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Delhi art exhibition brings together the A list of Bengal’s masters

Must-see: Tagores, Ramkinkar Baij, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy

art and culture Updated: Dec 27, 2017 15:35 IST
Manik Sharma
Manik Sharma
Hindustan Times
Abanindranath Tagore,Bengal school,Delhi exhibition on the Bengal school
Jamini Roy’s Mary and Gabriel. (Photos: Courtesy Abhishek Sethi and Jayati)

When Ernest Binfield Havell came to Calcutta as the principal of the Government School of Art in 1896, he had in mind a not-so-radical idea that would give Indian Art direction, and eventually help it metamorphose into a movement. Together with Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Havell helped Indian art redirect onto a path that would lead to its first modernist overture – the journey inward. Havell invited India’s artists to look at their own tradition of miniatures and at the Ajanta Ellora caves for inspiration in contrast to what other artists all over the country -- one Raja Ravi Varma in particular -- were doing.

Thus was born the Bengal School. The lineage of artists that came out of Shantiniketan are known as the Bengal Masters, and they are part of an exciting exhibition, Evolving Identities: Masters of Bengal at the India International Centre.

The exhibition curator, artist Vijay Kowshik, is quick to refute the idea of the masters as a school. “You have to look at all of these artists as individuals and individualists. Schools usually refer to a group that paint and think in the same way, Dadaism for example. But the Bengal Masters were unique in each way. They might have been responding to the same concerns, or the same politics, but their methods were entirely different. So it has to be seen in that context as a movement,” Kowshik says.

‘Shakuntala and sakhis’by Abanindranath Tagore. (Photos: Courtesy Abhishek Sethi and Jayati)

The most immediate concern for the first chapter of the Bengal School that began with Abanindranath was the struggle for independence. The politics therefore not only informed the work of the Bengal Masters but inspired them to respond in different ways. Both Gaganendranath and Abaninndranath Tagore for example paint fluid landscapes and situations untouched by the element of the foreign, i.e. the British.

But it was as late as the ’90s when art critics and writers began looking at the group as a movement of churn and change rather than a school of restricted or uniform aesthetics. “Most art schools during the British era trained artists to emulate western artists. To copy and imitate the Renaissance painters or other greats. This resulted in mass production that the likes of Raja Ravi Varma did. He became famous by adapting western ideas for Indian gods and goddesses, basically mythology. But the Bengal Masters were individual thinkers in their own right,” Kowshik says. The masters are largely aggregated under the idea of contextual modernism, an idea best understood as the abandonment of method for thought.

Untitled painting by Ramkinkar Baij. (Photos: Courtesy Abhishek Sethi and Jayati)

Evidently, most masters including Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij experimented with mediums, drawing with equal measure in pencil, ink and paint. Bose’s mythical sketches and Baij’s colourful watercolours embody the departure from that oneness.

That said, there is something historic about work from the era. The organic production of work at Shantiniketan, where the most of the Bengal Masters lived and learned, is duplicated in the way their works have spread all over the world. “This was a time when artists drew and gave their paintings away. So the works have travelled, not only from generation to generation, but across borders and families, across people. Just last year, Nandalal Bose’s grandson discovered a chest full of his work as far away as Los Angeles. So, these discoveries still keep happening. It is completely different to the way the art world has been commercialised. The prices, you know, that is the only thing we discuss about art these days. Isn’t it?” Kowshik says.

He has a point, and it hits home with the feeling of heritage that shines through the works on display. They won’t immediately jump at you, but think of the times – acrylic paints were not even available back then – and you can understand the importance of this early modernist tilt.

A Kalighat painting. This 19th century art form developed in the vicinity of the Kali Temple at Kalighat, Kolkata. (Photos: Courtesy Abhishek Sethi and Jayati)

The influence of the early Bengal School went beyond the canvas. Filmmaker Satyajit Ray remained close to Shantiniketan throughout his life and even made the film Inner Eye on artist Binode Behari Mukherjee (part of the exhibition) who lost his eyesight in 1956 but continued to work. Kowshik grew up around some of the masters. “Both Baij and Binode Behari were good friends of my dad when he took over as principal of Kala Bhavan after the death of Nandalal Bose. Ray was another man deeply inspired and connected with the institution. I remember shooting ‘Inside-Eye’ in which Ray used a wheelchair as a slide to shoot Binode da’s mural. Being surrounded by artists made us immune to the commercialism of the cities, or the influence of Bollywood that was increasing at the time,” Kowshik says.

‘Veiled woman’ by Rabindranath Tagore (Photos courtesy: Abhishek Sethi and Jayati)

The exhibition brings together the three Tagores - perhaps the first family of Indian modernism across the arts - Gaganendranath, Abanindranath and Rabindranath. Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij occupy a fairly central space as possibly the movement’s most influential proponents. Then there is Benode Bihari Mukherjee and later artists like Jamini Roy and Asit Kumar Haldar and the mysterious Sudhir Khastgir. The exhibition, made possible by the collection of the late Sushmita Roy Tandan (a private collector), also includes a group of the famous Kalighat paintings that assign the gallery a flavour so mixed, it is hard to choose who is more infectious or inspiring, especially for an artist who grew alongside some of them. “I think Baij’s work inspired me the most. He was the most powerful. Benode was more sensitive. But Baij’s work had a clear vitality to it,” Kowshik says.


What: Evolving Identities: Masters of Bengal

When: Till December 30

Where: Art Gallery, Kamaladevi Complex, India International Centre, Lodhi Estate

Nearest metro station: Khan Market

First Published: Dec 21, 2017 17:42 IST