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    Bireswar Sen (b. 1897; d. 1974)

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    A watercolour artist, Bireswar Sen is remembered for his small-scale landscape paintings, particularly of the Himalayas. His work was shaped by a wide range of influences, most notably Pahari miniatures, Japanese ink wash painting and Romanticism.

    Sen was born and raised in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he received an MA in English Literature at Presidency College in 1921. As his father had done at Calcutta University, Sen taught English at BN College, Patna from 1923 until 1926, when he took up the position of Headmaster at Lucknow College of Arts and Crafts. Sen remained in Lucknow for a number of years, additionally working as the Founder and Director of the Central Design Centre and Secretary of the Poster Design Committee in the UP state government’s Rural Development Department. 

    Sen took an active interest in art well before his career shift in the late 1920s, and sustained a painting practice alongside his teaching and government office work. In 1917, he met Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose, and became interested in the Bengal School’s ideas and techniques, most notably miniature art and wash painting. While he was still in Calcutta, he also studied drawing and painting informally at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, where he was subsequently introduced to other Bengal School artists, both Indian and Japanese, and maintained contact with the group even after moving out of the city. 

    Sen’s career saw a pivotal shift in 1932 when he was introduced to Nicholas Roerich, a Russian painter and anti-Bolshevik pacifist who had moved to Kullu, Himachal Pradesh the previous year. Roerich inspired Sen to begin painting the Himalayan mountain landscapes that would go on to define his art practice. While Roerich’s own large, boldly coloured landscape paintings were informed by his deep interest in mysticism and Buddhism, Sen did not bring the same religious worldview to his work. Despite his great admiration of the Russian artist, Sen’s paintings and notes suggest instead a strong Romantic influence. Moreover, unlike Roerich, he worked exclusively on small pieces of paper typically no larger than playing cards or postcards, the final work often requiring a magnifying lens to be viewed in full detail.

    Mostly set in the Himalayas, Sen’s paintings were rendered from memory in the studio after careful observation and notes made in the landscape. They are distinctive in the contrast created between the immensity of the subject and the miniature scale of the work itself, as well as the inclusion of minute figures — painted in deftly executed brushstrokes and placed against large fields of colour — further enhancing the dramatic effect of scale in the setting. The palette is naturalistic, with a base wash allowing for muted earth colours and luminescent clouds and peaks. While mountains and water bodies are often present in the foreground, larger snow-capped mountains are often seen in the background, partially obscured with mist. The blue tint given to these topographical elements enhances the sense of their great distance from the viewpoint, despite which they loom over the landscape because of their immensity. The subtle shades of blue in these paintings often appear particularly pronounced because of the time of day in the setting, perhaps shortly before sunrise or after sunset. The sun itself is outside the frame, allowing for relatively even lighting and soft illumination of the sky, while avoiding sharp shadows or obscured areas. Sen’s paintings often depict isolated human figures — sherpas, sanyasis or stragglers from nomadic groups, for example — and temples or habitations, sized to scale against the vast landscape and positioned so as to evoke a sense of awe at the grandeur and immensity of nature.

    Though influential among his peers during his lifetime, Sen has received attention from the wider Indian art community relatively recently. The revival of interest in Sen’s work is in large part due to the efforts of art historian BN Goswamy who curated Between Heaven and Earth, a posthumous exhibition of Sen’s paintings at Anant Art Gallery in 2010. Subsequent exhibitions include Time and Eternity (2016) at Crow Museum of Asian Art, and Reflections: Man and Nature in the Paintings of Bireswar Sen, shown at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi (2017), the Museu do Oriente, Lisbon (2019) and NGMA, Mumbai (2022).

    Sen passed away in Calcutta in 1974 at the age of 77.


    Bhagat, Himanshu. “Very big, very small.” Mint, February 22, 2010. Accessed 23 February, 2023.

    Bireswar Sen Family Trust. “Biography.” Bireswar Sen, n.d. Accessed 22 February, 2023.

    Chattopadhyay, Pallavi. “Size Matters.” Indian Express, November 1, 2017. Accessed 23 February, 2023.

    Goel, Poonam. “Size does not matter.” Deccan Herald, February 6, 2010. Accessed 23 February, 2023.

    Goswamy, B. N. Curatorial note for “Time and Eternity: Landscape Paintings by Bireswar Sen.” Crow Museum of Asian Art, January 2016. Accessed 22 February, 2023.

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