— Mukul Dey
My Reminiscences is a slim monograph by Mukul Dey, printed at The Statesman, Calcutta in 1938. It provides a rare insight into the early life and career of the author and his cross-cultural interaction with various personalities in the field of art and literature in an international arena.
Iwas born on July 23,1895, at Sridharkhola, a tiny village in the district of Dacca, East Bengal. This was my maternal home. My grandfather, Mahim Chandra Dey, was a leading Pleader of his time at Dhubri, Mymensingh, which is close to Dacca. My father, Kula Chandra Dey, was a poet and was in the service of the Government of Bengal. My mother, who is alive, is of a pious disposition and of the old school.
Though she was never trained to it, she used to draw beautiful illustrations of mythological Mahabharata subjects and Ramayana subjects on articles for domestic use. She is an expert on Alpana (ritualistic) designs and can make moulds for sweets with various decorations.
I am the eldest of four brothers. I remember, in 1900, I began my school lessons at the Hamilton High School at Tamluk in Midnapore district. From childhood I was interested in drawing. My private tutor was the drawing master of that school from whom I learnt a little drawing.
My father being a Government Officer had constantly to move from place to place. So naturally I had to change my schools from time to time and thus my studies were often interrupted. My father’s poetic turn of mind brought him in touch with Rabindranath Tagore; they were mutually attracted by their common interest and their acquaintance grew into friendship.
In 1907, when I was eleven years old, I came to Calcutta from Ghatal, and was taken by my father to Rabindranath Tagore at his house at Jorasanko. At sight he told my father that he wanted boys like me for his School, and suggested that I should be sent to Bolpur immediately.
The Poet’s nephew, Abanindranath Tagore (now Dr. Abanindranath Tagore), the renowned artist and founder of the Modern Bengal School of Art, lived in an adjoining building. During the holidays I had to pass through Calcutta on my way to my home, and thus had some opportunities of meeting Abanindranath Tagore who advised me to send my drawings to him now and then for his criticisms as there was then no drawing class at Santiniketan School.
When I visited Dr. Abanindranath Tagore at his Jorasanko house I used to meet his elder brother, Gagonendranath Tagore, who showed great interest in my work. Both brothers would criticise and correct my sketches and remark on them as good, fair or bad. As there was no art teacher at Santiniketan I sent my sketches, drawings and paintings etc. to Dr. Abanindranath Tagore by post. I drew what I saw and as I saw such things as Santhal huts, cows, calves, men walking on the red gravelled road to the market-place, creepers, flowers and many other objects which captivated my youthful imagination. The sketches were in pen and ink, and pencil. Sometimes I painted in colour.
Theatrical performances used to be organised by the boys at Santiniketan and on these occasions I would be asked to paint scenes and curtains for the stage. At the literary meetings of the school I won many prizes for drawings and paintings. Monthly magazines in manuscript used to be brought out by the students. I did the cover designs for them and my original sketches and paintings also found a place in them.
While at Santiniketan, I heard that Mrs. Herringham of London with the help of some of the pupils of Dr. Abanindranath Tagore was making copies of a series of Ajanta Fresco paintings. Newspaper accounts of the Ajanta Caves and the work going on there awakened my curiosity to see these cave paintings for myself some day.
From 1911 my paintings began to find place in the monthly magazines published in Calcutta such as Prabasi, Modern Review, Bharatvarsa and Bharati. My painting “The Blind Beggar” first appeared in Prabasi and created an interest in my work among the artists and art critics of that time.
In 1912 I left Santiniketan, and my father reluctantly agreed to let me study art under Dr. Abanindranath Tagore at his Jorasanko house, where I lived as a member of his family. Soon after this, I began to exhibit my paintings at the yearly exhibitions of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta. They were much appreciated, as was shown by the ready sales my work commanded and I gradually established my reputation.
In 1913-14 the Indian Society of Oriental Art sent my paintings to Paris, London and other cities of Europe for exhibition along with the work of other students of Dr. Abanindranath Tagore. I stayed with Dr. Abanindranath Tagore for four years except for the intervals covered by my travels during the vacation.
With the money from the sale of my work I began to wander about from place to place, seeing monuments of ancient art and visiting places of natural beauty and artistic interest. I visited Puri, Konarak, Darjeeling, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Agra, Jaipur, Lucknow, Ramgarh, Benares, Gaya, Sanchi and Jubbulpore.
It was about this time that I met Mr. W. W. Pearson who was a man with an infinite capacity for loving his fellows. A great friend of Sir Muirhead Bone, he was deeply interested in all artistic work, etchings in particular. From the first, he took a keen interest in my pictures and often came to my studio and encouraged me both by words and by buying me art materials.
Mr. Pearson first put into my head the idea of dry points after seeing my black and white drawings. He gave me some copper plates to scratch with a steel pointed needle and used to send those plates to London to be printed as it was not possible to print them in India.
Willie Pearson often spoke of sending me to England to meet his friend Bone who, he said, would gladly teach me etching. But the beginning of the Great War made it impossible for me to go to Europe then.
Towards the beginning of 1916, however, Pearson arranged for me to accompany Poet Tagore on his tour to Japan. There I came into touch with Yokoyama Taikan, Shimomura Kanzan and Tomitaro Hara who were friends of Gagonendranath Tagore and Dr. Abanindranath Tagore. At this time a revival of painting was going on in Japan and as an Indian artist I was privileged to see with my own eyes the new Japanese art revival.
I had also the good fortune to see the brilliant art collection of T. Hara the well-known connoisseur of Yokohama. Mr. Hara was a great patron of Mr. Taikan and Mr. Shimomura Kanzan. He was pleased with my work and was anxious to give me a scholarship for five years but Rabindranath was not in favour of my accepting it.
At Tokyo I arranged an exhibition of paintings by Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, his pupils, and of my own drawings and paintings. The exhibition was held at Okakura Kakuzo’s Art School at Tokyo named Nippon Bijutsuin (Nihon Bijutsuin). It was a success and was favourably noticed in newspapers.
After my visit to Japan I sailed for America with the Poet and toured throughout the United States of America. On September 19, 1916, we reached Seattle in Washington. Immediately on my arrival here some of my drawings were published in the Seattle Post Intelligence on September 19, 1916. Mr. Roi Partridge, a renowned etcher in California, called on me. On looking at these drawings he at once took me into his studio, where I practiced drawing from life models.
After visiting several other cities we came to San Francisco, where I again organised an Exhibition of our Modern Bengal School of Paintings, at the Paul Elder’s Gallery in October 1916. This also attracted much attention. It was the first occasion when our Modern Bengal School of Paintings was brought to the notice of America. I was in sole charge of this Exhibition and remained at the Exhibition Hall the whole day explaining the subject of these paintings and the history of the development of the Modern Bengal School of Art to the visitors.
At San Francisco we stayed at the same hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Paderewski. They invited us to their piano recitals where I made several sketches of Paderewski at the Piano. In 1916 there was an exhibition of Goya’s work at Riverside Inn in California where we stayed for a few days. There, for the first time, I saw many beautiful and marvellous oil paintings of this great Spanish artist, which impressed me very much.
We then went on to Chicago and stayed with Mrs. William Vaughan Moody. There I met Mrs. Bertha E. Jaques to whom I had an introduction from Mr. Roi Partridge. Mrs. Jaques took a sympathetic interest in my work and in her turn introduced me to Mr. J. Blanding Sloan under whom I had a course of training in etching. Mrs. Jaques first taught me the art of printing from copper plates in her own studio. At Chicago I saw an Exhibition at the Art Institute of etchings by J. F. Millet. These, which showed complete mastery over the subject, were a revelation to me, and I was inspired to develop my powers in this direction.
Here at Chicago for the first time I sold some of my etchings, which were purchased by Albert Roullier’s Gallery. During my stay in America I visited many museums and art galleries and studied the art of etching, paying all the expense of my traveling and costs of purchase of materials from the sale of my work.
I was the first Indian artist to be elected a member of the Chicago Society of Etchers.
Next I went to New York where Mr. Carl Zigrosser kindly showed me etchings at the Keppel Galleries and gave me much useful advice. He also presented me with several original etchings and books on prints and etchings. In New York I illustrated Mr. W.W. Pearson’s book “Santiniketan” which contained a description of the school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. This book was published by McMillan & Company of New York.
In 1917 I returned to India. With the experience I had gained in Japan and America, I turned my attention to portrait drawing, and started etching the daily scenes of life in Calcutta. I had also brought out an etching press and printed my own work.
My work got a sudden setback when, in July 1917, my father died at Calcutta. However, I recovered the shock sufficiently to bring out in December 1917, a book containing portraits of twelve eminent men of Bengal who had established their mark in the fields of Literature, Art, Science, Politics and Law.
At this time I was at the Vichitra Art School at Jorasanko. I was asked to go to Santiniketan again to teach drawing to the young students there, but preferred to stay in Calcutta. But I could not sit still teaching art for long.
My old craving for wandering got hold of me, and I resigned my work and set out on a tour all over India. 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. I had a great desire to accumulate some money quickly so that I might go back to Ajanta and achieve my burning desire to copy the frescos.
In my travels I visited the following places during 1918-19 - Bombay, Ajanta, Ellora, Nasik, Poona, Goa, Bangalore, Mysore, Nagapattam, Madras and Pondicherry. Some of my portrait drawings were published by the Bombay Chronicle and Times of India Illustrated Weekly. These brought some revenue to my gradually increasing fund.
Before I went on my pilgrimage to Ajanta and Bagh, I organised an exhibition at Nagpur in 1918, showing the different schools of Indian paintings from early times up to the modern age. Thus I collected about Rs. 3, 000/-. With drawing materials and other equipment I started for the Ajanta and Bagh caves in the beginning of 1919. During my stay at Ajanta I had to walk ten miles almost every day from the Fardapur village Dak Bungalow and back; this journey was so exhausting that I soon moved into one of the Caves and lived in it for the rest of my stay at Ajanta.
I took about nine months to finish my copying work at Ajanta from where I moved on to the Bagh Caves at Gwalior. My experiences at Ajanta and Bagh have been fully described in my book - “My Pilgrimages to Ajanta and Bagh” (Thornton Butterworth Ltd., London, 1925).
In January 1920, I left the Bagh caves and went to Bombay. The frescos I copied were bought by Mr. Kallianjee Curumsey Damjee of Bombay and this provided me with enough money to start immediately for England.
At Victoria Station, London, I found my old friend, Mr. Pearson, who had come from the Isle of Wight to receive me. In London, Willie Pearson introduced me to Dr. Henry Lamb and Prof. Henry Tonks. When I arrived in London all schools and colleges were closed for the vacation. So Pearson took me to Petersfield in Hampshire to meet Mr. (now Sir) Muirhead Bone, a great etcher who had just then returned home to settle down to work.
He was kind enough to let me work in his studio at Byways Steep until I could join the Slade School of Art in London. I took rooms at Steep from where I went to the studio daily, remaining till far in the evening. As my first effort at engraving I made dry-point portraits of Muirhead Bone and his wife, Gertrude Bone, on copper plates presented to me by the etcher.
Here I met Thomas Sturge-Moore the poet who was also an artist. He was staying at Steep to look after the education of his children at Bedales School. During my work at the studio I recounted to Muirhead Bone and Sturge-Moore my adventure in the Ajanta and Bagh caves and they showed much interest in my travels.
When the Slade School of Art reopened I went to London and joined it. I began my work under Prof. Henry Tonks and Prof. W. W. Russell. After a short stay at the Slade I joined the Royal College of Art at South Kensington, with a scholarship. Although I took up the School of Painting for my subject, I continued to learn etching under Sir Frank Short.
During holidays I worked as a teacher for a few months in the King Alfred Co-education School at Hampstead. My teaching met with the approval of Mr. Joseph Wicksteed, the Head Master, and the members of the Committee. Mr. Joseph Wicksteed wrote of me:
“I have known Mr. Mukul Dey for several years and for a time when he was living in my house or in a neighboring one, we were constantly together. He was also kind enough to teach Art in my school for a short time. Unfortunately, this last was not long, but two features of his work seemed to me very characteristic.
He was quick to detect merit where a less gifted and sympathetic teacher would have missed it. And on the other hand where merit was obvious he knew how to find and point out weakness and so induce still better work. In both the ways he proved stimulating to children of very varied ages and capacity, while his own enthusiasm was contagious to us all. His manner with the pupils was that of a fellow student guiding and inspiring rather than instructing”.
While at the Royal College of Art I showed my paintings and sketches at the New English Art Club, London, and at Grosvenor Galleries, Bond Street. I also gave a lecture on Indian Arts and Crafts at the Art Workers Guild in London. I won first prizes in tempera painting and dry point engraving at the Royal College.
In 1922 I was the first Indian to receive the Diploma in Mural Painting at the Royal College of Art. Leaving the Royal College of Art I lived in London practising my art.
In London Mr. Sturge-Moore introduced me to Mr. Charles Shannon, Mr. Charles Ricketts, Prof. Selwyn Image, Canon Wilson, and his daughter Miss Mona Wilson, Canon Lacey and Mr. C. P. Sanger. Miss Mona Wilson took me to E. M. Forster, a novelist who knows India very well. Mr. Sturge-Moore often visited me in London and we discussed art. These discussions helped me much in my work and gave me inspiration. I learnt many things from Mr. Sturge-Moore about composing a picture, especially figure compositions.
I was constantly in touch with so many friends in London that I never felt lonely or home sick. Mr. Laurence Binyon, Mr. and Mrs. E. A. C. Druce, Miss Elsie M. C. Druce, Mr. And Mrs. Enid Erskine, Sir George Clausen, Mr. R. B. Cunninghame-Graham, Sir Herbert Baker, Sir Edwin Luttyns, Lord Carmichael, Mr. Charles Aitken, Mr. Jacob Epstein, Mr. Joseph Wicksteed, Mr. Lionel G. Pearson, Mr. Henry Clifford Maggs, Mr. And Mrs. Louis F. Fergusson, Col. W. G. Pridmore, Lady Violet Mond, Lady Erleigh, Sir Alfred and Lady Hamilton Grant, Mr. Pussyfoot Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Staite Murray, Sir Murray and Lady Hammick, Sir Thomas Arnold, and Mr. and Mrs. G. P. Gooch, Mr. C. W. Whall, Mr. and Mrs. A. R. Smith, Miss Pott, Miss Gwendolen Otter and many others invited me to their respective houses and I spent a very pleasant and instructive time with them. I shall never forget the kindness I received from my English friends.
I learnt more than I did in art schools by visiting the studios of the artists. I often went to the studios of such artists as Sir George Clausen, Charles Shannon, Charles Ricketts, Henry Rushbury, Prof. Tonks, Miss Ethel Walker, W. Staite Murray, Jacob Epstein, Selwyn Image, Sir William Rothenstein and Henry Lamb. I saw them at their work and learnt many useful things from them. I would now and then take my works to them and they frankly criticised them.
Both in 1922 and in 1923 the Royal Academy, London, accepted my paintings for exhibition. The following notice is reprinted from:
THE SUNDAY TIMES, May 20, 1923. THE ACADEMY A REVIVAL OF ENGLISH WATER-COLOUR ART by FRANK RUTTER
“As a piece of decorative design “Sakuntala’s Farewell to the Trees and Flowers of Her home” (732) is the most effective thing in the room. The artist, Mukul Dey, is unknown to me, but I presume he is an Indian, possibly a member of that new Calcutta School which has brilliantly revived the pictorial tradition of Hindustan. Mr. Dey is to be congratulated not only on his achievement, but on his wisdom in adhering to the art-forms of the East, which, as regards decoration, has nothing to learn from Western civilization.”
At this time my finances were unsatisfactory as I earned only a precarious living by drawing and engraving portraits. The little time I could spare from my work of portrait painting I devoted to writing the experiences of my travels to the Ajanta and Bagh Caves.
In 1923 I made a portrait of Pussyfoot Johnson in oil, drawings and dry point portraits of R. B. Cunninghame-Graham, Campbell Dodgson, Dr. Percy Dearmer, Black Bird, Mr. C. P. Scott, Prof. Selwyn Image, Mr. T. Struge-Moore, Mr. A. G. B. Russell, Mr. C. P. Gooch, John Buchan, Sir Murray Hammick, Lady Hammick, Lady Fisher, the Misses Binyon, Miss Mona Wilson, Cannon Lacey Canon Wilson, Lady Erleigh, Sir Muirhead and Lady Bone and many others.
In 1924 I held my first “One man’s show” of my original work and copies of frescos at Ajanta and Bagh at Sir Alfred Hamilton-Grant’s House in Onslow Square, London. This exhibition was a great success for me, and the conservative art-world of London began to look on me favourably. Two press notices reproduced below may not prove out of place.
Reprinted from THE TIMES, February 5, 1924. ART EXHIBITIONS BY AN INDIAN ARTIST
“There was an exhibition yesterday, at 59, Onslow Square, through the kindness of Lady Grant, of paintings and drawings by Mukul Dey, an Indian artist, whose work has been admired at the Royal Academy, the New English Art Club, and other English exhibitions.
Prominent among the exhibits were ten copies of frescoes in the Ajanta caves and one of a fresco in the Bagh caves in Gwalior Estate. The Ajanta frescoes are best known to English people from the copies made by the late Lady Herringham and her assistants and reproduced in a big portfolio for the India Society (it will be remembered, too, that Mme. Pavlova recently founded a ballet on these famous works). It is very interesting to compare the copies made by Lady Herringham with those made under the inevitable conditions of difficulty, discomfort, and some danger, by Mukul Dey.
We learn, for instance, that the rapt air of adoration in an enchanting drawing, well known to students of Lady Herringham’s copies of a woman and a youth is due to their being the wife and son of the Buddha, who are looking up at his colossal figure as he returns with the beggar’s bowl in his hand, after his enlightenment, and a peculiarly interesting touch is the umbrella that is held over his head out of the sky.
Mukul Dey’s copies begin in date with the closely packed painting of a king and queen with their attendants, which is ascribed to the third or the second century B. C. The finest of the other scenes are those of the fourth century A. D., and the copies impress one anew with the opulence and the splendour of design of these wonderful achievements of Buddhist art.
Their union of majesty with luxuriance would be hard to beat. Mukul Dey’s many other exhibits in portraiture, landscape and figure, in water-colour, etching, drawing, and other methods, shows him to be an artist of acute vision and a suave and beautiful imagination which is most attractive when it is least touched by Western influence”.
“Mr. Mukul Dey, who has been showing his wonderful copies of the famous Buddhist frescoes in the Ajanta and Bagh Caves at Lady Grant’s House, 59, Onslow Square, is an artist with a double personality. As an Indian, deeply steeped in the art tradition of the East, he paints in the decorative manner of his country, without allowing himself to be led astray by European art teaching.
His remarkable painting of “Sakuntala’s Farewell to the Trees and Flowers of Her home”, is pure Indian in conception and execution. As a student of the Royal College of Art, he has benefited so much by European teaching that his crayon portrait drawings of Mr. Cunninghame-Graham, Mr. Campbell Dodgson, and other prominent contemporaries might easily be mistaken for the work of Prof. W. Rothenstein, the principal of the college.
The great feature of his interesting exhibition are his faithful copies of the Ajanta frescoes, which, for the first time, adequately reproduce the splendours of this treasure house of early Buddhist art, showing its development from the 3rd or 2nd century B. C. to the 6th century A. D. They demonstrate the flourishing condition of the art of painting in India at a time when it was languishing in Europe.
Not before the advent of Giotto has Italy produced anything that can rival the grand conceptions of these early Indian masters. The copies were made under difficulties that might well have driven a less determined man than Mr. Mukul Dey to despair, the frescoes being in positions difficult of access in dark caves and partly so thickly covered with darkened varnish that their outlines only become visible if the surface of the wall is damped. The artist had to bring his own lamps and on to the cave over many hundreds of miles of distance”.
In 1924, I received a commission to decorate a portion of the Indian pavilion at the Wembley Exhibition. I executed the work single-handed. My work at Wembley aroused great enthusiasm among the art world of London. Reprinted below is an article published by the:
DAILY MAIL, dated Wednesday, April 12, 1924. ARTIST-HERMIT OF WEMBLEY 85 Ft. PAINTING SINGLE-HANDED GORGEOUS DISPLAY IN INDIAN PAVILION SIR PERCIVAL PHILLIPS
There is one man in the great army of workers at Wembley Park whose desperate eagerness to finish his share of the British Empire Exhibition within the allotted time is an example to others. His name is Mukul Dey. You will find him leading an almost hermit-like existence in the great domed pavilion, half mosque and half palace in appearance, which is India’s contribution to the new Imperial City.
He is labouring night and day, heedless of overtime or trade unions, snatching a little sleep at intervals in a hut only a few feet away from his work, pausing reluctantly for food and intent only on completing the task in hand. Needless to say, Mukul Dey is an artist. He has come from the famous Tagore art school in Bengal to paint single-handed a mural decoration 85ft. long in the Bengal Court. It promises to be one of the many artistic marvels of Wembley. Mukul Dey says modestly that Europe has never seen anything like it.
PANELS IN VIVID COLOURS
He is covering the wall with a freehand design in white on chocolate ground, inset with large panels containing gay figures in bold and vivid colours. The pattern of the main design is one that Mukul Dey has seen the village women of Bengal draw with their fingers in the loose earth. The panelled figures show the influence of his long study of the famous Ajanta caves in Hyderabad, which are decorated with early Buddhist frescoes, the earliest examples of Indian mural paintings. Other native artists are beautifying the courts and galleries of the pavilion which is to be the exhibition home of the Indian Empire, but Mukul Dey seems to over-shadow them all as he toils away with set face and burning eyes, building up his masterpiece with the sure hand of a craftsman. “I must be ready”, murmurs Mukul Dey when people try to talk to him”.
I was also fortunate in getting the work of decorating the ceiling at the house of Mr. Eliot A. C. Druce. On the ceiling I painted “The Tree of Life”, with figures, animals and flowers. After this, some of my paintings were shown at the Walker’s Art Gallery at Liverpool and at other exhibitions. In 1925 after a strenuous time I published “My Pilgrimages to Ajanta and Bagh”. Mr. Laurence Binyon kindly wrote an introduction to the book. The following is a quotation from Mr. Binyon’s introduction to my work:
“Mr. Dey went to Ajanta and Bagh in the spirit of a pilgrim. He is one of those Indians who seek to revive the art of India in the Indian spirit. And it is to Ajanta that the modern Indian artist rightly turns, or should turn, for there is nothing really antiquated in those frescoes; they still radiate life; they show what the Indian genius could achieve on a grand scale in the past, and may achieve again. Indians in general take far too little interest in their own art, whether ancient or contemporary.
They should realise that through painting and sculpture, in which mankind instinctively embodies its deepest thoughts and ideals, a race speaks to the world in a language needing no translation. All over the world is a newly stirred curiosity and interest in the art of India. We look to Indians to honour their art and their artists; to cherish the great monuments of the past and to foster the gifts of the living; for art, if it is to enjoy the fullness and glory of expression, needs the co-operation of the whole people out of which it comes”.
I went on a tour to France and Germany in July 1926. My stay in Paris was short, but in Berlin I exhibited my work at the Philharmonic Hall. Some of my engravings were also published in Berlin newspapers. I made dry point portraits of Prof. Albert Einstein and Dr. Sven Hedin and the Late King Feizal of Iraq.
On my return to London in September 1926, I took up lecturing. I gave a series of lantern lectures on Indian Art and Civilisation, at Poplar and Dalston Literary Institutes organised by the London County Council. In connection with these lectures I took some members of the audience to the South Kensington Museum (Indian Section) and the British Museum (Indian Section), and explained to them the beauty of Indian Art. I also addressed a meeting at the Fellowship Club in London and at the Art Workers Guild in Birmingham on Indian Art.
My old friend Sir John G. Woodroffe invited me to stay with him for a few days at Oxford. He was most interested in my work and took great pains in showing me round the Oxford Colleges. He introduced me to Mr. E. B. Havell who was at Oxford at the time and they both strongly advised me to go to India where I should work and teach. They encouraged me by saying that I should be able to impart my knowledge to the Indian students better than anyone else, having gained skill and experience both in England and on the continent.
In October 1927, I held an exhibition of my drawings and drypoints in my own studio near Knightsbridge. Mr. Campbell Dodgson, formerly Keeper of Prints and drawings in the British Museum, wrote the following foreword to the Catalogue.
THE FIRST INDIAN ENGRAVER
”Is it so strange, as at first sight it seems, that an Indian artist should have mastered the use of a tool so western as the dry-point? To a hand so skilled as his in wielding pencil and brush, it can have presented no great difficulties. If it did, Mr. Mukul Dey has long ere this surmounted them, and the present Exhibition reveals with what sensitive and delicate lines he has interpreted on copper, romantic legends and mystical subjects from Indian poetry and religion. He has chosen wisely in being true to the traditions of his race, instead of adopting, with a European technique, the kind of subjects that a European engraver would naturally choose”.
An appreciation which appeared in the LONDON TIMES dated Tuesday, October 4, 1927, is reprinted below.
”As a rule, for obvious reasons, studio exhibitions have to be ignored, but in the case of Mr. Mukul Dey, the Indian artist, who is showing dry-points and drawings at 12, Relton-mews, Cheval-place Knightsbridge, the rule may be stretched.
For one thing, Mr. Mukul Dey is the first Indian engraver to show here, and for another all Westerners are under an obligation to him for his copies of the Ajanta and Bagh frescoes, now in the British Museum. As an engraver with the dry-point Mr. Mukul Dey retains his interest in native subjects and legends, and also to a great extent the native style of drawing, responding to Western influence chiefly in increased depth of atmosphere.
The style is most marked in “Girls Dancing”, of which a tinted proof is also shown; the response in “The Ganges, Calcutta”. Between the two there is great variety of subject and effect and in everything the evidence of great sensibility. For extreme comparison we may quote the line drawing “Fragment from Ajanta Frescoes”, and the charming little watercolour, rather like a Brabazon, “Autumn Morning”. Among the dry-points and drawings there are some excellent portrait heads of interesting subjects, “Professor Albert Einstein” and “The Black Bird” (Miss Florence Mills) among them, and there are some studies for decorations in the classical Indian style”.
Soon after the close of my exhibition I received a Royal Command to send my pictures and engravings to Buckingham Palace. Their Majesties were graciously pleased to express their appreciation of them.
By the end of December 1927 I returned to India after years of absence. My experiences in England had proved invaluable to me. My views were broadened and I gained skill. My experience taught me that we have much to gain from our contact with the English in the world of Art.
Soon after my return to Calcutta I arranged an exhibition of my etchings and drawings at the Indian Society of Oriental Art in February 1928. At this time an Advisory Committee was formed to select artists for decorating the Secretariat buildings at New Delhi. I was selected a member of this Committee.
In 1928 the post of the Principal, Government School of Art, Calcutta fell vacant and I was selected for it on July 11, 1928. After taking over charge of the Government School of Art as Principal, I organised an exhibition of drawings, paintings, sculptures, engravings etc. done by the students and the staff of this school.
It was opened by Lady Jackson, amidst a distinguished gathering. Since then, the Government School of Art has an annual exhibition. In 1928 an exhibition of the pictures of Mr. Stowitts a noted American artist was organised by me and held at the Arts Section of the Indian Museum.
In 1929 I gave two lectures in the Indian Museum on “Indian Art and Civilisation”. I became a member of the Board for selecting artists for making mural decoration at the India House, Aldwych, London, in 1929.
In 1931, an art magazine for the Government School of Art, Calcutta was started by me. In the same year, I organized an exhibition of modern Japanese drawings and paintings by Mr. Tomimaro Higuchi, Art Instructor of “Hakuyasha” Art School of Osaka.
In 1932 I organised an exhibition of drawings, paintings, engravings, pottery and leatherwork by Rabindranath Tagore. In 1934, I helped in selecting and collecting etchings and paintings from Bengal for the special exhibition of Indian art at the Burlington House organised by the India Society of London.
I lectured at a weekly meeting of the Calcutta Rotary Club on the subject of Indian Art. The address was published in The Statesman of January 23, 1935, and is reproduced here.
“Recent art movements in India were outlined by Mr. Mukul Dey, Principal of the Government School of Art, Calcutta, at the weekly meeting of the Calcutta Rotary Club held at the Great Eastern Hotel yesterday.
Mr. Dey said that Bengal had up to now taken the lead among the Provinces of India in regard to ideals and culture, and if one followed the growth of modern Indian Art in Bengal one would perhaps have a fairly good idea of present day art movements throughout India. After reviewing developments up to what Mr. Dey called the “birth of modern Indian culture”, he said that about 40 years ago Mr. E. B. Havell, who recently died at Oxford, was the Principal of the Calcutta Government School of Art. He was one of those Europeans who believed that the salvation of Indian Art could be achieved only by Indian artists going back to their own traditions instead of by merely trying to copy European art.
At that time Mr. Havell had Dr. Abanindranath Tagore as Vice-Principal in the Government School of Art. Dr. Tagore himself had some years previously stopped following the European style and seized this opportunity to abandon the teaching of imitation European art in his classes and took steps to bring out the latent talents of the pupils themselves.
Mr. Havell and Dr. Tagore cleared the art gallery attached to the school of its third and fourth class copies of European pictures and worthless plaster casts and began to collect in their place real Indian art objects to serve as an inspiration and not as models for imitation. At first only four or five enthusiastic students joined Dr. Tagore’s new class, the rest remaining indifferent to his call.
MYTHOLOGY AND TRADITION
Mr. Dey then traced the origin and development of the Bengal School of Art, and said that Dr. Tagore and his first band of pupils had to draw their inspiration from Indian mythology and tradition including by-gone Indian history, and their paintings at first were mainly confined to subjects derived therefrom.
They were in the beginning somewhat afraid of modern life, lest they should be drawn into the imitative representation and thus lose the inspiration that welled up from within them. This led them to avoid landscapes or portraits, or the representation of present-day objects or events, so their work remained somewhat artificial, in the sense that it was not the outcome of their own actual experiences but rather of a dreamland which they made real by giving it colour and form for those who had the eyes to see and the hearts to feel with them.
Paintings was found to be the best medium for expressing this dream life of theirs, and so the first group of artists completely neglected other mediums of art such as sculpture, architecture, or means of reproduction like lithography, woodcut, etching etc. Oil painting was also tabooed as being too decidedly European.
After some years, this strict following of mythological, allegorical or old historical subjects began to pall on some of Dr. Tagore’s pupils. One of them started experimenting with the painting of local river scenes and subjects from modern rural life, not neglecting certain aspects of Indian life to be found in the nooks and corners of the city of Calcutta.
This young man was at once marked down as a rebel by Dr. Tagore’s pupils, but Dr. Tagore himself encouraged the young artists’ enterprise, contenting himself by giving proper direction to his activities whenever occasion arose. This sympathy from the master helped other younger artists to branch out into their own expressions of actual life and experience.
THE NEW SPIRIT
Later on some of these artists went over to England after being firmly grounded on the bedrock of Indian tradition. There they acquired a wider experience of life and acquired considerable skill in the different mediums of artistic representation. And, because of their grounding, these artists succeeded in assimilating much that is true in European artistic culture, so that, whatever medium they chose for expression, their work became more universal in its appeal without losing it distinctive Indian quality.
When these artists returned to India they infused a new spirit into Indian art. They were not afraid of looking at life as it is. Nevertheless they avoided the vulgar and the sordid for the simple reason that their higher training enabled them to see all the more clearly that true art cannot abide in what is vulgar or sordid.
THREE SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
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.
These types of thought were reflected in the three kinds of art exhibitions held in Calcutta, - the exhibition of the Academy of Arts held in the Indian Museum, that of the Society of Oriental Art located in Samavaya Mansions, and that of the Government School of Art held in the school premises.
Concluding, Mr. Dey regretted that there was no museum or public place in Calcutta where one could see the works of modern Indian artists collectively. He was attempting with the help of friends to establish such a museum, and hoped his dream would be realised”.
An art exhibition was organised by the detenues in Berhampore Detention Camp and I was invited to officiate as a judge and distribute the prizes in 1936, and on this occasion I gave four lectures to about 300 boys gathered there.
I organised, in 1936, an exhibition, of paintings drawings and impressions of Indian life by Mr. Kosetsu Nosu of the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts who was engaged to make fresco paintings at Sarnath. I organised an exhibition of drawings, paintings, woodcuts, etc. at the Customs Recreation Club, Customs House in 1936. I also delivered a lantern lecture on Indian Art on this occasion.
After a good deal of time devoted to reorganising the Government School of Art and bringing its standard of work to a high level I have now taken up dry-points and paintings with renewed zeal. Recently I made some portraits among which special mention may be made of Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, Gandhiji, Sir John Anderson and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. I consider myself still a student and pay my homage to my old master and Guru, Dr. Abanindranath Tagore.
28, Chowringhee Road,
April 20, 1938.