Medieval Saints by Benode Behari Mukherjee : A journey of an Introspective Artist

This is a photograph of Benodebehari Mukherjee's mural at Hindi Bhavan at Santiniketan in West Bengal

Aranya Bhowmik talks about the Mural painting Medieval Saints by the Indian Artist Benode Behari Mukherjee. He looks at the murals through a critical lens of contextual modernism interspersed with Tagorian ideals and the structure of Kala Bhavan at Santiniketan.

The Structure of Modernism in India is not as it was in the West. In order to look at the context of modernism we have to understand the socio-cultural and political structure of India which is  different in nature from the west. It is also important to be conscious of not trying to find a linear avant-garde structure like the west. The modernism that emerged in the twentieth century and had a multifaceted structure where different styles and idiom were developing and coexisting together. In this context I would like to focus on the practice that was there in Santiniketan( in early and later part of 20th century) under the pedagogical system of Kala Bhavana conceived by Tagore’s  idea and structured by Nandalal Bose. In this the context of Mural tradition and its implication in modern art with reference of the Hindi Bhavana Mural of Medieval Saints by Benode Behari Mukherjee will be the point of focus in this paper.

Mural as an important medium of art grew from Santiniketan. What Nandalal Bose did is that he had given mural an important place in the curriculum in the pedagogy of Kala Bhavana. Being trained and worked under Nandalal, Benode Behari Mukherjee had also explored the medium in a great deal and had been able to establish his own niche in the modern context of mural tradition. What R.Siva Kumar argues that the idea of a modern language that took shape in Santiniketan was not like the euro-centric modernism but a contextual modernism rooted in the context of Santiniketan. The context of modernism in Santiniketan grew out of an adoption of trans-national formal language or technique which was not bound to a particular cultural situation. It was a critical re-engagement with the foundational language of art, which in terms developed as a unique idiom altogether. R. Siva Kumar defines them as the originator of an indigenously achieved yet transcultural modernism. “reviewed traditional antecedents in relation to new avenues opened up by  cross cultural contacts. They also saw it as a historical imperative. Cultural insularity, they realized, had to give way to eclecticism and cultural impurity.”¹ Hence it is intriguing to see how artists are responding to this especially someone like Benode Behari Mukherjee, the second generation of artist after Nandalal Bose.

Being a landscapist Benode Behari’s venture into mural tradition of a different sort. Unlike Nandalal, Benode Behari used a different spatial composition where instead of a linear structure he created multiple focal point, which is driven from his experiences with landscapes, where besides the perceptual understanding there was an intuitive faculty working as well. This tendency is also seen in his magnum opus the ‘Medieval Saint’ in Hindi Bhavan. The mural was done in the library hall (now examination hall) of Hindi Bhavan from December 1946 to April 1947. The Mural was an initiative from Pandit Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, a great scholar on medieval literature, who headed the Bhavan. As Hindi Bhavan concentrated on the study of medieval literature, the mural was conceived to be a part of that pedagogical endeavor. Hence The mural came as the representative of the field that the institution was going to work on. Not only that  it also projects the idea of community as visualized by Rabindranath Tagore and the pedagogical structure of Visva Bharati that will get elucidated as we go deep into it.

This is an image of the Mural Medieval Saints by Benodebehari Mukherjee at the Hindi Bhavan at Santiniketan. Seen here the section Kabir and the musicians. This image is uploaded as part of essay written by South Asian Art Historian Aranya Bhowmik. He wrties for Astanzi Art Magazine in India.
Kabir and the musicians

The few Dohas by Kabir, Surdas and Tulsidas taken by Benode Behari for the mural projects the idea of Bhakti saints as agents of social and literary changes. The mural is a visual trope of the moving human procession that take in the large span of the wall of Hindi Bhavan. The Mural measures around eight feet tall and seventy-seven feet long spanning three walls of the rectangular hall. It starts from the left , a group of ascetics (bairagis) wander in  the mountain ranges of the Himalayas which then rolls down and merges into the township heading towards the monumental figure of the South Indian reformer Ramanuja, conversing with his disciples in the center of the wall. Moving further to the right a shift of scale takes place and leads us to the marketplace and a larger figure of the weaver saint Kabir is depicted on the lower edge of the mural surrounded by musicians and listeners. It continues further in the short west wall, where the ancient city of Banaras can be located where the conversation between the poet saint Tulsidas and his guru takes place. On the adjoining north wall, Surdas, the blind bard, wanders through city streets accompanied by a child singer. The Mural ends with the warrior saint Guru Govind Sing on a steed, commanding his soldiers to halt outside the walls of a picturesque village. Through his dexterous use of space with its ambiguities of visual hide and seek, Benode Behari creates a visual topography with multiple focal points that building up a space for contextual reading of the history of these medieval saints. Also his long term engagement with landscape finds a new meaning in the Hindi Bhavan mural where he maps out the space almost entirely in figural forms and creates a kind of figural landscape. The conception of space is transcendental and intuitive than perceptual, it unfolds like a narrative with twists and turns, up and downs.

It is very intriguing that the whole mural was made out of just visual conception made in the mind of Benode Behari. As he did not made any kind of cartoon of the mural before doing it except some suggestive sketches of the figures or characters in the mural. The weakness of his vision made his tactile sense stronger which gets reflected on the walls of Hindi Bhavan. Where the mural is more of experiencing than looking into it like a procession going on where they not only comes to your vision but you can also feel them through tactile senses. This very quality is evident in the treatment of the mural distinctive from his mentor Nandala Bose. The way space has been handled with momentary ambiguity and detailing creates an interesting narrative space. The way recession and projection are created  represents the fact that it is not a record of the history but a narrative that unfurls itself, the more you enter into it.

This is an image of the Mural Medieval Saints by Benodebehari Mukherjee at the Hindi Bhavan at Santiniketan. Seen here the section Guru Govind Singh and Khalsa soldiers. This image is uploaded as part of essay written by South Asian Art Historian Aranya Bhowmik. He wrties for Astanzi Art Magazine in India.
Guru Govind Singh and Khalsa soldiers

The mural is not only a representation of a movement but also the reflection of the inception of the pedagogy in Santiniketan and the ideology of Rabindranath as well. In the beginning of the mural on the south wall, rolling hills and trees provide the setting for a busy conversation of ascetics, including a sage instructing a group of listeners from his hut. On the north, the mural ends with a village scene, where woman nurses a child while other woman are busy grinding and churning buttermilk. The rolling hills in the beginning or the village scene at the end brackets the narrative and their sources can be traced back to the inception of Santiniketan. When Tagore established an educational institution at his father’s (Debendranath Tagore) ashram in the rural area of Birbhum district. Debendranath’s vision of establishing a meditational place like an ashram where people with philosophical and theological discourse will meet. Which was carried forward in a much broader perspective by his son Rabindranath Tagore who brought a different kind of pedagogical system that resonated the ancient Vedic, Upanisadic ashramik system. The kind of ‘intellectual landscape’² that pervades the mural reflects the idea of Tagore behind the institution. The end of the mural with the idyllic vision of the village scene also tend to echo the idea about self-dependent rural community of Tagore.

 Another important fact about the mural being ‘public’.  Though it can be painted in a restricted surrounding but it is meant to be accessed by the people of the institution. In the modern context mural had served a more political purpose of representing modern civic citizenry like that in Mexican murals of 1920-40s, which also contemporaneous to Santiniketan mural projects. The power of a mural in contrast to the other mediums of public or popular art is in its immobile persistence of being fixed to a place amidst the fleeting gazes of the viewers. In contrast to Nandalal’s murals projecting Santiniketan and its institutional structure in an archetypal form, Benode Behari’s mural deals with a much complex narrative structure with layered projections of institutional structure.

Benode Behari dexterously captures the characters of each individual saints effortlessly. The entire composition replete with figures with gestural movements that epitomizes the character of each saints. These movements exude rhythm of the work and relaxation derived seemingly from the occupational habits. These physical actions and gesture are taken from observations of life around the artist which is more behavioral than mimetic. There is a performativity evolving from the hand measures and quick brush strokes on  the wall before  the plaster dries was individual to Benode Behari than the methods of his mentor Nandalal who was more well planned and organized in methodology. Benode Behari acted like a narrator who unfolds the narration as it goes along and spread it the entire three walls with same temperament but with episodic dynamics and tensions as per the requirement of the narration. It can be seen in  the way insignificant figure with no apparent narrative or allegorical function, seems to merely suggest an artist’s  notation to himself regarding the shifts that has to be made the following day. He creates these junctures where it helps the flow of the narrative frivolous.

This is an image of the Mural Painting Medieval Saints by Benodebehari Mukherjee. This is a section depicting Surdas. This particular Mural Painting was done in the Hindi Bhavan at Santiniketan in West Bengal

 The mural seems to be a journey with series of journey inside it, men in different guises deems to be guiding the viewer through a panorama, Intriguingly the figures that are mostly seen are the figures of the mendicants, wanderers and saints, “Sadhu to Chakta Bhala” says Surdas is the crux of the journey that takes place in  the Mural. What does the journey personify? The journey may personify the journey of the Samsara and the journey going out of it and retaining the moksha. Though the Bhakti saints have often preached that moksha can also be attained by being in the world itself. The wandering mendicants in the mural reflects their withdrawal character and being disengaged from the world and being out worldly. On the other hand it is also a fact of Benode Behari was a reclusive artist who hide himself from any kind of limelight had an introspective and introvert character.  One might find the artist who is a reclusive person, who finds his solitude within the bustling world around himself alike the saints who merged themselves in the crowd though able to find their inner self within it.

It is also very interesting to see that in between these mendicant saints the figure of the warrior Guru Govind Singh appears with his Khalsa soldiers creates a totally different ambience. The choice of the guru as representative of Shikh religion which was also formed during the Bhakti movement, but a question that arises is why such personification of Guru Govind Singh instead of Guru Nanak. The choice of the warrior Guru in the mural only makes sense towards the context of political inclination. As Ajay Sinha looks at it through two level, of one is in the narrative level where the saint is portrayed as the protector of the Hindu village against the onslaught of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in late seventeenth century. On the other level it can be read as the Guru standing outside the Tagorean dream village of and thus the history of conflict of being destabilized from the idyllic mode can be seen in the mural. “ Under the guru’s surveillance, the village no longer remains a detached ‘communitas’, but becomes instead a political fantasy implicated in  the formation of nation-states.”, writes  Ajay Sinha.³ Hence it is not as simple as it might seem, it can be seen as political tension being fabricated as an undercurrent. Medieval Saints addresses a more complex situation than it seems. The political economical complexity of the precolonial landscape hinted in the mural cannot be fully assimilated within the futuristic vision of nation cherished by Santiniketan.

This is a photograph of Benode Behari Mukherjee's mural at Hindi Bhavan at Santiniketan in West Bengal
Medieval Saints by Benode Behari Mukherjee

The mural In Hindi Bhavan brings out some very important facts that projects a distinctive approach of Benode Behari towards mural and the language of modernism. The role of mural as public edifice has been contradicted by the artist. He has structured layers of signs within the representation that contradicts each other and appears to be fabrication of implicit politics. The mural creates a tension between the background and the foreground, institutionalization and dissent, history and allegory. The narrative is a fabrication of these conflicts and undercurrent politics which is often overlooked while looking at the spread of the narrative. Medieval Saint epitomizes a language which is modern in its own term, which cannot be framed in the colonial or euro-centric framework of modernism.  The way it includes an important era in India in terms of religion and culture, when it got out of the box of orthodoxy and had liberated the thought and have become more inclusive rather than exclusive in terms of religious affiliation. Hence the mural effortlessly captures this transitional period.  It becomes contextual at our contemporary time when religious fundamentalism had inflicted the humanity at its core where religion is used as a political weapon in order to target the consciousness of the people. Amidst this Medieval Saints becomes very important to go back and discern many element in different layers.

This is a photograph of Art Historian Aranya Bhowmik. He is an Art Writer and PhD Candidate at IIT Kanpur in India. He regularly writes for Astanzi magazine.

Aranya Bhowmik is an art writer and researcher. He is currently doing his doctoral research in Humanities & Social Sciences Dept. Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He has done is graduation in History of Art in Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan and Post-Graduation in Art History and Aesthetics in Faculty of Fine Arts in M.S. University of Baroda. He has taught in S.N School of Arts & Communication, University of Hyderabad and In Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh. His interests primarily involves modern and contemporary art and art history. His current research deals with Experimental Material Practice of Contemporary Indian Women Artists. He had co-founded and edited the Arts and Aesthetics Journal, ‘Insignia’, from the Art History & Aesthetics Department of Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda. He has also written in Art Magazines, Journals and Blogs like Art & Deal, Art East, Art Facts, Insignia, Searching Lines,


All Images are courtesy Mr. Arman Ovla


Foot Notes


[2] Against Allegory: Benode Behari Mukherjee;s Medieval Saints at Shantiniketan, Ajay Sinha. Picturing The Nation Iconographies of Modern India, edited by Richard H. Davis, Orient Longman

[3] Against Allegory: Benode Behari Mukherjee;s Medieval Saints at Shantiniketan, Ajay Sinha. Picturing The Nation Iconographies of Modern India, edited by Richard H. Davis, Orient Longman.


  1. The Santiniketan Murals, Jayanta Chakrabarti, R.Siva Kumar, Arun K. Nag, Seagull Books, Published  in association with Visva-Bharati.
  2. Against Allegory: Binode Bihari Mukherjee’s Medieval Saints at Shantiniketan, Ajay Sinha, Picturing the Nation iconographies of Modern India, Edited by Richard H. Davis, Orient Longman.
  3. Benodebehari Mukherjee: Life of Medieval Saints, Gulam Mohammad Sheikh, National gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi), Vadehra Art Gallery( NewDelhi). 2006
  4. Benodebehari Mukherjee: A Recluse and The Centenary Show, Soumik Nandy Majumdar, Art & views, Nov 2014

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