Hemen Mazumdar:Bengal’s Crown Jewel.

Hemendranath Mazumdar, popularly known as Hemen Mazumdar, was born in 1894 in Mymensingh,East Bengal, then part of undivided Bengal. Coming from a wealthy landowning family,he ran away from his house after dropping out from school to come study art in Calcutta. Academic art,introduced by the British Raj,was challenged by the nationalist art movement,the Bengal School of painting,led by Abanindranath Tagore & his disciples who dominated the art scene in the first decade of the 20th century. In the early 20’s, Indian art gained further complexity in a triangular standoff between the orientalists of the Bengal School,the academic artists & the avant-garde artists-Rabindranath Tagore,Amrita-Sher-Gil & Jamini Roy. Around 1915,academic artists had been in retreat all over India because of the Bengal School. However,a new generation of naturalists in Bengal-Hemendranath Mazumdar, Atul Bose, Bhabani Chandra Laha & Jogen Seal-reasserted the importance of figurative art & all of them were highly accomplished draughtsmen.

Having enrolled at the art school in Calcutta against his father’s wishes & falling out with the authorities,Hemen moved to the privately owned Jubilee Academy. Disillusioned with both art schools,he decided to teach himselffigure drawing by means of books obtained in England. The role of reproductions in art books in the formation of colonial artists cannot be gainsaid. The group decided to set up an academic artist’s circle to challenge the onslaught of the Bengal School against academic artists. The group brought out an influential illustrated  journal-‘Indian Academy of Art’ in 1920 to win the Bengali public & organised exhibitions to showcase academic artists from all over the country. In addition,they needed to counteract the Bengal School journal ‘Rupam’ & its dominance. To ensure wide readership,the modestly priced but elegantly produced ‘Indian Academy of Art’ covered a wide variety of topics,but its ultimate intention was to publicise the works of Mazumdar,Bose & Jamini Roy.

Debarred from exhibiting in Calcutta,the academic artists of Bengal were forced to send their works to exhibitions outside Bengal,which was beyond reach for most. Mazumdar’s career as a professional painter took off around 1924.He produced a series of subjects centering on women,engaged in leisurely activities,such as toilet or daydreaming. However Mazumdar’s forte was his particular rendering of the back-view of the female subject,which gave him the opportunity to bring out-in  convincing manner the sensuous layers & folds of smooth youthful flesh,with a hint of muscles & bone structure. The important point to note was that none of these women were adolescent but mature & presumably married. However Hemen MAzummdar’s reputation rests on his erotic paintings of women in ‘la drape mouillé’ & rarelyshown fully unclothed,with the mere hint of an item of clothing that accentuated the figure rather than concealing it. His other successful attempt was his ability to capture translucent flesh tones through a wet sari.

Around 1926,Mazumdar had his first financial success when a commercial firm acquired the reproduction rights to one of his paintings for a substantial sum. The painting provided the main attraction for its annual calendar. By the early 1940’s Mazumdar gained notoriety as a painter of partially clothed women. His large oils of partially clothed women & his intimate,voyeuristic eroticism attracted the Maharajas of Cooch Behar, Kotah, Bikaner, Patiala, Kashmir & Mayurbhanj. Among the royalty, The Maharaja of Patiala,Sir Bhupinder Singh, The Maharaja of Cooch Behar Sir Jitendra Narayan & the Maharaja of Bikaner Sir Ganga Singh were most devoted to him,while Patiala engaged him as the court artist for a period of five years for a handsome sum of money which enabled him to build his studio in Calcutta.

Mazumdar successfully created a template & genre of Bengali women that captured the imagination of the contemporary Bengali public because of the novelty of their intimacy & their immediacy. They were not impersonal figures learnt from the art schools, but were palpable,breathing,real women. The subject of a rustic maiden returning home in a wet sari after her daily ablutions gave the artist scope to represent the model’s fleshy figure visible through her wet clothes. For all its clever suggestion of an arrested moment, the work was carefully realised in his Calcutta studio. In order to capture the particular pose Mazumdar took the aid of photographs as well. He thus invented a new genre of figure painting in India,suggesting sensuous flesh tones & soft quality of the skin,enhanced by the semi-transparent garment. Although the 19th century academic master Raja Ravi Varma had treated the subject,it was not as widely known or imitated. Mazumdar created an independent genre,spawning imitators,the best known being Thakur Singh of Punjab.

Mazumdar was obsessed with capturing the sexual appeal of the lighter-skinned elite women of Bengal & even wrote verses on his paintings celebrating them. In socially conservative Bengal in the 1920’s it is difficult to gauge people’s true feelings about Mazumdar’s art. Widely diffused in Bengali journals,his readership could not have taken a guilty pleasure in beholding his paintings. Classical nudes,occuring on the same pages since the early 20th century,did not hold the same shocked fascination because of their cultural distance. Then there were the Bengal School’s mannered,voluptuous two-dimensional semi-nudes. The disturbing power of Hemen Mazumdar’s women to lay in their palpability & immediacy: his subject an everyday village scene of a young woman returning home after her daily bath. From the puritanical urban middle class,the convincing image of a respectable housewife-this portrayal furnished simultaneously discomfort & frisson.

A contemporary critic put it well: at a time when women were behind purdah,it was daring to represent someone unapproachable in real life. Thus the beholder experienced the illicit thrill of spying on a ‘respectable’ housewife,the proverbial girl next door. The artist’s tantalizing silence about the identity of the model heightened the mystery surrounding her. It is this ambiguity that made such a powerful appeal to the Bengali middle class about Hemen Mazumdar’s work.

The female figure conceived by Hemen Mazumdar enshrines the meaning & the symbolism of the eternal feminine. Women become the sole & profound source of inspiration. What emerges is a figure which is developed in both its earthly & sacred dimensions. A sort of eternal Shakti. a unique force-the source from which everything originated. He gave them an almost sculptural grandeur,to take on the solidity of a Doric column.


  • Vinayak Pasricha.