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Chitranibha Chowdhury: the first woman painter of Bangladesh and Shantiniketan’s first female professor

Even though women have made art for centuries in the Indian subcontinent, the historical narrative has somewhat favoured the male painterly traditions. This is why, a self taught artist such as Sunayani Devi Atasi Barua, or even Mangala Bayi have remained invisible despite sharing familial relations with famous male artists. And while these artists practiced in informal spaces, it was Chitranibha Chowdhury, a singer, artist and social activist who studied art, received guidance of Rabindranath Tagore and worked under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose, yet remained overshadowed by her male contemporaries and under-acknowledged by both Indian and Bangladeshi art historians.

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A painting of Tagore at the ‘Basant Utsav’ by Chitranibha Chowdhury was later printed by Bata in their 1961 calendar

Who was Chitranibha Chowdhury?

Early Life : Nibhanani

Chitranibha Chowdhury (nee) Nibhanani was born to Sarat kumari Devi and Dr Bhagaban Chandra Bose on November 27, 1913 at Jiagunje. (Murshidabad district of present West Bengal). After the sad demise of her father, Nibhanani spent her childhood at her maternal home at Jiyagunje in a culturally vibrant environment.

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The Artist’s Daughter

Discovery of an artist, and an alliance!

When she was fourteen years, her talent was recognized by one of the nationalist leaders of Noakhali, Manoranjan Chowdhury. He was deeply impressed by a wedding piri (low stool) painted by her. He was further impressed upon hearing her recitation of Tagore’s poetry and songs. Nibhanani was thus chosen to be a worthy match for his brother, Niranjan Chowdhury.

At a time when it was still difficult to send women to schools / colleges, the Chowdhury family was progressive enough to send their daughter-in-law to Shantiniketan to further her interest in art. This was completely unheard of!

Chitranibha : the blessed child of Rabindranath Tagore

In the autumn of 1928, at the age of fifteen Nibhanani made her way to Shantiniketan, accompanied by her husband. As her luck would have it, the ongoing Durga Puja celebrations had rendered the campus almost empty, and so, Tagore personally assisted her in settling in. During these vacations, she learnt painting from Nandalal Bose and music under Dinendranath Tagore. By the time the vacations came to an end, Nibhanani had found comfort in the company of Tagore.

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Durga Puja (Bangladesh)

She frequently visited him with a friend to listen to him recite poems from Chayanika. He too, often inquired about her work and showered praises upon her skills.

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Rose

On one such occasion, Tagore bestowed upon her the name, ‘Chitranibha’ (Chitra = Painting and Nibha = Beauty).

Chitranibha’s journey at Shantiniketan: from student to first female professor!

Over the course of five years, Chitranibha learnt painting, batik, woodcarving, pottery, alpana under the tutelage of Shilpacharya Nandalal Bose. She also learnt music and was trained in playing several instruments like sitar, veena, and eshraj.

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Woodcut art

She spent her days with the Santhal families from the adjacent villages of Shantiniketan and they too, became subjects of her paintings.
With direction from Tagore, Chitranibha engaged herself in educating and training village folk in art and crafts.

She was quickly nicknamed Alpana Di, given her skill and expertise in the art. In fact, on the first death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, it was she who decorated Rajghat with her alpana.

After the completion of her training in 1934 she joined Kala Bhavan as a professor in 1935, as per the wish of Rabindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose.

She thus became the first woman professor of Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan.

During her time at Shantiniketan, Chitranibha created portraits of various eminent visitors and inhabitants of Shantiniketan : Rabindranath Tagore, Rathindranath Tagore, Pratima Devi, Abanindranath Tagore,
C. Rajagopalachari, Hazariprasad Dwivedi, Mahatma Gandhi, Khan
Abdul Gaffar Khan, Sarojini Naidu, Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay, Ramkinkar Baij, – just to name a few!

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Ustad Baba Alauddin Khan – portrait painted by Chitranibha Chowdhury

Even though she resigned from her position a year later, and headed back to Noakhali; her legacy at Kala Bhavan remained intact – in the form of a mural ‘Shiber Biye’, and through her work on Bose’s famous mural ‘Natir Puja’.

In Noakhali, she laid the foundation for training centres where she taught
stitching, decorative arts, crafts and music to the local villagers. During the Durga Pujas, Chitranibha held exhibitions of village crafts – something completely unheard of, in those days.

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Santhali family

During her stay at Dhaka her brother-in-law, Professor J. K. Chowdhury asked her to create a fresco in his house at his residence.
This fresco, based on the daily lifestyle of a young Bengali woman, is known to be the largest work by any painter trained at Kala Bhavan before Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay’s fresco at Hindi Bhavan, Santiniketan. Chitranibha’s fresco was influenced by Jaipuri style that she had learnt from Nandalal Bose.

This mural was a breakthrough in the history of both Indian and Bangladeshi art; unfortunately it has now been painted over, and no longer exists.

Chitranibha Chowdhury continued to engage with art – imparting skills to lesser privileged women, participating in exhibitions including solo shows. She even wrote a memoir ‘Rabindrasmriti’ to commemorate Tagore’s birth anniversary.

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A portrait of Tagore by Chitranibha

Chitranibha’s pursuit of art did not slow down with age. Yet, today if one were to scour through museums and galleries in India or Bangladesh, it would be tough to find her work in their collections.

Note:
All pictures have been provided by the author through permission from Chitranibha Chowdhury’s daughter. They may not be reproduced without consent. To share, please credit the source.

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Shilpi Das
Shilpi Das
Shilpi Das is a student of English Literature. She is currently engaged in her PhD research on the rediscovery of the 20th century women painters of India.
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