Born in the village of Narendrapur, Puri district, Orissa, Upendra Maharathi was an eminent painter and designer. After finishing his Master’s degree from the School of Art in Calcutta he shifted permanently to Bihar in 1931. Shortly after a span of two years, he was working in a publishing house called Pustak Bhandhar in Laharyasari, Darbhanga, which he left in 1942 to join the Department of Industry as a special designer. Later in the mid-fifties, he founded the Institute of Industrial Design and was awarded the Padmashree in 1969 for his continuous efforts in reviving and developing the arts and crafts of Bihar.
An admirer of the folk and traditional forms of art and craft, Maharathi was influenced by the Bengal school’s mannerism of painting, where images had romantically dispersing qualities initiated by Abanindranath Tagore and popularised by Nandalal Bose. Abanindranath Tagore had invited a number of artists and craftsmen with an objective to bring about significant changes in the institutional pedagogy, emphasizing indigenous traditions that Upendra Maharathi took to his advantage.
In his earlier works, he painted the dreamy-eyed figures, symmetrical, very lyrical, with a certain influence of iconography from the Ajanta and Bagh frescoes. The artist also became inspire by the Buddhist philosophies which affected his spiritual inner self. He is known to have lived as an ascetic in various Indian Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Bodhgaya and also had visited Japan in pursuit of finding alternative ways to Buddhism. During this phase, the artist adopted religious themes of the Buddhist tradition.
The mass scale famine during 1942-43 made artists respond to the sufferings of people affected, with artists of the Progressive Artists Group citing plight and chaos of the famine in their works, Maharathi also felt the pain and his works reflected the same as he relinquished the mythological theme and the classical iconography and turned to paint more impressionistically. A few of his sketches in the NGMA collection depict the actual sites of Bengal during the Bengal Famine in the ’40s. These show how his style underwent transition with strong brushstrokes and a solid body of pigment, which was quite different from the wash technique he previously employed.
The artist also contributed his sketches and designs to Pustak Bhandar for the books they published. Of particular note are his sketches that embellished the books of Raja Radhikaraman Prasad, one of the first writers who is known to have contributed vastly to Bihari literature and earned Maharathi with accolades. Maharathi also explored his artistic ability to create everyday objects by using materials like wood, bamboo and clay.
He also worked with local craftsmen of Bihar and Orissa to carry on the task of reviving the folk forms and giving them the status of living traditions.
(As published on NGMA website.)