Mukul Dey: Pioneering Indian Graphic Artist

— Satyasri Ukil

Mukul Dey working on his copper plate at Chitralekha, c. 1982
Photo: Keisuke Inano
Indian painter-engraver Mukul Chandra Dey (1895-1989) — better known as Mukul Dey — was an important personality of his time. A student of Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan School during the early years of the 20th century (c. 1906-1912), he left his mark as a pioneer of drypoint-etching in India.

An extremely sensitive artist (perhaps temperamental at times), he chose an essentially Western medium to depict subjects of Indian life and legends from a common man’s viewpoint. The river scenes of Bengal, the baul singers, the bazaars of Calcutta or the life of Santhal villages in Birbhum — all these attracted his attention and he recorded his vision with deep feeling and a rare sureness of hand.

Mukul Dey is also remembered for his superbly executed portraits of the rich and the famous — the Tagores, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sven Hedin, the Tatas Drypoint portrait of Abanindranath Tagore by Mukul Dey, c. 1937. Original print signed in pencil by Tagore bottom left corner, both in Roman and Bengali script. Artist’s signature and seal on bottom right corner. The seal impression depicts Lord Vishnu’s foot-marks
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
and many more. Coming from a family that had seen difficult times, he had to learn his skills well for his survival. He states in My Reminiscences,

“In 1918, I realised a long cherished dream by visiting the Ajanta Caves. I at once made up my mind to copy the frescos but as I had no money, I had to travel to various cities of southwestern India drawing portraits of rich men and selling my work for a few rupees only.”

Mukul Dey deserves to be remembered not only as an important practicing artist but also as an art collector. Passionately interested in the various forms of folk arts and crafts, as well as the works of his contemporary Neo-Bengal School artists, he was an intrepid collector and promoter of their creations.

During his tenure as the first Indian principal of Government School of Arts, Calcutta (1928-1943), Mukul Dey organized at least two very important exhibitions at the school premises.The artists being Jamini Roy and Rabindranath Tagore

Having interacted closely with such Japanese and European masters as Yokoyama Taikan, Shimomura Kanzan, Kampo Arai, Yashiro Yukio, Stanislav Szukalski, James Blanding Sloan, Roi Partridge, Muirhead Bone, Frank Short, Henry Tonks and George Clausen, Dey’s horizons had widened enough for him to appreciate the genius of Jamini Roy and thus sponsor Roy’s first ever solo exhibition in September/October 1929 in Calcutta.

Coming through the Rye, drypoint by Mukul Dey
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Similarly, much before the Western art world took any cognizance of Rabindranath Tagore as an artist, Mukul Dey had wanted to put up his show as early as 1928. However, as Tagore himself was keener to get recognition from the cultural arena of Paris and Berlin first, this particular exhibition had to wait till the beginning of 1932.

Mukul Dey was my grandfather, and among my cache of childhood memories is the image of him sitting at his desk at Chitralekha, the house he built in 1928, amidst a sea of papers. Day after day, lost to the world outside, he would pore over them, sifting and occasionally filing away sketches and drawings, old photographs, original correspondences, period newspaper clippings, exhibition and collection catalogues and stacks of very rare lantern slides of traditional Indian art. He was passionately attached to papers and images; these were things he could never destroy. For years together, he went on adding to his mind-boggling repository of visual and textual information.

This was unusual for that time and place, and indeed contrary to the general Indian trait of ahistoricity – this sense of history, this desire to preserve every tiny fragment of our cultural fabric.

Over time, Mukul Dey’s priceless collection became fragmented and scattered all over Europe, Asia and the USA. A major part of his collection of Kalighat pata paintings, which numbered 451, was acquired by W.G. Archer for the Victoria and Albert Museum way back Drypoint tools used by Mukul Dey
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
in the 1930s. Similarly, his masterful copies of the Ajanta, Bagh, Sigiriya and Sittanavasal frescoes went to the British Museum and Japan. Most of what remained in India decayed and degenerated with the passage of time.  

Dey never lost hope. He was hopeful to the very last that some day someone from his immediate society would lend him a hand to preserve his collection in a museum or a gallery. But it was a dream he was never to fulfill in his lifetime.

Mukul Dey passed away in 1989.

Midnight Cry, Mukul Dey, c. 1916-17
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
It is only fairly recently that we have discovered that all he left behind do not tell his story alone. These fragile documents are capable of taking a researcher on a rare trip to a fascinating period of our cultural history that is yet to be fully explored and interpreted.

This is extremely important because this material deals with our immediate past – a past that is not at all remote and therefore still capable of influencing our present in a positive way. And, as they say, those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Throughout his life Mukul Dey cast around for those essentially positive, virile qualities of traditional Indian art and culture which retain their flavour and relevance over the passage of time. What he sought was an inter-cultural cross-fertilization of ideas that would infuse an enriched aesthetics into our everyday Seals used by Mukul Dey
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
existence. As Mukul Dey stated in his January 22, 1932 speech at the Rotary Club, Calcutta:

“There are in India at present three types of thought — one would have everything European bodily transplanted into India; another would have nothing to do with anything that savoured of Europe, the third was not afraid to engraft the best from foreign sources for the enrichment of the indigenous stock.”

Mukul Dey’s vision belonged firmly in the third category.

 

Updates:

Visva-Bharati staff goons assaulting Shivashri Ukil.
Photo: Sheikh Ikbal
March 16, 2013

On February 19, 2013, Shivashri Ukil, Trustee, Mukul Dey Archives Trust was physically assaulted by goons employed at Visva-Bharati University of Santiniketan, West Bengal, India. The murderous attack was physically led by Supriyo Ganguli, the Security Officer [!!] of Visva-Bharati University. These goons entered our premises and molested and kicked  our staffs Sm. Rani Bibi and Sm. Minu Bibi who came in rescue of Shivashri Ukil. Read our Notice dated March 5, 2013.

This University, founded by Rabindranath Tagore  employs goons now, and strives to bag the World Heritage recognition from UNESCO!

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