Scenes from Santiniketan: An Aural Journey
Kolkata Centre for Creativity in collaboration with Gallery Rasa brings to you ‘Scenes from Santiniketan & Benodebehari’s Handscrolls’, a historic exhibition curated by noted art historian and curator Prof R. Siva Kumar, featuring ‘Scenes from Santiniketan’—the earliest and longest handscroll ever painted by Benodebehari Mukherjee (measuring 44.6 ft.) with reproductions of all other handscrolls and existing fragments, including one from the collection of Victoria & Albert Museum, London. A publication has been brought out by Gallery Rasa in conjunction with the exhibition. Given below is an excerpt from the same. The audio-readings embedded in the excerpt may be availed of while viewing the scroll in person. Alternatively, fragments from the scroll have been included below for the ease of the readers.
The handscroll is an innovation of the East Asian artists. Among Indian artists, Benodebehari Mukherjee is the one who has used it most creatively. Measuring 13 meters, Scenes from Santiniketan is the longest among his scrolls and perhaps the earliest surviving complete scroll. An inscription on the inner side of the protective flap reads: ‘SCENES FROM SANTINIKETAN BY BENODE MUKHERJEE – 1924’. It is unclear if the inscription was written by the artist or its first owner, and the date, even if not exact, is not far off the mark.
The scroll begins at the right end and progresses to the left as Japanese and Chinese scrolls do. At its beginning stands a large tree in the middle distance. Its canopy of dense foliage, painted in soft overlapping dabs of deep grey and black ink extends beyond the edges; and the cropping makes the tree look immense. A tangle of woody vines and aerial roots dangle in the air; in places, they touch the ground and mingle with the clumps of grass below. A small row of trees further behind merges with the foliage of the large tree. It screens the horizon and guides our eyes leftward. Behind the large tree, tightly bracketed between the contours of its trunk and foliage, a lonely figure sits on a raised seat. He is anonymous, and his figure tiny; yet, enshrined in this dark cave, he is marked out and made visible. This figure at the beginning of the scroll is central to its reading.
Such seats under trees are not an uncommon sight in Santiniketan. Even the foundational moment in the story of Santiniketan is marked by a raised seat in marble under a chhatim tree, indicating the spot at which Debendranath Tagore, who first arrived there as a lonely traveller, had sat in meditation. The tree and the surroundings constitute the nucleus of the Santiniketan campus. The original tree appears large and shady in old photographs and in representations by several artists. The tree in Benodebehari’s scroll is not necessarily the old chhatim, but with this image invoking the story of Santiniketan’s beginnings, he places Santiniketan at the beginning of his scroll. Moreover, the self-absorbed seated figure under it reminds us of the artist as he appears in his self-portraits, with his head bent in thought, he seems inward-focused rather than scrutinizing what is in front of him. Thus the thoughtful solitary figure at the head is an emblematic device that introduces us to his temperament and sets the mood of what is about to unravel.
Moving left we encounter a stretch of emptiness which leads us to the second section. With nothing to hold our attention here except four small trees in the middle distance, our eyes are drawn towards the horizon, marked by a smaller huddle of trees, a lonely palm, two cottages, and two large indistinct architectural structures miniaturized by distance. As we unroll the scroll further, our eyes are led from the foreground into the depths, are again brought forward through a cluster of trees. With this, we enter a space animated by a plethora of details in the near and middle distance, and it continues into the following two segments. While we were positioned in the foreground and looked into the distance in the earlier part, here we look from a viewpoint higher up. And this is indicated by the trees and the long row of thatched and tiled roofed buildings stacked up, with the nearest ones emerging from the bottom edge and far-away motifs almost touching the top edge without any significant difference in scale.
Anyone familiar with Santiniketan will immediately recognize that what we see in this segment is what Benodebehari would have seen from the first floor of the old library building where Kala Bhavana and his working space were then situated. The trees, a few thatched buildings, and the Japanese-style bell gate at the bottom, a long row of thatched buildings punctuated by two squat towers in the middle distance, and a further row of thatched houses at the top, present in a broad aerial view—or as the Chinese say, a scene in level distance view—a picture of old Santiniketan stretching from the school at the bottom to the teachers’ residences of Gurupalli on the top. A few structures in the distance at the start of this section do not exist today. Similarly, several prominent early landmarks which still exist are not shown, especially the building from whose first floor the scene was viewed and wherein this scroll should have been painted.
As the scene continues onto the second segment of this section, the open spaces between the clusters of trees and buildings increase. The suggestion of a path cutting diagonally through this segment creates a slight pause in the scroll’s leftward flow, and it is employed to lower the viewpoint a little and push the focus into the foreground. The section ends with a couple of small tiled buildings, including one resembling the polygonal Dwarik, the pillared two-storied building on the first floor of which Kala Bhavana was housed before moving to the first floor of the building from which the scene is viewed. The culvert at the beginning of this section (included, perhaps, as a nod towards the bridges that often signal the point of entry or transition in Chinese landscape scrolls), the well, and the buildings suggest habitation; similarly, the saplings protected by tree guards scattered across the space suggest that this was a landscape in the making. The signs of human agency abound in this section, but strangely, we see very little human presence except for the three figures seated under a thatched circular shed towards the centre of this section. A tiny ambivalent blob in light grey a little to the right and closer to the middle distance could be another standing figure that paradoxically heightens the pervading sense of emptiness. The scene evokes a mood similar to the description of Santiniketan in the summer when it seemed to Benodebehari that the whole environment had became lifeless with no sound, no movement, and hardly any people.
So far, we have seen a carefully edited and personalized image of Santiniketan of the early 1920s. Several landmark buildings like the Santiniketan building, the glass mandir or meditation hall next to it, and the two-storied building in which Kala Bhavana was then located, which antedates Benodebehari’s arrival in Santiniketan, are conspicuously absent. Of them, two are colonial in style, and the third is a lumbering hybrid structure. Their exclusions reflect an effort to keep out prominent signs of human intervention, which could have looked alien and disproportionate to the local landscape in his eyes. The omission of what was prominently visible should have been a conscious act, and it helps us to grasp the essential elements of Benodebehari’s mental image of Santiniketan. Further, the scroll this far can be read as a 360-degree anticlockwise pan shot of the old Santiniketan campus, beginning with the seat under the tree (popularly called the Chhatimtala) and ending on the road leading to the villages on the north of the campus.
Beyond this is another empty stretch with a few isolated trees leading us diagonally to a solitary little house on a small mound; approached by a short flight of steps, a well beside it, a vast emptiness in front, and the edges of a distant forest behind. It presents another image of a secluded life. Later, Benodebehari would own such an isolated cottage across the Kopai River, some four kilometres away from the campus; thus, like the self-portrait in studio, this could also be an image of personal avowal and yearning. In the following segment, the distant forest moves forward into the middle and near distance and turns into a woodland running parallel to the scroll. As the forest moves forward, the tree trunks extend beyond the height of the scroll, and, by implication, we are now walking through the woods with the trees surrounding us. The forest continues to the left for a while, and as we progress, our view of the trees shifts in keeping with the unevenness of the terrain and the corresponding eye levels we assume. Thus, as we enter the forest, we see the trees from the viewpoint of a person standing on the same plane as the trees. In the second segment, we see more of the treetops, suggesting that we are now walking on elevated ground and looking down. Finally, the view in the third segment indicates that we are once again on level ground, and the forest is receding from us.
Journeying through the woods involves time, and with time comes change, and the landscape undergoes transformations, as we often see in Chinese scrolls representing the seasons. However, in Benodebehari’s scroll—unlike in the examples he would have seen in the Kala Bhavana collection colour plays a crucial role in recording this transformation. The scroll that was predominently monochrome up to this point except for a slight tint of brown used to suggest the meandering path and some of the architectural structures, especially on the thatched and tiled roofs in the Santiniketan campus section. However as the distant forest painted in black and grey blobs moves nearer and grows in scale and the forest reaches the foreground, the foliage becomes mottled with pale traces of terra-vert, then gives way to olive, turns rusty and ochre and brown. Besides, as we move from one segment to the next, the canopy thins, the branches turn bare, and leaves fall and scatter across the ground even as new ones begin to sprout on the branches. In Santiniketan, like the school closing and the students vacating the campus, this happens in early summer. As we progress through the deciduous sal forest, we notice a lonely bulbul on one of the branches, and once we do that, a few other less explicit and tantalizingly bird-like silhouettes crop up. We are first given a definite shape and then encouraged to project similar forms onto ambivalent ink blobs.
As we leave the forest and enter another stretch of open space, the scroll turns monochrome once again, and irregular dabs of black ink suggest overlapping vegetal shapes and mass, replacing the brush lines and touches of colour that indicated the texture and lightness of the leaf shedding trees in the previous segment. After traversing a stretch of near-empty space and a short span of post-harvest barren paddy fields fading into the distance, we enter a small village with a cluster of thatched houses that move diagonally leftward into the foreground. With the change of scene, colour re-enters; the fields and the thatches in shades of brown stand out against the shaggy trees and figures in black ink. In this section, we are aided in our leftward movement by two tiny figures entering the village, talking and strolling at a leisurely pace in the middle distance. Although their rendering is highly schematic and suggestive, at least one appears Western in dress and deportment. A third figure stands in front of a hut at some distance to their left. It is so tiny and schematic that it is difficult to determine without a close look whether it is of a child or an adult, a man or a woman and whether he or she is standing in welcome anticipation of the approaching figures or even facing them. On closer look, the figure turns out to be facing the hut rather than the approaching figures; however appealing, human sociality, it turns out, is not Benodebehari’s theme. In a scroll of this kind, viewers are welcome to set the pace and are allowed to tarry and ponder, but they are also gently prodded to move ahead and continue the journey.
The rooster and the hen walking leftward at a pace similar to that of the two figures entering the village, leaving behind a foraging hen, does just this. And they lead us towards a seated figure further to the left. The posture recalls the figure at the beginning of the scroll. However, it is not difficult to deduce that this is the figure of a woman and that she is not brooding but bent over her work. On the ledge of the adjacent hut, to her left, sits two children in conversation or play. The vacant charpoy lying under a tree, between the woman and the children, and a dog curled up in a shed at the lower edge add to Benodebehari’s evocation of the ease and peace of village life. Painted in ‘level distance,’ like the campus scene, with the sleeping dog, a few trees and sheds at the bottom, the village huts and figures in the middle distance and trees behind them, some touching the top edge, and lots of empty spaces, the scene has a spatial airiness. Yet this is the most populated section of the scroll. With several contrasts like huts with regular brown thatches and trees with amorphous canopies in black ink, children and adults, men and women, humans and animals, movement and stillness, work and rest, it is also the most animated segment. And one in which the opposites are held in a Taoist harmony of sorts.
A dense cluster of bushes marks the end of the village, and two bullock carts leaving it lead us further on to the next section spread over two segments. However, there is no clean break or a total change of scene here, for just as we leave the village, we come upon a hedged clearing with two men seated before a makeshift shed. The open hearth, the pots beside them, and the pots tied to the date palms around the clearing tell us that they are date juice tappers and toddy sellers, not an uncommon sight on the periphery of villages around old Santiniketan. The knobby trunks of the date palm trees are rendered using little horizontal dabs of ink stacked up loosely. And their spiky leaves are done with crisp, sharp strokes in black ink modulated with traces of chromatic greys bordering on olive and brown similar to the colour of dry date palm leaves. In the next segment, the eye-level shifts, but the palms continue, and after a small gap, we notice a small village in the distance hidden among trees…
…leading to a short stretch of grassland swaying in the wind, and beyond it are harvested fields with cattle grazing in them. The fields give way to a grove in the middle distance, and as we cross it and move towards the village further left, the palette changes. There is a dash of green on the trees, and the fields beneath them are tender green. The village in the middle distance and the foreground are thickly packed, and it is followed by a long stretch of green fields covering the entire height of the scroll seen from a higher viewpoint. The network of brown ridges running beneath the greens tells us that these are fields with new crops planted after the harvest. And beyond the fields, lush with new life, a small stream emerges from behind a knoll, encircles it, and soon disappears behind the next mound.
In these sections, colour is not only prominent but also vibrant. The harvested fields are marked by an undulating web of brown lines and the stubble with short marks; the canopy of the trees in the grove beyond are rendered in soft black and grey-green strokes. In the village segment, the intense black and green of the trees combine with the bright ochres of the thatched huts to produce a tonic effect. Then the greens of the fields grow brighter and variegated and continue until we reach a mound. Beyond the fields, the land becomes uneven, and the khoai – undulating eroded laterite land, a characteristic feature of Santiniketan, starts. Women carrying water pots on their heads and the bases of taal or palmyra palms on the high ground presage arid land ahead.
And beyond that, stretched over nearly two segments are rows of palmyra palms seen in silhouette, standing on undulating terrain in the near and middle distances, and amongst them stand two isolated huts. As we enter this section, a sudden short burst of early autumn shower coming down in big drops greet us; and with this, we transition to the dry months of autumn and winter. As we unroll the scroll further, even the taal palms become sparse, and the khoai rolling ceaselessly into the distance takes over. At this point, a small village amidst bamboo thickets stands like the last outpost of human habitation. Beyond it, the khoai stretches unrelieved for nearly three segments, with nothing to separate the land from the sky except the minimal contours of mounds traced in thin brown lines becoming progressively lighter and a few solitary palm trees growing tinier in the increasingly expanding arid vastness. This is a landscape defined by space rather than forms, short on details yet high on affect. The mounds getting smaller and smaller with distance signal that our journey through the scroll has come to a halt; what lies ahead is a relentless unfifferentiated expanse.
Looking back, we recognize that viewing this scroll was a journey through several distinct zones, strung together like beads, which made up the landscape around old Santiniketan, beginning with the campus, followed by the sal woods, villages and fields, and finally, the khoai. This curated walkthrough has also been a journey in stages from a space shaped by human intent to barrenness sculpted by the elements, as well as a journey through several seasons, starting with summer and transiting to late autumn and winter—which in Santiniketan stretches from Baishakh to Poush or mid-April to early January. The scroll begins with dry summer months, then moves on to a period of leaf shedding and regeneration, to post-harvest bareness and new saplings; the rainy season is not depicted, but its effect is made amply visible through movement and colour. After this short period of lushness, the landscape passes through early autumn onto the dry season of late autumn and winter. These transitions are slow and made through several sections, and we are led from one section to the next by interludes of indeterminate space. Benodebehari used empty spaces to effect transitions between sections, just as the Chinese painters used mist to connect discrete scenes. Furthermore, his viewpoints shift even more frequently, sometimes between segments within the same section, suggesting a viewer on the move looking at the world from shifting perspectives. That also is common in Chinese and Japanese hand scrolls, akin to what they call the ‘floating perspective’ or ‘the angle of totality.’ Further, as we move from one viewing segment to another, the density of details, the brushwork, the palette, and the cadence change. This is a comprehensive picture of old Santiniketan’s landscape seen through Benodebehari’s unique vision and sensibility.
To listen to the reading without textual interruptions, scan the QR code.
Dates of the exhibition: 20 May – 20 June (Closed on Sundays)
Timing: 10 AM – 7 PM
Venue: Amphitheatre, KCC
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Prof. R. Siva Kumar is an art historian and curator. He has authored over 15 books on modern Indian art and curated numerous exhibitions including Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, the retrospectives K. G. Subramanyan and Benodebehari, and The Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath. He is a professor of Art History at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. In 2018, he was awarded 'Lifetime Achievement Award for Art History and Art Criticism' by the Government of West Bengal.