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From witnessing 3 Partitions to teaching art to 3 generations: BC Sanyal’s legacy is immense

April 22, On This Day


He is known as the doyen of modernism in Indian art, and was a guru to three generations of artists. Interestingly, he also witnessed the partition of the Indian subcontinent three times — in 1905, 1947 and 1971 — and also watched 20th century Indian art through all its phases. No doubt, this deeply influenced his own work as well.

Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal, better known as BC Sanyal, was born on April 22, 1901. He lost his father at the age of only six, but was brought up by his mother, who had a penchant for making dolls — it is said that this shaped the sculptor in him. In fact, his most well-known sculpture ‘Vertical Woman’, a semi-veiled female figure sculpted out of Dholpur sandstone, is said to portray a memory of his mother. Interestingly, he published a memoir by the same name later.


In his youth, Sanyal studied art in (then) Calcutta and by the 1920s, had developed a unique style of his own, that neither quite subscribed to the Bengal School nor sided with Victorian or Western academism. In 1929, his career had a turning point when he was commissioned to make a bust of recently martyred leader, Lala Lajpat Rai.

In Lahore, he became vice-principal of the Mayo School of Arts, Lahore (now known as National College of Arts), which was earlier started by Lockwood Kipling (father of author Rudyard Kipling). Two of his students here were to-be art stalwarts Satish Gujral and Krishen Khanna. At Mayo he remained till 1936, till Sanyal was dubbed a ‘troublemaker’ by the British Raj and forced to resign.

He set up the Lahore College of Art in 1937 and freelanced there for the next decade. After the 1947 Partition, he came to Delhi, and soon established a hub for artists.


He eventually became secretary of the prestigious Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA), and later served as its vice-chairman. It was during his tenure at the LKA that a strong foundation for the national body was laid and it also held its first triennial, now a permanent fixture.

While most of his renowned contemporaries (Nandalal Bose, Mukul Dey and MF Hussain) created art linked to mythology and naturalism, Sanyal’s paintings avoided extravagance and folklore. Working with water colours and oil paintings, his themes revolved around archetypal human struggles, especially focused on the economically deprived sections of society. He painted a large number of rural settings, landscapes and depicted ordinary people going about their work. Flat, bright colours and peaceful compositions were a mix of post-Impressionism, Abstraction, and the Bengal School. In many of his post-Partition paintings, somber brown, white, and blue hues used masterfully in realistic human subjects evoked sorrow and empathy in the viewer.


Today, the Delhi College of Art, New Delhi confers the BC Sanyal Award on artists for their contribution to the field, and its recipients include the likes of Anupam Sud, Gogi Saroj Pal, Seema Kohli and Vasundhara Tewari Broota.

Sanyal passed away in Delhi in 2003 at the ripe old age of 102.