to do a mural on the wall of the room where we lived. We did the piece, using the branches of Keya (Pandanus) splayed as brushes. The composition was copied from reproductions of Mathura stencils in Indian Drawing by Ananda Coomaraswamy. I did a cow and my friend and colleague Dhirendra Krishna Deb Burman did the drawing of an elephant. It is only now that we realise that these paintings on the wall of a small room 10 x 12 feet hardly added any beauty to it. But at that time we felt as if we had begun another new chapter in the wake of the Ajanta murals. This is how I first started mural experiments. Since then I have come a long way with a variety of work but it is almost impossible for me now to give an account of all that I have done chronologically. Firstly, I have forgotten the dates and I do not see anyone around who can clear up my inaccuracies or correct them. From then on we all felt a great enthusiasm for painting on walls. There was also no lack of opportunity.

About 1923, with the help of Pandit Haridas Mitra, teachers like Nandalal and Asit Kumar Haldar tried to rediscover the canons of the Silpa Sastra, a treatise on art, specially the techniques of murals. Even though we did not have a chance to go deep into these studies, I remember that following the prescribed formula we prepared ‘Kitta Lakharis’ or a kind of charcoal. This was made of a semi-dried mixture of powdered brick and cowdung, which we wanted to use instead of imported charcoal, but that plan did not last long.

About the time when the Silpa Sastra was being translated in Kala Bhavan, Abanindranath had appointed an experienced Tibetan painter to teach in Calcutta. Nandalal went to Calcutta and watched the Tibetan artist at work. He also tried to pick up the technique of painting on banners (Tangka -- traditional Tibetan painting on cloth). That was the only occasion when efforts were made to prepare the ground for murals by mixing earth, cowdung, husk etc. After that, and because of various reasons the plan to do traditional murals had virtually to be abandoned.

In 1924, during the summer vacations, the staff and students of Kala Bhavan went on a trip to Badrinath. Nandalal stayed behind with his family. While wondering how to pass the long summer days in the scorching heat Nandalal suggested making a picture which would keep the body cool. It was decided to have a mural in the small room to the west would be of the library. It was such that on entering the room one which feel cool and there would be no need to travel to the Himalayas. On being asked how it was possible to have a cold sensation from a painting, he replied, “start work and much of your problems will be solved.” The work began, I was the chief assistant. Arranging for the rice starch from the kitchen, making hard and soft brushes out of smashed Keya branches and filling in the marked areas with colour -- these were my part of the job. Under pressure of work I forgot the summer heat and the long days also became shortened. Based on the decorative ideals of Ajanta, in this work Nandalal tried to achieve a synthesis of cold colours. For the first time I gained practical experience working as the assistant of a veteran artist; the occasion is marked as an important event in my career.

As soon as the work was over, I felt a strong desire to paint some murals myself. During the Puja holidays the same year, I started work in the southern verandah of the Shishu Vibhag (the children’s section). With colour mixed with starch, I did murals on the theme of Santal life in the sixteen niches in the wall of the verandah. The enthusiasm to do murals with starch mixed with colour virtually ended with that. Compared to other varieties of starch this rice-starch was not different. Since it is the softest of all, there is no possibility of colour peeling off so easily. Neither does the colour lose brightness. The only disadvantage is that fungus starts forming if starch is used in excessive proportion. Here I may mention how the colour was mixed with starch and used. The dried and powdered pigment has to be stirred with fresh rich-starch and then water has to be added to dilute it, there is anything specially technical about it. Quite soon after completing the work at the Shishu Vibhag, I began my next painting on the wall of the Panthasala (guest house). By this time I had learnt something about the relationship between the decorative qualities of a mural and architecture. The work on the Panthasala building was carried out in three stages. At first we finished four panels and the work on the ceiling; this was followed by decoration of the walls and lastly we did the designs on the ceiling of the verandah outside. [1] in this work in the Panthasala I tried to use three types of binding media -- oil, egg and Siris gum (gelatinous). I found the egg binding to be the most suitable for the purposes of murals and in later years have used colours mixed with plenty of egg.

At this time another development worth mentioning was the lessons given by Pratima Tagore in mural techniques. During a visit to Paris, she studied with the artist, R. La. Montagne St. Hubert. And in turn we had the opportunity to learn about European frescoes through Pratima Devi. While working in this particular method, Acharya Nandalal thought of introducing the Jaipur technique to us. Thus in 1927 and through the cooperation of Sailendranath Dey, one of the most skilled artisans of the time called Narsinghlal came to Santiniketan. He was already forty five years in age and had a white moustache, wore glasses and a turban on his head.

Although in the method of working on a wet wall or in the manner of mixing lime, sand and stone there are certain techniques, basically the problem is the same, both in the indigenous and foreign techniques. Because in both work has to be done on a wet ground and the result invariably depends on this particular stage of the work. The life of plaster and colour depend respectively on the way the wall is sprinkled with water and the sedimentation of time. But an intuitive sense or feeling for the moisture content in the wall is definitely needed for doing paintings on that surface. That is why instead of describing the preparation of the ground in detail, I am narrating my experience more about the work done with brush and pigments. The following is a brief description of the Jaipur technique as taught by Narsinghlal, the Jaipur artisan. The first layer consists of powdered marble and lime in the proportion of four to one. The two have to be ground fine on a stone or slab. The second layer should follow the first after a gap of atleasta week or more when the mixture should be of a proportion of three to one between the stone and lime. After applying it and sprinkling some water, the wall has to be roughened. This is quite a difficult job. Because a slight increase of unnecessary pressure will mean a breaking off of the layers. If the water sprayed is either too much or too little the scraping part of the job is not possible. Only after the second layer has been applied, the painting can be taken up. This in effect resembles the process in the Italian frescoes. But according to the Jaipur technique, one more layer must be applied in which finely powdered marble and lime are mixed in equal proportion. After this layer is applied and roughening done with a rough stone the tracing and painting begin. The paint is usually as thick as banyan glue. And in all the colours Narsinghlal used to add a slight quantity of gum; for white colour lime is used. After the colour has been put on, light pressure has to be applied with a ‘kornik’. [2] With pressure the wall surface gets levelled down slightly. If it does not sink, it has to be understood the ground has dried up. Next comes polishing, first with a ‘kornik’, followed by agate stones. Too much of polishing like this sometimes leads to the surface colours coming off. In the murals at the Jaipur Museum and in the work executed by Nandalal at Santiniketan, such peeling off is noticeable. With blacksoot mixed with resin glue the lines etc are then drawn. Normally the black colour prepared like this is not permanent in nature. When the base is prepared with soot, this is permanent enough, and resin is not mixed. In course of a discussion Narsinghlal mentioned that no artisan can assure one about the permanence of plastered ground, because one does not have any control over the weather conditions. That is why inside the rooms where the effects of wind and sun hardly vary and the surface can generally dry evenly, the plaster can possibly last longer. In comparison, the surface in an exposed place cannot be expected to last the same duration.

I still remember an anecdote about Narsinghlal. One evening after the work was over, Narsinghlal, as was his practice, was knocking with his finger over the entire area of the surface just completed to test its soundness. This revealed that a certain part was still not sufficiently well knit. After a section of the layer was removed, it appeared that for some reason or the other, the deeper layer down too was not strong enough. Thereupon Narsinghlal had the entire ground up to the bricks removed and fresh plastering done: he completed the painting part of the work meticulously. When it was all complete it was already dark. Needless to say, had Narsinghlal left the work as it was, we could hardly have detected the defect, as we were altogether inexperienced at that time. This particular kind of honesty and sincerity I have noticed in real artisans more than once. Let me cite one example here. Two concrete tiles each 3 x 3 ft and complete with designs, after being set in the wall, showed a wide gap between them. It was dusk, the helping hands were keen on going home but the artisan who was in charge took the tiles out from the wall and reset them again. After the work was over this Birbhum artist said “Sir, if there is a flaw even in my work, then what is the difference between me and the unskilled helping hand?” Such patience and sincerity is difficult to find even among the trained artists of today.

After the departure of Narsinghlal, an American artist, Childe by name arrived at Santiniketan and took lessons in the Jaipur technique. We could easily see that he had knowledge and experience in the painting of murals. He did not have the slightest difficulty in mastering the intricacies of the Jaipur technique. We could easily see that he had knowledge and experience in the painting of murals. He did not have the slightest difficulty in mastering the intricacies of the Jaipur technique. He reproduced a work of Giotto on a tile in the Jaipur technique. His method of copying revealed his deep acquaintance with Giotto’s works. Indeed Childe was particularly inclined towards Giotto and from Italy he later sent us a few high-quality prints of that artist’s works. While referring to Childe, my memory goes back to a Mexican artist, I have forgotten when he actually visited Santiniketan, but remember that he was associated with some of the modern mural painters of Mexico. And he was deeply interested in Indian murals. He told us that the aboriginals in Mexico execute murals using pigment with glue made of crushed opuntia leaves mixed with water. We experimented and found that the extract of these leaves was really waterproof; however, this knowledge was never made use of in any of our murals.

As against the technical complexities of the Jaipur technique, the simplicity of the Italian method made a greater appeal to me. Consequently I tried to master this latter method and hardly did any experiments in the Jaipur technique.

About 1935 I visited Japan. Even though the examples of mural painting there are not as many as in India or Western countries some examples of interior decoration are noteworthy. I had the occasion to see some first-rate screen paintings. Particularly the Sotatsu screen paintings greatly impressed me, and have not yet faded from memory.

In 1940 after a pretty long gap, work could be started on the ceiling of the verandah of the students’ hostel in Kala Bhavan. By this time my experience had been greatly enriched and so I could work more confidently. The binding used in the work was egg. After the yellow yoke and white of the egg are mixed, powdered pigment is added to it, to make a paste as thick as oil colour. This paste can be applied directly on the ground with a palette knife or a hard brush. The advantage in this method is that the colour being a thick paste, the possibility of it cracking or peeling off is rather remote. It becomes completely waterproof as soon as it dries up. If it is possible to wash away the colour with water, then it has to be understood that the pigment was not mixed properly with the egg base. In other words, the tiny particles which did not mix properly with egg are likely to be washed out or get blurred when washed with water. In this method if a light coat of colour is applied over deep colour it does not look tidy after drying up.

While executing large murals, the accepted practice is to prepare cartoons. But for the work done on the hostel ceiling I did not make use of any cartoon. At first we divided the ground somewhat like an arabesque with deep and light red. The white area in the middle was made into small and big circles with a flat bamboo knife. Then the details were put in and at the end the forms added up with a terse line as if in writing to give them a definite likeness. In between work on the ceiling I made a good number of rough sketches onsmallsheets of paper. During this particular work, I tried to explore the link between the various traditions. One such effort was given effect in 1941 on the ceiling of the eastern verandah of the hostel. Even though the work was executed with the help of the students yet it was in terms of my own experience. Indeed the purpose was to present to the students the basic unity between the various traditions and styles. A part of this particular project was rendered on Jesso ground. There is hardly any need to describe the preparation of ground in detail as it is listed in books dealing with techniques.

The habit of working on wet plaster had long been kept in abeyance. After the work on ceiling referred to, I started some experiments in this particular technique. I worked on innumerable clay tiles with suitable grounds prepared on them. Unfortunately except for one or two photographs of these photographs of these works there is no trace of them at all. I particularly profited from these experiments, as I could gauge the correct technique of working on wet ground by practice and with added confidence because of these experiments. In 1942 the frescoes on the experiments could not be fully taken advantage of in these works. Then followed the murals executed in the Cheena Bhavan. Even though I had a mind to do the work in fresco, ultimately I used egg binding here too.

During the period in between the completion of work at the Cheema Bhavan (1942) and starting that at the Hindi Bhavan, there was not much of an opportunity to do any mural. But I to do something in the true fresco technique and at last work could be started in the Hindi s keen Rwhaavan about 1947. When the plaster on the wall was removed (as was necessary), it was noticed of bricks had not been done correctly. That was the first obstacle, but that was -hit the laying that a sufficient deterrent for dropping project. On the same improperly laid brick surface, niaL v ster was applied as well as was possible but all the time I could not help recalling that the brick iaying bad not been done properly. In this work in the Hindi Bhavan, I tried to make full use of my accumulated over the years. As for preparing lime, I mixed curd with powdered lime-experience a stone, as prescribed under .the Jaipur technique. By adding curds a quick sedimentation of the residue was formed. If this is not done the process of sedimentation causes delay. Since there is new to add about the preparation of colours I am not going into that. I narrate here my nothing experience in general on working on the wet ground. Work can be started as soon as the ground is ready. If for some reason some area is shin-ing wet because of moisture, then colour applied there at that stage looks faded after the water dries up. (The painting with a sun-flower on a big concrete slab, now preserved in the Santiniketan guest house is an example of this defect.) Water should not be visible on the surface of the ground. with a little pressure with the fingers it should get levelled down like butter when no water will ooze--actually this is the right time for application of colour. No lime or glue need be mixed with colour. And quite a thick paste of colour can be applied. But care has to be taken that the gaps between the sand particles are not filled in. In other words, the consistency of the colour should not be so thick as to cover up or smoothen gaps. It is desirable to use light strokes with a soft brush. But it is rather difficult to suggest categorically the period over which work should continue, because the effect of weather on wet ground varies considerably. During the rainy season when the ground is wet, work must be carried on at a slow pace. In summer because of hot winds though the upper layer of the ground gets dry, it remains wet inside. Therefore while working during the summer a wet cloth should be used to cover the area which has a new coat of plaster. If necessary a high-powered electric bulb (500 c.p.) helps to dry up the upper layer quickly. Within five hours' time it is quite possible to fill in areas with colour, bringing in the necessary qualities of modelling, tone etc. in an effective way. Should it be essential some colours can be erased with a sponge. Unless special care is taken, granules of sand can get smashed up and spread over and damage the work. There are a number of methods for retouching the ground. In the fresco on the Hindi Bhavan wall, I have done no retouching at all. In this connection I may mention the use of casein. The mixture of equal quantities of casein (free of any cream) and lime, when made into a fine compound with water and colour can be used for retouching. Again casein is also useful in another way. If a mixture is made of lime, sand and casein, it can also be used for corrections. Thus if some area has been done wrongly then after applying this particular mixture prepared with casein, and if correction is carried out fairly fast, hardly any difference is noticeable between the earlier and subsequent layers of plaster. However, the great disadvantage of this method is that work has to be carried out quite fast because the plaster made with casein gets dry very quickly. Compared to plaster mixed with water, the one with casein in it looks slightly whiter. I believe work is also possible on concrete with this casein plaster although I have never attempted this. For any easy type of work which can be carried out fast this plaster is very useful. For the work on the Hindi Bhavan wall again no cartoon was used. That is why no mark of any tracing is noticeable in the fresco. Of course, I did use a number of small sketches as is my usual practice. The purpose of these sketches was to achieve some abstract effects, as for example to establish a relationship between the filled-in and empty spaces, or the ratio between dark and light areas and their placements. Rather than use realistic proportions, I tried to introduce a comparative proportion. I used my hand as the measuring unit. This I learnt from the Indian tradition. In this connection mention can be made of Giotto and Masaccio whose works should be studied. By insistence on relationships a tension is introduced between the blank spaces and forms, which is not found in the proportion based on realistic volume or mass. After the work in the Hindi Bhavan was over, I spent a few years in Nepal. . Even though there was not much opportunity to do any mural in that country, nevertheless, I gained some sight into the methods and techniques of the Nepalese style of murals. For instance exhaustive information was available, while restoring the works within the Kumar' temple. . I did not know before about the mixing of fine stone particles with earth. Such fine stones are available in the river beds of Nepal. The earth mixed with stone is unusually strong. Also it is noteworthy that although images for worship made of mulberry fibre or of a mixture of mulberryandNepalese handmade paper are common I have not noticed any ground for murals prepared in this method on I visited Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan and did my last murals there. Thereafter there developed in Banasthali a regular centre for training in murals under the guidance of Devaki Nandan Sharma. While starting the centre, we found that there was no dearth of experienced mural technicians in Rajasthan. Earlier in discussing the Jaipur technique I have said that there is no point now in devoting much labour to the polishing part of the process which appears unnecessary to modern artists. In other words, the technique needs some modification. If one leaves out the polishing there is hardly any difference between the Italian and Indian methods. I have noticed that artists generally don't have the perseverance and fidelity necessary to undertake experiments in mural techniques. By constant work the artist acquires experience in technical skills and simultaneously with it in the practice of form and composition. The two principal kinds of murals those on a wet ground and those on dry ground have their differences. I have given some thought to the problems of working on a wet ground, and so would like to suggest that before doing anything on a wall the artist would be well advised to practise on indigenous flat plates (baked) and by preparing a proper ground (`tiles' of small dimensions) and working on them. Thus he can solve quite a number of problems; technically there is no difference at all between work on plastered tiles and prepared walls.

I have endeavoured to work directly on walls because the spontaneity which went with it appeared to me to be very valuable. In my view even with cartoons the imitation of reality is not at all befitting to mural work. The habit of working directly on the wall helps the pictorial quality to be free from the effects of reality. However unless one is conscious about abstract qualities neither the direct method nor the cartoons can make any true creative work possible. On the other hand, I doubt the usefulness of murals totally divorced from reality. That is why I have never attempted to create anything in which reality is altogether rejected. New information and know-ledge about techniques are now available though such technical knowledge by itself is not enough for mural paintings. I have also executed murals inside the rooms or in the verandahs of houses, without any clear subject. There is no doubt that the problems of doing murals to go with modern architecture are bound to be different. In earlier times there was no need for artists to be conscious about artificial light, but today it is definitely a new problem. However, in the last analysis and even now, the creation of form remains the basic problem. So far murals have been executed with an eye to the public. And this aspect of the subject cannot be ignored even today. In the preparation of a mural, layers of thinking should go into its making. Efforts should be made to find out if a mural can appeal to the public even if form and similitude are done away with though it is hard to imagine a mural attaining any success without architectonic qualities. The subject-matter, if there is one, is likely to be of use in establishing rapport with the general public.

Translated from Bengali by Shri Ajit Kumar Dutta


[1] The entire work has been whitewashed and covered up.

[2] A spade-shaped wooden instrument with a handle used by masons for pressing surfaces evenly.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1972
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