Ila Panda (nee Dash): The Forgotten Artist

By Supriya Prasanta:

Ila Panda (1934-2005) was an artist and social activist from Odisha. Her father, Ghanashyam Dash was a Professor of History. She received education at Ravenshaw Girls’ School and went on to study arts at Santiniketan for four years. She worked as a drawing teacher at various government schools in Odisha before she married Banshidhar Panda, an eminent entrepreneur and became the founder-member of IMFA. The major initiatives undertaken under her guidance by IMFA include instituting the prestigious Sarala Award for recognizing excellence in Odia literature and the Ekalabya Puraskar for encouraging budding Odia sportspersons. Her autobiographical piece, the earliest of Odia women’s published personal narratives, ‘Jeevan upare rupara prabhaba’ (The Impact of Aesthetics in my Life) was featured in the Odia journal, Dagara in 1953. Her experience as an art student at Santiniketan, and, later, as a drawing teacher in a school, is sensitively recorded here.

The Impact of Aesthetics on my Life

I was pleased to read autobiographical essays in the series, ‘The Impact of Aesthetics on my Life’ in the Dagara written by eminent Odia painters. While reading these, I began to think of the place of art and aesthetics in my life; my birthplace and numerous artists, who had appeared on the stage of this earth and after playing their roles, returned to the dust. Why has no one written about the lives of our great artists, why has no one done any research on them? The camphor has evaporated, the cloth remains in which it was stored—and I am like the tiniest of worms that lives on a piece of torn cloth. What significance does my life have? How do I describe precisely the impact of the universal form on my life?

I am not a poet or a writer, but I have always enjoyed reading poetry since my childhood. Similarly, I am not a musician, but I would spend hours on end listening to music. I am not a painter, but I have always been a worshipper of the forms of beauty presented on canvas.

Who has filled me with such love for art—and why? I cannot say. Sometimes looking at the rain-laden sky, I would imagine—I was born on one such rainy day in Sambalpur in the midst of fertile green lands, through which river Chitrotpala flows, and where stands the abode of Goddess Samaleswari. I wonder if these did not inspire me to become a worshipper of art!

Was I really a worshipper of art? Was there any passion in me for art? I would have felt that the bowl of life was filled, and I would have felt contented. The passion for art grew like an addiction! Once one gets an addiction, it is very difficult to give it up. The addiction cannot be separated from the addicted. Let me go back to my childhood.  I never imagined that I would one day be a student of art. In my childhood, I would make patterns on our tulsi altar in the month of Kartik at the feet of the bamboo pole carrying an akash-dipa. I made patterns on the floor in our house with rice-paste on Thursdays in the month of Margashira. I decorated the rooms in our school during festivals and functions—but, alas, doing all these never brought me contentment. I loved drawing, but I did not know that I had the talent to become a painter, like one drunken man never understands that he is drunk.

My father and my eldest brother recognised my talent. They dreamed to see me grow into an artist. Their inspiration filled me with a desire to become a painter. There are two kinds of artists—some are born artists, and there are those who become artists by training themselves. I have only received training as an artist; I don’t think I have become an accomplished artist. The desire to accomplish something in life was instilled in me by my father, and especially by my eldest brother. It was his idea to send me to Santiniketan to study art.

My elder sister got married while she was still a student, and went to live with her husband. She did not get any opportunity to continue her studies.  All her labour went in vain. My brother realised that if I was married off like my sister, I would not be able to achieve anything in my life. After I passed the matriculation examination, I got enrolled in a college. My brother had applied for a scholarship at Santiniketan on my behalf. I sat for a competitive examination conducted by the government, and awaited the results. At the same time, I attended college regularly; my mind would grow restless with anticipation—now when I recall the agonies I had experienced in those days, I feel that if one did not suffer for the sake of art, if one did not sacrifice one’s luxuries and one’s desire for fame—one can never become an artist.

One day, I received a telegram. It said that I had to enrol myself at Santiniketan immediately. I would always dream that I was entering Santiniketan—it was like entering through the lion-gate into the abode of the goddess of art. At last, my dream was going to be fulfilled! My mind conjured up the faces of the Poet Rabindranath Tagore, Acharya Nandalal, and— above all, the dreamland of Kala Bhavan—an abode of peace.

I vividly remember the day I started my lessons in painting, sitting at the feet of the Acharya. I relive those moments—I began by chanting ‘siddhirastu’, but I have not been able to attain mastery in my art.

Dance and music are two forms of art. One day, I painted a portrait of a dancer—I looked at the painting and thought if there was any difference between the presentation of art through dance and its presentation through music.

I also learnt dance and music at the Sangeet Bhavan. One day, my photo along with four classmates of mine wearing Manipuri dance costume, got published in the Illustrated Weekly of India. I could get a glimpse of the artist in me in the photo. Art had become a part of me and I was a part of art.

I left Santiniketan—the abode of art. How painful it was to bid farewell to Santiniketan! I loved Santiniketan and I felt that my love was reciprocated by it. I opened my heart to art when I was at Santiniketan. It seemed as though Santiniketan also opened its heart to me.

One day a fresco was to be painted in the new building of Kala Bhavan. Who would paint it? In the eyes of Acharya all his students were equal. Who would he select? Who was eligible for the job and who was not?  It was decided that a lottery would be held. Accordingly, the lottery was hold. Suddenly, I found that my name had come up in the lottery. I was overjoyed. I painted legends from the scriptures, the story of Buddha’s birth, and the life of Jesus on the fresco in the presence of my friends. It was as though Santiniketan kept in its heart the memory of a loving girl through the painting.

I was very good at sports. I secured the first place in sports for three consecutive years during my stay in Santiniketan. Art, in my eyes, was not static. Art throbs with life, and is full of inspiration. I felt as though art had filled me with vitality. I always believe that aesthetics permeate one’s whole being.

Writing is also an art, but I always regretted that I have only meditated upon this art; I have never worshipped this art. This is my first attempt at writing, and I am afraid this may be the last.

All the painters who have written in this series previously are masters. Their aim was the same, but the paths they chose to attain it were different. The beauty of nature charms everybody. I have always been attracted towards a beautiful thing, be it a good dress— but art is not merely attraction.  It is the rhythm of life.

Today, I work as a drawing teacher at a school. I feel as if I have lost my art somewhere. The first time I went to Santiniketan, I was taken aback—realising the depth of my ignorance and the vastness of knowledge. Indian art is part of universal art. It is infinite like Hindu religion.  Besides, there are so many different styles of painting. There are many schools of painting outside India. I felt so inferior. The faces of great painters danced before my eyes: Giotto, Angelico, Lippi, Boticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Raphael, Van Dyke, Mantenga of Venice, Francis Corregio, Belllini, Giongionne Fitnia, Tintoritto Lotto, Moroni, Paul Veronese, Holbeen, the junior, Ruben, El Greco, Velasquez, Inwillo, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, eighteenth-century painters such as Hogarth, Wilson, Sir Joshua Reynolds and others. All of them have taken a back seat, and, now I teach children in a school and get a salary of sixty rupees a month! Teaching art to children in thirty-five minutes amounts to cheating oneself. After a day’s work at the school, I would be in no mood to paint at home.

Where is a school for arts and crafts to encourage research on Odishan art in our state? No one cares for the gifted artists who wander aimlessly without receiving any recognition. They live a life of poverty in this land of art. The artists get fewer wages than even day labourers! This amounts to an insult to art itself. What impact will art have? It would only reflect the emptiness of an artists’ heart.

Forgive me, respected editor, I must close here. I have been given a pride of place beside eminent Odia artists in the Dagara. I bask in their reflected glory. I have always held the Dagara in high regard. Today, it has spared some space on its pages for an ignoramus like me.

I conclude by bowing reverentially before the goddess of art.

(‘Jeevan Upare Rupara Prabhaba’, The Dagara, November, 1953, pp. 35-37. Translated from the Odia by Supriya Prasanta)

Supriya Prasanta is an editor and translator from Bhubaneswar, Odisha. She works as an academic editor for Cambridge University Press India.


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