Benode Behari Mukherjee
Benode Behari Mukherjee (1904-1980) was a painter, muralist, scholar and teacher whose lifetime of work has been crucial to the development of Kala Bhavan, the art school at Santiniketan, that was founded by Rabindranath Tagore in 1919. As a young boy he lost vision in one eye and was myopic in the other, which kept him from pursuing a normal school education, and instead joined Rabindranath Tagore’s newly established Visva-Bharati at the age of thirteen. Here under the influence of greats like Tagore and Nandalal Bose he took up painting and moved to the arts school Kala Bhavan. After completing his studies at Kala Bhavan, he soon started teaching at the school and became one of the most important faculty members who shaped the institution in the 20th century. He travelled to Japan in 1937 which had a profound impact on his art, bringing more synergy between his drawings, sketches, murals and scrolls.
He started by assisting his teacher Nandalal with murals around Kala Bhavan, and went on to making some of the most iconic murals of Indian art. This includes the Bhirbum Village, on the dormitory ceiling (c.1940), Life on the Campus (1942), and Life of Medieval Saints (1946).
In 1949 Benode Behari left Santiniketan for Kathmandu, Nepal, to take on the role of the Curator at the Nepal Government Museum. Inspired by the landscape and people of Nepal he created a vast number of sketches and watercolour paintings that are defined by their simple lines and lightness of spirit. In 1952 he moved to Mussoorie where he continued painting the beautiful mountain landscapes of the region, but soon left for Patna on an assignment to revamp an art school. In 1957 he lost his eyesight completely after an unsuccessful cataract surgery.
He didn't let this loss get in the way of his creative expression however, continuing to redirect his practice into making smaller drawings and sculptural works, paper cuts and prints. He soon returned to Santiniketan to teach art history at Kala Bhavan, where he was made Professor Emeritus in 1970 and also elected a Fellow of Lalit Kala Akademi. In 1973 he left Santiniketan for Dehradun, and in 1976 the whole family moved to Delhi.
The loss of his eyesight also pushed him to try his hand at writing, with a collection of his writings titled Chitrakar being published in 1979. This publication enchanted the literary world and won him the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad in 1980 and the Rabindra Purasakar in 1981.
Until the 1970s Benode Behari's practice was known to a select group of artists and friends, but with the making of Inner Eye by the renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray in 1972, his life and work became recognized nation-wide. In 1974 the Government of India recognized Benode Behari's extensive contribution to the arts in India by honouring him with Padma Vibhushan. Soon after this he was conferred the honourary doctoral degree of Desikottama by Visva-Bharati in 1977.
“There is no doubt that a painter of striking originality had appeared on the Indian scene. A painter with a deeply introspective, analytical turn of mind, aware of tradition, responsive to environment and with sympathies extending beyond the limits of oriental art.”
Satyajit Ray, Inner Eye, 1971