Lalit Mohan Sen: An Enduring Legacy
Exhibition curated by Emami Art in consultation with Debdutta Gupta.
A versatile artist, consummate teacher, and a well-known cultural figure throughout his career, Lalit Mohan Sen (1898-1954) was a leading Indian artist who lived and worked at the peak of the Gandhian era. An Enduring Legacyseeks to understand the artist as an ambitious practitioner in colonial South Asia while examining some of the central themes within the wide arc of his artistic practice. The exhibition features drawings, oil paintings, tempera, prints, photographs, designs, and sculptures, along with rare archival materials shown for the first time.
Born in Shantipur, West Bengal, into a family closely associated with the place’s famous handloom textile tradition, Lalit Mohan Sen moved to Lucknow when young and spent most of his life there. He studied art at the Government School of Arts and Crafts, Lucknow (1917) and later at the Royal College of Art, London (1925). Originally a pupil of Nathanial Heard and Sir William Rothenstein, he excelled in academic realism, portrait and landscape. Still, his works also show inspiration from Classical Indian art, the country’s rich craft and decorative traditions and the new nationalist paintings of Abanindranath and his disciples. The renowned art historian Laurence Binyon commissioned him to copy the Bagh Cave paintings, and his mastery of the Indian Style is visible in his two large-scale murals on the Mughal emperor, Akbar and Buddha’s life in India House, London in 1930. A fellow traveller of Indian nationalism, Lalit Mohan Sen was deeply sympathetic to India’s political struggle against the British Raj, evident in his series of Gandhi’s portraits in woodcut, done at different times. However, as an artist with a broad and open outlook, he avoided the oppositional spirit of anti-colonial nationalism. He did not view the new Indian art and Western realism – two dominant trends operative in the Indian art scene of the time – as antagonistic but as two distinctive paths of creative expression.
Lalit Mohan Sen worked in many styles and mediums, which gives his oeuvre extraordinary diversity. We witness him wrestling with what it means to be a modern artist while remaining sceptical about modernism’s desire for stylistic singularity and hierarchy of values. As an artist and pedagogue who taught at his alma mater Lucknow Art School for almost three decades and later became its Principal in 1945, he placed equal emphasis on the revered disciplines like painting and commercial/functional art, focusing as much on creative self-expression as on art’s communicative potentiality. The large body of his posters, graphic prints, book illustrations, and design works, which form a significant part of his oeuvre, is also crucial in understanding his unique place in the history of modern Indian art.
An avid traveller, Sen carried his sketchbooks and camera when travelling. He was a member of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain and showed a lifelong passion for photography. He took many powerful black-and-white photographs capturing the beauties of places and people, mainly the Jaunsar-Bawar in the Garhwal regions of Uttarakhand. The never-before-seen pictures in the show selected from his vast collection offer a glimpse into his intense and varied photographic practice.
Featuring vital new perspectives on Lalit Mohan Sen, who was well-known in his lifetime, now largely forgotten, the exhibition shows a diverse body of works from his family collection, aiming to open up spaces for art historical discussion and reevaluation. We are grateful to Prabartak Sen, the grand-nephew of the artist, for trusting us with the valuable artworks and to Debdutta Gupta for his valuable advice and consultation.