Sunayani Devi: A Journey Through Naïve Art and Cultural Revival

In the heart of Calcutta's vibrant tapestry of culture and intellect, the story of Sunayani Devi emerges like a quiet but glorious sunrise, bursting forth with hues of orange, yellow, and red, while the world around her slumbers in the embrace of the night. Born in 1875 into the Tagore family of ingenious writers and painters, Sunayani's journey traverses a path less traveled – one that transcends societal norms and embraces the boundless realm of creativity.

Her life story is an intricate narrative of breaking free from the constraints of tradition to embark on an artistic expedition that would breathe new life into Indian art and culture.

Early Years

Devi grew up amidst the cultural ferment that was the Bengal Renaissance while still immersed in the kaleidoscope of the Tagore family’s cultural inheritance. She was brought up in the traditional and secluded women's quarters, where societal norms confined women to domestic roles. At the tender age of 12, she entered into matrimony with Rajanimohan Chattopadhyaya, the grandson of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Her world was limited yet ripe with possibilities. She recalls her fascination with the devotional pictures in her aunt's room as a child. Among these, the Ravi Varma prints held a special place in her heart, leaving an indelible impression. In the subsequent years, the intricate charm of Rajput miniatures further ignited her artistic imagination, becoming a wellspring of inspiration for her creative endeavours.

The Tagore family was the crucible in which Sunayani's artistic inclinations were nurtured. Embedded within a family of luminaries that included Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and accomplished painters Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Sunayani found herself amid artistic brilliance. Yet, the early years offered her only fleeting glimpses of the creative world. The yearning artist would quietly observe her brothers Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore at work, experimenting with different art forms, like the Japanese wash techniques. 

Creative Beginnings

It wasn't until she reached the age of 30 that she embarked on her painting journey, spurred by her husband's unwavering determination and steadfast support for her artistic aspirations. She collected copies and prints from magazines like Probasi and Modern Review, often copying them. Throughout her fifteen-year span of artistic activity, which stretched from the ages of 30 to 45, Sunayani Devi adhered to a disciplined painting regimen. Each day, the hours from eight in the morning until midday, followed by another session from three until four-thirty in the afternoon, were devoted to her craft. Her creative process had to be tailored around the role of a matriarch in a large well-to-do household. Her grandson gives a vivid account of her work method:

Matriarch in a large well-to-do household, she was expected to oversee its daily routine: she would sit on a taktaposh (divan), propped up with bolsters, painting and occasionally dipping her painting in the water bowl that had been used for washing vegetables, all the while supervising her daughters-in-law who made preparations for the cooking. [1]

Sunayani Devi adopted the meticulous Japanese wash technique after observing her brother Abanindranath Tagore. Her creative process started by outlining with red or black brushstrokes on the canvas. Then, she carefully filled in the spaces using watercolours and a delicate paintbrush. To blend the colours, she dipped the canvas in water, letting them merge gracefully. This wash technique added a delicate tint, balancing form and colour. As she worked, hazy yet evocative shapes emerged from the washes, and she fine-tuned the outlines to create a harmonious composition.

Sunayani Devi, Untitled (Shiva Parvati), Watercolour/tempera on paper

Drawing inspiration from the Pata folk painting style, which held a familiar place within the Tagore household, Sunayani Devi infused her creations with its essence. This art form, known for its intricate details and vibrant storytelling, became a cornerstone of her artistic expression. Through her brush, she expertly captured scenes drawn from the rich tapestry of Indian epics and mythologies, breathing life into characters and narratives that had transcended generations. Her life in a Bengali household also found expression in these paintings. Her artistic sources were varied and she often turned to images that fascinated her, garnering inspiration from and reflecting what she saw within her home. On her canvas, mythological tales and religious narratives sprung to life, as did the captivating stories of Krishna Lila, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. Her art became a vivid tapestry interwoven with India's rich cultural heritage and age-old sagas.

Her signed artworks emerged in 1923, marking the inception of her artistic journey. It is evident that her most active phase unfolded during the span from 1923 to 1940.

Her art in focus 

Sunayani's artworks emit an essence of spontaneity, a genuine natural quality, an unfettered sense of freedom, and a profound simplicity—attributes often intertwined with the ethos of Primitive Art. The creative style she embraces closely resonates with the artistic traditions commonly cultivated by rural women. Sunayani ingeniously weaves her imaginative spirit into this foundation, shaping a tangible manifestation of classical artistry.

Sunayani is primitive, in the sense Ajantan and the medieval Italian masters were primitives. Spontaneity, freedom, naturalness, unsophistication, directness, simplicity, boldness, these characterise primitive art. All folk arts, like ola paintings, pottery paints cloth paintings, share these characteristics. [2]

Sunayani Devi was the first artist to find inspiration in village Pata art. This art style lent her some wonderfully unique facial features. In the Indian artistic tradition, certain eye shapes are reserved for specific emotions and character types. In the realm of "Indian artistic anatomy," artists have the freedom to copy "ideal forms" from nature's many realms, giving them various choices.

For instance, the half-closed, elongated eyes, which convey introspection, are used to portray divine beings. Fish-shaped eyes, combined with long eyebrows, depict women and nobility. The eyes of a deer during spring symbolise lovers, while almond-shaped eyes represent carefree men. Meanwhile, the eyes resembling lotus petals stand for gods and maidens. Indian artists use this system to tell diverse tales with artistic freedom. In Indian art, each conventional type holds a deeper meaning and purpose. Sunayani Devi, with the inherent creativity and instinct of a natural artist, crafted her own distinctive style for both human and divine subjects. These creations are both evocative and profoundly meaningful. 

Sunayani Devi didn't follow a premeditated process of creating her art. Instead, she allowed her creative instincts to be her guide. This approach led Stella Kramrisch to assert that Sunayani's paintings sprouted naturally, almost as if they emerged directly from her inner essence. Her art served as a form of creative release, not bound by concerns about its monetary value. This was evident in her habit of often painting on both sides of the paper. When she attempted to paint with conscious deliberation, she found that her delicate touch would falter, revealing her artistic limitations. Surprisingly, Kramrisch saw her restricted skillset and narrow perspective as virtues rather than flaws—a unique kind of unsophisticated grandeur.

Although influenced by the Tagore School, her art maintained a distinct sense of independence. She remained acutely aware of the chasm that set her apart from her brothers:

They work in the midst of the hustle of the outside world, and I work in an inner world. My pictures don't reflect their influence, they are entirely different. [3]

The themes of Sunayani's art were drawn from her personal inner world. She asserted that her paintings captured her dreams akin to fairytales, her art embodied a world going beyond life's mere mundanities and daily endeavours. "Most of my paintings I have seen in dreams, - after seeing them I have then put them down, the greater part of my paintings I have 'found' in my dreams." [4] She further goes on to say: At His (God's) request I have painted, - Mother and Child, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Mahadev, Radha Krishna, - all these. I have never painted landscapes. Once 'Chotda' (Abanindranath) said to me, 'You must paint other things as well, birds, cats, and so on, - your work is all of a kind and beginning to get monotonous'. So I did a drawing of a horse, but to tell you the truth I have never painted things other than the subjects I have mentioned. [5]

Sunayani Devi, Untitled (Saraswati), c 1920, Tempera on paper

The surprising thing about Devi's art is that even though some of her figures are depicted with haloes around their heads, her art deliberately avoids the typical quality associated with religious or iconic imagery. Instead, she is using these symbols not to create a sense of divinity but to convey stories and meanings related to mythology, rituals, and individual experiences.

Sunayani's artistic approach seamlessly intertwined tradition and individuality, crafting a narrative that spanned time and emotion. Rooted in folk motifs and indigenous inspirations, her unique interpretations gave rise to art that reflected the essence of India's soul. Her creations, adorned with intricate lines, subtle shades, and meticulous detailing, served as a profound testament to her artistic and personal journey. With her art, Sunayani bridged the divide between ancestral wisdom and personal ingenuity, crafting a distinct style that paid homage to her heritage while asserting her creative identity.

Sunayani Devi: Pioneering the Female Perspective in Indian Art

Sunayani Devi, Lady with Parrot, Watercolour 

During those times, women predominantly occupied the inner quarters of the household. As a result, they had limited exposure to the bustling social circles where renowned, influential, and talented individuals converged. Sunayani Devi emerged as a trailblazer by introducing the female perspective into the Indian art scene. In her art, she skillfully depicted a mesmerising sense of stillness. Her paintings delved into the lives of women within households, capturing their thoughts and feelings. By arranging dynamic lines, she conveyed a poetic calmness. This artistic style often mirrored the lives of many women like her, who lived quietly within the walls of their homes. She depicted the solitude and pensive moods of women with tenderness and a certain charm, giving us a glimpse of her innermost private life. 

Vigorous fatigue, the relaxation of a fully grown, fully ripened life, clings-dark red, dark green-round girlish faces. Their sarees are not made of cloth but of some tender mood-so expressive are they. They are no longer garments but cradles that rock with motherly solicitude the pensive, mysterious being of young girls who have learned the secret before it is told. Therefore their eyes do not look about; they know where they are; they are messengers from the world within, the world veiled by the -sweep of red and green sarees. It is through these eyes, long and steady, yet alert like wagtails, that their thoughts and feelings are sent out and enliven the picture. [6] 

She focused on simplicity, avoiding overwhelming intricacies, which kept her figures free from excessive decoration. This aspect is particularly prominent in her representations of women and girls. She skillfully generated intricate and pleasing outcomes with a minimalist use of lines and colours. Her depictions showcase lotus-eyed women and enchanting colours. Faces that are plump and rounded, eyes elongated and fervent, and mouths slender and sensitive. The sarees adorning them are captured with flowing lines, evoking a sense of motion. These women emanate a vibrant liveliness, standing in stark contrast to the delicate and mystical beings often depicted in the traditional works of Indian artists.

Struggles and Legacy: Balancing Two Worlds

Sunayani's journey was not without its challenges, as she oscillated between the roles of an artist and a woman in a society that did not encourage self-expression. Feminist scholars have highlighted the dilemma that Sunayani faced: she skillfully managed her career and household responsibilities. In Sunayani's conversation with her granddaughter, a tinge of melancholy seeps through as she confesses to a constant lack of time to paint amidst the bustling household activities. Additionally, she often found herself safeguarding her artworks from the playful antics of her children. 

Sunayani's sorrow was of a different kind. Only we who are professional artists can feel it. She may not have starved on the streets to produce art. She may not have felt the pangs of poverty, she may not have been socially or politically aware, but her sorrow was of another kind, so private that she could not express it. I felt it that morning as she asked me to comment on her paintings. [7]

Her wellsprings of inspiration were as varied as they were unconventional. Unbound by convention, she wholeheartedly embraced images that echoed her unique sensibilities, frequently drawing from the familiar environs of her household. This was particularly significant as the opportunities for respectable women to explore beyond these confines were exceedingly restricted.

Although her husband's support was notable, Devi's marriage was a central aspect of her life as a woman during that era. Undoubtedly, the balancing act between her roles as a diligent homemaker and a dedicated artist eventually had an effect on her creative output. Nevertheless, Sunayani forged a distinct path that was as noteworthy as those of her prominent contemporaries. Her legacy shines as a testament to her ability to transcend boundaries – both artistic and societal. 

Gaining Public Recognition 

During the 1880s, women began to take part in art exhibitions in Calcutta. Notably, Lucy Sultan Ahmed, an Englishwoman married to an Indian, emerged as a prominent early woman painter within the Bombay Art Society. The trend of women's involvement in exhibitions gained momentum in the late 1930s. However, formal art education for girls was unusual, except for those hailing from Eurasian or Parsi communities in Bombay. In contrast, affluent families frequently employed private tutors to teach painting to their daughters, a part of their cultured upbringing. The shift toward organised art education for girls didn't fully emerge until the 1920s, with the possibility of one of the earliest instances being at Tagore's Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan.

From 1908, her paintings featured in several exhibitions arranged by the Indian Society of Oriental Art, spanning locations such as Calcutta, Allahabad, London, and various cities across the U.S.A. Additionally, her artworks found a place in the 1922 Bauhaus exhibition held in Calcutta.

Starting in 1915, both Sunayani Devi and Pratima Devi, Rabindranath Tagore's daughter-in-law, actively participated in exhibitions held at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, an organisation overseen by the Tagore family. Her artworks can be found in diverse private collections, primarily within Bengal and among her own family members. In 1927, her son transported a selection of her paintings to London, where they formed the centerpiece of an immensely successful exhibition. In the same year, Stella Kramrisch featured her creations in her German publication "Kunst."

Her works were published in vernacular periodicals on various occasions. Notably, Sunayani Devi's presence was felt at a collective exhibition in Trivandrum. Additionally, one of her paintings depicting Krishna finds its place in the Mysore Art Gallery, while another is housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

In 1935, a dedicated group of admirers organized an exhibition of Sunayani Devi's works at her home. Regrettably, this marked her final public exhibition. As the 1940s unfolded, a series of unfortunate events befell her family, leading Sunayani Devi to step away from the realm of art. She passed away in the year 1962 at the age of 87.

In concluding our journey through Sunayani Devi's life, we find ourselves at the crossroads of history, art, and the human spirit. Her life was her canvas, painted with tales of courage, determination, and artistic vision. Her artworks resonate, telling the story of a woman who defied norms, delved into art, and left an enduring mark on Indian art. Through her brush, she built a bridge across generations, cultures, and emotions. Sunayani's legacy showcases art's power to shape lives, transcend boundaries, and reveal boundless human creativity.


[1] Partha Mitter.The Triumph of Modernism. 2017.

[2] G. Venkatachalam. Sunayani Devi. Contemporary Indian Painters. Nalanada Publications. Bombay. 

[3] Amina Kar. Sunayani Devi - A primitive of the Bengal School. Lalit Kala Contemporary. 1966

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Stella Kramrisch. G. Venkatachalam. Sunayani Devi. Contemporary Indian Painters. Nalanda Publications. Bombay. 

[7] Amina Kar. Partha Mitter.The Triumph of Modernism. 2017.

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