In 1962, a young prolific artist, Sanat Chatterjee, 27, one of the last exponents of the Bengal School of Art, chose to make Himachal Pradesh—referred to as Dev Bhumi—his abode and explore his own artistic style in all its manifestations in the Himalayas. Since then, the late Sanat, an ardent disciple of Asit Kumar Haldar who had also worked with Ravindranath Tagore, went on to build a vast oeuvre of paintings in Shimla and beyond.
Some of Sanat's finest works range from watercolour paintings—Magnum Opus, a 100ft X 11ft water colour on a silk scroll, recorded in the Guinness World Records as the longest painting in the world of its kind—to sculptures and murals depicting Indian heritage and life in the mountains. The famous Dasha Mahavidya painting at Kali Bari Temple, Shimla, wall murals and sculptures at Himachal Pradesh Secretariat and Himachal Bhawan at Mandi House (New Delhi) are other noted works.
This week, his son Prof. Him Chatterjee, also an artist of repute, put up 30 unseen paintings by his late father at Gaiety Theatre, Shimla. “The exhibition coincides with my father's fifth death anniversary and showcases his last series of artworks produced in 2002-03. All the paintings are from the Ram Naam collection, formed after his visit to Ayodhya. These 30 creations are in the wash painting technique—one of the toughest ways of painting on wet paper—that my father had mastered. Thereafter, his health deteriorated and we lost him in 2017,” informs Him, adding that this collection is not on sale. "I want to preserve his heritage and take it to different parts of India or the world. Each painting, if valued, will be Rs 10 lakhs and above," estimates Him.
The displayed paintings attempt to look at Lord Rama beyond the Hinduism lens; more as a unique force, synonymous of strong faith, whose presence is felt in almost every sphere of life, people and spaces. All these artworks are landscapes centred on nature—trees, rivers, human beings, animals and birds. The Ram Naam series, if viewed in the cultural and heritage prospective, depicts myriad facets of life all of which focus on a deeper meaning of life, and sets it apart from traditional art.
In the painting titled, Rangrez, the artist depicts a Muslim artisan in the process of giving ordinary fabrics a spiritual aura by block printing the words Ram Naam on them. Despite his Muslim identity, he is a Ram devotee like the Mewati Jogis of Rajasthan. Further, the wash-painting technique of circular clouds in violet mesmerises. He has also painted other deities such as Shiva, Parvati, Durga and Saraswati.
When Sanat Chatterjee made Himachal Pradesh his home in 1967, he was first offered the job of a lecturer at the College of Arts, Nahan (Sirmaur) by the then Lt Governor Raja Saheb Bhadri, who had heard about Chatterjee as an upcoming legend of India’s art forms.
Over the years, Sanat garnered quite the fan following. Dr S Radhakrishnan, former President of India, had once said: “Prof Sanat Kumar Chatterjee’s paintings have a modern message for India people”. The late renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray had written: “History, mythology and theology all have stirred the imagination of this artist to make his brush give expression to his versatile genius". Rakesh Kanwar, secretary, Language, Art and Culture department, HP, says, “I have often visited Sanat Chatterjee as his younger son, Homi, my classmate, used to represent our school in all art competitions. I was mesmerised to see one of his huge paintings that had varied themes that provided depth and vitality to our cultural heritage."
Today Him is carrying forward his father's legacy, accompanied by his brother Homi, a chartered account. Their sister Hima, also a reputed artist, is settled in the US and runs her own art studio, while their mother Arti is an Indian classical singing exponent. Their home at Hewn village, Chaily panchayat, near Himachal Pradesh University, is converted in an art gallery that displays artworks by all the four artists in the family.