Hemendranath Mazumdar (1898-1948) was born in a landowning family in Bengal. He enrolled at the art school in Calcutta against his father’s wishes. Having fallen out with the authorities, he then moved to the privately-owned Jubilee Academy. Disillusioned with both art schools, he decided to teach himself figure drawing by means of books obtained from England. The role of reproductions in art books in the formation of colonial artists cannot be gainsaid. In the 1920s, he, Atul Bose, and the great Jamini Roy – the last two completed the course at Calcutta government art school – became close friends, making ends meet with artistic odd jobs, such as painting scenes for the theatre, or producing portraits of the deceased for the family based on photographs, which was a popular ‘Victorian’ custom in Bengal.

The group decided to set up an academic artists’ circle to challenge the onslaught of the Bengal School against academic artists. The group brought out an influential illustrated journal, Indian Academy of Art, in 1920, to win the Bengali public, and organised exhibitions to showcase academic artists from all around India. In addition, they needed to counteract the Bengal School journal, Rupam’s dominance. To ensure wide readership, the modestly priced but elegantly produced Indian Academy of Art covered a wide variety of topics. In addition to articles on art theory that expatiated on naturalism, it supplied art news and gossip, travelogues, short stories and humorous pieces. However, the ultimate intention of the Indian Academy of Art was to publicise the works of Mazumdar, Bose and Jamini Roy (who remained with them for a while but was gradually moving away from academic naturalism.) Colour plates of their prize-winning pictures dominated the issues. Here among other paintings, Mazumdar’s first major painting, Palli Pran (Soul of the Village), on the ‘wet sari effect’ was published.

'Pallipran', 90.3x61.5 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.
'Pallipran', 90.3x61.5 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

The elegant journal with high-quality reproductions soon folded because of financial difficulties. Their second venture, Society of Fine Arts, to show academic artists, enjoyed greater success. Let us remember that this was the era of the dominance of the Bengal School, the first nationalist art movement in India. Abanindranath Tagore and his students had managed to oust the academic artists from positions of power. In the ideological battle between the westernisers (academic artists) and the orientalists (Abanindranath’s pupils), the centre of power for oriental art rested in the Indian Society of Oriental Art, run by the brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath. The Tagores exercised strict control over this institution by excluding all academic painters.

Effectively debarred from exhibiting in Calcutta, academic artists of Bengal were forced to send their works to exhibitions outside Bengal, which was beyond the reach of most. The group resolved to challenge the authority of the Society of Oriental Art by founding the rival society and holding ambitious all-India exhibitions. The first exhibition of the Society of Fine Arts in 1921-22 showed over a thousand paintings from academic artists from all over India, which went some way towards redressing the wide neglect felt by academic artists.

'Rose or Thorn?', 61x50.7 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.
'Rose or Thorn?', 61x50.7 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

The group disbanded after Bose left for England in 1924. Mazumdar’s career as a professional painter however took off. He produced a series of subjects centring on women engaged in leisurely activities, such as toilet, or daydreaming. See for instance, a delicate portrait of a woman in reverie (figure above) that demonstrates his ability to capture a mood. However, his forte was his particular rendering of the back-view of a female subject, which gave him an opportunity to bring out in a convincing manner the sensuous layers and folds of smooth youthful flesh, with a hint of muscles and the bone-structure. The important point is that none of these women were adolescent but mature and presumably married. There are a number of important examples in the show: The Wounded Vanity, Blue Sari, Harmony and also Image, which excel in the sensuous quality of the back. His reputation, however, rests on his erotic paintings of women in la drape mouillée and rarely shown fully unclothed, with the mere hint of an item of clothing that accentuated the figure rather than concealing it. I have mentioned the best-known Palli Pran. There are a few others in the show. Monsoon shows a woman washing her feet sitting on the steps of the river ghat and another of a young woman emerging from the ghat, carrying a water pot with the breasts showing through the sari. His one other successful attempt to capture translucent flesh tones was a large ambitious watercolour nude suggestively titled, Dilli ka Laddu, loosely translated as ‘the obscure object of desire’.

'Dilli ka Laddu', 79x49.2 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.
'Dilli ka Laddu', 79x49.2 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

Mazumdar won no less than three prizes at the venerable Bombay Art Society in three successive years, including the gold medal of the society for his painting, Smriti (Memories) in 1920. The journalist Kanhaiyalal Vakil of the Bombay Chronicle complained: ‘One Mr H. Mazumdar of Calcutta won three times the first prize of the Exhibition. It is a disgrace to the Bombay artists...Either the Judging Committee must be incompetent or Mr Mazumdar is too high for the exhibition.’ Around 1926, Mazumdar had his first financial success when a commercial firm acquired the reproduction rights to one of his paintings for a substantial sum. The painting provided the main attraction for its annual calendar. By the 1940s, Mazumdar gained notoriety or fame (according to one’s outlook) as a painter of partially clothed women. His large oils of partially clothed women and his intimate, voyeuristic eroticism attracted the Maharajas of Jaipur, Bikaner, Kotah, Kashmir, Cooch Behar, Mayurbhanj, Patiala and other the princely states who commissioned him to work for them. Among the nobility, the Maharaja of Patiala, Sir Bhupindranth Singh (1891-1938) was the most devoted, engaging him as a state artist for five years on a handsome salary, which enabled him to build his studio in Calcutta. Apart from his figures and portraits, Mazumdar completed an ambitious screen triptych with the help of assistants.

'Blue Swari', 81x49.3 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.
'Blue Swari', 81x49.3 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

Even as he consolidated his reputation, Mazumdar kept a wary eye on the Bengali public, continuing to publish the Indian Academy of Art single-handedly. He aimed at covering all contemporary Indian artists but did not neglect to give considerable publicity to his own work. The Art of Mr. H. Mazumdar in five volumes (1920-24) provided publicity for the artist as well as presenting Mazumdar’s polemical attack on the ideological foundations of the Bengal School, which he contended, was out of touch with contemporary India. Believing in the universality of naturalist art, he insisted that only direct observation of nature could provide an objective standard. Mazumdar waged war relentless against the orientalists till the end of his life.

So, what did Mazumdar achieve? He created a genre of Bengali beauties that captured the imagination of the contemporary Bengali public because of the novelty of their intimacy and their immediacy. They were not impersonal figures learned from art schools but palpable, breathing, real women. The history of the female figure in Indian art is long and complex, with the erotic quotient ranging from semi-draped apsaras (celestial maidens), yakshis (folk deities) and goddesses in Indian temple sculptures to frank scenes of copulation and other sexual activities. These frank scenes were in keeping with the general spirit of the ancient period as also reflected in the great fifth-century author Kalidasa’s Sanskrit poems and plays. A different outlook emerged after the end of the Hindu and Buddhist periods. Under the impact of Muslim cultures, ‘respectable’ women no longer appeared unveiled in public. Peasant women had no such constraints, nor did respectable Nair women of Kerala who did not hesitate to go bare-breasted as late as the twentieth century. Equally, in the era of the Turkish-Afghan Sultanates down to the Mughal Empire, the nude was less prevalent in miniature painting, except in the case of miniatures from Rajasthan and Pahari (Hill) states of the Punjab: you are offered a glimpse of beautiful slender aristocratic women taking their bath or getting dressed aided by female attendants, with their coy breasts slightly exposed.

'The Lost Heart', 90x65.2 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.
'The Lost Heart', 90x65.2 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

Things changed dramatically during the British Raj. In the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries campaigned against what they considered the immoral aspects of Hinduism, the sexual depravity of gods such as Krishna and the phallic worship of the Shiva linga. Under the impact of Victorian evangelism, western-educated Indians developed a more puritanical attitude towards dress and comportment, as blouse and petticoat became de rigueur for women’s attire. A new ambivalence sprang up with regard to the representation of the body in art. The English disapproved of Hindu erotic temple sculptures, and yet worshipped the nude in Victorian academic art, which stood for moral purity and artistic summit. The rulers imposed a new concept of modesty, as to how much body could be exposed without outraging decency. And yet, in no culture was artistic nudity more ubiquitous than the Victorian. The most famous academic painter of India, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) created a new concept of feminine beauty but seldom ventured into the realm of the artistic nude. The Bengal School of painting led by Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) rejected figure drawing as part of colonial academic tradition, though there were occasionally tantalising glimpses of the bare female torso in Oriental art created by him and his disciples.

'Image', 86.4x60.3 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.
'Image', 86.4x60.3 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

The subject of a rustic maiden returning home in a wet sari after her daily ablutions gave the artist scope to represent the model’s fleshy figure visible through her wet cloth. For all its clever suggestion of an arrested movement, the work was carefully realised in the studio. In order to capture the particular pose Mazumdar took the aid of photographs as well. He thus invented a new genre of figure painting in India, suggesting sensuous flesh tones and soft quality of the skin, enhanced by the semi-transparent garment. Although the nineteenth-century academic master Ravi Varma’s brother Raja Varma had first treated the subject, this was not widely known or imitated, Mazumdar created an independent genre, spawning imitators, the best-known being Thakur Singh of Punjab. Mazumdar was obsessed with capturing the sexual appeal of the lighter-skinned elite women of Bengal, and even wrote verses on his paintings. Most probably the model or inspiration for all these different women was his wife but the subjects avoid a close identification. His draped studies capture the dreamy sensuousness of his sitters absorbed in their own reveries. The subject, Rose or Thorn?, a young woman in a silk sari, wearing elegant earrings and armlets, sits engrossed in her own dream world. The rose in the background has been suggested as symbolising the pain and pleasure of love. It was shown at the annual exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta in 1936 and was later to draw accolades at an exhibition of Portraits of Great Beauties of the World, held in California in 1952.

In socially conservative Bengal in the 1920s, it is hard to gauge people’s true feelings about Mazumdar. Widely diffused in Bengali journals, his readership could not but have taken a guilty pleasure in beholding his paintings. Classical nudes, occurring on the same pages since the early 20th century, did not hold the same shocked fascination because of their cultural distance. Then there were the Bengal School’s mannered, voluptuous two-dimensional semi nudes. The disturbing power of Mazumdar’s women to lay in their palpability and immediacy: his subject an everyday village scene of a young woman returning home after her daily bath. For the puritanical urban middle class, the convincing image of a respectable housewife this portrayed furnished simultaneously discomfort and frisson. A contemporary critic put it well: at a time when women were behind purdah, it was daring to represent someone from a respectable middle-class, someone unapproachable in real life. Thus the beholder experienced the illicit thrill of spying on a ‘respectable’ housewife, the proverbial girl next door. The artist’s tantalising silence about the identity of the model heightened the mystery surrounding her. It is this ambiguity that made such a powerful appeal to the Bengali middle class.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Hemendranath and the Vexed Question of the Wet Sari Effect’ by Partha Mitter, from Hemen Mazumdar: The Last Romantic, edited by Caterina Corni and Nirmalya Kumar, Singapore Management University.

Hemen Mazumdar: The Last Romantic is on view at the De Suantio Gallery, Singapore Management University, in Singapore till February 17.