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A forgotten artist from Bengal gets a new life

A recent auction has put painter Atul Bose, who was especially acclaimed for his portraits, in the global spotlight

Humayun's tomb, by Atul Bose, watercolour on paper, c. 1920
Humayun's tomb, by Atul Bose, watercolour on paper, c. 1920 (Princeps)

Earlier this month when Princeps, the auction house, put up the works from the estate of Bengali painter Atul Bose (1898-1977) for sale, the founder Indrajit Chatterjee didn't know what to expect. But the response from the bidders was overwhelming. "I was surprised the lots sold at all," he says, "let alone generate the kind of interest it did among collectors across the world—from the UK and the US to Europe and all over India." Eventually, the sales totalled to 1.64.

The amount by itself is far from staggering, compared to the prices at which the stars of modern and contemporary Indian art currently sell. But considering this was the estate of an artist hardly remembered outside of scholarly circles, and whose chief strength was academic realism and portraiture, it was an impressive figure indeed.

Bose was fortunate to have come into his own as an artist during the peak of the Bengal School, helmed by figures like painter and writer Abanindranath Tagore. But instead of following on the footsteps of these path-breakers, he decided to wage a crusade for the academic style of painting, which was being rejected for its colonial moorings.

Art historian Partha Mitter, who knew Bose well, points out in his excellent introduction to the auction catalogue that Bose's stance was grounded in a reticent but firm belief in the power of perspective painting, a credo that remained at the centre of his practice. In due course, Bose would be play an important role in the founding of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata, under the patronage of Lady Ranu Mukherjee.

Self-portrait, oil on canvas, c. 1945.
Self-portrait, oil on canvas, c. 1945. (Princeps)

Even as Bose's contemporaries, like MF Husain and SH Raza, were scaling the heights of success during his lifetime, Bose remained faithful to his own style. He was a legendary portrait maker. His quick sketch of Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, allegedly dashed off in 15 minutes as the great man was getting an oil massage, shows his mastery of the genre. It was this remarkable feat that eventually won him a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy in the UK.

In his subsequent drawings, especially in the still life, there is a palpable beauty, and not least for the finesse with which he captured his subject. Mimetic fidelity aside, Bose managed to convey the essence of a face, or an object as ordinary as a sitting stool, rendered delicately using chalk and charcoal. Not only does the latter become worthy of the artist's attention, but it also assumes a character that is vividly expressive—of solitude, melancholy, even perhaps of reclusion.

While Bose's nudes and nature paintings are more conventionally inclined, the gift of his touch is obvious even in the most familiar scenes, be it swaying palm trees or moments from his travel diaries to Shillong, Rikhia, Gopalpur on sea, among other places. Bose's influence began to wane in the 1960s, as the high tide of modernism washed away the emphasis on naturalism, until the recent auction reminded us of his unsung genius.

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