The Vertical Woman: Reminiscences of B.C. Sanyal, Volume I (1902-1947)

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Item Code: NAC306
Author: Santo Datta
Publisher: National Gallery of Modern Art
Edition: 1998
Pages: 122 (Illustrated In B/W)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5 Inch X 8.5 Inch
Weight 380 gm
Book Description

Prof. B. C. Sanyal, the doyen of Indian Art is, perhaps, the most elderly artist in our country. His life’s journey, starting in the beginning of this century, is punctuated by his multifarious achievements and distinctions, as artist, art educationist and art administrator. He is a great humanist and is one of the few who has been honoured with Padma Bhushan.

Born in Dibrugarh (Assam) in 1902, he studied art in Calcutta, worked in Lahore and finally migrated to Delhi in 1947 as a consequence of Partition, discovering all the time a world of strange realities and complex varieties; a world of unbelievable contradictions which he has expressed in his artistic endeavours with a great sense of purpose.

As in Lahore, Prof. Sanyal’s presence in Delhi has been a great stimulating factor in the art scene of the Capital right from the beginning. He became instrumental in the formation of the Dethi Silpi Chakra—a group of young artists, mainly refugee migrants, was formed in 1949— which not only provided a fresh art awareness and great enthusiasm for relating the artist’s work to the emerging conditions of the life of the people, but also for relating the influence of modern art in their work to discover new directions. Not only was the Delhi scene transformed, but the Chakra had its influence in other parts of the country as well.

As is well-known, Prof. Sanyal has continued to play an active and significant role in the art scene of Delhi for the last 50 years, whether it was in the field of education (as Head, Art Department of Delhi Polytechnic, 1953- 60), or promotion of art (as Secretary, Lalit Kala Akademi, 1960-69). All through he endeavoured to raise the status and dignity of the artist in our country.

As for himself, Prof. Sanyal continues to follow his impulse for creating works in the spirit of a great search to find solution to the new ways of life in the country and to make them expressive of that urge. His recent works show a remarkably steady and unfaltering hand, whether in sculpture or painting, an industry reflective not only of hand but also of mind.

His works have an appeal for people of every age and of varying perceptions; for, they depict subjects in which men are usually concerned and which are connected with reason and common sense. They possess a flavour of his experience of life.

Prof Sanyal has, in various phases of his art and modes of expression, not only created a wide impact through his art and personality, but inspired his innumerable students and contemporaries in their pursuit of creative expression.

This present volume, the first of two volumes of his memoirs, gives a deep insight into his personal life experience, his art endeavours and pursuits, in addition to his detailed observations of developments in the field of art and comments on the changing art scene in the country. It is of great historical significance.

The National Gallery of Modern Art takes great pleasure in expressing its sincere thanks to Prof Sanyal for agreeing to get his ‘Memoirs’ published under its aegis and wishes him many more years of creative activity. I thank Mr. Santo Datta, the eminent art critic, for taking up editing and designing the text for publication. Singlehanded, he has prepared six appendices and numerous footnotes for relating the text to the life and times of Prof. Sanyal. He is now working on the second volume of Prof. Sanyal’s memoirs, which covers the period from 1947 to his life and work in contemporary Indian art.


It was a hot day in Delhi. Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal, then in his mid-fifties, was labouring hard to bring the veiled figure of a woman out of the big, vertical boulder of Dholepur sandstone.

The hammer on the chisel-head, the chisel-point on the unyielding stone, tap-tap-tap.... He must uncover the figure so far hidden within the stone.

The place was a small room in the old St. Stephen’s College building where the Art Department of the Government of India was housed. Sanyal was the Head of the Art Department. The year was 1958. Eleven years ago he had left Lahore as a refugee, one of the millions who crossed the border after the Partition. That was the beginning of his The Vertical Woman, and in the process of carving this fine piece of sculpture, now in the Chandigarh Museum, his past life rushed back to him, in rhythm with the strokes of his hammer, in quick flash-backs.

The title of his reminiscences, The Vertical Woman, is associated with the ‘birth’ of this veiled, vertical woman. Now in his mid-nineties, a revered presence on the contemporary Indian art scene, Sanyal is looking back to his childhood in Dibrugarh in Assam, where he was born in 1902. From Dibrugarh to Serampore for his college education, and then to Calcutta, where he had his art education at the School of Art in the ‘20s. And he left Calcutta for Lahore, commissioned to model a plaster portrait of Lala Lajpat Rai, which was to he unveiled at the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress in 1929.

In Lahore, a different kind of life was awaiting him, full of romance, creativity, adventures and agonising uncertainties.

At the famous Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, as a teacher he left his stamp on the new generation of young artists in the Punjab. And after he had to leave the School, a victim of the then Principal, Samarendranath Gupta’s machinations, the undaunted Sanyal started his own studio-cum-school, the Lahore School of Fine Arts. Shifting over the years from one premise to another, his School became a meeting point of the Lahore elite, the poets, artists, dancers, singers, bureaucrats, theatre persons and leftist intellectuals. It was here Sanyal met his future wife Snehalata, who was actively associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. And he had his students around him, who became widely known in later years: Dhanraj Bhagat. Harkishen Lal, Amarnath Sehgal, Pran Nath Mago, Krishen Khanna, Damayanti Batra, just to name a few.

Friendly and open-hearted, armed with a sparkling wit, handsome and well-dressed, a popular teacher and a fine portrait painter and sculptor, Sanyal’s art exhibitions in Lahore became much-awaited events, which won admiring attention of the Press. While going through his memoir one wonders whether he knew almost everybody worth knowing. Faiz Abmad Faiz, Sajjad Zahir, Roop and Mary Krishna, Ahdur Rahman Chughtai, Suhasini Nambiar (Chattopadhyay) and Harindranath Chattopadhyay, Amrita Sher-Gil, and Norah Richards, who popularised the theatre in the Punjab, and Ajoy Ghose, an unforgettable name in the communist movement in India. And Charles Fabri was his friend. Fabri drove Sanyal across the border just after the Partition.

The Vertical Woman was partly published in instalments in The Patriot during 1989-90. Then the hastily set text did its rounds in the Lalit Kala Akademi. Then I was asked by Mrs Anjali Sen, Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, to prepare it for publication. I found the text carrying numerous marks of ‘editing’ by earlier editors. I was tempted to accept the assignment because of the historical importance of the text which covered a span of more than 90 years, written by an artist who is sensitive, adventurous and ceaselessly creative. Working single-handed, I have tried to put the text in its historical perspective through appendices and footnotes. For making it easy reading, I have presented the text in small sections with suitable sub-headings which highlight interesting events, political-cultural environs, or specific periods in the eventful life of the artist, up to the fateful year 1947, when he had to leave Lahore.

Six appendices have been prepared to light up different aspects of his times—particularly the political turmoil that marked his years in Lahore. In Appendix III, I have reproduced news stories from The Statesman of 15 August, 1947, which report the Partition holocaust and also complement what Sanyal saw in Lahore and New Delhi during the pre- and post-Partition riots.

Interested readers will find many surprises in Appendix IV, which presents art reviews published in the Lahore newspapers, including those by Charles Fabri who was then the curator of the Lahore Museum. Even in the boiling political situation in the pre-Partition Lahore, art journalism was very active and appreciative. The appendix also carries three articles, one by a Pakistani columnist with the pseudonym ‘Zeno’, the other two by Dr. Ajaz Anwar and Anwar Mi, published in 1986-87 when Sanyal revisited ‘his’ Lahore.

I have also taken this opportunity to include three letters. Two written by Charles Fabri and one by Mian Mohammad Hussain to Sanyal, after he had migrated to India. The letters are dated October and November 1947. The letters are very touching in their sincerity and deep concern for Sanyal and his family. They appear in Appendix V. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who will remain alive in his poems in this subcontinent, successive partitions notwithstanding, was Sanyal’s personal friend. Both of them went through dark times in the history of this subcontinent: Freedom struggle, Second World War and Partition. In Appendix VI, I have given excerpts from V. G. Kiernan’s introduction to his translation and selection, Poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, just to show why Faiz is loved and revered on both sides of the border. And Kiernan was Sanyal’s friend.

Brief biographical notes on revolutionaries and early communists, who deeply affected Sanyal’s awareness of his times, are included in Appendix II. Throughout his memoir, Sanyal often mentioned them.

The selection of Indian artists for decorating the interior of the India House, the office of the Indian High Commissioner in London, made a big splash among the Indian artists in the late ‘20s and ‘30s. Sanyal, then a young student of the School of Art in Calcutta, also tried for the commission. Since this part of the history of Indian art is not widely known, I have given in Appendix I the details of the artists who got the commission and how they worked in London. The artist, with his phenomenal memory, has made many references to art critics, historians, artists, stage actors, singers and writers, from his early days in Calcutta, and his years in Lahore. I have tried to give some information about some of them in footnotes. I only wish I could work on more entries. But then it would have required a team of research-workers.

Before closing, I would like to quote from the newspaper articles published in Lahore. The report in The Statesman date1ine1 Lahore, February 17, 1941:

Mrs Skrine, wife of the Hon’ble Mr C. P. Skrine, Resident for the Punjab States, opened at the Regal Building yesterday the third annual exhibition of paintings and sculptures of the Lahore School of Fine Arts.... In her opening address4 Mrs Skrine paid a tribute to Mr Sanyal, who she thought was a benefactor to the Pun- jab in three different ways. Firstly, because he was immortalising many Punjabis in paint, in bronze and in clay. Secondly, his Art School was helping to create a future for art in this province.... The third way in which he was a benefactor.... The pupils of Mr Sanyal had their [the people’s] eyes opened to the beauty of the country....and they appreciated the drama of the lives of ordinary people.

The next quote is from an article by the Pakistani writer Dr Ajaz Anwar, published in one of the Lahore dailies, when Sanyal revisited Lahore in 1986. Dr. Anwar writes:

When I saw him for the last time, he was busy inspecting his sculpture pieces that he had discovered in Lahore Museum. I thought of what I had written once: “Many may have seen Naples and died, but coming to Lahore is reincarnation”. With that I bade him goodbye, saying, “Let’s meet again and again, and again”.

“Like a counterfeit coins, was his reply.


Acknowledgements viii
The Vertical Woman 1-102
I. The Interior Decoration of India, House, London, 1929-32 105
II. Revolutionaries & Others 106
III. Partition Pains 110
IV. Art Journalism in Lahore 111
V. Three Letters 119
VI. Faiz Ahmad Faiz 121
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