Fascinated by devotional pictures as a child, Sunayani Devi preferred mythological and religious themes for her paintings, revolving around Krishna Lila, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Her style was highly influenced by Kalighat pat paintings.
She was born on 18 June 1875 in the Tagore family of talented writers and painters—Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore was an uncle, and Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore were her elder brothers. Essentially a self-taught artist, she witnessed the Bengal renaissance, but it was only in her thirties that she began to paint, encouraged by her husband, the grandson of reformist Raja Ram Mohun Roy.
Sunayani Devi had an unerring instinct for line and form, movement and rhythm, and a vibrant imagination. Her works are striking for their simplicity and free flowing fine lines, highlighting the delicate features of the subject. Her colours are soft and vivid, with minimal details and ornamentation of subjects and setting. There is a vigour about her drawings and a naïve simplicity of colour and composition that is reminiscent of the best of Indian miniature paintings. Stella Kramrisch, curator and educator, was in awe of her style.
Beginning with 1908, her works were part of several exhibitions organised by Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta, Allahabad, London, and many cities in the U.S.A. Her works were also exhibited at the 1922 Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta. She passed away on 23 February 1962 in Calcutta.
‘To Stella Kramrisch, her limited skill and narrow horizon were a strength rather than weakness—a form of naïve grandeur’
‘Manifestations X: 20th Century Indian Art’
DAG, New Delhi, 2014
‘Primitivism and Modern Indian Art’
DAG, Mumbai, 2019-20; New York, 2020-21; New Delhi, 2021-22