The 20th century witnessed India rise from a jewel in Britain’s imperial crown to Independence. India’s struggle for freedom is an ongoing endeavour but back in the 20th century, the anti-colonial sentiment was at it’s peak and gave rise to an inspiring nationalist movement. Many took to English education in British-run schools, women’s education reforms were taking place across the country; many aspired to gain favour of the Raj and yet some used the “english” language, art, poetry, dance, drama – to drive the swadeshi spirit. In this atmosphere, Indusudha Ghosh was born and raised.
Who was Indusudha Ghosh?
Born on December 3, 1903, in Brajayogini (now in Bangladesh), she was educated at the Vidyamoyee Govt. Girls High School in Mymensingh. Here it was usual practice for students to sing British patriotic songs (like “God save our gracious King”) as part of their school prayers. Despite the subtle nudge towards shaping a pro-imperialistic youth, Indusudha’s nationalist fervour could hardly be dampened.
An excerpt from Indusudha’s memoir published in the Bengali magazine ‘Shiladitya’ elaborates on her small acts of resistance: In keeping with the spirit of the Swadeshi movement she boycotted British made goods and had asked her father to buy her hand-spun thick cotton sarees from Bangalaxmi Mill to wear to school. At the age of 16, she undertook a fast to align with the countrywide protests that broke out against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919.
An early fascination with art
Indusudha’s artistic engagements started early – while she was still in school. When it came to painting and needlework, her skills were exemplary and won her the love of peers, teachers and several accolades. From drawing designs on dress-materials for her teachers to helping neighbours with Alpana decorations for different occasions, Indusudha lent her artistic skill wholeheartedly to her surroundings. Her alpana-making skills were such, that she could draw one spontaneously!
The world of Shantiniketan
In the year 1925, Rabindranath Tagore, with his daughter-in-law Pratima and grandson Dinendranath visited the Vidyamoyee High School. As usual, Indusudha was entrusted with making the Alpana for this occasion. Her beautiful art caught the attention of Pratima Tagore, and there was no looking back for Indusudha. One to have always aspired to study at Shantiniketan, this was a dream come true for her. In her own words,
“This alpana had unknowingly welcomed me to get in touch with Nandalal Bose of Kala Bhavan.”
In 1926, she would join Kalabhavan (Shantiniketan) as a student with the hope of a flourishing career in art; in 1924 her enrolment with the revolutionary group Jugantor would however, offer her another path.
Between learning and (secretly) serving:
Jugantor [New Era] was one of the two significant secret revolutionary organisations and worked in the guise of a suburban fitness club. Founded by Aurobindo Ghosh, his brother Barin Ghosh, among others, the group operated in Bengal working towards the mission of Independence.
At Jugantor, Indusudha was in charge of safeguarding prohibited books, revolvers and organising meetings. For her, Shantiniketan would provide to be the much needed safe and secure shelter while on mission and perfectly aligned with her passion for art. Former West Bengal CM Jyoti Basu reveals in his political autobiography :
“Indu Di was a major exception to the prevalent norms of those times…she was also related to Bengal Lamps’ Kiron Roy. It was Roy who initiated Indu-di to the basic tenets of the revolutionary struggle…”
Indusudha’s career as an artist:
On her second day at Shantiniketan she was requested to draw an alpana for the upcoming upasana. The next day, she heard Nandalal Bose tell his students, “Try to understand, this lady has never received been trained, neither does she know anything. Yet you may find that she has not created any incongruence of nature in her alpana.” That day, for the first time indusudha learnt about the relationship between art and nature. At Shantiniketan, learning was everywhere, and she never missed an opportunity to learn.
When Karusangha, an artists-guild, was established in 1929 , Indusudha was its only female member. Along with Vinayak Masoji and P.Hariharan she contributed immensely towards the improving the technique of lacquering. [The Modern Review, 1941 Volumes 69-70] At Karusangha the artists engaged themselves in artistic book binding, calico printing, lacquer and batik work, etc. and undertook artistic design work for a moderate fee.
In 1930, the group published “ Shiboni,” – a book of embroidery decorative designs authored by Indusudha with a flattering introduction by Abanindranath Tagore.
Soon after the completion of her art education at Kala Bhavan, Indusudha was appointed as a teacher at Sriniketan’s Craft Department. [Visva Bharati Quarterly Vol 8; 1930-31]
Between Art and Revolution
Meanwhile, Swami Atmabodhanandaji of Ramkrishna Mission had requested Nandalal Bose for art-educator for the Sister Nivedita School (Kolkata). On Bose’s recommendation, Indusudha took the charge, and taught Indian-style painting at the school between 1931-32. Here she was able to engage herself herself actively in the ongoing revolutionary activities.
One could tell that her love for art would take her places -but none could guess that her love for the country would take her to prison.
In 1932 she was asked to make arrangements and secure shelter for the accused runaways involved in the attempt to murder Sir Alfred Watson (Editor of The Statesman). Soon after she had made arrangements in Chandannagar and various parts of Calcutta, she fled to Samsingh Tea Estate, Jalpaiguri from where she was arrested in the month of October, 1932.
Life in Prison
Due to lack of sufficient evidence she was detained as political prisoner in Presidency Jail, Calcutta and later in the Hijli Detention Camp. At Hijli her co-political prisoners included Suhashini Gangopadhyay, Leela Nag, Kamala Dasgupta, Kamala Chattopadhyay, Indumati Singh, etc.
She never discontinued painting even she was inside the cell. She kept the artistic zeal in her alive by engaging herself in painting and gardening. Even in prison, the spirit of Shantiniketan continued to manifest itself through prisoners’ participation in baitalik [prayer songs] and Indusudha would make the Alpanas.
During this time, she received a letter from Nandalal Bose where he enquired if she was able to paint and suggested that she make linocuts. In 1937, after being freed from imprisonment, she spent few months in Shantiniketan upon Nandalal’s insistence.
Later Life : art for a cause and political involvement
In 1938 Indusudha was appointed the head mistress of Municipal Mahila Shilpa Bhawan, Allahabad. Here she dedicated herself to the service of poverty-stricken women for nine long years. She strived hard to make them self-sufficient by providing art and craft training.
Later she joined the Communist Party and worked as an active member of Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti. After the split in the party she joined the CPI(M). In 1948 she was appointed as the superintendent of the residential home of Nari Seva Sangha and coordinated all of its activities with great skill for thirty long years. She worked towards the upliftment of the downtrodden and destitute women.
Indusudha died at the age of 92 on September 24, 1995.
Indusudha was a woman full of life and passion; one who worked towards India’s Independence and the advancement of art and humanity with equal fervour and determination. She should have been celebrated as an icon of women’s strength and empowerment long ago by historians and art historians alike; for Women’s History Month we bring you stories of women like Indusudha Ghosh, in the hope that many more will find her story worthy of sharing.