Bhabesh Sanyal, who died in Delhi on Thursday at the age of 102, had ideas about art that would strike one as being anachronistic in these days of commercialisation and hype. He was one of those rare artists who was never comfortable with the idea of making money from his profession as painter and sculptor. He was also against the use of publicity to artificially inflate the image of an artist.
In an interview on his 95th birthday, Sanyal said: “All my life I have never been interested in creating a signature. Instead, I have concentrated on creating an environment where art can flourish.”
A strikingly good-looking man with a neatly-trimmed Shavian beard and snowy locks, he was a natty dresser to boot.
Sanyal was born in Dibrugarh, Assam, in 1902. His earliest memories were of his mother making clay toys for him. In 1921, he passed his matriculation from Calcutta University, and thereafter Intermediate from Serampore College.
In 1921, Sanyal became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and joined the nationalist movement. Two years later, Sanyal, in another unusual move for a middle-class Bengali youth of those times, joined the Government School of Art in Calcutta. The renowned Percy Browne headed the institution then. Mukul Dey was among Sanyal’s teachers. He created ripples, when in search of live models, he scoured the red-light districts.
In 1929, he landed a job with a firm in Lahore that produced educational models. Initially, he lived in the local Kali Bari established by Bengalis. Sanyal was required to make a prototype bust of Lala Lajpat Rai but was so disgusted with the thought of mass-produced statues that he quit the job. The same year, Sanyal created another bust of the Punjab leader that was unveiled by Jawaharlal Nehru at the momentous Lahore Congress Session.
He joined Lahore’s Mayo School of Art but left it to set up his own Lahore School of Fine Art in 1936. It became the focal point of cultural activity in the city and attracted leading intellectuals. Among his students were Krishen Khanna, Dhanraj Bhagat and Satish Gujral. So it was only but natural that after Partition, when he settled down in Delhi with his wife Snehalata and daughter Amba, he co-found the Delhi Shilpi Chakra in his studio at Gole Market in 1952.
After Partition he left Lahore, leaving behind many of his works. With his wife and daughter, he had to regularly visit the ministry of rehabilitation till he found a shop amidst the chaos and cacophony of Gole Market. It became the meeting place of progressive artists. He was secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademi from 1960-69. He also became professor and head of the department at what was then Delhi Polytechnic at Kashmiri Gate.
His work as art administrator hampered his creative activity but he was equally at home with the brush and the chisel. He was well-known as a portrait sculptor who gladly accepted influences both from the West and from India. In later years, he worked with black and white watercolour that was less cumbrous.
In spite of his years he would answer the phone with a firm voice and had joined the meeting protesting the burning of M.F. Husain’s works. To the last he would say: “Now I use my brush like a sword and the images carry my conviction.” Few artists can say that today.