Gurusaday Dutt: Champion of Bengal’s Folk Art
Long after the lines were drawn between art and craft, and definitions of fine art became rigid, one man collected works of art, regardless of tags. He preserved them, exhibited them and encouraged their living traditions and practices. He left a legacy that allows us to savour rural Bengal’s culture and traditions and has preserved them for posterity.
This unusual man was Gurusaday Dutt (1882–1941), founder of the Gurusaday Museum at Joka in Kolkata, one of the finest folklore museums in India. Dutt’s life story is incredible. He grew up in a small village with little means and went on to become a Cambridge-educated ICS officer. He became a writer, a nationalist, and a self-taught folklorist. He founded the Bratachari Movement for social upliftment in the 1930s. This is the enormous legacy of this one man.
Gurusaday Dutt was born in 1882, in Birasree village in Karimganj, Sylhet, to a family of modest means. His father died when he was only 9 and his mother when he was 14. Orphaned at such a young age, he was left to a disapproving uncle. As a young boy, Gurusaday’s only inspiration was Tarakchandra Ray, a village elder who was his mentor. Inspired by Ray, the young Gurusaday engaged in social work in his village, sometimes volunteering as a fire-fighter and sometimes aiding fellow villagers during floods.
At the age of 16, Gurusaday cleared the Entrance Examinations of Calcutta University (equivalent to today’s Std 10 board examination) and stood second in the district. This was a matter of pride for the entire village. It was also clear that Gurusaday’s potential needed better nurturing. Since his uncle did not have the means, a local organisation called the Srihatta Sammilani, (Sylhet Union) decided to fund his education – if Gurusaday managed to stand first in the First Arts (F A) Examination.
He enrolled in Presidency College, in Calcutta, where he was exposed to the growing Swadeshi Movement and attended lectures delivered by nationalist leaders such as Surendranath Banerjee. Greatly inspired by these leading lights, he became a young Congress volunteer but he never left his focus to waver. The young man secured the first position in the F A Examination and won the Scindia Gold Medal. As promised, the Srihatta Sammilani continued to sponsor his education and Gurusaday Dutt headed for Cambridge in the United Kingdom, where he enrolled at Emmanuel College.
In 1905, Dutt cleared the Indian Civil Services (ICS) examination and returned to India. Bengal was in turmoil as Lord Curzon had partitioned Bengal on religious lines. The nationalist sentiment was inflamed. On taking up government service, Dutt was posted as a sub-divisional officer. After working for a few years, he not only repaid his scholarship money to the Srihatta Sammilani, but he also set up a fund that provided opportunities for deserving students.
Unlike other ICS officers of his time, Dutt was a ‘hands-on’ officer and took special interest in village development. He also realised it was wrong to romanticise village life as it was fraught with many challenges. This led him to start the Rural Reconstruction Movement in 1918, in Birbhum district, which focused on integrated developmental work in villages. He later extended this to other places where he was posted, such as Bankura, Howrah and Mymensingh districts.
But there was only so much an ICS officer in the British Raj could do. Since he was sympathetic to the nationalist movement, he was constantly under scrutiny by the British administrators. On the other hand, his position as an ICS officer meant that the Indian nationalists were skeptical of his role in the national movement.
He was suspected of being a spy by both the British administration and Indian nationalists. In 1928, Dutt was vocal against the Bamangachhi firing case in Liluah, Howrah, where the police led by a British officer had fired on an unarmed crowd of protestors. An uproar followed and the matter was even raised in the House of Lords in London. But his superiors were not pleased with the stand he had taken and Dutt was transferred to Mymensingh district. In 1929, when he refused administrative orders to charge at Gandhian protesters, he was transferred again, to Birbhum.
But there was a silver lining to all these official transfers. Dutt’s travels to remote parts of rural Bengal ignited an interest in the folk culture and traditions of the region. He received a further push in 1929, on his visit to England, where he attended a folkdance recital at the Royal Albert Hall. He later recalled in his memoirs, “My memory went back with a fond longing to the village dances of my childhood. I there (sic) formed a resolution in my mind to devote myself to the conservation of the village dances of my province on my return to India.”
On his return, Dutt formed the Folk Dance Revival Society and started promoting the Jari dance. This dance form transformed from Azadari- songs that would mourn and commemorate the martyrdom of Shia religious leader Husayn ibn Ali. In Eastern parts of undivided Bengal, this took a new storytelling form through folk dances and songs known as jari gaan. In 1929, he also started collecting folk art. Even though he was heartbroken at the death of his wife in 1925, Dutt continued with the efforts that he and his wife had started, for the upliftment and literacy of women, by starting the Sarojnalini Dutt Memorial Association, named in his wife’s memory.
Dutt took the initiative to revive the folk dances of Bengal. He sought out Raibeshe dancers in 1930, who were essentially performers of martial dance, and part-time dacoits. He wrote extensively on social issues, rural reconstruction as well as the folk culture of Bengal. In his writings, Dutt traces them to the Mahabharat, where the greatest warrior Arjun transformed into Brihannala, the dancer. It was from Arjun that these dancers traced their lineage, according to Dutt. He met Cecil Sharp, a folk dance revivalist, in 1931, during one of his visits to London and this further inspired him to explore regional dance practices.
But Dutt was not a passive spectator of these dance practices; he was a willing participant. He even rolled in dust on the floor, to participate in certain ritual dances of the Kirtaniyas, after which he was deemed to be an avatar of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a 15th century Vaishnava saint from Eastern India. Thanks in part to Dutt’s efforts, Raibeshe performers continue their practice to date. Some Raibeshe dancers were part-time dacoits. Since the 18th/19th century, they were employed by zamindars, initially as protectors of wedding processions, and then later as a means to show off their power. Over the years, the khemta dance-loving zamindars started to dress them in ghagras. Dutt’s revival in the early 20th century was an intervention at a time of their near-extinction.
Dutt was a great collector not just of the folk Pattachitra paintings but also their accompanying ballads. To promote Pattachitra, he organised an exhibition of folk arts at the Indian Society of Oriental Arts in Calcutta in 1932, where he also managed to get the artists themselves, not only to display the Pattachitra scrolls but also to sing their ballads.
His patronage of Pattachitra was so intense that a Pattachitra artist called Matru started living in his house and continued his practice there. Dutt pitched the role of the Pattachitra artist as being a social reformer, “the bearers of our national culture from a hoary past” and role models for urban youth. Jamini Ray and other modern artists like Qamrul Hasan would seek inspiration from them as it enriched their respective practices, coming in contact with the roots of folk art.
Gurusaday Dutt championed dighol (scroll) pats over chouko (square) pats and Kalighat pats, as he found the narrative structure of a scroll pat more appealing, whereas he found the square pats had been shaped by commercialism and were limited in their potential. According to Dutt, Pattachitra has a “sweetness and homeliness which is peculiar to the character of rural Bengal and is Bengal’s very own.”
Even though Gurusaday Dutt thought of Kalighat pats as degraded and urbanised compared to the more rural and lyrical scroll pats, he still collected not only Kalighat pats from across generations but also their sketch books.
These pats (above) were painted by Santhal artists on funerary occasions. The paintings of the dead (without the pupil of their eyes drawn) are brought to the family of the deceased. When the family pays alms, the eyes are drawn, ensuring that the deceased gets his vision back in the afterworld. On rare occasions, when the family refuses, paintings based on the horrors that the afterworld, which involves punishment for the dead, are shown.
Dutt was also sensitive to collecting objects that would not necessarily be seen as traditional ‘art objects’ by contemporary collectors. The concept of what is "art" was measured by contemporary art collectors in terms of Western academic standards of sculpture or painting. Gursaday collected objects of everyday use, which were passive to the common eye such as the Kanthas, which are traditional embroidery crafts usually woven by women, using used cloth. The designs, motifs and shapes of the Kantha vary according to its purpose.
Dutt also collected sweetmeat moulds, utensils, lacquer dolls made by children and wedding sieves painted by grandmothers. Many of these objects are no longer in use and he felt they needed to be preserved and showcased.
Some of the works/objects collected by Dutt were made/painted sometimes by over three generations (from grandmother to the granddaughter) of folk artists. They are not just valuable artefacts, but specimens of the intergenerational art-making process of folk art, which was not made by a single artist, but as an assimilation of sensibilities of three generations and a culmination of their respective aesthetics.
Dutt furthered this by sending art students (who later became famous artists) like Chintamani Kar, Sudhangsu Ray, Ajit Mookerjee, Gaffar Chaudhary to collect folk art across villages and to photograph and document paintings and murals. He also emphasized alleviating the poverty of folk artists by buying their art.
One of Dutt’s most important contributions is the Bratachari Movement started by him in 1932. Based on the principle of five vows (wisdom, labour, unity, truth, zest for life), the movement aimed at the wholesome development of the individual, for physical, mental and spiritual growth. Based on folk traditions, it promoted physical exercise, dance, drama, music and social service as vehicles of personal development and fellowship.
The movement captured the imagination of regular folk, intellectuals and others. As Dutt met royalty from Baroda and Hyderabad, it spread to Western India and South India (South India Bratachari Society), and to even England (Bratachari Society of London). The list of Bratacharis was illustrious and included the likes of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is regarded as the ‘Father of the Nation’ in Bangladesh).
It is still currently practiced in West Bengal State Government schools as a part of the school curriculum. The teachers of Bratachari are sometimes employed from the Bratacharigram itself (the village that Dutt established, which houses the museum on its campus). The school students still sing the songs composed by Dutt and do dances and exercises, with instructions from the teacher.
Just before his death on 25th June 1941, Dutt bought a huge plot of land and named it ‘Bratacharigram’ (Bratachari village) on the outskirts of Kolkata. His huge collection from undivided Bengal, of over 2,500 art objects, was entrusted to a committee, and posthumously a part of it was built into a museum of folk art in 1961. Called ‘Gurusaday Museum’, it showcases Dutt’s varied collections and is a testament to the Hindu-Muslim unity of undivided Bengal through folk art that Dutt upheld all his life. The museum was built posthumously, after Dutt's death. It houses his collections that display traditional objects that are now extinct or are nearing extinction.
The museum is Dutt’s greatest legacy but is under threat. Its Executive Secretary and Curator, Bijan Kumar Mondal, says it has been facing many challenges since 2017 and was on the brink of closure at times, due to lack of funding. “Right now, we rely mostly on workshops that we conduct on folk art. Both funding and the number of museum visitors are minimal.”
Hopefully, the museum will overcome these challenges, for the institution along with Bratacharigram are a testament to a village boy’s love for this motherland.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Soumyadeep Roy is a visual artist, writer and heritage enthusiast with formal training in English literature, film studies, and Indian classical music.