Shantanu Ukil: Profile of the Painter

— Satyasri Ukil

Shantanu Ukil at Chitralekha, Santiniketan, 2005
Photo: Vineet Sabharwal
It is ideal to write something on Shantanu Ukil and his art recounting the days of early 20th century advent of Bengal School in northern India and the pioneering contribution of Ukil Brothers in making the new capital of modern India a prominent centre of cultural activities during pre and post-independence years. Without these details the narrative would be kind of incomplete.

Beginning of Modern Indian Art in Delhi

Shantanu’s father Sarada Ukil (1889-1940), an early student of Abanindranath and originally from Bikrampur, Dhaka had migrated to Delhi in 1918. He subsequently joined his friend Lala Raghubir Singh’s Modern School (est. 1920), located at 24, Daryaganj, as its first art teacher. Later, at his then residence 287 Esplanade Road in Chandni Chowk, Sarada established his modest studio and an art tuition centre for aspiring youngsters to initiate them into the nationalistic aesthetics of Abanindranath Tagore’s Bengal School.

At the Doorway, black ink on asbestos sheet, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Historically, this was the first ‘bold effort” to sow the seeds of modern Indian art at an arid geographical location, which was then “virtually a desert culturally”.

Promoting Indian Artists & Craftsmen

The Ukil’s School of Art that Sarada established in 1926 had an adjunct, All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society (AIFACS)… which, conceptually, was an ancestor of today’s state-run Lalit Kala Akademi, with constant activities to promote Indian artists and craftsmen with their works.

Thus during 1930s, when Shantanu was just a youngster, the Ukil’s household in New Delhi was the hub of important affairs, as far as the art scenario was concerned in the new capital of British-India.
Recounting those days, Dr. M. S. Randhawa, the noted scholar on Indian art wrote:

“Organization of an annual art exhibition in 1930 was his (Sarada Ukil’s – Ed.) 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 patronized by the Chief Commissioner Sir John Thompson. It was a major venture in popularizing art and 1500 works by over 400 artists from all over India were displayed. (vide. Roopa Lekha, Vol. L, No.s 1 & 2, 1978-79, p.7)”.

Kunti Deserting Karna, Acrylic wash on paper, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Samarendranath Gupta of Lahore, Asit Kumar Haldar of Lucknow, Sailen Dey of Jaipur, Hemendranath Mazumdar from Patiala and Mukul Dey of Calcutta, amongst many others, who had often frequented the Ukils in New Delhi.

It was also during these years (1936-37) that Barada Ukil, Sarada’s younger brother and Shantanu’s uncle, had promoted Amrita Shergil at one of the AIFACS shows in the hutments adjacent to Connaught Place, subsequent to their trip in southern states of India together. This was much before Shergil came in mutually intimate and appreciative contact with Jawaharlal Nehru. (vide. N. Iqbal Singh, ‘Amrita Sher-Gil’, in Roopa Lekha, vol. LIII, No.s 1&2, 1982, p.58).

Publication of Roopa Lekha

Meanwhile, another very important step to popularize art was taken by the Ukil brothers. In July 1939, and after the publication of Rupam was discontinued in Calcutta, the AIFACS came out with their bi-annual illustrated art journal Roopa Lekha (Vol. 1, Serial No. 1)…the first ever periodical from northern India entirely devoted to the cause of fine arts.

The editorial board consisted of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, James H. Cousins, Ajit Ghose, Karl Khandalavala, G. Birbhum Village, watercolour on paper by Shantanu Ukil, 1993.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Venkatachalam and Barada Ukil. The periodical’s 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. Reckoning by any standard this was a very major event in the modern Indian art history…as important as the publication of O. C. Gangoly’s Rupam from Calcutta.

Shantanu Joins his Father’s School

Sarada’s premature death in 1940 was a heavy blow to the Ukil family and their activities. While the joint family had shifted to Calcutta and Varanasi temporarily, the Ukil’s School of Art (later Sarada Ukil School of Art) and AIFACS managed its existence in New Delhi with the active and faithful support of the prominent disciples of Sarada, Anil Roychowdhury, Indu Bhushan Ghosh and Sushil Sarkar.

Landscape of Delhi with Turco-Afghan Monument, watercolour on paper by Shantanu Ukil, 1993.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Shantanu, Sarada’s eldest son and the only one who took to painting according to family tradition, had taken his first lessons in Indian painting from these three disciples of his father on his return to Delhi in 1946.

He joined his father’s art school as a student of both Indian and western painting, and was fortunate to train under illustrious Sailoz Mukherjea, who was in the faculty of Sarada Ukil School of Art (erstwhile Ukil’s School of Art) at 66/1 Queensway, New Delhi. From 1946 till 1951 Shantanu remained a student here.

The First Break-through for Shantanu

The first major break-through came young Shantanu Ukil’s way when right after the diploma his works were included in the exhibition of Indian art in Japan, which was opened at the Ueno Shahjahan’s dream of the Taj, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
National Museum, Tokyo on July 22, 1952 by Shigeru Yoshida, the then PM of the island nation. In quick succession, his works were also included in one of the biggest Indian art exhibitions that had ever taken place on a foreign land. This was in July-August, 1953.

The Indian art exhibition in Soviet Russia in 1953 was significant for several reasons. Quite unlike the 1946 exposition at South Kensington, London, this exhibition in Russia had included several works by the contemporary young artists of the land in its grand entourage. It was clear that the organisers were keen to revive the Indian art scenario by promoting the younger generation of artists who had fresh and newer outlook.

This was important because at that time independent India was just a seven year old nation. Also, if not anything else, this exhibition gave a clear indication of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy with its cultural overtone and emulation of Soviet socialism as the desirable form of economy that India could strive for.

Important news coverage of this monumental show came from art critic Shibdas Banerji’s pen in Amrita Bazar Patrika, in July 1953, which is worth more than a passing mention.

Shantanu’s Paintings Receive Acclaim

Baul Singer, oil on canvas, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The Indian art exhibition in Soviet Russia was one of the first major events in Shantanu Ukil’s career. His Indian paintings (Bengal School) got international acclaim and found a place in the permanent collection of the famed Hermitage Gallery of Moscow. Back in India, a series of important exhibitions followed, with much appreciation from the press and foreign and Indian art lovers.

In quick succession his works were acquired in the collections of Maharaja of Bikaner, Maharaja of Baroda, Mysore Art Museum, Chandigarh Museum, Prime Minister’s Secretariat, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and Rashtrpati Bhavan between 1951 to 1968.

Meanwhile outside India, apart from Moscow, his paintings were collected in Museum of Finland, Denmark, Cairo, Poland, China, Japan, USA, Italy, Switzerland, Romania and scores of other countries.

Transition of an Artist

Though trained in the western style of painting under such stalwart as Sailoz Mukherjea, until late 1950s Shantanu Ukil executed his works primarily in the “wash technique”, as Landscape of Delhi with Turco-Afghan Monuments. watercolour on paper by Shantanu Ukil, 1993.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
popularized by Abanindranath Tagore and Bengal School.

Quite like his father, he is essentially a colourist, but with bolder drawings and swifter execution, which have been the characteristic of his Indian paintings. Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim legends, folklore and life, along with the aura of Mughal Delhi’s afterglow influenced Shantanu deeply.

Shantanu was keen to depict the life and colours of Delhi villages amid the shades of cool greens under the neem trees. Or, perhaps the splashes of vermillion and the cascading gold on the branches of gulmohur and amaltaas amid the ruins of Lodi’s Delhi. These visual sensibilities were undoubtedly the aesthetic seeds that Sailoz had sowed in his student’s mind. They sprang to life at a later point of time in Shantanu’s career.

Mother and Child, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
On the other hand, the romanticism and the inherent rhythm of the aboriginal Santhal life in Bengal and Bihar so inspired Shantanu that he created some of his finest works on their life, while often experimenting with medium, form, pigments and surface texture.

Today, the aged artist fondly recounts his days in New Delhi when at the premises of Sarada Ukil School of Art, he along with his contemporaries, Saradindu Sen Roy, Sukumar Bose, Arup Das, Ramnath Pasricha, Biren De, Abani Sen, Bimal Dasgupta and Harinarayan Bhattacharya would happily indulge in their respective artistic pursuits, often going out together to do sketches on life in Delhi villages. These villages later got absorbed into the burgeoning metropolis of present New Delhi.

Also, there was the occasional but magnetic presence of Manishi Dey as well, with his monumental and sensitive works on Bengal refugees. Manishi was a close friend of Sailoz and the stories of their bohemian life together could easily fill volumes!

Shantanu has a very great regard for this master artist, about whom he says, people seldom understood!

Famine, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
(Unfortunately, in an era of all-encompassing consumerism, it seems there are few who could possibly be interested in such anecdotes…more so, when as a nation we have done so little in the areas of preserving our oral history and its proper documentation!—Ed.)

There was a time when Sarada Ukil School of Art was a center of much important art activities. Here, eminent artists and scholars such as Stella Kramrisch, artist Qi Baishi of China and Nicholas Roerich visited to exchange their thoughts and techniques with Indian counterparts. In 1952, the AIFACS had organized the Chinese Art Exhibition when Qi Baishi visited India and the interaction Shantanu had with him is still fresh and cherished in his memory.

In 1956, India celebrated 2500 years of Lord Buddha’s Parinirvana in a big way when prominent artists of the day were involved in an important exhibition, where Shantanu Ukil and Saradindu Sen Roy had opted for Italian egg tempera process to do their paintings on the guidelines from fabled treatise of Cennino Cennini (1370-1440), as translated by C. J. Herringham of Ajanta Frescoes fame (India Society, 1915). Their visual idiom was strictly according to the tenets of Indian Shilpashastras and Tagore’s Bengal School.

Rythm of Life, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
However, just a year later, in 1957, there was a drastic change in the flavour and quality of Shantanu’s creative output. While visiting his in-laws (Mukul Dey and his wife Bina) at “Chitralekha”, Santiniketan he came into contact with artist Kiron Sinha and his Austrian wife Gertrude at their architecturally stimulating studio-cum-gallery amid the undulating khoai land adjacent to their compound.

Kiron, though an ex-student of Kala-Bhavana, was far removed from the visual language of Nandalal Bose and his batch of students. Instead, he was quite a rebel in his thought and life-style and had vigorously experimented with the neo-Impressionistic imagery with Paul Signac and Seurat’s pointillism.

Kiron was bold and had a fabulous palette, recalls Shantanu - light mauve, emerald, umber, vermillion and black. Kiron’s favourite subject were the Santhals of Birbhum - in all their vitality, flesh, sweat and blood! Shantanu was inspired deeply by Kiron’s works.

Santhal Life, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Thus, from the late-1950s and during the following decade one finds a pronounced change in Ukil’s visual idiom. The delicate yet controlled lines and subtle much-washed hues of Bengal School gradually gave way to the forceful spatula-work of thick impasto with mysterious chiaroscuro of the artist’s immediate environment. It was as if Shantanu got a sudden and tremendous freedom from the shackles that held him fast to rock hard traditions.

It was a freedom that had compelled him to explore an essentially newer palette! Similarly, the artist’s earlier inspiration from India’s Hindu and Buddhist past were gradually replaced by the images from his direct personal experience. He transformed the emotions into vermillion, deep purple, mauve, viridian, gamboge and umber directly, while forming a vigourous reading habit to keep abreast with literature, history and philosophy.

His marriage with Mukul Dey’s daughter Manjari, who did her research in the areas of foreign influences on ancient Indian history and culture from Visva-Bharati University, was a constant source of much inspiration, recalls Shantanu.

Shantanu got an opportunity to study the various trends of European art in first-hand when he was included in an AIFACS organized cultural delegation that attended the 4th Centenary Celebrations of Dresden Museum in erstwhile East Germany in 1960-61. Back in India, he organized his first show with paintings done in oil in September 1963, New Delhi.

At the pond, Shantanu Ukil
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
While reviewing the exhibition the noted critic and art historian Keshav Malik wrote in Thought (September 14, 1963):

“The first thing that strikes as one enters the hall housing this exhibition is the undoubted skill of the painter. Every work has a neat finish and nothing is left in any doubt; no self-indulgence here in any inadvertent or conscious confusion of forms. And yet, it will be seen that Shantanu is neither an illustrator nor a traditional.”

Truly, that was the beginning of a journey in an entirely new direction. An aesthetic journey that is rich with the artist’s visual experiences intertwined with the joys and sorrows of his life - a journey the artist is still continuing with.

Forever in search of the nuances of light, colour, texture and form, Shantanu Ukil had travelled widely in his country and abroad to enrich his mind. In 1982 he was invited to Japan on a Japan Foundation grant to deliver lectures on Indian art. This lecture series at Fukuoka, Kyoto and Tokyo was much appreciated.

Ukil feels that an artist is absolutely free to try out newer styles, techniques and visual idioms with the usage of unconventional surface and medium as it catches his fascination. It is ridiculous to straightjacket him in any particular category.

He declares,

“An artist has to have the curiosity of a child…and a mind to play with his medium, and an ability to marvel and wonder at the life around”.

Santhal Dance, acrylic on canvas by Shantanu Ukil, 2005.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Indeed, an artist must have an ability to marvel! Though not an unknown name in India, Shantanu Ukil had a solitary existence throughout his artistic career. He never belonged to any group really. At times he exhibited, and often not. During mid-1990s, after a gap of about a decade, Shantanu was introduced to the art lovers of Mumbai by his younger son Shivashri who coaxed the artist out of his shell and had his show organized in the business capital of India.

The result was a tremendous success. The whole exhibition was sold out. Not only that his works were acquired by top Mumbai collectors, he got a fabulous press as well!

Beat Aeschlimann playing guitar at Chitralekha, Santiniketan. Watercolour wash-painting on paper by Shantanu Ukil, early 1970s.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Dr. Mulk Raj Anand wrote about the artist in 1999:

“Artist Shantanu Ukil belongs to the family of Ukil Brothers who played important part in the resurgence of Indian painting in the years before freedom.

Although they were rooted in Bengal, they spread out and were able to bring influences from West and elsewhere to bear upon Indian painters. The association of Barada Ukil with Amrita Sher-Gil proved to be significant. The other brothers were commissioned by Government to do frescoes in India House, London.

Shri Shantanu Ukil is the heir to Ukil tradition. He has travelled widely, lived in the west, and, now, brings to painting technique the new acrylic medium, which seems to evoke layers of form by juxtaposition of colours, so that paintings become near sculturesque.

This technique is very suitable for the figures in our country, because the vitality of the human beings, in various moods, comes through almost dramatically. Roughness of form, recreated in the new technique, makes for action-pictures and for dramatic presentation of people, specially folk, in human form”.

The artist passed away in his studio at Santiniketan in May 2006.

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