Manuscript Painting of Assam: In Conversation with Sujit Das

in Interview
Published on: 17 September 2018

Meghna Baruah

Meghna Baruah is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. She hails from, lives and works in Assam. Her area of special interest has been learning about local cultures especially traditional forms of visual art and communication.

Transcript of an interview conducted on October 25, 2017 at Sujit Das’s residence in Nagaon town.


Sujit Das is an artist and illustrator who has been practicing and promoting manuscript painting for a number of years. As an artist, he has participated in many regional, national and international exhibitions and camps. He has also worked as a commercial artist for comics and regional newspapers and is a teacher in an art school.


Meghna Baruah: How and when did you start working as a manuscript painting artist? Where did you learn this work?


Sujit Das: I started to learn painting in an art school in Nagaon called Roop Rang School of Drawing and Painting. My guru was Shri Pranab Barua. Pranab Barua sir was trained in J.J. School of Arts. He was the first person to introduce us to manuscript painting of Assam. During our classes he used to show us pictures of old manuscripts from where we could copy and learn. He would also talk to us about manuscript painting and this helped me to appreciate and understand the significance of this traditional form of art. Although he encouraged us to practice as much as possible, he could not teach the age-old form in detail since he himself was not a traditional artist.


I had not seen sachi pat earlier but only heard about it. At the art school, we were asked to draw on paper. I came to know about the traditional process of making paper and colours when I met Shri Chittaranjan Bora. He had arranged a workshop on preparation of traditional colours and on the process of manuscript painting at his centre Kolong Kala Kendra. Shri Debokanta Hazarika, who was a mask-making artist, taught me the traditional process of making colours at the workshop. Sri Debokanta Hazarika knew the age-old method of making colours. He guided me a lot in my endeavor to learn manuscript painting even later. I also had the opportunity to learn mask making from Shri Hem Chandra Goswami and terracotta work from Shri Dhiren Nath Pal. Although I had learned many traditional forms of art from different people, I was drawn more towards painting. My first guru was Shri Pranab Barua and he had instilled the love for painting in me.


While I was getting to learn more about the traditional methods I was also simultaneously working as a commercial artist and was involved in illustrating for comics and newspapers. I worked for Rangman, which is a comic series, and for Amar Nagaon and Kolongpar newspapers. I used to narrate and illustrate stories in a step-by-step manner in comics. This exercise made me realize that artists creating manuscript paintings had already done many centuries ago what I was doing now  i.e., depiction of stories or information through episodes.


We did not have any gurus who could teach the traditional work to us in detail. We learnt it from different sources in bits. There was a huge gap of about a hundred years when creation of new manuscripts had drastically declined. The Burmese invasion, and thereafter, British rule led to decline of traditional forms of arts and crafts. There wasn’t creation of new work but mostly only research carried out to study old manuscripts.


In India almost every region has its own form of traditional art but art forms of Assam have not been able to flourish properly. I am trying to develop and promote manuscript painting of Assam, and especially, the Satriya School of painting because I feel such paintings are unique and very beautiful. However, what I create now may not be completely similar to what was created earlier. The art form has gone through changes and developments over centuries. Work produced in the sixteenth century is different from what was created in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. There were also influences from artist hailing from other regions. One has to change with time.


M.B.: What topics do you usually cover in your illustrations?


S.D.: I illustrate different topics and some of them cover modern themes. One has to depict issues that exist today for this art form to survive. I draw inspiration from mythology too. I do not like to copy directly from old manuscripts, although initially when I was learning manuscript painting I did learn by copying from old manuscripts. If I continue to reproduce from earlier work then what am I creating? One has to create new paintings and cover new themes and keep up with the present time. For example, I have made one illustration on Life of Sankaradeva on hand made paper. It took me six months to make this illustration. The painting was in the form of a chart that was made by combining many illustrations. Life of Sankaradeva was depicted through various episodes. State Bank of India, Nagaon Branch, has purchased the original work from me. I have a printed copy of this painting at home.


M.B.: Do you draw on traditional material?


S.D.: I think one should focus more on keeping the art form alive rather than drawing only on traditional material. There is already scarcity of sachi trees and availability of sachi pat. I draw on sachi pat with traditional colours but I also draw on paper and canvas. I use acrylic paint when I draw on canvas.


M.B.: How do you promote your work? Do you participate in exhibitions?


S.D.: I have participated in a number of regional, national and international exhibitions and camps. As far as possible, I am trying to expose and publicize about manuscript painting in the national and international arena. I feel it is important to have a wider perspective and promote our traditional art forms in the global platform.


I had participated in the International Cultural Integration Camp in Pattaya, Thailand in 2015. In Thailand, I have seen presence of many Hindu elements in the country’s cultural practices and festivals. However, while participating in the camp, no one knew about Assamese miniature paintings. They came to know about this art form only when I introduced it.


In 2016, I participated in camps that were conducted in Abu Dhabi and Sri Lanka (University of the Visual Arts and Performing Arts) with the same intention of sharing the kind of work that I am doing with a wider audience. In Sri Lanka I was told that there is similarity between our work and their work.


I had received a scholarship/fellowship from Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT), Government of India to work in the area of manuscript painting for the period 2014-15.


I have also participated in solo and group exhibitions in various institutions and art galleries in Assam.


M.B.: Do people purchase your paintings when you exhibit your work?


S.D.: Yes, people do purchase my paintings. For example, State Bank of India (Nagaon Branch) has purchased my painting (Life of Sankaradeva) for seventy thousand rupees. In a small town like Nagaon being able to sell a painting for such a price is I think quite a big achievement. People outside Assam purchase my work more than people from Assam. Everyone here likes the work that I do but they are not ready to pay for it or might not have understood its full value. There is still time for people in Assam to appreciate the kind of work that we are doing and the atmosphere in which it can fully develop.


When one has enough to sustain oneself only then can the art form evolve. When Ahoms ruled in Assam, artists had patronage from the Ahom kings and that is why they could survive and art could flourish. If government today supports this form of art then there is scope for it to develop. I have also written to (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi in this context. Art can flourish only when economy is in a good condition.


M.B.: How do you plan to promote manuscript painting so that the future generation can carry forward this tradition?


S.D.: I have participated in various workshops and camps where I demonstrate my work. Mridu Moucham Bora has invited me twice in workshops that he has conducted where I have shown students the process of manuscript painting. I have around five hundred students in my art school - Jyoti Art School. I teach manuscript painting occasionally and art in general to my students. I teach them on paper because there is a dearth of sachi pat.


People like us have to keep working towards development of manuscript painting. This form of art needs to develop to such a level where one can economically sustain oneself by solely practicing manuscript painting. Many artists should be involved in this process. Everyone knows about Bihar’s Madhubani painting. We should aim to reach such a level.