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     Volume 4 Issue 49 | June 3, 2005 |

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Digging into the Past


Kamini Sundari, by Jonindra Mandal

Official history is linear, often nearsighted and, at times, diluted by the preconceived views of the people at the helm. It is made to encapsulate certain facts by freezing time and decontextulasing the events to fit into a certain set of ideas. And on top of that it skips relevant facets and even facts, as it fails to propose history as a continuous process of excavation. Shashi Bhushan Paul, an artist of repute in his time, has been the casualty of history. For the last sixty years, since the death of the man, he has remained shrouded in collective amnesia. As an artist as well as an organiser his contribution was immense, as has been revealed only very recently. Thanks to the effort of Nazrul Islam, the principal of Khulna Art College, and Tokan Thakur and fellow artists who graduated from the same institution, formerly the Maheswar-pasa Art School that Shashhi Bhushan founded. These young artists devoted a lot of time and effort in bringing into light what had long been overshadowed by ignorance.

Shashi Bhushan was born in 1877, died in 1945. His life was devoted to art and its advancement. His name has been mistakenly omitted from history. By considering Dhaka's Institute of Fine Arts as the first school of art in this region, his imprint has been erased from the collective memory. To put things right, an exhibition was arranged to mark the centenary of the first art school that Shashi Bhushan established in 1904.

Shashi Bhushan was the son of Shumanto Paul. His father died when he was a boy. Consequently, the boy had to discontinue his study because of economic constraint. However, as he grew up his attraction to the world of image making grew stronger. As a boy he used to make earthen dolls and toys, which ignited in him the passion for art that would capture the images culled from life.

Later on Shashi Bhushan brought in the syllabi of Kolkata Art School and began to study according to the suggestions of a reputed (name unknown) artist of that time. His devotion to art certainly paid off. Very soon he became an expert in using the oil colour. After gaining mastery over the medium, he presented a number of works to Jatindro Mohon Tagore (1830-1908), the then principal of Kolkata Art School, and to justice Guru Das Benarjee (1844-1919). They were pleased, and in order for him to continue his artistic pursuit they presented them with a certain amount of money to buy art materials.

After that, his reputation as an artist began to spread, and his claim to the limelight came full circle. As he kept on painting he started to receive certificates extolling his feat and medals recognising his excellence. Soon he joined the High School of Pakur Bazar of the Santal district as an art teacher. It was at this time that he was commissioned to do the portraitures of the royal family. Meanwhile, after two years in the School in Pakur Bazar, he began his stints as the art teacher in the high-schools in Daulotpur and Senahati.

The owner of indigo plantation, Shashi Bhushan Paul, oil on paper

After that his art absolved him of any such duties. He began to send his works to Europe, particularly England. It is during this time that he received most of his medals and certificates of excellence. In the end, the number of gold medals stood at 40. The book that has been published with the financial support of Bengal Group Ltd (on the occasion of the centenary of the institution that Shashi Bhushan established) sites a few examples. He received a gold medal by representing India from the region of India, Burma and Sri Lanka in an exhibition in Glasgow. In a Franco-British art exhibition he clinched the gold medal, and in Paris, in an international show, he fetched the second prize.

Shashibhushan's paintings have not been preserved the way it should have been. There is no Museum dedicated to his work. There are paintings that are scattered accross India and even in Europe. Among the ones that have been traced, there is one at the Baroda Meseum in India, and another at London Museum. Pictures that were on display in an exhibition that ran from 11 to 16 March at the National Museum, Dhaka, all were from the archive of the Khulna Art College. "There are about 350 paintings of the era in the archive of the college and his works by Shashi Bhusha contemporaries," says Tokan Thakur. He also testifies that the unraveling of this long shrouded chapter made people re-discover their heritage and it also sent many to scramble for the pen to rectify their past mistakes.

Repressing the Fakir Revolt, Shashi Bhushan Paul, oil on canvas

It was in 1904 that Shashi Bhushan finally decided to launch an art school, and once established it became the first art school in the then East Bengal region. It started out as a frail structure of golpata that held together the vision of the artist. It was not until 1918 that the government of Bengal finally recognised the institution and started to provide financial support. The family support too meant a lot to Shashi Bhushan and his school. While he became its principal, his wife Kamini Sundari and sons Shudhansu Bhushan Paul and Surendranath Paul became the active members of the teaching body.

As for his art, Shashi Bhushan continued to paint. And his works made him a known figure among the high-ups of the British Raj. He kept in touch with them and presented them with painting. Kamini Sundari too became known for her acumen, she was an artist in her own right.

The most interesting aspect of the history of Shashi Bhushan is that he could only be traced through the history of the institution he built. It is the excavation of the past of Khulna Art College that brought into light the history of the forgotten artist.

Darbar, Shahi Bhushan Paul, oil on paper

To put Shashi Bhushan and his institution back in the historical chart, effort has been made as early as 1983. There has been a meeting convened by the district administrator Abdur Rahim, and the principals and teachers of the Maheswar-pasa Art School. They proposed that the school be upgraded to a college and be affiliated to the National University.

The school, since then, was made into a college providing BFA course to the students. Although there has been efforts in the last fifteen years or so to annex it to the Khulna University, and in the 120th syndicate meeting of the university the plan to turn it into a faculty has been declared, it still is in the process of implementation. Meanwhile, the efforts by Tokan Thakur and his friends have brought Shashi Bhushan's name into light altering the history for good.


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