204B Block B, Lake Town, Kolkata: My Tête-à-Tête with Shanu Lahiri’s Creative Spirit

By Srilagna Majumdar

While I’m aware that many people have penned down their emotions regarding the address mentioned in this piece’s title, I still want to do it again, one more time, in my own way, because the aforementioned address never seems to lose its charm. In 2021, just about 21 years old, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the process of setting up the family history archive of the creative genius Shanu Lahiri and her illustrious brothers artist Nirode Mazumdar and litterateur Kamal Kumar Mazumdar. Shanu Lahiri, fondly known as Shanu di to her admirers of all ages, was a remarkable artist and educator working for over six decades. Besides vehemently practising public art, writing and speaking on the role of art, she mobilised a women artists’ collective called ‘The Group’ with Meera Mukherjee, Karuna Saha, Santosh Rohatgi, and Shyamasree Basu. Added to her artistic persona, she built a rich archive of the works of the artists, musicians, and writers in her creative community, along with relevant newspaper cuttings, journals, and magazines in that regard.

Born on the 23rd of January 1928 in one of Calcutta’s most prominent and culturally elevated families, Shanu was the youngest of seven siblings, including three sisters in the Mazumdar family. When she was growing up, her two elder brothers, the writer Kamal Majumdar, and the artist Nirode Mazumdar, were already established and respected figures in the city’s intellectual and artistic worlds. She entered the Government College of Art and Crafts in 1947. She went to École du Louvre in France, where she learned art appreciation, and at the Académie Julian, where she received training in painting. In the 80s, her street art, accompanied by her efforts to engage laymen and school children, took Kolkatans by surprise as she painted murals on Kolkata’s walls that political parties had defaced earlier. She was, to put simply, on a crusade to adorn the City of Joy. She made elaborate and ornate Durga idols for the Bakulbagan Puja, which Nirode Mazumdar started. The mural she created on Justice Chandra Madhab Road, opposite the Phillips office, was a landmark that remained for a long time. However, the city has not treated the results of her artistic zeal very kindly. Her work Parama was removed from the island on EM Bypass, after which it was named. The artist worked relentlessly as an activist till her last few days in 2013.

Shanu Lahiri Archives (Image credits: author)

Damayanti Lahiri, our beloved Damayanti di, heralded all of her near and dear ones in the process of digitising this archive, which will give art lovers and scholars a glimpse into the city’s cultural landscape post-Independence and also fuel research initiatives on the same. I was elated to witness and have my hands on the treasure trove, which consisted of everything creative, starting from art supplies used by the artists to letters the artists had written to other dignitaries. The Lahiri household is famous for its unusual abundance in everything, ranging from delicious homemade dishes to warmth and affection, even to strangers. No one returns from 204B Block B, Lake Town empty-handed or melancholic. The current furry friends, the majestic cat Bonbibi and two dogs, Mou and Eije, differentiated only by their age gaps, are present to support you constantly.

Furry Support (Image credits: author)

As I sifted through the collection, especially the sketches of Shanu di, I was overpowered by a wave of joy that only genuine artistic expression can bring to one’s mind. Her style comprises a mesmerizing dance of colours and emotions across the canvas. Not only the canvas, but she had also painted and sketched and scribbled on every surface she could find, including pots and bowls, walls, window panes, and small pieces of pitch boards. Each brushstroke and line seems to carry a whisper of her soul, a glimpse into the depths of her creative spirit. More importantly, as all art lovers who have taken a closer look at Shanu Lahiri’s work would agree, her work transcends mere representation, becoming an exploration of the intangible connections that bind humanity and nature. An ardent animal lover, the artist drew pages after pages of her pet dogs, cats, and even the unconventional ones, like snakes (which her father didn’t allow her to keep) and pigs! Her candid autobiography, ‘Smritir Collage’ (Collage of Memories), paints a vivid picture of her childhood and portrays her mesmerizing ability to be a storyteller.

A book by Shanu Lahiri on her love for animals (Image credits: author)

Shanu Lahiri had always stood against the marketization of art, and her art is a testament to her indomitable spirit and creative prowess. Her journey through the artistic landscape has been one of breaking boundaries and redefining norms. Her brilliance lay not only in her technical mastery but also in her ability to infuse her creations with a uniquely feminine perspective. Her works resonate with a depth of emotion and sensitivity that can only be born from a keen understanding of the nuances of life. Through her drawings of women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, which are yet to be revealed to the larger audience, she celebrates womanhood in all its forms – strength, vulnerability, grace, and tenacity. More importantly, throughout her lifetime and thereafter, her work not only graced galleries but also shaped cultural narratives, proving that art can be a powerful platform for initiating change.

Working in the Shanu Lahiri Archives opened new doors to my understanding of art. I was pleasantly surprised by the awesome diversity of the medium and the variation of themes that came up in her art. We, for sure, had a hard time sorting out the massive collection of art into chronological and thematic segments! Shanu Lahiri’s prominent art series consists of the Ragamala series, Ramayana series, and Elokeshi-Mohanto drawings, besides numerous etchings and mixed media artworks. With a harmonious blend of vibrant hues and subtle textures, Lahiri weaves a tapestry of sensations that evoke both nostalgia and wonder, rarely noticed amidst the modern Indian art scene. Her compositions invite viewers to enter a world where reality and imagination intertwine, where the ordinary is elevated to the extraordinary through the sheer power of her artistic vision and the simplicity of her artistic approach.

The cosiness of 204B, thus, has beaconed me ever since 2021, and I tend to go back every time I feel like going through Shanudi’s exuberance. The place always opens the door to art lovers with a big smile and hearty welcome.

Srilagna completed her education at the Department of History, Jadavpur University. She is a practising researcher and archivist, an avid reader, and an animal lover.

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