Kanu Desai: The Lost Bengal School Artist


This thesis seeks to contextualize Kanu Desai’s Mirabai: Ten Pictures from the Life of India’s Greatest Poetess of the Past, a collection of lithographs originally produced in the 1930’s with a reprint in 1943. In order to analyze this work, three interconnected lenses are used: (1) Desai’s artistic upbringing and apprenticeship under Ravishankar Raval in Ahmedabad and Nandalal Bose in Santiniketan, (2) the socio-political environment in which these works were produced, and (3) the market for the product both locally and abroad. Through these methods, This paper will illustrate how Desai’s folio demonstrates his mastery of the Santiniketan credo and the influence of pivotal anti-colonial freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi; in addition to this, it also represents a unique engagement with the growing theosophist audience abroad. In the end, this research hopes to establish a new vein within mid-20th century modern Indian art scholarship, opening it up to archival studies into this otherwise unknown Gujarati artist.

Aarti Badami

Aarti is a senior in the Rutgers Honors College double majoring in Art History and Computer Science.  Her research interests include south Asian art and publicly-circulated media. Born and raised in New York, she enjoys knitting, solving crossword puzzles, and making art in her free time.  In addition to this, she also enjoyed learning new languages and appreciated the opportunity to study in Paris during her Junior year.


9 Replies to “Kanu Desai: The Lost Bengal School Artist”

  1. Nice job, Aarti. This is a well structured presentation with a strong argument focused on the object. Congratulations! But then again, I expected no less.
    My best and good luck for the future

  2. What an interesting body of work, and your analysis is very strong! It is a great contribution to the emerging field of global modernisms as well as to the study of the relation of art and colonialism and art and gender.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to look at my presentation, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Desai’s Mirabai collection!

  3. Stellar structure of your greater project and arguments. I am so compelled by your chosen imagery, and your analysis of each work was spot on. It is awesome to see you choose an under-studied artist and bring them to light: difficult, but so rewarding in the end. Great project, congrats!

    1. I was hoping to build upon those more researched works in order to inform my analysis of Desai’s prints and I’m glad to hear it made for a compelling argument. Thanks for taking the time to listen to my presentation!

  4. I was fascinated to learn about the invocation of a 15th century devotee of Krishna in the struggle against British colonialism. You’ve undertaken an impressive project in resuscitating this a little-known early 20th century artist, arguing persuasively how he enlisted traditional imagery and style to support nationalism.

    1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed learning about the influence of Mirabai in 20th century India. Thank you for taking the time to hear my presentation!

  5. Very intriguing presentation, situated at a critical moment in Indian history. It is fascinating that while an artist such as Desai was rejecting Western styles of painting in the 1930s, he was also attempting to broaden the audience for his work in the 1940s. This definitely speaks to the power of art as a political tool, as well as the importance of audience and circulation (and who gets to determine what is “important” and “good.”)

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