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Sunayani Devi

Indian Modern Artist
Born 1875, Calcutta, India
Died 1962, Calcutta, India

Sunayani Devi’s naive and primitivist art represented a spontaneous and deeply personal practice, at a time when patriarchal mores dictated women to be confined within domesticity, and by dint of this, her art came to be seen from an anti-colonial frame. Shadowed by the legacy of the Tagore family, she was a pioneering woman artist in modern India.

Education

Self-taught with no institutional training

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LIFE AND WORK

UNDERSTANDING Sunayani Devi

Paintings are often called naive or primitivist, with an anti-colonial impetus

Sunayani’s simple renderings are often categorised as naive art or primitivist art, which ultimately formulated as a form of anti-colonial resistance. Without any institutional training in academic realism she had a natural free reign in creating her artworks. Not bound by any formal language, she took up the imagery and iconography of local art forms that were, like hers, created without such framework pressures.

This language of naive art or primitivist art found an affinity with the local, and posited itself as a binary to the Western academic realism. Automatically, this created a dialectical narrative with colonialism. Her aesthetics came to be recognised as an ideal of the nation in the face of a foreign occupation. Her simplicity came to be admired as novel, in a dichotomy to the careful rigour and premeditation of Western academic realism.

Family influences, and yet idiosyncratic aesthetics and politics

Influences were never short in the Tagore household. Sunayani was impressed by the prints by Raja Ravi Varma and the wash techniques that Abanindranath employed. She tried keeping up with the exciting realms of radicalising art that the male members of the household were doing at the time, but steered clear in falling into the same formula, instead going for a more spontaneous and personal reference. Probably privy to the specific application of the wash techniques of her brother Abanindranath as a political tool of colonial resistance and creation of the pan-Asian identity, she took up the wash technique as it probably better suited her aesthetical pursuits.

She always cited her painting technique as an organic one, offering little as means of pre-planning with drawings first before painting. “Sunayani first drew a red or black outline with brush on paper, which was then filled in with watercolours prepared by herself and applied with a thin paintbrush. She then dipped the sheet into a circular drum of water allowing the colours to be absorbed by the paper. The wash was used as a continuous process through which the form emerged without taking recourse to drawing. She firmed up the outline with the brush once the hazy shapes started emerging out of the washes, the washes themselves investing her works with a delicate hue.” (Mitter)

Garnered critical review and publicity

Although confined to painting in a single room that her husband had given her, extracting a little time out of her domesticity for this, Sunayani did exhibit in a few exhibitions, including the significant exhibition of the Bauhaus artists in Calcutta in 1922, and earned several critics to champion her art. She was mostly lauded as being “original” and “fresh”, and positioned her as art as a new rhetoric in the anti-colonial movement.

Most notably, Stella Kramrisch raved about her as being the first modern painter in India. She made a dedicated study of her naive art influenced by folk sensibilities and her techniques, and was instrumental in publicising her art even abroad at that time.

Though born in legacy, pioneers a modern aesthetic in art history in India

Born into the famous Tagore family with her brothers being Abanindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore, and uncle Rabindranath Tagore, Sunayani Devi didn’t lack a legacy of artistic and intellectual richness. But being a woman living in the late 19th and early 20th century, it wasn’t easy for her to pursue an artistic practice independent of her domesticity. But with support from her husband, the grandson of Raja Ravi Varma, she took up the brush at the age of thirty and continued a rigorous routine for the next fifteen years until the death of her husband.

Within the frames of a phallocentric art historical writing, her presence as a woman artist assumes paramount significance in charting a feminist reworking. She is often placed in conjunction with the more famous Amrita Sher-Gill in ascertaining a female presence in the pre-Independence art history of the country, while others languish under the pressures of mainstream narratives. Albeit given a chance at pursuing her artistic calls, she still had to maintain her domestic routine, posturing her negotiation with patriarchal mores and her own personal artistic affirmations.

Painting by Sunayani Devi.

Domesticity and mythology impressed on her canvases

Sunayani Devi mostly painted scenes of domesticity, drawing from her own life and tribulations. These scenes of domesticity are always tinged with a sense of melancholy and loneliness, and reflected a yearning for freedom. Although in line with the intellectual certainties and nationalistic fervour that the male members of her household exhibited, she withdrew within a more personal domain, drawing upon simple scenes of home and a psychological interiority.

She also painted figures from mythological narratives, reminiscent of the Ajanta frescoes, rendering them in more simple hues and outlines. They might have precedence in Rajput miniatures, but obviously not in the same treatment.

Sources
Partha Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism, India’s artists and the avant-garde 1922-1947, (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 36-44.

Bibliography