On March 18- 24, 2014, Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata organised an exhibition of Chitraniva Chowdhury’s (1913- 1999) paintings. Chitraniva has been a long lost name in the world of art though she was among us till a year before the new millennium. She is considered as the last representative of Bengal school. Chowdhury’s journey to the world of art is an interesting history. Born as Nivanani Bose in Noakhali, Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh), she showed her innate talents in fine arts very early in life. After her marriage to a distinguished family where her talent was highly appreciated, she was sent to Shantiniketan for further training. Here in Shantiniketan under the luminous presence of Rabindranath Tagore, her creative pursuits in the world of art were deeply influenced and nurtured. Chitraniva completed a five year fine arts course in Kala Bhavan under the tutelage of ‘Shilpacharya’ Nandalal Bose. She was one of the first four female students of ‘Kala Bhavan’. But it was not only restricted to art, Shantineketan was then a melting pot of creativity and talent in all forms. Rabindranath who himself was an institution would often talk to her about his painting, poetry, music and would call her to listen to his newly composed songs. It was oneday while Rabindranath was eagerly looking at her paintings that he christened her ‘Chitraniva’ in adoration to her talent as a painter.
In the hall of the Academy, hangs a collection of Chitraniva’s 90 art works. They are divided into Water Colour, Pastel, Portrait and Sketches, Batic and needle work. Nature is a dominant subject in her paintings. Her early upbringing in rural eastern Bengal and her direct contact with the nature found ample expression in her art. A newly blossomed Kadamba or a red Radhachura , Simul, Palash, the vibrant seasonal flowers found a soothing expression in her brush. The Evening light, a river in Full moon, a moon lit meadow, winter dawn and the eve of a storm encapsulates the serenity of nature. There are also paintings from epics and mythology like Krishna, Balaram, Yashoda and Ekalabya. The portrait gallery is another interesting segment of the exhibition. There are portraits of all most all the luminaries of the heyday ranging from artistic personalities of Shantiniketan to scientists, author, political leaders, musician, members and friends of the painters family. Her pencil captivated scientists like Niels Bohr, Satyen Bose, linguist Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyaya, nationalist leaders like Sarojini Naidu, C Rajagopalachari, Binoba Bhave, Jawaharlal Nehru etc. A particular pencil sketch of ‘Niharkana’, painter’s closest friend caught my attention. The pensive mood through the strokes of the pencil found such a subtle and beautiful expression. In her reminiscences Chitraniva had mentioned that she had an obsession for making portraits. She even made portraits of people with whom she must have been in contact for few moments. She was jokingly called ‘Shikari’ (hunter) by her mates.
She was also one of the leading fresco artists and had done few masterpiece sculptures. One of those was the ‘Hara Parbati’ in the façade of Shyamali, the house built for Mahatma Gandhi inside Rabindra Bhavan complex in Shantiniketan.
The painter is a lover of peace and harmony and her art is an expression of these amidst natural and secular settings. A subtle melody and a lyrical richness permeate her works and there is no place for stunt or sensation in her work. Her paintings should have a special appeal to the art lovers who wish to soothe their eyes and imagination after their visual journey through the abstract modernist paintings.
Her career as an art teacher began with distinction. She was the first female teacher of fine arts in Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan. She received her own guru Nandalal Bose and the legendary sculptor Ram Kinkar Baize as her colleagues. Later after her return to Noakhali when India’s struggle for freedom was in full swing, she started a ‘Shilpa Kendra’ (Art Centre) to provide basic training in art and craft to the local villagers. After she settled in Calcutta with her husband and children, Lady Abala Bose invited her to take charge of the fine arts department of ‘Bani Bhavan’ and ‘Shikha Niketan’.
This exhibition is a centenary tribute to Chitraniva Chowdhury, the last artist of Bengal School. But it was also an opportunity to look back to the illustrious works of the Bengal school tradition, a genre which revived the Indian art tradition in the time of Bengal Renaissance. We are greatly thankful to the artist’s daughter Chitralekha Chowdhury, the physicist and the renowned singer for preserving, organising and cataloguing her mother’s works in detail.