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On display: Rare collection of Pre-Bengal art

Rare oil paintings, lithographs and oelographs from pre-Bengal art from are on display at an exhibition.

art and culture Updated: Sep 02, 2017 11:53 IST
Soujit Das
DEVYANI RESCUED FROM THE WELL: Devyani was the daughter of the sage, Sukra. One day, during an altercation, her friend and daughter of king Vrisaparva, Sharmishtha, pushed Dvyani down a well. She was rescued by king Yavati, who ended up marrying her.
DEVYANI RESCUED FROM THE WELL: Devyani was the daughter of the sage, Sukra. One day, during an altercation, her friend and daughter of king Vrisaparva, Sharmishtha, pushed Dvyani down a well. She was rescued by king Yavati, who ended up marrying her.(Courtesy/Akar Prakar Art Gallery)

Imagine goddess Kali in her fearsome avatar endorsing a ‘pure swadeshi’ cigarette which claims to be an antidote to all your ailments. Or visualise the goddess of knowledge featuring in an advertisement of medicinal hair oil. Akar Prakar Art Advisory at Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi is currently exhibiting many such rare chromolithographic prints and oil paintings from late 19th century Bengal, which are curated by artist and writer Ashit Paul.

Oil on canvas
23.25 in x 17.75 in
C. 1880
Bhubaneswari: The painting was drawn during the era of the Early Bengal School but the central figure has escaped disfigurement despite the passage of time. Bhubaneswari means the queen (Eshvari) of the universe (Bhubvan). She rules or commands the whole universe by possessing and controlling influence on turning situations according to her desire.
Lithograph on paper
15.75 in x 11 in
C. 1900
Gouranger Grihatyag (Gouranga leaving his family): Gourango was then 28 years of age while his wife was 14 by the time he had decided to leave home and obtain sannyas, bidding a silent goodbye on the night of sankranti in the month of magh (the tenth month of Bengali calendar; Jan – Feb according to English calendar) as everyone slept deeply.

During the second quarter of the 19th century, the artistic scenario of Calcutta was gradually witnessing a transformation, adapting to the western sensibilities of image-making. Although this process of artistic acculturation in Bengal had started a century earlier under the puppet Nawabs of Murshidabad who took special interest in European paintings and luxury objects, the idiom found a new expression under the Company officials of the 19th century who commissioned native Indian artists to cater to their European taste. Initially, the peripatetic European painters who painted theatre props, idyllic landscapes and portraits on commission, trained ‘native’ artists in the medium of oil paint.

Apart from British Calcutta, the Dutch and French colonies at Chinsurah and Chandernagar became major artistic centres which started producing such hybrid paintings in oil for various East India company officials and local rentiers and zamindars. These later came to be known as Dutch-Bengal and French-Bengal school of painting which naively amalgamated the naturalism of sub-imperial Mughal miniatures with European academic realism and focused on Indian mythological and religious narratives.

Lithoprint on paper | 12 in x 16in | C.1880
Sadabhuja Gouranga Avatar and Kali: This print of the Calcutta Art Studio has Shadabhuj (having six-hands) Gouranga on one side and Kalion the other. Here, Kali’s fierceness is diminished. Lord Shiva has emerged from his supine position and is beckoning Kali. Kali, instead of standing on him, is present in a kneeling position.
Lithographon paper
15 in x 11 in
C. 1890
Rani Sundari In many paintings the faces resembled the faces of the babus mistresses. Rani Sundari or Hukka Sundari takes a tour of that time.

A few works from these traditions are on display the exhibition, such as the rare oil painting of Krishna-Kali, produced around 1880. It is hard to miss the attention to detail and the abrupt juxtaposition of figures.

Following the establishment of the School of Industrial Arts in North Calcutta in 1854 (which later became Government Art College Calcutta), the British formally trained Indian artists in European aesthetic and created a workforce to cater to their artistic demands in newly established civic departments. Many of the early students who were trained in printmaking and western painting techniques, established their own printing presses in and around north and central Calcutta which had the a major populace of educated middle class Bengali ‘bhadralok’ (gentlemen) and babus. Some of these studios were the Calcutta Art Studio, ChoreBagan Art Studio and Kansaripara Art Studio.

During the post-Mutiny years, Calcutta became a printing hub producing pulp and serious literary works. A majority of the art studios at that time focused on bulk production of religious kitsch. It satisfied the Bengali appetite for religious images. They were cheap, chromatically brilliant, affordable, and therefore, found space in almost every Bengali household. Representation of locally popular deities from that phase, including Bagalimukhi, Bhuvaneswari, Shoroshi, Chinnamasta or Gourango-Nimai (epithet of Bhakti Saint Sri Chaitanya of Nabadwip) can be seen in this exhibition.

The curator has also chosen to display late 19th century oil paintings on the same themes alongside the oleographs to provide a better perspective.

Mixed media on board
19.25 in x 15.25 in
C. 1914
Nadiabihari Gour Hari: This picture was commissioned almost four hundred years after the birth of Sri Chaitanya. Sri Gouranga stands on a lotus with peacocks on both sides. A peacock feather always adorns Lord Krishna’s forehead. A beauty of the lake merges with the garden behind. A hand is held high in the gesture of Gouranga, as if he holds the world on his fingertip.
Lithograph on paper
14.75 in x 11 in
C. 1890
Nalini Sundari In the nineteenth century, a daily extravagance in the houses of the babus of North Calcutta was the evening majlis (an evening gathering of the babus of north Calcutta where they enjoyed the company of women with wine, dance and music), characterised by the combination of the heady scent of attar (a fragrant essential oil) and songs based on classical ragas.

Somehow, the introduction of chromolithographs around mid-19th century reduced the demand for other bazaar art like Battala woodcuts and Kalighat pata paintings but their indelible impression was left on the composition of these later prints. The exhibition has three such rare colour lithographs on display which were produced after Kalighat paintings. They depict sensuous women or sundaris smoking the hookah and playing the violin and were inspired by the mistresses of babus.

This important exhibition provides a critical insight into the changing cultural and economic milieu of the 19th century Bengal School. —Soujit Das is a New Delhi based an art historian.

WHAT: Exhibition of rare work of Swadeshi Art

WHEN: 11am-7pm, till October 15

WHERE: Akar Prakar Art Gallery, Hauz Khas Village.

Call: 2686 8558

Nearest Metro Station: Green Park