The Art of Santiniketan excerpt: Keeping true to its spirit

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 07, 2015 11:33 IST
Catching the wave: An untitled work by Ramkinar Baij. (DAG Modern)

The Art of Santiniketan

Edited by Kishor Singh

DAG Modern

Rs 6000; PP350

Is there an art ‘of’ Santiniketan? The entire premise for this volume hinges on that one question. And while there clearly is art ‘from’ Santiniketan, it is the possessive preposition that raises premises and hackles. For there to be an art of Santiniketan, it would have to be atypical, something tied down or governed by principles of style, ideology, subject or conviction. Santiniketan ticks none of these points principally because it believes in its belief of freedom from straitened expressions or obeisance to rigid principles and thinking. In being liberal and unorthodox, it is at a remove from the hegemony of other art schools, or collectives, and can breathe free of restrictions and conscripts.

And, yet, there definitely is a voice and place that Santiniketan occupies that is distinctive. In propounding an art department in a university in the Bengal countryside, Rabindranath Tagore prescribed an adherence to nature as one of its intents. Kala Bhavana was set up on the supposition and has remained true to its spirit, however it may have changed, or digressed, in the intervening years.

But, mostly, it is in the practice and philosophy of its art, artist and teachers that one sees an art ‘of’ Santiniketan that can be so characterized. These four artists - the founding principal of the art school, Nandalal Bose, its alumni and faculty, Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee, and the poet-playwright who morphed into an artist late in his life, Rabindranath Tagore - are organically associated with the university town. But do they have anything else in common?

Book cover for The Art of Santiniketan.

Four more different people might be difficult to imagine: Nandalal Bose, the gentle and elegant artist-teacher; Ramkinkar Baij, stubborn, primal, a genius; Benode Behari Mukherjee, ailing for most of his life but with an amazing visual memory; and Rabindranath Tagore, globally travelled and celebrated, a Nobel-laureate, unafraid to test the boundaries set up by conservative establishments. It is these four artists who left behind an indelible stamp of individuality on the art practice of Santiniketan, breaking the shackles of previously popular styles to create a bold, new language that grew out of the native soil of Santiniketan but was powerful enough to sweep away resistance and find acceptance anywhere in the world.

The challenge lay in defining and, eventually, confining the extent to what ‘Santiniketan’ represents in the sense of visual art…

That art is signified by the four artists mentioned above, and it is their wok that is represented in this book, and exhibition. Each of these artists marks a radical change in the way art was practised at the time. It breaks from a past, whether real or imagined; it shifts its focus from mythology and history to involve itself with the rhythm and daily lives of people from the immediate countryside; it rejects stylisation in favour of expression; it collaborates with materials that are easily available locally or in the region: it refuses to be burdened by an ideology other than a need to be ‘Indian’ without attributions of a national identity to weigh it down.

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The work of these fours artists is too well known to require comment here. Suffice it to say that Nandalal Bose, trained under Abanindranath Tagore and an exemplar of the Bengal ‘School’ traversed the change with confidence and assumed a role that would change the way we looked at Indian art forever; to limit him to a pre- and post-Bengal ‘School’/Santiniketan discourse would be to confine his genius that straddled these phases but remained free of them, continuing to change and experiment late into his career as an artist.

Ramkinkar Baij is probably India’s first truly maverick modernist who broke all norms in his art and life and whose life needs to be better documented for generations to follow. Benode Behari overcame the hurdles of his sight impairment to create works that are colossal - not in scale but in imagination, unfettered by any language. As for Tagore his genius can hardly be confined to his art, even for the purpose of this book, and must at least be weighed against his architectural quest and curiosity…To this extent, The Art of Santiniketan represents the free-spiritedness and liberating atmosphere of Santiniketan itself.

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