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The Forgotten Women Artists Of The Bengal Renaissance

An Introduction To The Bengal Renaissance

Hello, art lovers! Have you ever wondered when women in India began to be recognised as ‘artists’? The rise of women artists in India began during the Bengal Renaissance period, more specifically with the Bengal School of Art. The Bengal School of Art was an art movement that revolutionised the field of Indian art. It was also known as the ‘Renaissance School’. 

Many women artists were a part of this movement. The Bengal Renaissance introduced new ideologies and cultural influences to traditional Indian art forms through the Bengal School of Art. Let Rooftop guide you through the enigmatic lives of three forgotten women artists of the Bengal Renaissance period.

The Start Of The Bengal Renaissance Movement

Post the 18th century, realism and Western ideologies had influenced Indian art. Indian art styles were considered inferior. Abanindranath Tagore started the Bengal School of Art and reintroduced folk art, tribal art, and mythological influences to Indian painting. Thus, the Bengal Renaissance allowed artists to redefine their artistic voice and brought India’s rich art heritage and culture to the limelight.

The start of this movement led to women artists Sunayani Devi and Pratima Devi gaining international recognition. The subsequent establishment of Kala Bhavan led to the rise of several prominent women artists, such as Sukumari Devi.

Also read: A Guide to Art Movements in India

The Women Artists Of The Bengal Renaissance Period

1. The Simplistic Painter Of Bengal: Sunayani Devi

Sunayani Devi was the first female Indian artist to gain public recognition, yet her name is virtually unrecognisable today. This eminent artist was born in 1875 and was the sister of Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore.

Her Life and Career

Bengal Renaissance
Ardhanarishwar, Sunayani Devi, watercolour painting (image source:

Sunayani began painting at the age of 30. She was a self-taught artist who received no formal art education. She married Rajanimohan Roy at the age of 11, who later encouraged her to take up painting. Her art introduced the female perspective to the Bengal Renaissance and was immensely personal to her experience of being a woman in an ever-evolving, male-dominated society.

Two women were her supporters, both coincidentally Austrian. Art Historian Stella Kramrisch invited the Bauhaus to India and displayed Sunayani’s work at the Calcutta Bauhaus exhibition held in 1922. Stella also published her work in Der Cicerone, a German art magazine. In 1927, Sunayani exhibited her work at the Women’s International Art Club in London. Poet Nora Pursar Wuttenbrach wrote the catalogue essay accompanying her exhibit.

Also read: 5 Women In Tribal Indian Art You Should Know

Sunayani Devi’s Art Style

Bengal Renaissance
Lady Holding A Fan, Sunayani Devi, watercolour on paper (image source: theheritagelab)

Critics would describe Sunayani Devi’s style as naive and simplistic. A characteristic feature of her paintings is the depiction of women with elongated, half-closed eyes. Pattachitra paintings, folk dolls and puppets, Jain manuscript paintings, Raja Ram Ravi Varma’s art, and Rajput miniatures were all sources of inspiration for her. 

Sunayani took inspiration from her life as a married woman as well as from religion and mythology. She used the Japanese wash technique in almost all of her paintings, which gave them a soft and glowing appearance. We can describe her paintings as a contemporary expression of traditional and authentic Indian art.

  • Did you know? Sunayani Devi was the first modern artist to introduce folk art to the Bengal Renaissance Movement.

2. Pratima Devi’s Contribution To The Bengal Renaissance

Bengal Renaissance
A photograph of Pratima Devi (image source:

Pratima Devi was born in 1893 to Binayani Devi, the sister of Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore. She was a part of The Bichitra Studio for Artists of the Neo-Bengal School and The Bengal School Of Art. Pratima married Rathindranath, who was the son of Rabindranath Tagore.

Her Life and Career

Bengal Renaissance
Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore by Pratima Devi (image source:

Pratima Devi studied art under the guidance of Rabindranath and Nandalal Bose. She accompanied her husband and father-in-law on their visits to distant places. Pratima had a knack for learning new art forms and would try to implement them into the syllabus at Silpa Sadan. She and her father-in-law, Rabindranath, were responsible for the introduction of the Javanese wax-resist dying method Batik to India. She contributed immensely to music, dance, and art during the Bengal Renaissance. 

  • Did you know? Pratima Devi was the first person to bring the technique of leatherwork to India.

Pratima Devi’s Art Style

Bengal Renaissance
Pratima Devi, King of the Land of Cards, watercolour (image source:

The Ajanta cave paintings inspired Pratima, and she is said to have painted on huge canvases. We can observe this in her painting studies of Lord Buddha. She trained under Japanese artists, and this led to her work having a noticeable Japanese influence. Pratima studied the Italian wet fresco technique while she lived in Paris. Unlike Sunayani and Sukumari Devi, her paintings derived less inspiration from folk art forms and were more professional and refined in appearance.

She painted as a means of self-expression, only sharing it with a small circle of close friends and family. Pratima held exhibitions with Sukumari Devi, and they worked together in Shantiniketan’s handicraft sector, created to empower local women. She did not paint much in her later years, and as most of her work was personal, it was not documented.

3. The Young Artist Of The Bengal Renaissance: Sukumari Devi

Sukumari Devi was a child widow originally from Chandpur, Bangladesh. She joined Kala Bhavan in 1920 as a student and began teaching in 1924. She taught Alpona and embroidery and was referred to as a ‘design’ professor.

Life and Career

An Alpona ceremony at Shantiniketan

Sukumari was particularly well-versed in the Bengali art form of Alpona and began teaching it at Shantiniketan at the insistence of Rabindranath Tagore. Alpona is a folk art of Bengal which uses rice flour to draw various patterns, motifs, and designs on the floor, usually as part of a religious ceremony. The Bengal Renaissance led to the revival of such traditional folk art forms.

Nandalal Bose tutored Sukumari, and formal artistic training refined her understanding of Indian art. She worked with Pratima Devi to learn and integrate foreign techniques of bookbinding, calico painting, mural work, wood engraving, and embroidery with Indian traditional handicrafts.

Also read: How Rooftop is Bringing Back Value to Authentic Indian Art Forms

Sukumari Devi’s Art Style

Krishna teaching Radha flute by Sukumari Devi

Sukumari made watercolour paintings that frequently employed the wash technique. She painted scenes from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. She took interest in jewellery, and this is apparent through her intricately detailed depiction of ornamentation in her paintings. Sukumari Devi contributed significantly to the development of Alpona, embroidery, and folk art forms during the Bengal Renaissance period.

  • Did you know? Sukumari was familiar with traditional Alpona techniques but developed her own distinct style, especially in the way she drew lotus flowers.

A Selective Retention Of History

The Bengal Renaissance was a period of great change in ideologies, techniques, and theories surrounding art. Kala Bhavan, Silpa Sadan, and other such establishments were essential to the revival of Indian arts and handicrafts. Shantiniketan became a hub of cultural exchange, and Rabindranath Tagore’s international influence introduced Indian art to the Western world. Men, as well as women, contributed equally to the development of Indian art and the Bengal Renaissance. Yet only the contribution of women artists seems to have been forgotten.

The Bengal School of Art believed in the importance of preserving folk and traditional Indian art. The work of these women artists was essential in ensuring that traditional Indian art forms were not lost to time. They created a contemporary interest in the wealth of ancient Indian art and culture.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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