Not the child of Fortune. She had created her own identity in a fashion where she did not bother if she were a woman or not, a persona that today’s feminists would find it impossible to emulate
The Barua’s of Gauripur had a time-honoured connection with Visva-Bharati University – the Rabindranath Tagore founded institution in Shantiniketan, Bolepur, in West Bengal.
In the 30’s and 40’s, lured by Tagore’s phenomenal achievements in literature, especially after his recognition as a Nobel Laureate, the educated cognoscenti of India wanted their children to be a part of this novel educational journey.
The Barua’s of Gauripur, now in Assam, were culturally inclined, and many of them considered Shantiniketan as the perfect place – a safe haven and a cultured space where their children would receive holistic education under Tagore’s tutelage.
So Nilima, second daughter of Prabhat Chandra Baruah of the haloed Gauripur Raj Parivar (princely family), travelled to Santiniketan in 1940 along with her three children–Abhijit, Ashish and Basab.
While the children got admitted to the school “Patha Bhavan”, Nilima enrolled herself in “Kala Bhavana”, the fabled art school at Shantiniketan, to learn art and craft.
The multi-dimensional cultural activities of “Kala Bhavana” and “Sangeet Bhavan” opened her up to an entirely new world.
Apart from painting, she became involved in weaving, costume design, stage decoration, mask making, etc.
There were frequent staging of Tagore’s dance dramas on every occasion in Shantiniketan, and Nilima became a part of the team, designing the costumes and the stage.
Much of this happened under the tutelage of the legendary artist Nandalal Bose and other “Kala Bhavana” teachers, and acquired a distinctive design language that was sophisticated but minimalist, and were based on traditional Indian folk elements.
Nilima’s exposure to the rich tribal textile tradition of Assam made things easier for her to share her creative ideas with the team.
It was here that she explored the finer nuances of weaving techniques and imbibed the Shantiniketan design language.****
While raising her three children, Nilima did not waste her time and instead enriched and educated herself in the cultural ambience of Shantiniketan.
She obtained a Diploma in 1945 and stayed back in Shantiniketan for two more years – probably to continue her children’s education.
In Shantiniketan, she was fondly known as ‘Nilu’ or ‘Nilu di’.
When, on invitation, she carried her loom all the way to Paris in 1950 and gave a live demonstration of weaving techniques of exotic Assam – the spectators were intrigued. The inquisitive French spectators were effervescent in their appreciation. Coming back from Europe, she became active in preservation and revival of traditional tribal handloom and local handicrafts
Ramkinkar Bainj– the monumental artist whose Yaksha and Yakshini sculptures adorn the ramparts of the Reserve Bank of India in New Delhi, was a great friend.
They shared their common passion for theatre, set design and costumes.
She also enrolled herself in the Music and Dance section of Vishvabharati, known as Sangit Bhavan, and did ‘comparative studies in different branches of music’*.
Nilima was an excellent swimmer. Her grooming in Tagore’s dance dramas and her swimming skills elicited an interest to choreograph a water ballet based on Tagore’s musical ‘Ritu-Ranga’ (Play of the Seasons).
Her idea found fruition in a leading swimming club of Kolkata known as the Anderson Club (Indian Life Saving Society).
After months of practice, she trained a group of girls to perform the first water-ballet in Kolkata, where the lighting was done by the famous theatre pyro technique maestro Tapas Sen.
It was an instant hit, and became an annual event in the ILSS calendar.
Returning to her home town Gauripur, she founded the ‘Rani Sarojbala Nari Samity’, a centre for training and revival of tribal textile traditions of Assam.
Local tribal girls were trained in weaving and handloom. She also engaged them in design development of textile patterns.
When, on invitation, she carried her loom all the way to Paris in 1950 and gave a live demonstration of weaving techniques of the exotic Assam – the spectators were intrigued. The inquisitive French spectators were effervescent in their appreciation.
Coming back from Europe, she became active in preservation and revival of traditional tribal handloom and local handicrafts such as Terracotta toys and toys made of Pith (called ‘shola’ in local vernacular).
The first major exhibition ‑The Hills and Plains Exhibition, where she organised the Assam section was in Shillong in 1954.
In the same year, she travelled to Ajmer to organise the Assam section at All India Industries and Development Exhibition organised by the All India Congress Committee.
Then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, attending the meet was fascinated by the rich exhibits she displayed in the exhibition.
It was the first major exposition of tribal handicrafts from Assam, and Nilima Barua was promptly invited by the All India Handicrafts Board to organise and display her personal collection at the exhibition in New Delhi in 1957.
The show was attended by the founder – Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, the legendary freedom activist and social reformer.
They later met in Allahabad, where Nilima was invited to bring her handloom and textile exhibition.
The fabrics and textiles they produced in the training center were exhibited in Bombay in 1957 and received tremendous appreciation.
The most intriguing aspect about her life fact was the span of her activities.
She was organising handloom exhibitions, promoting tribal weaving traditions (training them at the same time), travelling from Jammu Kashmir to Ajmer, New Delhi, Allahabad, Kolkata, Guwahati, Mumbai and even abroad – London and Paris on invitation.
After all these, she pursued her other passion – folk dance and music of Goalpara and theatre.
High And Higher
The high point of her endeavour was the day when Indian President Rajendra Prasad, visiting Kokrajhar in Assam to address the local tribal community, drove all the way to Dhubri town, near Gauripur, to witness a cultural show of folk dance and music organised and directed by Nilima!
It’s fascinating to see the invitations she received – from President Rajendra Prasad to Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay to Lady Ranu Moookerjee to the King and Queen of Nepal to the Governor of M.P. (for a dinner at Bhopal)!
Married to Santosh Kumar Barua, who was an MLA from Shillong and was later in the Administrative Board of Dhubri, Assam, Nilima was gifted with three sons- Abhijit, Ashish and Basab.
Nilima Barua was the first Director of the Handloom and Textile Board, Government of Assam.
Nilima Barua died in 1974, leaving a string of achievements as a cultural ambassador, designer, conservationist and an educator.
She donated a sizeable collection of tribal handloom fabrics to the Calico Museum, Ahmedabad.
*Referred in her bio-data
The author is extremely indebted to Smt. Mallika Barua, daughter-in-law of Nilima Barua for her enthusiastic support and help in unearthing vital documents in lieu of this article.
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Rishi Barua is an eminent sculptor, painter and photographer, currently teaching as a professor at Kala Bhavan, Vishva Bharati University, Shantiniketan, West Bengal. Rishi and his wife, Sheema Barua, also a renowned painter, live in Shantiniketan. Rishi is a scion of the illustrious Gauripur Barua princely family.