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Who was Sunayani Devi? Rabindranath’s niece, sister of artists Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore – a forgotten artist, yet another ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’!
When we read of ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ in A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, it makes us wonder how many women in history met the imagined fate of Shakespeare’s fictional sister, Judith Shakespeare. Here’s a story of Sunayani Devi, a woman from the Tagore household, whose art, despite getting the recognition in her time, was overshadowed by the recognition of her brothers.
Dear reader, I am picking up my pen to remember a woman artist from colonial India who was pushed into oblivion. Her brothers Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore were the harbingers of Cubism and the modernisation of Mughal art, respectively.
Yes, I am speaking about Sunayani Devi. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Perhaps this image of ‘Lady Holding a Fan’ will strike those who have visited the museum at Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata.
It won’t be an exaggeration if I call Sunayani an autodidact. She was inspired to paint upon watching her elder brothers, as is mentioned in Chitra Deb’s pioneering work, Thakur Barir Andarmahal. The book has been translated from the Bangla as Women of the Tagore Household by Smita Chowdhry and Sona Roy. It describes Sunayani’s brush creating a magic of its own.
Sunayani was born into a cultural milieu of the late nineteenth century Bengal Renaissance, as the youngest child of Gunendranath Thakur and Sunayani Devi. She was Rabindranath Tagore’s niece, and sister of Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore. Chitra Deb, the chronicler of the lives of the Tagore women, notes that Sunayani’s early tryst with painting germinated from a desire to imitate her brothers who were engrossed in their canvases at home. She didn’t receive any formal education or artistic training like her cousins Prativa Tagore or Indira Tagore. Painting seemed like another mode of recreation for her, a child’s play, an escape from the drudgery of household chores.
Sunayani’s art was spontaneous with no hint of hesitation in the brush strokes. What could have been a major lack in her art- the absence of proper tutoring- became a blessing in disguise. Since her views were not predetermined by any particular ideal, her expression was unadulterated, confident, free-flowing, and individualistic. Whether it was a depiction of Krishna consorting with Radha as found in village dolls of the 19th century or the demure bride, a serenity pervades her works, with a languidness in the eyes, bound by a measured restraint.
Like her elder sister, Binayani Devi, Sunayani spent most of her time worshipping the ancestral gods: Krishna, Shiva, Durga. Furthermore, her home was adorned by the prints of Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings from Hindu mythology. These were her primary inspirations when it came to expression through art. This is where she demonstrated her distinctiveness. She took up a mode of art that was usually regarded as ‘primitive’ and ‘low-brow’ in the elite upper-class coterie of urban Bengal. It was the art of the village, Patachitra, later made a household named by Jamini Roy which eventually became a prestigious collector’s item in the lounging rooms of the same upper-class folks.
So far, dear Reader, doesn’t it seem like you are perusing through the description of just another artist who might have had a few paintings to her name, and maybe a creative streak that was barely kept ablaze by her meagre efforts, but nothing too substantial to make a legacy out of her name.
Or was it substantial enough?
Here is a comment by Dr Stella Kramrisch on Sunayani Devi in an article in Der Cicerone, a German art magazine, published in 1925.
“Her pictures have no design for they have grown. Unbroken and unwavering is the flow of the lines, for no hesitation deflects them from the course 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 1927, her artwork garnered new acclaim and more admirers from dilettantes at the Women’s International Art Club, based in London. However, she had already carved out her own niche among the revered women artists of the early twentieth century Bengal, in 1922, when the Indian Society of Oriental Art showcased her paintings among the Bauhaus artists exhibition, in Calcutta.
Why did this talent then recede into obscurity despite being a contemporary of Amrita Sher-Gill, who is still celebrated for her artistic flair? For that, we have to summon Sunayani’s life history into the spotlight, look at her place alongside the many talented men in her house.
My dear reader, is it fair that only Jamini Roy be given credit for this uniquely Bengali painting style, and not a daughter of Bengal, a cloistered woman of the 19th century who defied the norms of patriarchy with her brush and canvas? Won’t we appreciate her self-expression in her art? Despite getting the recognition in her time, will she still become our Shakespeare’s Sister because of our oblivion?
Image source: By Author unknown and Photograph taken before 1924 – Book-Thakurbarir Ondormohol by Chitra Deb (ঠাকুরবাড়ির অন্দরমহল, লেখিকা-চিত্রা দেব), CC0, Link and Museum of India and Kala Bhavan
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Debadrita Saha is a postgraduate student of English literature in Presidency University, Kolkata. Her field
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