When the Nationalism movement was at its peak, the artists of Bengal, under the tutelage of Abanindranath Tagore worked towards the renaissance of Indian art. Tagore felt that European styles and mediums were taking over the Indian idiom and ways of artistic expression; thus inspiration from the East and from within India became the hallmark of the artists of the Bengal School. One such artist was Kshitindranath Majumdar.
Who was Kshitindranath Majumdar?
Majumdar was born on 31st July 1891, in Jagtai, a village in Murshidabad, far from the urban Kolkata, where he later spent most of his life. His father Kedarnath Majumdar single handedly brought him up as his mother passed away when he was very young. As a teen, he acted in a local theatre group that his father owned. His artistic abilities were recognised by the Zamindar of a nearby village, Nimtita. On his counsel, Majumdar joined the Government Art College in Kolkata in 1905.
A student of Abanindranath Tagore, Kshitindranath learnt techniques of wash and understood Indian artistic sensibilities. His paintings, reflected the influence of far eastern & Japanese art as well as Abanindranath’s style; yet they were not mere copies but had an individuality and artistic merit on their own.
The Paintings of Kshitindranath Majumdar
Majumdar’s paintings have a lovely amalgamation of the spiritual and the sensual. He was enchanted with the realm of Vaishnavism and a lot of his paintings were based on the themes of Vaishnav Gods, Goddesses and saints. Take a look at these paintings from the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) New Delhi :
In this painting, the Goddess Lakshmi is seated in lalitasana (the pose of royal ease) on Garuda, the vahana (vehicle) of Vishnu. Since her affiliation is to the Vaishnav divinities she is found seated on the huge bird. The bird is painted in zoomorphic form. Each feather of the bird is well taken care of and rendered meticulously. Lakshmi’s body is taut, young, with enhanced round breasts, thin waist and strong limbs with long and slender fingers. The painting takes one back to the caves of Ajanta and also reminds one of the beautiful Chola bronze sculptures from Tamil Nadu. Despite influences from two major art practices, the artist manages to create a style which solely belongs to him. The goddess is holding an elaborate lotus stem which bursts into a bloom in her left hand and a water pot in her right. Her upper body is bare while she wears a rich maroon lower garment. A sleek uttariya hangs from her left shoulder and right elbow. Her eyes are half closed and have an inward glance, as if in meditation or in a trance. Her facial expression and continuous eyebrows reminds the viewer of Bodhisattva Padmapani from the caves of Ajanta (image below)
She is a Devi and hence haloed and bejewelled. The head dress might be a kiritmukut (conical head dress) that is similarly to the iconography of Vishnu. She also wears an ekavali (single stringed necklace) that dangles up to her navel. Other jewellery such as large earrings, arm bands, bangles, and anklets are also seen adorning her. Her hair flows behind her shoulders. The artist wanted the image of a goddess to be absolutely perfect and he achieved it without doubt. The abstract background evidently reminds one of his obedience to the Bengal school of art. The artist not only mastered technical skills but was well acquainted with the Indian iconography as well.
Apsaras Dancing On Clouds
This image clearly shows similarities to the far eastern paintings specially the physical features. Quite unlike to the common notion that apsaras are always fair in complexion, the artist painted a few ladies in dark skin. Some among them also has resemblance to the Santhal tribal women of Bengal who had been a constant source of inspiration for the Bengali artists. The composition has likeness to one painting from Kangra, i.e. Gopis searching for Krishna in moonlight.
The artist tried to replicate the illumination in this particular piece. The painting enhances the idea of heaven in one’s mind.
Woman Plucking Flowers
This painting uncovers another aspect of the artist’s genius. A single artwork though, yet it has an impact of the far-east in the white blossoms, the influence of Rajasthan miniatures in the architecture, the illumination from Pahari miniatures and of course the guidance of Bengal school. The image renders an everyday work as simple as plucking flowers in a romanticised manner.
The Japanese Wash Technique and other influences
All the paintings discussed above were painted in wash technique except Lakshmi, where the drawing was done at first and the water colour was applied. Majumdar himself mentioned that he paid utmost importance to the drawing as it is the skeleton of any artwork. The entire paper was washed in water and when it was fairly dry, the wash of second round of water colours were applied again. The water bath was repeated so that the colours dissolve smoothly to create a seamless effect. The final lines and colours and other details were drawn above the smooth background to finish the painting. The artist used tempera to draw the details, such as fine lines, jewellery, flowers, adornments, etc. The images in context were small in size, similar to the miniature traditions of the Mughals. The influence of Japanese art could be seen quite often in the Bengal school of art after Abanindranath Tagore invited Okakura. The two artists who had a deep impact in the modern Indian art henceforth were Hisida Shunsho and Yokoyama Taikan.
Despite being a visual artist, Majumdar was well educated with Hindu scriptures. His father, a simple man had interest in drama and music. As a young child, Kshitindranath participated in the yatra dal (local theatre group) that his father owned. During those times, the common themes of theatres were narratives of religion, Vedas and Upanishads. These narratives stayed with Majumdar even as he grew up and subconsciously influenced his art. His close adherence to the spiritual world made him create like a devotee. Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana and other religious books were his constant source of inspiration. He is therefore termed as the saint artist at times. The paintings of Majumdar are known for their delicate, poetic compositions and diaphanous porcelain like quality. The slender thin lines and subdued hues add to the effect.
As Benode Behari Mukherjee said about his art:
the colours of his paintings were according to the mood of the hymns which he sang.
Though his paintings have a close resemblance to the compositions of Abanindranth Tagore, but a few nuances makes his work distinct, specially his elongated human figures as seen in the Apsaras dancing on the clouds, lyrical and fluid postures like the Woman plucking flowers, and a seamless rhythm that flows in his works. His paintings were conceived in a state of his spiritual trance. In his art the subject matter occupied most of the space rather than the background as we can see in the image of Lakshmi. During his initial phase, the use of wash was evident, but he started paying attention to his subjects more than his technique in his mature phase.
In the later phase he was over powered with the Vaishnav saint Chaitanya and the Bhakti cult. The Chaitanya series was close to his emotional state. Painting was his way of worship, his method to be one with the creator. Tapati Guha Thakurta in her book The Making of a New Indian Art mentions
“… spatial compositions with fine outlined drawing, detailed ornamentation and highly mannered postures and expressions became most typical of Kshitindranath Majumdar”.
Through all his merits, Majumdar proved to be one of the notable artists of modern India.
- Kshitindranath Majumdar , Jaya Appaswamy, Lalit Kala Academi, 1967
- The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal, c.1850–1920,
- Tapati Guha Thakurta, Cambridge South Asia, 1992
- Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850–1922: Occidental Orientations, Partha Mitter,
- Cambridge University Press, 1995