Sarada Ukil: Profile of a Pioneer

— Satyasri Ukil

Sarada Ukil as King Shuddhodana in Franz Osten’s movie The Light of Asia, 1925.
Photo: Unknown
Reprinted from ‘Art & Deal’, January-February, 2001.

”New Delhi as I knew in the pre-partition days was virtually a desert culturally, though the old walled city of Delhi enjoyed an age-old cultural tradition. New Delhi was brand new but culture and its manifestations take breeding time and suitable stimulus. In this uninspiring environment it was a bold effort on the part of late Sarada Ukil, to establish his atelier and teaching workshop at New Delhi… (the Ukil brothers’) imagination and energy did not rest at that. The Ukils sponsored an adjunct of the School of Art — The All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society”, wrote Prof. B. C. Sanyal. (Roop-Lekha, 1982, p. 64)

However, in fairness to the theme of this article I must explain, at the outset, that my aim is neither to resurrect Ukil (my grandfather) nor to provide him a decent burial. While negating both the possibilities, it is intended here to focus on a specific period in New Delhi’s art history, 1920-1940, and the role of a pioneer who initiated the movement.

Incidentally, Delhi was the arena, where in 1902-1903 Abanindranath Tagore had secured his first public appreciation when he was awarded a second prize and a silver medal for his oil painting Last Hours of Shajahan in the Durbar exhibitions at Qudsia Gardens (Watt. pp. 458-59).

Ukil, an early student of Abanindranath and originally from Bikrampur, Dhaka, had migrated to Delhi in 1918 and subsequently had joined, his friend, Lala Raghubir Singh’s Modern School (est. 1920) at 24, Daryaganj as its first art teacher.

However, after a year Sarada left the services of Modern School, on certain ”ethical grounds” as he put it and had established at his then residence, 287 Esplanade Road, his studio and an art tuition centre for aspiring artists. This was the precursor of what later on came to be known as Ukil’s School of Art (est. 1926).

At Esplanade Road studio he had at least six students. They were Bhuvan Varma, Souren Sen, Ananda Munshi [?], Anukul Banerji, Premoja Choudhury, Indu Bhushan Ghosh and Anil Roy Choudhury.
At a time when Delhi was virtually a cultural desert as Sanyal puts it, this effort by Ukil, which was later on to be shared by his brothers Barada Ukil and Ranada Ukil, was a rare example of far-sightedness and positive imagination.

Of course, Lahore, Jaipur and Lucknow were there, Simla was there too, but none of these centres in North India had an aspiration for organised directionality of an All India nature, as far as promoting Indian art and crafts were concerned.

Dr. Abanindranath Tagore with his first batch of students. These were the founder students of Bengal School of Painting. Photograph taken at Govt. School of Art, Calcutta. Sarada Ukil standing on the right and Nandalal Bose sitting fourth from the left. Also present are Asit Kumar Haldar, Samarendranth Gupta, Shailendranath Dey, K. Venkatappa, Kshitindranath Majumdar and Shami-us Zama of Lucknow amongst others.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
If Abanindranath Tagore through his imagery and style had sought for a “nationalist” revival in India, and if Ramananda Chattopadhyay was responsible for presenting those images, affordably, to the multitude of educated Indians and penetrating the zenana (andar-mahal) of a Hindu household, then it was primarily Sarada Ukil and his brothers who had claimed and won the new capital of British India for the cause of Tagore’s Bengal School.

Though almost regularly participating in the early exhibitions organised by Indian Society of Oriental Arts (ISOA) 1913 onwards, the first major reference to Ukil’s works is to be found in the Bombay Art Society’s 1923 exhibition at the Town Hall, Bombay.

This particular show was important for more than one reason. Here, on the one hand, we find a strange absence of the artists of I. S. O. A. and Nandalal and his Kala-Bhavana; on the other, we find that it was still the students of Abanindranath Tagore, settled outside Bengal, who had stolen the show from the western academic artists and that too in Bombay!

Whereas the Bombay Chronicle (November 28, 1923) had praised the works of Ukil, Roopakrishna and Samarendranath Gupta, the Times of India (November 30, 1923) was more eloquent in its appreciation of Ukil. I quote:

Ajanta tradition is perhaps the basic inspiration of the modern Indian school of painting. And we dare to say it; the latter is even more advanced in both its ideas and technique. An excellent proof of this statement is to be found in the fascinating watercolour exhibits of Sarada Ukil. The eagle eye of the B. E. E. has recognised Mr. Ukil’s merit. He paints poems. The Id or the First Moon (334), The Winter of Life (332), Kaikeyi and Manthara (338) and The Renunciation of Buddha (339) are marvelously delicate examples of this Bengal artist”.

The BEE of the above quotation was an abbreviation for British Empire Exhibitions at London, scheduled in mid-1924, and many of the exhibits for the forthcoming B. E. E. were selected from this particular exhibition of Bombay Art Society.

Showing the Id Moon, one of the most appreciated paintings of Sarada Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Interestingly, even in London the decoration of the Bengal Court of B. E. E. was entrusted to a student of Abanindranath Tagore and a Royal College of Art Associate — Mukul Dey — who had completed there, single-handedly, a mural 85-ft. long! (Percival Phillips Artist Hermit of Wembley, Daily Mail, London, April 12, 1924).

Thus, I think it can logically be inferred that though Abanindranath Tagore initiated an art revival throughout the country and even outside, under British / Western patronage, and its popularisation by the efforts of Ramananda Chattopadhyay in print media, the days were numbered for Bengal School, at least in Bengal, after Nandalal’s departure for Santiniketan and his association with Rabindranath and Gandhi.

At Delhi in December 1924, we find the Ukil brothers engaged in organising an exhibition wherein they had not only included paintings, but also ivory and conch-shell works from Bengal, mother-of-pearl pictures from Jessore (now in Bangladesh) and combs and penholders made from horn.

Though this particular exhibition was organised at least six years prior to the formation of the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society by the Ukils, it may be taken as an early pointer towards their future inclination and role in promoting Indian art and crafts.

Still operating from his old residence at Esplanade Road, Sarada Ukil all along thought of a general upliftment and encouragement of Indian art and craft forms.

The landmark in the year 1925 for him was entirely in a different direction however. The Great Eastern Corporation Ltd. of Delhi in co-operation with Munich Photoplay Company, under their Chief Stage Manager Franz Osten had embarked on a mega film project, The Light of Asia, based on Gautama Buddha’s life.

With the insistence and introduction by another Bengal artist — Charuchandra Roy, who played the role of Devadutta in this film — Sarada played the role of king Suddhodana with Himangshu Rai enacting the role of Prince Gautama.

With its exclusively Indian performers, its absolutely natural scenery and genuine costumes and real fittings, this film not only bears the stamp of Living Truth, but stands as a convincing proof of the heights which the filming art can attain”. (The Great Eastern Corporation, Foreword)

Thus, we find in mid-1920s, Sarada Ukil actively involved in different branches of the accepted art forms and engaged in promotion of Indian crafts as mentioned earlier. A year later, in 1926, he established his Ukil’s School of Art, where he remained principal till his death in 1940.

Sarada Ukil receiving Lady Willingdon at the exhibition of AIFACS, early 1930s. Sardar Gurcharan Singh is seen extreme left.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Though Abanindranath Tagore’s Bengal School has often been criticised for limiting and binding the growth of modern Indian art in the rigid tenets of orthodox revivalism, it was primarily his disciples who fanned out throughout India and abroad to herald a new era of artistic expressions, especially after Ravi Varma and Mhatre had long since been appreciated and then dropped by Ramananda Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore. (Purabi, p. 155)

History tells us that to hold together any new and upcoming institution, it primarily requires the services of an active and charismatic personality at its helm of affairs. Probably Ukil was one such man. The year 1927 saw a series of important art activities from New Delhi.

In August it was the grand participation in an exhibition at Poona (Times of India, August 22, 1927); on 15th September it was the 55th Annual Exhibition of the Simla Fine Arts Society, (September 25,1927); and finally, in October 1927, Sarada published The Scenes from Indian Life, an album of burnt sienna brush drawings with an introduction by James H. Cousins of Adyar, Madras.

While reporting on the Simla Fine Arts Society exhibition (1927) Mulk Raj Anand wrote:

Coming first to the exhibitors in the oriental school of art the works of Ranada Ukil and Sarada Ukil stand out in solitary grandeur. Nearly all of their works are contemplative finished pieces of art. We come across the spirit of the Bengal School in its full vigour - Goddess Durga is a picture of great skill and ingenuity. No doubt it is the best picture in the exhibition. (However) in my opinion Sarada Ukil’s Goddess Kali is in some respects a greater work of art and creates a more lasting impression”.

Front cover, Roopa-Lekha, Vol. I
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Here it is most interesting to note how in the oriental section of this exhibition both the Ukil brothers’ works vied with each other to draw the attention of young Mulk Raj Anand. By now, we find that an organisation of an All-India nature was gradually emerging in the imagination of Sarada Ukil and he had given it a practical shape in the form of Fine Arts & Crafts Syndicate Ltd. at 287, Esplanade Road. This organisation was the precursor of the All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society (estd. 1931).

The earlier testimony of Ukil’s concern to create a pan-Indian platform for artists, irrespective of the mediums used and the styles practised by them, could be found from his letter dated December 10, 1928 to Sir B. N. Mitra, Member, Department of Industries and Labour, Government of India, New Delhi.

He wrote this letter as the Secretary of the Fine Arts & Crafts Syndicate and the subject was the controversy regarding the New Delhi mural decorations. This document which had been subsequently published, in full in The Chronicle, was possibly the first effort by any 20th century artist for a grand unification of Indian art. In his letter Ukil had categorically advocated the merits of the following artists for the cognisance of the British bureaucrats:

  1. Nandalal Bose, J. P. Gangooly, Promode Chatterji and Mukul Dey (Bengal)
  2. Lalkaka, Haldankar, Panvalkar, Taskar and Pithavala (Bombay)
  3. K . Venkatappa and D. P. Roychoudhury (Mysore and Madras)
  4. Asit Haldar (Lucknow)
  5. Sarada Ukil and Ranada Ukil (Delhi)
  6. Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Samarendranath Gupta (Lahore)

The two primary characteristics that emerge from the study of this document  are, Ukil’s general concern for his fellow Indian artists and  to project his Syndicate as a pan-Indian forum for the matters related to art and crafts.

Front cover, Roopa-Lekha, Special Independence Number
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
In April 1929 and October 1930 two major exhibitions of works by Indian artists were organised at London and Mysore. At both these exhibitions the Bengal School could make its presence noticed and appreciated through the works of Ukil. The Hindu (October 7, 1930) while covering Mysore Dasara Exhibition wrote:

The striking feature of the Indian art section is the collection of paintings by the gifted Ukil brothers of Delhi. The outstanding among them is Krishna Leela, one of the master pieces of Sarada Ukil - a painting on silk and it is perhaps the biggest silk painting (5’ x 4’) attempted in Indian art. The picture has been awarded the Viceroy’s Cup at the Delhi exhibition of 1930, the biggest exhibition ever held in India. Krishna Leela has been awarded His Highness’ prize for the best picture in this exhibition”.

While writing about Ukil and the 1930 exhibition Dr. M. S. Randhawa reported that:

Organisation of an annual art exhibition was his next venture. This art exhibition which is a landmark in the history of promotion of art in New Delhi was opened by the Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, and was patronised by the Chief Commissioner, Sir John Thompson. It was a major venture in popularising art and 1500 works by over 400 artists from all over India were displayed”. (Roop-Lekha, 1978-79, p. 7).

Thus by 1930-31 Ukil was more than ready to deserve his solo at India House, Aldwych, London on January 18, 1932, which was inaugurated by Sir Francis Younghusband, one of the last full-blooded “Imperialists” in Lord Curzon’s Camp (1904 Tibet Campaign) and a great lover of Indian art and aesthetics.

Notwithstanding whatever today’s art historians might say, it is intended to put on record here that many of the British “Imperialists” were also important patrons of Indian arts and crafts. In fact, Lord Curzon’s inaugural speech of December 30,1902 Delhi Durbar exhibition was so appreciated by historian Dr. Narayani Gupta that she raised a most pertinent introspective question, that whether one could find a similarity in Curzon’s speech and Bipin Chandra Pal setting a matchstick to a bundle of Manchester cloth! (seeWatt, Introduction)

At the 1932 solo, 35 of Ukil’s watercolour washes and 52 brush drawings were exhibited. William Rothenstein in a note published in the exhibition catalogue wrote:

It is well that we in England should know how living Indian painters see and feel. The sensitive and disciplined work of Mr. Sarada Ukil has something in common with the lyrical poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Refined and pensive, it gives us, like Indian music, an insight into the delicate moods of the Indian spirit”.

Whereas the well-known London art critic who used to sign as P. G. K.(P. G. Konody) wrote in The Times as follows:

It is in his black and white line drawings that this Indian artist’s gifts are seen at their best. It seems scarcely credible that a line of such fineness and sharpness could be yielded by a brush. Yet it is a fact that Mr. Ukil never uses a pen. And to the use of that implement is due the elasticity and inimitable quality of his line. These drawings are fascinating renderings of Indian types and scenes of Indian life, charged with profound emotion”.

Title page, Roopa-Lekha, Special Independence Number 1948
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Around 1930, Sarada had shifted his school and art gallery to Sahib Singh House, Connaught Place, New Delhi. The following year 1931 saw the formal establishment of the All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society by the Ukil brothers, and by July 1939 their bi-annual illustrated art journal Roopa-Lekha (Vol. 1, Serial No. 1) was published.

The editorial board consisted of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, James H. Cousins, Ajit Ghose, Karl Khandalvala, G. Venkatachalam and Barada Ukil. The cover was designed by Kumudini Devi, Ukil’s mother, which carried typical traditional Bengali motifs such as lotus, conch-shell and Goddess Lakshmi’s footmarks. Even a cursory glance at the contents table and the list of coloured and monochrome illustrations of this first issue will prove beyond doubt the pan-Indian philosophy and outlook, irrespective of styles and -isms, even in those early years of this organisation’s existence.

One interesting observation about the chronology of Roopa-Lekha is that there is discrepancy in its numbering. Whereas the July 1939 issue is designated as Vol. 1/Serial No. 1 the 1949 issue is designated as Vol. XX/Serial No. 1. It is possible that the publishers faced some problems during the initial years of its publication.

From 1932 to 1940, the Society held exhibitions of Indian Art in most of the important cities of India as well as in London and Paris. Also, the society took up the responsibility of publishing the art journal Roopa-Lekha. It was reorganised and registered in 1938 and a drive was made by the Society for establishing a National Art Gallery in New Delhi.

Co-operation and support of important art-centres like Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Lucknow and Lahore was enlisted” (Roopa-Lekha, 1949, pp. 54-55). It was during this period that AIFACS had organised Amrita Sher-Gil’s first solo in Delhi in 1937. This was held right after her South India tour in Barada Ukil’s company.

The idea to establish a National Art Gallery was very important to the Ukil brothers. In 1938 Barada Ukil had organised an exhibition at the Taj in Bombay where works of Sarada Ukil, Ranada Ukil and their students were exhibited for sale.

Half of the sale proceeds was to go to the cause of the National Art Gallery; but for the death of Sarada Ukil and the World War, work would long have begun. Ukil died on July 21, 1940 from mercury poisoning and after amputation of his right hand at his then studio 66 Queensway, New Delhi.

Front cover, Roopa-Lekha, Vol. XXVII
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
From a researcher/archivist’s viewpoint only the preservation, assimilation and interpretation of ancient data would be just another futile exercise unless its relevance could be established in the context of the present.

While this writer does not claim to be competent enough to comment, he wishes to put it on record that while AIFACS has managed to grow over a period of years, going purely by documentary evidence, the Ukil’s School of Art is surviving on the margin.

One of the last and large masterpieces by Sarada Ukil Radha-Krishna - a silk painting, both sides finished, is rotting in the possession of this school. If this article generates enough public opinion to shift that work to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, one would be happy.

The author wishes to thank Shantanu and Manjari Ukil; Mridula Vichitra, Modern School, New Delhi and Sham Sundar Bhagat, AIFACS.


  1. Purabi, A Miscellany in Memory of Rabindranath Tagore, 1941-1991.
  2. Roopa-Lekha, Vol. XX, No. 1, 1949.
  3. Roopa-Lekha, Vol. I, No. 1 & 2, 1978-79.
  4. Roopa-Lekha, Vol. LIII, 1 & 2, March 1982.
  5. The Great Eastern Corporation Ltd., Foreword, The Light of Asia Catalogue, Delhi, 1925.
  6. Watt, George, Indian Art at Delhi 1903, Introduction by Narayani Gupta, Motilal Banarsidass, 1987.
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