Mukul Dey’s Sacred Tree

Xuanlin Ye

“[Art’s] rebirth in India today can only take place if it be consciously made the servant and poet of the mighty dream of an Indian Nationality. For the same reason, there is little or nothing in England now that can be called Art. An imperialized people have nothing to struggle for, and without the struggle upwards there can be no great genius, no great poetry.

–Sister Nivedita, Modern Review, 1907[1]

Born in India in 1895 under the British Raj, Mukul Chandra Dey was a pioneer of drypoint etching during the time of the Indian independence movement and subsequent nation-building period. In his early years, he received his first artistic training while studying at Rabindranath Tagore’s school at Santiniketan, located in West Bengal.[2]  Although the school at the time did not have an art teacher, Dey’s family connections to the Tagores—his father was a personal friend of Rabindranath’s—enabled him to receive informal instruction from Abanindranath Tagore and Gagonendranath Tagore at the family’s Jorasanko house.[3] At the age of 21, Dey began travelling internationally to study print-making techniques. In 1916, he travelled to Japan with Rabindranath Tagore to study under the artists Yokoyama Taikan and Kanzan Shimomura. During his stay, Dey was also introduced to Pan-Asianism, an early twentieth-century movement and ideology that advocated solidarity amongst Asian nations against Western imperialism. Later that same year, Dey travelled to Chicago to study etching with Bertha Jaques (whose work is also featured in this exhibition) and became a lifelong member of the Chicago Society of Etchers. In 1920, he traveled to the United Kingdom studied at Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal College of Art in London⁠. He returned to India bringing with him both a knowledge of Western print-making techniques and a familiarity with the British system for art pedagogy, knowledge which he utilized during his later appointment as Principle of the Government School of Art in Calcutta.[4]

Along with his early mentor Abanindranath Tagore, Mukul Dey became a leading figure of the Bengal School of Art, which sought to develop a national style that at once drew on and modernized India’s rich artistic heritage (especially Mughal miniatures and Buddhist cave paintings) in support of the Swadeshi movement for Indian self-sufficiency and independence.[5] Dey dedicated his life to the artistic revival of Indian art and adapted the traditionally Western technique of drypoint etching to this end, creating many prints that drew on Indian cultural heritage. The artistic revival of traditional imagery helped fuel the Swadeshi movement by fostering a sense of national pride and attempting to develop a new national style.[6] Dey’s artworks represent his hope to decolonize Indian art and restore Indian national pride.

The Sacred Tree

Mukul Dey’s Sacred Tree (1927) can be situated in this context (Fig. 1). This print was created with Dey’s signature drypoint etching technique on thin laid paper. The work dominated by a gigantic tree—a figus religiosa, known as the sacred Bodhi tree—that is potted in a large urn. The tree is situated in the middle of the work and surrounded by people coming to the tree to make offerings or ask for its blessings. The quality of line is much softer than that produced by traditional etching techniques, giving the work a sense of animation and temporal extension. The overall composition of the print can be divided into three parts, the bottom of the artwork, which is composed of eleven figures, and one big planter for the sacred tree; the middle is the main body of the tree, which is filled with a variety of small animals masterfully depicted by the artist; and the upper region of the print features four kinnaras—celestial musicians traditionally depicted as half-bird, half-human—floating within two clouds.

Picture of an intricately-rendered tree filled with small animals.

Fig. 1. Mukul Dey, Sacred Tree. 1927, drypoint etching. University Transfer from Max Epstein Archive, Carrie B. Neely Bequest, 1940, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 1967.116.540.

The human figures at the bottom of the composition adopt various postures that point to the tree’s significance as an object of devotion and adoration. Four female figures kneel and bow in front of the large urn, loosely forming an inverted triangle that frames the tree. To each side of these women, additional figures approach the tree with tributes. The gazes, postures, and even the lines of the individuals’ clothing all direct attention to the Bodhi tree that presides over the composition, encouraging viewers to similarly raise their gaze upwards in admiration.

The tree itself is expertly modelled with a wealth of subtle tones that add a sense of dimension and animation to its mass of leaves. So intricate is the design that, at first glance, the viewer might not notice that the tree is also teeming with life. Hidden amongst its leaves are many animals—close inspection reveals squirrels, birds, and small monkeys that enliven its verdant canopy. These animals point to the complexity of the tree’s meaning, suggesting that it holds significance both as an object of religious devotion and a place of refuge for a host of small creatures. The overall impression is one of harmony between the human, animal, and vegetal, presided over by the celestial figures of the kinnaras.

What is drypoint etching?

Drypoint etching is an intaglio printmaking process most famously associated with the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Rembrandt, who interestingly enough also created a series of drawings of Mughal Emperors, likely based on Indian miniatures in Dutch collections.[7] To create a drypoint etching, the artist incises a metal plate with a hard pointed called a “needle.” Like other engraving processes, incising the plate creates grooves for the ink. Unlike the traditional engraver’s burin, however, the needle used in drypoint etching tends to leave textured ridges that rise above the surface of the plate—called burr—which also catches the ink and produces a soft, velvety line when printed.[8] Once the plate is finished, it is inked and wiped down to remove the ink from its unmarked portions, then placed underneath a piece of damp paper on a printing press, which pushes the ink into the paper to create the finished print.

Because the burrs created by the drypoint needle break down under the pressure of the press, each plate can only make a limited number of impressions and the quality of line varies from impression to impression. This makes the process less than ideal for reproductive purposes, but the softness of line that it produces was highly valued by generations of artists and collectors. An additional benefit of the process was that it provided a way to create an intaglio plate without the acid required by conventional etching processes, making it a more accessible and less resource-intensive process. Mukul Dey was one of the early adaptors of the drypoint etching process in India, which he learned during his travels to Chicago and London. In India, Dey would use this Western technique to reinvent traditional iconography, producing works such as the print featured in this exhibition.

Why is the Bohdi tree important?

The sacred Bodhi tree is one of the most important symbols in Indian Buddhist art, symbolizing enlightenment, knowledge, and growth. The legend has it that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was a prince in one of the small countries in India. He lived a very luxurious life without worrying about material things. One day after witnessing old age, sickness, and poverty, he decided to give up on a life filled with luxury in a search for enlightenment. After six years of searching, he attained enlightenment (or awakening) while meditating under a Bohdi tree.⁠  The Bodhi tree thus became an object of devotion for Indian Buddhists and an important symbol of enlightenment in Buddhist art. In an essay, art historians Dietrich Seckel and Andreas Leisinger describe “all Buddhist art in India employs exclusively a group of aniconic symbols. These allude to the person of the Buddha and represent the decisive events and localities of the creed, such as his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.”[9]

The theme of supplicants bringing offerings to the sacred Bodhi tree has thus been a prominent theme in Buddhist art for centuries. A relief sculpture on limestone, currently owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, offers an example from the third century (fig. 2). The sculptural fragment shows a group of people bringing offerings to the sacred tree, which is located at the center of the composition. Although over a thousand years separate this sculpture from Dey’s print, both engage respectfully with the same subject matter and motifs. Like Dey’s Sacred Tree, the sculpture depicts a small tree sitting on a platform or throne in the middle of the work and is approached on either sides by individuals who bear gifts or hold their hands together. One possible explanation for the throne-like motif is that it is the seat for Buddha. The combination of throne and tree symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightenment in his absence⁠.[10]

Fig. 2. Veneration of the Bodhi Tree. 201 CE – 300 CE, limestone relief. Avery Brundage, Samuel M. Nickerson and Russell Tyson endowments, the Art Institute of Chicago.

An even earlier example of the theme can be found in the relief sculptures that decorate the eastern gate of the Great Stupa in Sanchi, India, which were created between 185-175 BCE and excavated during the nineteenth century. The gateway is decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha, and the panel in question depicts a large Bodhi tree at the center of the composition, above an alter containing the wheel of Dharma (fig. 3). On both sides of the tree are two pairs of figures, interpreted as the four guardians of the four corners of the world, who adopt a posture of adoration. Above the tree, two winged beings, the kinnaras, pay their respect to the tree, holding flowered garlands. The overall composition of the relief closely resembles that of Dey’s print. However, it is not hard to notice Dey’s effort to reinvent the theme by adding a sense of perspective, naturalism, and narrative to the image. Making use of the fine lines enabled by the drypoint process, Dey depicted the human figures in a more realistic fashion and rendered the tree more organic and naturalistic than that of the Great Stupa’s panel. In addition, the Bodhi tree occupies a larger portion of Dey’s composition and becomes an environment for a host of living creatures instead of an object. Together, these innovations speak to the dynamic invention that animated Dey’s approach to Indian artistic heritage.

Fig. 3. Temple for the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, depicted on the Eastern Gateway of the Great Stupa of Sanchi. 185-175 BCE, stone relief.

The Bengal School of Art

As Tapati Guha-Thakurta has observed, in the Bengal art scene of the turn of the twentieth-century, British art historians, art educators, and cultural authorities attempted to “[remodel] attitudes and aesthetic preferences, […] fostering a new code of ‘legitimate’ taste.”[11] The art teacher Ernest Binfield Havell, for instance, attempted to reform the art pedagogy of the Calcutta School of Art by encouraging his students to emulate Mughal miniatures. Although some artists criticized his approach as retrograde, Havell’s methods received the support of Dey’s mentor, Abanindranath Tagore, who was also interested in the possibility of developing a new national style inspired by Mughal miniatures. Tagore’s influence led to the emergence of the Bengal School of Art. Concerned with the future of Indian art, these artists were interested in fostering an inventive revival of Indian artistic traditions. They also questioned the educational system of the British Raj and the attempt of colonial authorities to influence Indian aesthetics and ways of life.[12]

This group of artists, which included Mukul Dey, eventually developed a style called the “Indian style of painting,” which they conceived of in relation to the aforementioned Swadeshi movement, which advocated for a boycott of imported foreign goods, especially English cloths and encouraged Indians to buy Indian-made products and materials. The main drive of the Bengal school of art movement came from a desire for independence and a perceived need to combat the overt westernization of Indian culture. In a letter Abanidranath Tagore wrote to his friend, he described his concerns about this process:

“We are no longer satisfied that our son should set up home with a plain homely wife; we are now busy searching for a mem [Western] bride to bring home. We are no longer happy that our Kala-Lakshmi [the goddess of the arts], the innocent Hindu girl, with kajal in her eyes, vermilion on her forehead, clothed in a resplendent Benarasi sari, will brighten up with the soft tinkle of her anklets our lives and as Griha-Laksmi [goddess of the home] bring to it beauty and prosperity. We want a bride we can pass off as a memsaheb. We no longer care for the goddess on a lotus seat, blessing us with her protection. We desire instead that half-undressed another woman, reclining on a couch, ⁠portrayed on a gilded frame, preening with an ostrich- feather fan in hand.”[13]

From this letter, we can see that the individuals like Tagore had become fully aware of the westernization of Indian culture, society, and minds and were deeply concerned with this development. The rise of the Indian middle class also helped foster a demand for artworks representing the Indian traditions and aesthetics. At the same time, the recovery and collection of Indian artistic heritage during the nineteenth and early twentieth century helped fuel an interest in artistic revivals. With the brewing Swadeshi movement and Indian independence movement, the call for Indian art for an Indian nation grew louder.

Mukul Dey was trained as an artist in this broad historical context. He understood his practice as an opportunity to contribute to the development of a strong national culture during this critical phase in the Indian independence movement. Like many of his artists and colleagues, he traveled to ancient ruins to help recover and promote traditional motifs and aesthetic forms.[14] Dey was deeply concerned by the loss and neglect of India’s cultural sites and published a number of books that aimed to reintroduce Indians to their cultural heritage. In one of these, Birbhum Terracottas (1959), which documented the terracotta works depicting folk tales and deities from the temples of Bengal, Dey lamented that these sites were “neglected” and “forgotten by villages,” pointing to a loss of Indian culture not only in urban centers, but also in the countryside.[15]

This book represented a continuation of Dey’s lifelong effort to recover and disseminate Indian artistic heritage. Early in his career, Dey undertook an arduous journey to the caves at Ajanta and Bagh to copy Buddhist frescos from the fifth century, publishing an illustrated account of his journey in 1925, entitled My Pilgrimages to Ajanta and Bagh.[16] When he encountered them, the frescoes were much damaged by not only natural forces, but also by vandalism. The actions of British officials also contributed to this vandalism. For instance, a large portion of the Ajanta frescoes had been removed by a British captain and sold at an auction house on Bond Street, eventually arriving at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Although Dey’s anger at the destruction of frescoes in Ajanta caves was strong, he is also expressed appreciation for the preservation of artistic heritage, even when undertaken by foreign museums, and saw himself as contributing to this effort. In one section of the book, he describes his process of copying and tracing the damaged frescos. He carefully traced the image from the wall, then transfered it to another sheet of paper more suitable for painting. He then applied color to the paper, and later, when the British Museum collected some of his works, he was happy to see it being shown and well preserved.[17] The love Mukul Dey had for art surpassed the narrowness of nationalism, and he perhaps recognized the value that preserving and exhibiting Indian artistic heritage—even under the bitter conditions of colonization—might have for the future artists and citizens of an independent India.

Indeed, Dey’s encounter with the frescoes at Ajanta and Bagh, as well as sculptural fragments and reliefs in temples around Bengal, served as an important inspiration for his own printmaking and painting practice. Yet it would be wrong to consider Dey nothing more than a revivalist. Rather, Dey and the artists of the Bengal School of Art sought to develop a new artistic language that would cultivate a sense of national pride and contribute to the project of building an independent Indian nation. His was a project that looked both simultaneously to the past and the future.

With this in mind, we can return to Dey’s Sacred Tree. At first glance, the print might seem like nothing more than a traditional depiction of a traditional religious motif, one whose concern with the natural world has little to say the political struggle that animated Dey’s historical context. However, by contextualizing the print within the project of the Bengal School of Art and Dey’s own commitment to the recovery of Indian artistic heritage, it becomes possible to understand the work as an attempt to develop a modern national aesthetics. This meant not only returning to Indian cultural traditions and motifs, but also reinventing them. Characteristics such as the use of the Western medium of drypoint etching to depict a traditional theme, the three-dimensionality of the subtly modelled tree, and the naturalism of its approach to human figures, animals, and vegetation all speak to Dey’s efforts to connect with his lineage as an Indian artist while at the same time developing a modern visual language that expressed his hopes and dreams for a newly independent India.

[1] Sister Nivedita quoted in Partha Mitter, Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), PAGE NUMBER NEEDED.

[2] Satyasri Ukil, “Mukul Dey: Pioneering Indian Graphic Artist,” Mukul Dey Archives, accessed December 8, 2021, http://www.chitralekha.org/#:~:text=Photo%3A%20Keisuke%20InanoIndian,of%20drypoint%2Detching%20in%20India. The Santiniketan school represents the origins of today’s Kala Bhavana (Institute of Fine Arts) at Visva-Bharati University.

[3] Mukul Dey, “My Reminiscences,” Mukul Dey Archives, accessed December 8, 2021, http://www.chitralekha.org/articles/mukul-dey/my-reminiscences.

[4] Ukil, np.

[5] Natasha Eaton, “‘Swadeshi’ Color: Artistic Production and Indian Nationalism, ca. 1905–ca. 1947,” The Art Bulletin 95, no. 4 (2013): 623–41.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Stephanie Schrader (ed.), Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018).

[8] See William M. Ivins Jr., How Prints Look (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 44-48. Also see the Tate’s helpful entry on the technique: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/drypoint.

[9] Dietrich Seckel and Andreas Leisinger, “Before and beyond the Image: Aniconic Symbolism in Buddhist Art,” Artibus Asiae. Supplementum 45 (2004): 3–107.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tapati Guha-Thakurta, The Making of a New “Indian” Art: Artists, Aesthetics, and Nationalism in Bengal, C. 1850-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Abanidranath Tagore quoted in Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

[14] Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

[15] Mukul Dey, Birbhum Terracottas (New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1959).

[16] Mukul Dey, My Pilgrimage to Ajanta & Bagh (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1925).

[17] Ibid.

This site is for educational purposes only. Certain images on this website are protected by copyright and may be subject to other third party rights; downloading for commercial use is prohibited.