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SUNAYANI DEVI (1875-1962)
SUNAYANI DEVI (1875-1962)

Untitled (Lady with Parrot)

SUNAYANI DEVI (1875-1962)
Untitled (Lady with Parrot)
watercolour and pencil on paper
11 x 8 in. (27.9 x 20.3 cm.) image; 12 ¾ x 9 ¼ in. (32.3 x 23.4 cm.) sheet
Executed circa 1920s
The collection of Kishore and Maitreya Chaterjee, descendents of the artist
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Art of Bengal, Past and Present, 1850-2000, exhibition catalogue, Kolkata, 2001, p. 33 (illustrated)
Rabindranath Tagore's Influence on Modern Indian Art, exhibition catalogue, London, 2011 (illustrated, unpaginated)
B. Friedewald, S. Chatterjee et al, The Bauhaus in Calcutta: An Encounter of Cosmopolitan Avant-gardes, Berlin, 2013, p. 59 (illustrated)
London, Nehru Centre, Rabindranath Tagore's Influence on Modern Indian Art, 2011
Dessau, Bauhaus Museum, Das Bauhaus in Kalkutta, 26 March - 30 June 2013

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Alicia Churchward
Alicia Churchward

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Lot Essay

Sunayani Chattopadhyay, popularly known as Sunayani Devi, was born in 1875 in Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the ancestral home of the Tagores, one of Bengal’s most well-known aristocratic families. Her uncle Rabindranath Tagore was a celebrated polymath and Asia’s first Nobel laureate, and her brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore were respected painters and teachers. Together, the family led the artistic and literary renaissance that swept through India from the heart of Bengal in the nineteenth century.

Although she was not formally trained in art like her brothers, Sunayani Devi grew up observing them work and developed an interest in painting. Despite being married at a young age and living in an orthodox, patriarchal society, this interest was encouraged by her husband and she eventually took up painting professionally in her thirties alongside her household work.

It is not surprising that the themes of Sunayani Devi’s work and her subjects draw as much from Indian mythology and epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana as they do from her domestic life in a traditional Bengali household. Her style, often described as naïve or primitive, was inspired by the traditional pata paintings and folk figurines of Bengal, and she is credited as the first modern artist to champion rural and folk art, a trend that artists like Jamini Roy would later embrace.

Spontaneous and instinctual, the artist’s lines are at once lyrical and confident, as evident in this delicate watercolour portrait of a lady with a parrot. Drawing from Stella Kramrisch’s second essay on the artist (‘Der Cicerone’, 1925), Partha Mitter describes her unique method. “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.” (P. Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism, India’s Artists and the Avant-garde, 1922-1947, New Delhi, 2007, p. 40)

A pioneering woman artist in modern India, Sunayani Devi’s paintings were exhibited at shows organised by the Indian Society for Oriental Art in Kolkata, Allahabad, London and the United States, including alongside the Bauhaus artists in 1922, as well as at the Women’s International Art Club, London. “Her naïve work was singled out as a continuation of the ‘simple’ art of the Indian village, a contemporary expression of authentic India. The modernist discourse of primitive simplicity and the nationalist discourse of cultural authenticity come together in the image of Sunayani Devi as a nationalist artist.” (P. Mitter, New Delhi, 2007, p. 43)

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