“A Typical Shantiniketan Girl” and other identities of Rani Chanda

Rabindranath Tagore’s daughter-figure, Nandalal Bose’s student, Abanindranath Tagore’s co-painter, Mukul Dey’s sister, writer, nurse and a freedom fighter in her own right; Rani Chanda was an exception who carved out a niche for herself in the late Colonial Bengali art world that was dominated by men. An artist who narrated stories through painting as well as writing, Rani Chanda’s life itself was one colourful canvas set in the middle of Shantiniketan.

Here are 4 facts about Rani Chanda

Rani Chanda in old age photograph
Rani Chanda in her old age.

1. Rani grew up admiring works by legends like Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy. 

Born in 1912 in a family of gifted artists, Rani’s brothers Mukul and Manishi Dey and their close association with Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore influenced the artist in her from a very young age. Having lost her father, poet Kulachandra Dey in childhood, Rani grew up with her mother Purnasashi, listening to her brilliant stories and vividly visualising them. She became an ardent lover of art, growing up in a village where women, at the time of Lakshmi Puja, would paint the image of the goddess on a wooden pole for the lack of an idol. She would also sit and observe her brother’s painting process for hours. She admired the work of Rembrandt, da Vinci and Durer. These interactions with art in the daily mundane life honed her skill of observation which would help her grow as an artist in the presence of Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy, understanding the nuances of art from the best.

child and mother painting by Rani Chanda
Mother and Child, watercolour by Rani Chanda. Source: Kala Bhavan

In 1928 at the age of 16, Rani was enrolled in Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan on the recommendation of Rabindranath Tagore where she started her formal education. She would sit by the window and sketch for hours under the guidance of Nandalal Bose whose rather informal technique of instruction taught the students not just the technicalities but also the conceptual framework of art practices. One such incident occurred at the students’ picnic to the Kopai river. Rani was carrying her sketching material and produced multiple sketches on the go. At this point, Nanda Da came and told her :

“There was a hunter in our village. Every night he would make five little balls. He would never make more than five. The next day he would kill five birds with those five balls. He would never spoil one ball.”

Rani understood the meaning behind this – avoid fast sketches and make sure whatever she drew was complete.

Of Nandalal, she writes of an interesting incident in her book ‘Manush Nandalal’, describing his command over art.

Recalling a time when she was painting a series on ‘Radha’s Viraha’ (Separation of Radha):

“Radha has come out after listening to the falling of dry leaves, maybe there was a footfall. There was a night sky and a tree. I couldn’t push the tree to the background. The more I finished, the more it appeared in the foreground. It was a big painting, I mounted it on a big board and painted. The size created a problem, it could not be moved. There were no rickshaws. I couldn’t take it to Kala Bhavana and show it to Nanda da. Hence, sent a note in Abhijit’s (her son) hand. ‘I am in trouble due to a tree.’ Nanda da came, he sat in front of the painting; observed it for some time and asked me to prepare some colour. He befriended the tree and the tree moved.’’

Nandalal never lectured but gave anecdotes. Clearly, he had an everlasting impact on her.

2. Rani attended classes not only in art but also Bengali literature, music and dance.

She was an endowed dancer, having performed in Rabindranath Tagore’s dance dramas all over the world. She also wrote multiple memoirs based on her interaction with Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, life in Shantiniketan and her time in jail. Rani wrote of her experiences in simple language that was praised by many.  She was  also involved in creating indigenous colour from natural products available around the Ashram. Rani learnt other crafts like brass, pewter and leather work from Rathindranath & his wife Pratima. Pratima also taught her pottery and they both made vases. She learnt batik from Nandalal and Surendranath Kar. Though the process underwent a lot of trial and error, Nandalal made it easier by using the paint brush to apply hot wax on the textile. They would use the batik technique on leather as well, using thick glue instead of wax. She along with other students produced a number of sarees and bed covers.

Rani’s art experience was enhanced by the presence of various global artists who visited Kala Bhavan from time to time. She had various interactions with artists like mother-daughter duo Sas and Elizabeth Brunner, and Ju Pion; mentions of which are present in her book Shab Hote Apon.

Linocut 1902 Rani Chanda family going home form the market
”Home from the Market, 38/125, 1932” by Rani Chanda. Woodcut on Paper. Source: Galerie88

3. Abanindranath Tagore was another contemporary who formed a strong bond with Rani. 

Abanindranath believed that women could not be full-fledged painters. According to him, women were called shree as in Lakshmi. They could be enlightened but not genius.

“They (women) would deck, decorate, cook and weave, they would fill everything with beauty. Shiva is mad, we call him genius, because of his maleness – is that possible for women to acquire?”

– Abanindranath Tagore

He was of the thought that women could not be landscape artists because they did not have the physical strength to carry easels everywhere. 

Despite his reservations against women as artists, he collaborated with Rani on multiple occasions, creating with her almost all places of the Ashram’s precincts. Rani would sketch and render details while Abanindranath filled in the colours and they would sign the painting together.

painting of old man by Abanindranath Tagore and Rani Chanda
Abanindranath Tagore, 1946 watercolour by Abanindranath Tagore and Rani Chanda. Source: Kala Bhavan

On one occasion, Rani took a painting she had made of a Santhal girl resting against a Shimul tree to Jorasanko. Abanindranath took a look at it and drew a pot near her feet as if she had gone to fetch water and was resting for a while; he drew flowers and the picture then looked complete. He said, “Everything in this painting is a straight line. The Santhal girl is standing straight though leaning on the tree. The legs seem to be wooden. Why did (nature) give joints in our body? Both the curved and straight lines make our bodies beautiful.” And just like that, the rigidity of the legs disappeared after the pot was painted.

Painting of a santhal girl by Abanindranath Tagore and Rani Chanda
Expectation, watercolour by Rani Chanda. Source: Kala Bhavan

Abanindranath always stressed on creating a story, a narrative in one’s painting and so did Nandalal, everything in the composition had to have a meaningful relation. Rani’s paintings are reflective of these narrations through and through. Rani and Abanindranath also wrote books together – Ghoroa and Jorasankor Dhare. 

Inner page of the book Jorasankor Dhaare by Abanindranath Tagore and Rani Chanda

4. Her close association with Rabindranath Tagore lasted a lifetime

Even in old age when the Bard of Bengal was unwell, Rani would write letters for him as he dictated and signed them. Here’s an introduction he wrote for an album featuring 25 of her linocuts.

Rabindranath Tagore's introduction of Rani Chanda
Rabindranath Tagore on Rani Chanda

She wrote Alapchari Rabindranath as a biography on Rabindranath Tagore. Rani was married to Rabindranath Tagore’s personal secretary Anil Kumar Chanda, a marriage arranged and supervised by the poet himself. It is fair to say that Rani was privileged to be a part of the bhadralok however, she stood out in the male dominated circle on the basis of her dedication to art and the artists that taught her.

Photograph of Rabindranath Tagore with Rani Chanda and Anil Chanda
Rani with Rabindranath Tagore and her husband Anil Chanda in her youth. Source: Anand Bazar Patrika

In 1942, Rani was jailed for her activities in the Independence Movement. However, this did not dampen her spirit. Instead, she recorded her experience in jail in her memoir ‘Jenana Phatak’ and continued sketching her memories during the time.

Rathindranath Tagore writes about Rani Chanda and her art:

“Few artists of our day have had as rich and complete a training as Ranee has had. Now the harvest is here in the album – a whole world rich in colour, throbbing with life, full of aching joys and dizzy raptures.”

Such was the beauty of Rani Chanda and the stories that she weaved everywhere.

Rani Chanda’s Linocuts

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