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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 13, october 16-31, 2009
Bihar to Madras to learn Art
(By Sushil Mukherjee)

It was an early summer morning in 1938; I got off the grey, noisy tram in front of the Madras Government School of Arts and Crafts on Poonamallee High Road. Along the sidewalk opposite the Art School the delicate branches of a row of beautiful gul mohur trees swayed in the gentle breeze, casting kinetic shadows which resembled some ancient chirography on the wall of an old ochre building. Alas! Those beautiful trees are no longer there and neither are the slow, noisy trams. They have become victims of urban renewal, to save space with the forlorn hope of containing and absorbing the frenzy of a crowded, ever growing city.

It was as a very young man, naïve in the ways of the world, that I had ventured to travel all of 1200 miles from Ranchi in Bihar to join the Madras Government School of Arts and be a disciple of Devi Prosad Roychowdhury.

Devi Prosad Roychowdhury was then the Principal of Madras Art School. He was also the most colourful and romantic Indian artist of the time. Although a student of Abanindra Nath Tagore, the leader of the Bengal Revivalist School, he was considered a rebel by his peers because his work indicated the rejection of the lyrical, sentimental style of the Bengal School and a preference for Western technique. He experimented freely with water colour, oil and mixed media and was acclaimed by many Western art-critics of the 1930s as one of the finest portrait painters in the world in the oil medium. His best portrait sculptures – not the strained, over-finished, heavily textured pieces of his latter years but the head and shoulder sketches in particular – can be compared favourably with the works of Auguste Rodin and Jacob Epstein to both of whom he owed a lot for his sculptural inspiration.

Painter, sculptor, musician, wrestler, hunter, writer, and teacher, Devi Prosad was truly the renaissance man of India. Aspiring young artists all over the country not only admired him as a colossus among the Indian artists of the time but also dreamt of being a student of his.

On that summer morning I went through the main gate of the Art School into what used to be the museum of the School, a magical, dark, spacious hall where in glass cases were displayed exquisite South Indian bronzes and crafts. In one corner of the hall sat Mr. Krishnaswamy at his table. He was the museum clerk and Devi Prosad’s personal secretary. He asked a peon to take me to the Principal. The Principal’s office was in the main building at the southern end of the museum next to an old, wide staircase which went up to the first and second floor senior class rooms and studios.

I entered the room with some trepidation. As I entered the room I got the strong smell of a mixture of brandy (Devi Prosad drank a bottle a day), cigarette, eau-de-cologne and paan. Devi Prosad was seated at a large table going thorugh a pile of files. Seeing me he got up, greeted me with folded palms and without the least bit of officiousness asked me to sit down. I was quite amazed at the modesty of the man. He was then in his late thirties, of medium height, dressed in a half-sleeved white shirt and khaki trousers. I could see that he was a man of enormous physical strength. His head, already balding, made the conical shaped wide forehead seem wider. He had a semitic, aquiline nose and a firm, sensuous mouth. After I had hesitatingly taken my seat he said, “You are very young and you have come a long way from home, I hope you will be happy here. I want you to know that I can perhaps teach you the skill needed to draw and paint, but no one can be taught to be an artist. The perception and sensitivity needed to be an artist are inherent in a person. I don’t think they can be either taught or acquired.”

The Indian and World Arts & Crafts is a journal we had never heard of till a well-wisher sent us a fascinating series of articles that appeared in it in 1985. They were by an expatriate artist and art critic SUSHIL MUKHERJEE*, who in them looked back at his memorable days at the Madras School of Arts then headed by the renowned artist Devi Prosad Roychowdhury as well as painted a picture of Madras in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The series titled ‘Devi Prosad and His ­Disciples at the Madras School of Arts’ will be featured in these pages in a somewhat abbreviated form over the next few issues.

For the next five years I was a student at the Madras Art School and later I lived in Madras for many years and fell in love with the wonderful city. During those years I and a few friends, among them Paritosh Sen, K.C.S. Paniker, E. Kothandaram as well as S. Dhanapal, the sculptor-dancer Rajagopal, Damodar Prasad Ambastha, Ramgopal, Sultan Ali, and Sreenivasulu, became very closely associated with and attached to Devi Prosad Roychowdhury. The following is our story as I remember it with the help of a diary I kept.

* * *

Most of us had little money and lived essentially a day to day precarious existence. But poverty and hardship never dampened our enthusiasm for art or passion for life. We were a bunch of unknown struggling artists largely ignored by society and the media in Madras. The only man who cared for us, encouraged us and made us feel proud and important because we were artists was Devi Prosad. He himself was a very successful artist, courted by high society and respected by artists and critics all over India, he was a wealthy man, but he was also a real Bohemian at heart like we were.

During my first year at School, Arul Das was our teacher. K. Sreenivasulu, who became a well known painter, and Srinivasan, who became known for his magazine illustrations, were my classmates. Sreenivasulu had very little formal education (like most of the other students in those days) but he was intelligent, exuberant and had a sense of humour.

Arul Das was a totally uninspiring artist and no teacher at all. I still remember Sreeni­vasulu poking fun at him in his own inimitable manner. “You know, Sushil, this man Surul Das (he insisted on calling him Surul Das in spite of the man’s many protestations) is more interested in the nude female models than teaching us anything. Look at the way he is staring at Thelma (a buxom model), like a thirsty dog on a hot summer day. He never comes around to discuss our drawing with us. Tell me, what’s the use of having a teacher like Surul Das?” Arul Das shouted at him, “Hey, Mr. Sreenivasulu, what are you murmuring about?” “Nothing, Mr. Surul Das, nothing really. I was just telling Sushil here how well you have adjusted the lighting, Sir. Romba nalla – very good lighting Sir, just like Rembrandt lighting.” Sreenivasulu started laughing, an infectious, open laughter, guileless like a child’s.

* * *

I met Paniker on the second day after joining Art School. It was the lunch break, shortly ­after the life class. He was standing on the front steps with a group of other students. Slightly built, of medium height, he looked smart in khaki pants and white shirt and a sun-hat with a chin strap. He came up to me and shook hands. “Hello, you must be the new student from Bihar. Glad to meet you.”

“Thank you. I am Sushil Mukherjee. I have seen reproductions of some of your water colour landscapes in a Calcutta magazine. I like them.”

“Thanks. Meet a friend, E. Kothandaraman. We call him Kathy.” “Namaskaram”, Kothandaraman wished me, and added, “Why don’t you join us at Ramaiya’s hotel for a cup of tea or coffee?”

Ramaiya’s was only a couple of blocks from the Art School. Many of the Art School students patronised it because it was close by, fairly clean, cheap and served excellent masala dosai and idli-sambar. As we sat down in the crowded hotel a young man in white kurta and pajama came to our table and joined us. Paniker said, “Sushil Mukherjee. Meet Damodar Prasad, Sushil. He is from your part of the land.”

Sitting and chatting with them at Ramaiya’s that day I realised that there was something so very open and unconventional about artists, something so different from my staid, middle class up-bringing and background.

From the very first time we met, Paniker and I became inseparable friends. We lived together, struggled together, shared each other’s joys and sorrows and with a few other friends at Madras Art School, and passionately discussed and dreamt of new approaches to aesthetics which we fondly hoped would astound the Indian art world.

There were only a few women students during our time at the Art School. Iris Khan, a Bengali, was from Calcutta, Kamala Poduval from Trichur, Rama Bai from Bangalore and Alagacone from Ceylon. All of them lived at the Y.W.C.A. on Poonamallee High Road. Kamala later married Prodosh Das Gupta who, after graduating from the Madras Art School, went to London to study sculpture at the Royal College of Arts, and eventually became the Director of the Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Paniker married Rama Bai.

During my first year in Madras I lived with a Bengali painter, Kalikinker Ghose Dastidar, who was a former student of the Art School. We shared a room on the terrace of a house off Harris Road. Kalikinker was a very talented painter and sculptor. We affectionately called him Kalida. He was the head artist of a well-known commercial printing company on Mount Road. Later, he went back to Calcutta and spent his whole life making a living only as a commercial illustrator. Kalida was a married man with a family in Calcutta.

Once I asked him, “How big is the family?” “Now, let me see, four children, no five of them. Too many you know. I sometimes get confused with their names. Their mother has given them long, fancy names, not nice short ones like Ram, Shyam, Krishna or Gopal. Those silly, fancy Bengali names I just can’t remember. So I have given each one a number – one, two, three. That’s how I call them and it works fine.”

Many years later when I was in Calcutta, Paritosh Sen and I went to see Kalida in his house. He lived in one of the poorest sections of the city. He was very happy to see us. “I don’t go out very much these days. The magazines send me their work here”. He showed us some of his paintings and illustrations. The paintings were mostly iconic showing the Devi in her various manifestations. His drawing was still powerful and uncluttered. We suggested that we could sell his work which would enable him to move to a better location and a better house, but he flatly refused, Kalida was a fine painter and a proud man and steadfastly rejected any suggestion of a handout. He died in poverty, miserable and weakened by malnutrition but until the end carried his pecuniary problems with pride and dignity.

* Sushil Mukherjee, painter, teacher, musician and writer, settled in the United States of America, where he taught at the University of Wisconsin, the Windsor Mountain School, Lenox, Massachusetts, Bennington College, Vermont, Hampshire College, and State University of New York, at Albany. He was art critic of The Berkshire Eagle in the U.S. and of The Statesman, Calcutta. He participated in group and solo exhibitions in India, Australia, Egypt, England, France and the United States. A flautist, he has undertaken extensive concert-lecture tours in Europe and the United States. And his articles on Art and Music have been published internationally.


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