India was still under British rule when Chang Xiufeng went to Santiniketan in 1947 to study painting under famous Indian artist Nandalal Bose. He remained in India for 14 years, till he was deported in 1961 after being suspected of being a Communist agent and imprisoned in Darjeeling.
“It was very difficult to go to India at the time,” said his daughter-in-law, Wang Yizhu, who is the curator of an exhibition of his work that is currently on display at Peking University (PKU). “There were many Chinese people who had emigrated and were living in India at the time. Chang Xiufeng pretended he wanted to work as a teacher in a Chinese Middle School in Kolkata, so that his visa would get approved.”
With 2020 marking the 70th year of diplomatic ties between India and China, 20 of Chang’s 60 paintings from his time in India are on display at PKU’s library. While some are inspired by the works of his Indian colleagues, his paintings capture Bengali everyday life and pictures of birds and wildlife. The exhibition, titled ‘Land of Peace’, traces cultural and artistic exchanges between the two countries, highlighting Chang’s paintings and his uncle and scholar Chang Renxia’s writings from his visit to India.
Guided by the famous painter, Xu Beihong, Chang went to India as a 32-year-old to attend the art school in Santiniketan. “At the time, the university had Chinese students and teachers, but most were studying literature and Buddhism. No one studied art,” said Wang. “He learnt by imitating all kinds of ancient Indian paintings, including miniatures. He also served as president of the Chinese high school and began teaching courses on Chinese art history and culture.”
NYU Shanghai’s professor of history, Tansen Sen, who has researched Chang’s life, said it was important to also focus on people who have been forgotten in telling the India-China story. “We always talk about well-known people on both sides of the border, like Rabindranath Tagore or Xu Beihong, but many unknown people are equally important,” he said.
“Xu did not really engage in Indian style of paintings or Indian painters, but Chang Xiufeng was more involved in replicating the Indian school of art. He was learning from Indian style of paintings and incorporated them in his own work. He was part of the 1930-40s Chinese artists who were inspired by Indian art, which led to interesting artistic collaborations that are less studied aspects of India-China relations.”
Sen said Chang Xiufeng related to three different places: Kolkata, Santiniketan and Kalimpong, where there are different types of Chinese communities. After his time in Santiniketan, Chang married a Chinese woman based in Kolkata, and later taught at the Zhonghua Chinese School in Kalimpong.
“His experiences connect India-China relations, since he went there in 1947 and was later deported. In 1959, he was suspected to be a Chinese spy, so he was arrested and put in prison in Darjeeling. At the time, relations between the two countries were deteriorating and he was one among a number of Chinese deported from India,” Sen said.
Wang said her research on Chinese students who went abroad to study art sparked her interest in exploring her father-in-law’s paintings and journey. “Even though there was a lot of research and articles about the students who went to Japan or France, nobody knows much about the students studying in India at the time,” she said. “We hope to take Chang Xiufeng’s paintings back to Santiniketan for an exhibition next year.”