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Revisiting Sailoz Mookherjea (1907- 1960): An Artist With a Bohemian Soul
Mallika Chakrawarti

Many years ago, an artist had begun a silent revolution in India. At least two decades before the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group was conceived, Sailoz Mookherjea imagined modernism in a way no Indian artist did at the time. Although, his artworks have been listed as national treasures, Sailoz’s legacy is one that must be retold.

To commemorate the 30th death anniversary of Mahendra Jain, the former of owner of Dhoomimal Art Gallery, an exhibition of Sailoz’s artworks were on view at the gallery in New Delhi’s Connaught Place, from November 1st to 30th. Sailoz was associated with Dhoomimal till his last days, and Mohit Jain—the present owner of the gallery— expressed his pride at the ongoing exhibition which showcased the genius of an artist who is barely spoken of in connection with Indian modern art. It gives me great pleasure to write about Sailoz Mookherjea, whose paintbrush and canvas celebrated the vibrancy of everyday life in India.

I have discovered that Sailoz’s boyhood years are not easily traceable. Oddly enough, all the information available to me about the artist did not have ‘a beginning and an end’. This interesting aspect was remarked upon by artist Samit Das, who has closely studied Sailoz’s life and artworks with reference to the exhibition and otherwise. According to Indian artist Eric Bowen’s account, Sailoz was an orphan who had gotten acquainted with poverty very early in life. The life-altering experience of being disconnected from a home and a family probably shaped his approach towards art. Amidst the colors and chaotic scratches, there is a sadness in his strokes that imperceptibly takes hold of the viewer.

After completing his studies in Fine Art at the Government College of Arts in Calcutta, Sailoz set out into the world to realize his dreams. In the 1930s, he traveled to Paris to meet Henri Matisse; an artist he worshipped. The fateful meeting had had a deep impact on Sailoz. Henri told him that there was nothing that he could possibly teach Sailoz, who belonged to the land of the Nataraja. Initially let down by his interaction with Matisse, Sailoz returned to India and gradually learned that Matisse’s words had not been spoken in vain. Sailoz’s outlook towards art and India began to change. He increasingly took great interest in the urban and rural landscapes of the country. Earlier familiar with the Bengal school of art, Sailoz’s style was evolving to accept various influences and techniques. His experiments with line, form and color were endless. One commendable attempt was to blend line with color, which was pretty modern for those times. Interestingly similar to his idol Matisse, he would use minimal colors to brighten his oil paintings. The simple forms and intense colors of Fauvism were evident in some of Sailoz’s work. His observations of local life and people in North India, specifically around places in Rajasthan and Delhi, were rendered on canvas.

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