How Bengal’s early modern artists reinvented art in a quest for identity

An exhibition at Akara Art shows how early modern art that emerged from Bengal shaped Indian modernism. It features works by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and KG Subramanyan, among others.

art and culture Updated: Nov 19, 2018 11:25 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
Art,Bengal school of art,Bengal school
Benode Behari Mukherjee, ink and gouache on card; Ramkinkar Baij, Bridge, Linocut, 1940’s; Benode Behari Mukherjee, ink and gouache on card(Courtesy: Akara Art )

The early modern art from Bengal played a significant role in shaping Indian modernism. The main catalysts were the Bengal school of art, an art movement that drew from the traditions of India, as well as the establishment of Santiniketan by Rabindranath Tagore.

An art show at Akara Art in Mumbai throws light on the works that emerged from that era. Quest of Identity — Early Modern Art of Bengal features 27 artworks by 10 artists. It includes works by Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Bihari Mukherjee, Prasanta Roy, KG Subramanyan, Sudhir Khastagir and Somnath Hore.

Prasanta Roy, Watercolor on paper. (Courtesy: Akara Art )

Interestingly, while the artists worked under a unified ideology, they chose to neither follow the Western idiom nor reject the traditional past entirely. Instead, they embraced diversity in terms of style, technique of imaging, themes, idioms, conceptual concerns and methods.

Speaking on the significance of the early modern art of Bengal, Puneet Shah, founder of Akara Art, says, “The Bengal school of art works are characterised by a redefining of historical Indian art styles, especially the Rajput and Mughal miniature art styles.”

He adds that it shaped the trajectory of modern Indian art by creating an alternative indigenous modernity as opposed to the British colonial hegemony.

KG Subramanyan, Potraits 3, four terracotta reliefs. (Courtesy: Akara Art)

The artists witnessed the colonial rule and the nationalism movement, which gets reflected in some of the works. “Abanindranath’s Bharat Mata, Nandalal’s Bapuji and Gaganedranath’s satirical drawings were remarkable visual representation that evoke nationalistic feeling. But, other than the choice of subject matter, the need for creating an Indian pictorial language, at that point of time, was itself a response to the freedom movement,” says Shah.

The works also reflect the influence of indigenous and Oriental art traditions, be it the classical paintings of Ajanta, Mughal miniature paintings, folk painting traditions or Japanese and Chinese art. “Abanindranath’s Usha, Nandalal’s Pwe dancer, and Benode Behari’s drawings are a classic example of the remarkable influence that Oriental art had on us,” says Shah.

Quest of Identity is on display till December 19. At Akara Art, 4/5 Churchill Chambers, 32 Mereweather Road, Colaba.

First Published: Nov 18, 2018 15:14 IST