Bengal School of Art & Contextual Modernism Movement
Henri Matisse once said, “Creativity takes courage.” The story of the Bengal School of Art begins in the 1900s , peaks in the 1920s only to slacken momentum in the 1930s. It is also a story of courage in the face of colonialism and capitalism. The non-violent protests of our politicians were given a beautiful silent voice by art- by the Bengal School of Art. Be it Abanindranath Tagore’s Arabian Night series, Gaganendranath Tagore’s ‘Reform Screams’ caricatures, Rabindranath’s and Sunayani Devi’s primitive art, Nandalal Bose’s ‘Haripura Posters’, Benode Bihari Mukherjee’s murals or Ram Kinkar Baij’s sculptures- all were borne out of the need to express the story of India- who its people really were, what it’s art was all about. None of these luminaries took to western classical art; instead they paved their own way, made their own art. What’s more, the world loved it.
In the 18th century, Bengal became a British dominion and Calcutta their capital. Bengalis took to British education eagerly -Schools, Courts, Communication systems were established and the educated Bengali learned a new way of living. Many of the rich Bengali zamindars sent their children to study abroad become barristers and even sit for the Civil services. The Tagores were one such illustrious family and the Bengali Renaissance is said to have peaked during their time. The partition of Bengal in 1911, created bitterness towards the Raj and the Bengali state was totally converted from pro-British to anti- British. The churning of the ocean of social, economical, literary, political, cultural aspirations of Indians brought about a brand new way of Bengalis showing their anti-imperialist sentiments –ART.
The west looked to the east to escape from ‘materialism’ and was particularly attracted by the numerous paintings on the Buddha and his life. The Indian Modernists imbibed a lot of western styles – classical, cubism, primitivism, abstract – to their work of art but because of the cultural context of the Indian subcontinent, they were able to depict stories from Indian mythology and history and daily life of the Indian people-in essence express its spiritual identity– making paintings rich with their colours and details – likes of which the western world had not seen.
Image: Courtesy DAG Modern
Abanindranath Tagore (top, second from left) with his first batch of students at Government School of Art in Kolkata. Also in the picture are Nandalal Bose (second row, to the right of the idol), Asit Haldar (first row, second from left) and Kshindranath Majumdar (first row, extreme right)
Art Prior to Bengal School of Art : Kalighat Paintings
In the 19th century British came across the Kalighat paintings made by local artisans called ‘patuas’. The famous Kalighat Temple is considered one of 18 Shakti Peeths which became a busy centre of pilgrimage for the Hindus. Here, local artists drew on paper or cloth images of Kali and other gods and goddesses which were sold to the pilgrims as keepsake. The patuas also drew pictures of rich Bengali aristocrats and their lifestyle called the ‘Babu culture’. The Kalighat paintings played a lot of roles as, that of artwork, illustrated manuscripts, social satirical illustrations and keepsakes.
The paintings were done in natural colours with neutral backgrounds of the paper. Haldi or turmeric powder, indigo, chilli powder, were some color bases used in the 19th century. The black colour that was charcoal powder – used extensively to make outlines of figures on paper. They revelled in the use of natural colours and produced beautiful pictures which show their dedication to details and attention to colour composition of the painting. Even though there is a lack of sense of proportion while drawing figures – such as exaggerated eyes, voluptuous and unnaturally curved bodies, and thick arms and legs – they add a charm to the paintings and make them stand apart from other works of art. The flat brush strokes and the non existence of shadowing on the figures is a unique way of painting.
The above paintings of the ‘babu culture’ have been candidly captured by the artists. A woman is abusing her educated rich husband (his anglicized hair style is suggestive of the same), a rich Bengali sitting on a wooden chair smoking his hukka. His ‘janeu’, jewellery, shoes, decorated shawl and his crossed legs are pointing to his status in the society. The third painting is of a man beating his wife and she is trying to shield herself from his blow. These paintings many not have precise spatial representation but they convey their story to us, just the same. The black outlines to the figures give the painting a depth.
In the 1930s the popularity of Kalighat paintings diminished as lithographs as oleographs rapidly reached the masses. The difference between the Patachitra made by the rural artisans and the Kalighat paintings is the use of bright backgrounds and cloth in Patachitra. Whereas, in Kalighat paintings the backgrounds were dull and made on paper.
The Catalyst: Government School of Art, Kolkata
A call for ‘Swaraj’ saw influential Indians speaking out against colonialism, in any way they could – through ‘andolans’, in the Parliament, in newspapers and publications, through literature, theatre, films and art. There was a need to define what or who could be called “Indian.” In the book ‘The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-garde, 1922-47’ the author, Partha Mitter says, “Introduction of art schools, art exhibitions, the process of mechanical reproduction of other modern institutions in India was part of Westernization which transformed artists’ status and outlook as well as art patronage. In the 1920s, during a further paradigm shift, the radical formalist language of modernism offered Indian artists such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy a new weapon of anti colonial resistance. In their intellectual battle with colonialism, they readily found allies among the Western avant-garde critics of urban industrial capitalism, leading them to engage for the first time with global aesthetic issues.”
Government School of Art, Kolkata
Calcutta School of Arts and Crafts was first established (1854) to teach ‘industrial art’ to ‘youth of all classes. ’ It was renamed to Government School of Art in 1864, but was revised to Government School of Arts and Craft in 1951. Its most influential Principal was Ernest Binfield Havell who was a catalyst for the birth of Bengal School of Art. Together, he and Abanindranath Tagore changed the world of Indian Art.
Iftekar Dadi in his book ‘ Modernism and the art of Muslim South Asia’ writes “ Abanindranath Tagore..was a founder of the Bengal School, which assimilated numerous technical and conceptual influences, including Mughal Painting, Japanese Wash technique, pan Asian ideals and an emergent Indian nationalist art historical writings from the first decade of the twentieth century. E.B. Havell, an official sympathetic to Indian arts and crafts who became superintendent of the Calcutta School of Art in 1896, played a key role in mediating the formation of the Bengal School. Havell influenced by Arts and Crafts ideals, began to emphasize the study of Indian visual past at the Calcutta School of Art but encountered resistance from Indian students who were seeking to master British academic styles. Havell’s meeting with Abanindranath in 1896 and his tutelage of the latter resulted in Abanindranth making a close study of Mughal paintings from Havell’s collection. Abanindranath’s new works which spurned British academic illusionism in favour of compositions inspired by his study of the miniature, were exhibited in the Calcutta School of art in 1900 and won the gold medal at the Congress Industrial Exhibition in 1901-2.”
He went ahead to win the silver medal in a prestigious Delhi Durbar Exhibition of Indian Arts and crafts organized by Lord Curzon which “increased Abanindranath’s national stature.”Japanese Art Historian Kakuzo Okakura was hosted by the Tagores. Here Abanindranath learned the wash technique from Okakura and subsequently two Japanese students who were sent by Okakura to Calcutta to share and teach Japanese techniques of painting.
Abanindranath’s appointment as Vice Principal at the college fuelled the fire that he and Havell had started – that of reviving Indian art from shadows of western art. Subsequently, his brother Ganganendranth Tagore and his uncle, Rabindranath Tagore created master pieces that left an imprint in the art world of the West. Read more about the work of the trio, here
Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951)
He was a trained artist who received immense encouragement from Havell to explore new ways to depict “Indianess” in paintings. Abanindranath tore through the ‘materialism’ of Western classical art with ‘spirituality.’ He was a passionate advocate of ‘Swaraj’ and his paintings became a symbol of nationalism. This was a subtle way of showcasing the numerous stories, Indian culture and talent that was in India. He chose to depict India and Indians not loaded with riches or royal but robed in simple saaris, unadorned with precious jewels. His painting of Bharat Mata, or Shah Jahan show the real India and gave an glimpse of the stories that were untold.
His other celebrated series was the ‘Arabian Nights’ show great finesse in placement of characters and emotions on each face through which the story came out even better. There was a great resemblance between the series to Mughal miniature paintings. He even wrote inscriptions detailing the story on the paintings. His use of contrasting colours such as red with blue and orange, grey or black with red, ochre yellow with salmon pink and brown is breathtakingly beautiful. Another thing about Abanindranth was that he was not formally educated as he would rebel against classroom teaching. He was home schooled and only went to formal education to Calcutta School of Art.
In his autobiographical account “Jorasankor Dhare” he narrates that he was in constant communication with nature. The author of ‘Jorasankor Dhare on Abanindranth Tagore’s Personality and Works of Art’, Neelima Vashishtha says that in the book Abanindranth says “The experiences of drawing and Alchemy lessons in school left a lasting impression.” Abanindranth also drew from his childhood memories. He was an extremely curious child and since he had dropped out of the school he used to spend hours just observing nature. “Among his paintings of later days, the studies of a monkey relaxing on the back of goat, deers, dogs and vultures are noteworthy. They are known as the ‘Playmate Series’ which was painted in 1916. These paintings were an outcome of the visual impressions which he had assimilated at a very early age during his solitary stay with nature at the garden house at Champadani.”
Mukul Dey writes in an article on Abanindranth, “His work has been of great value in the regeneration of national culture in India. But our countrymen never rendered proper homage to him. Bengal has been slow to understand his gifts to her and even when she has come to appreciate them she has been slow to give recognition to the sublime attainments of the great master. It is not often in the history of a nation that a genius like Abanindranath is born.”
Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938)
Gaganendranath added a new facet to Bengal School of Art. Where Abanindranth’s paintings stopped at storytelling – personal or that of the Indian culture, history and mythology, Gaganendranath’s paintings ranged from caricature on social satire to an experiment in cubism. His range of portrayal is unbelievable and his paintings show expressionistic bent- a trend which shook Europe too. Gaganendranath also explored the Japanese drawing techniques – ink wash and brush techniques. His love affair with ink and watercolour is quite apparent in his choice of mediums for his paintings.
He too like Abanindranath began with painting with landscapes, portraits and sketches later progressing to painting scenes from the life of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and then to the more abstract –cubist paintings. He added ink elements in these paintings as well. The caricatures or “Reform Screams” as they were called, had an immense impact on the literati of Bengal. Comparing and contrasting the caricatures to the paintings, one may think that these have been done by two different people. However, his intelligence and his eye for creating different shades of lights and darkness are expressed in both these types. Mukul Dey in his article on the talented artist says “Not only did he do this sketching while he was staying at home, hearing legendary tales and songs, but he took a sketch book with him wherever he went. Dr. Sen remarks on the “critical keenness” of Gaganendranath which was to find expression in the cartoons”
With his sketches of the Himalayas, he seems very close to nature and his lines and likeness brings the majesty of the subject to the viewer.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
The illustrious uncle of Abanindranath and Gaganendranath, chose to explore his artistic self in his sixties. Abanindranath and Gaganendranath were already known in Europe and India and their art was well appreciated. Rabindranath, in his numerous world tours was able to paint taking primitive symbols of other cultures, changing them to make it his own. He used to draw on paper with pelican pen and ink and a limited set of watercolours. His paintings also look raw at times – as he would use a lot of his own finger, a rag cloth and other unusual instruments to make his painting. Tagore produced some 2000 paintings from 1920s to the year he passed away, 1941.
Another remarkable feature in Rabindranath’s paintings are the rhythmic strokes on his drawing in ink. The strokes are measured, and go in a harmonious way together. His drawings were also very dark and portraits sometimes look expressionless as if frozen in time. A lot of his portraits were of women, with sari pallu on their heads, or with long open hair. The faces are long and noses sharp and seem to stare at the viewer. Sometimes, Tagore’s portraits are disconcerting and make the viewer introspect as to why the painting makes them uncomfortable. Tagore’s nature and landscape drawings too, mimic reality but are dark. His lack of formal training was not something that pulled him back. Henri Bidou, a noted Surrealist gave Tagore’s art an exceptional review claiming them to be “pure paintings.” His primitive and child art quality drew Europeans to his paintings.
Writes Partha Mitter, “Tagore..had a powerful impact on Indian Modernism, but he was also an influential educationalist and founder of a holistic experimental University in Bengal.” Visva Bharti at Santiniketan, is till date a cradle of artistic and creative pursuits. To view his work, please click here.
R Siva Kumar (Professor of History of Art, Santiniketan) considers that the Bengal School of Art is a misnomer, that it is a “movement.” “In Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism (1997) R Siva Kumar introduced the term Contextual Modernism which later emerged as a postcolonial critical tool in the understanding of Indian art, specifically the works of Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Ram Kinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee.”
“The brief survey of the individual works of the core Santiniketan artists and the thought perspectives they open up makes clear that though there were various contact points in the work they were not bound by a continuity of style but by a community of ideas which they not only shared, but also interpreted and carried forward. Thus they do not represent a school but a movement.”
Carrying forward the work of Abanindranath Tagore were Nandalal Bose, M.A.R Chughtai, Sunayani Devi (sister of Abanindranath Tagore), Manishi Dey, Mukul Dey, Kalipada Ghoshal, Asit Kumar Haldar, Sudhir Khastgir, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Sughra Rababi, Debi Prasad Roychoudhury, Bireswar Sen, Beohar Rammanohar Sinha, Kiron Sinha, Gaganendranath Tagore (Tagore’s brother) and Sarada Ukil.
Nandalal Bose (1882- 1966)
He was influenced greatly by the Ajanta and Bagh Cave murals and his work of art was recognized for its excellence and brilliance by the Government of India. He created more than 7000 works of art in his career. His work is considered to be a confluence of Pan Asian styles. His work ranged from murals, sculptural reliefs, ‘calligraphic paintings of the Far east’ where he used monochromes to create stunning visual art. The below painting is one of his famous Haripura posters commissioned by Mahatma Gandhi titled “Tiller of Soil.” His work is suggestive of quick vigorous strokes and the painting comes alive. The ‘jharokha’ or the window is Bose showing the world a glimpse of a moment in the life of a farmer. The walk of the bullocks is in tandem, the farmer looks strong despite his age and shows that he is not afraid of hard work – that it is a part of his daily life. ‘The Shehnai Players’ and ‘Dhaki’, both show the same characteristics of vigour and movement. A message went out to the world of the resilience and strength of Indians that their goals and vision were in tandem.
The New York Times in an article describes, “In 1909, Bose spent months copying fifth-century Buddhist murals in the Buddhist caves at Ajanta. Everywhere he travelled, he paid close attention to popular forms, urban and rural, Hindu and Muslim, from woodblock prints to palm-leaf paintings, to ephemeral designs drawn in rice powder directly on the ground. He went to China and Japan to study ink and brush painting, and he kept an assimilative eye on trends in the West.” The Sino-Japanese style is clearly reflected in the painting called the Sati below. His unusual perspective can be seen as he captures a section of the top of huts of rural Bengal.
The black and white monochrome of Gandhi was made to mark the 1930s Gandhi’s arrest for protesting on tax on salt. This image became an iconic image during the non-violence. Using the linoleum cut technique, the Bose would carve out a sketch in reverse on the linoleum block. Linoleum is ‘a material consisting of a canvas backing thickly coated with a preparation of linseed oil and powdered cork.’ Bose’s skill in this technique is just not his drawing or the technique- but the entire poster in that speaks of raw power of Mahatma Gandhi connected with this ‘andolan’.
Jamini Roy (1887-1972)
One can imagine Jamini Roy (1887-1972) looking at Kalighat paintings and taking inspiration from them. 17 years, Abanindranath Tagore’s (1871-1951) junior and a student of the Government School of Art, he managed to stay true to the folk artist in him. His paintings were based on the folk or rural theme and the influence of the Kalighat paintings is apparent. Here is a link to the National Gallery of Modern Art showcasing his work. His paintings like the Kalighat painting do not precisely depict human form. The way he drew eyes on his paintings have been described as ‘floating eyes.’ It is a feature by which one can recognize Jamini’s work.
Only earth tones such as yellow ochre, browns and red, blue and green, white and black were used by him in his paintings. Some were tempura on paper and some were on cardboard. His strokes show the immense steadfastness of his grip of the brush as his strokes are long and done in a go. The paintings look as if created by a child, but the technique cannot be implemented by other than a master artist. A lot of his themes included the mother and the child, folk dances, marriages, boats and carriages. It seemed as if he wanted to capture the colours and celebration in his paintings. Scenes of daily life and stories from Indian myths were painted too. When he did paint in oils, his figures are depicted with a certain grace and luminosity. Even while using oils he stuck to his beloved earthy hues.
M.A.R. Chugtai (1894-1975)
Bengal School of Art crossed the heartland of India and went to Pakistan. One gifted artist Abdur Rahman Chugtai (1894-1975) was trained by Samarendranath Gupta (a pupil of Abanindranath Tagore). He was recognized both in India and Pakistan and the subject of his art was both Hindu and Islamic stories, personalities and gods. Abdur Rahman Chugtai belonged to an illustrious family himself and his ancestry could be traced to Chugatas who were architects in the court of the Mughal king Babur. Chugtai is an integral part of the Bengal School of Art as he imbibed a lot of its influence in his paintings. In the painting below, he used the wash technique here and even though the painting is simply titled ‘Radhika’, one instantly connects it to the love of Radha and Krishna and how she is missing her lover. The painting is expertly shaded and looks incandescent and little details such as the lotus flower, her hair look exquisite. The emotion on the lady’s face is clearly visible and this clarity of expression takes a hold of the viewer’s imagination. Without a prompt, one begins to create a story about the lady in one’s mind.
Lady Beside a Grave
This painting is sublime and is proof of the gem that Chugtai was. The detail of the marbled paper which frames the picture and the gold outline is elegant. Despite the gloomy event that Chugtai has painted, the viewer is drawn to the beauty of this painting. The detailed Mughal inspired marble lattice work, the brass ceiling lamp, and the flower panels on the walls and the design on the floor is captivating to say the least. The grieving lady is pulling at her hair with some flower petals strewn at her feet. The other lady seems to be a dervish, sharing with the grieving lady, passages from the Quran to calm her. She is well dressed with touches of jewellery hinting at her tribal or her nomad life. Chugtai is very mindful of the details – such as the fold in the clothes, the slight shading where the folds might be, the red hand paint of the dervish, the design on garments etc. Every inch of the painting has details to it which the viewer is gently led to observe. The sublime attention to the light and the dark in the portrait is enchanting. Regardless of the theme of death one is forced to look at life – while the light seems comforting, the magic of the darkness behind the lattice invites the onlooker. This painting is philosophical in its essence and beautiful in the way it has been painted. Chugtai’s painting radiates peace and calm.
Sunayani Devi (1875 -1962)
Sunayani Devi was Abanindranth Tagore’s sister. Being a woman, she was not allowed to be formally trained in Art was a self taught artist. She learned by observing her brothers make groundbreaking works of art. Sunayani was touched by the changes happening around her in the Tagore household. Her husband, Rajanimohan Chattapadhyay, encouraged her to paint and she began painting at the age of 30. When she did begin, she also exhibited her work which was appreciated by the literati in Europe. She was first discovered by Stella Cramrish. In the book ‘Women of the Tagore Household,’ the author Chitra Deb writes, “This lady arranged for an exhibition of Sunayani’s paintings by Women’s Art Club of London in 1927. The foreign viewers were charmed. Her brush strokes were firm without any hint of uncertainty. The most attractive features were the eyes of the models. They were elongated, and appeared immersed in some distant dream. Such a depiction of the eyes was certainly not according to the norms of Western art and yet it did not appear unnatural. It was as if Sunayani heralded a new style of art totally free from Western influence. Invitations for exhibition came from both France and Germany.”
He work is termed as ‘realistic’ and of ‘primitivism’ where real life images were drawn using folk art frameworks- form and shape did not matter as her work was truly fresh and without any reference to bind her in a particular style. She used watercolour and the wash techniques to create her paintings. Sunayani Devi drew scenes of the village domestic life, gods and goddesses, and myths. Her work is considered to be one of the foremost works by an artist of the Bengal School of Art. Sunayani’s work is also compared to Amrita Sheer-Gil as she too depicted rural scenes and used a lot of earthy colours to draw her subjects.
Benode Bihar Mukherjee (1904-1980)
A Padma Vibhushan recipient, Benode Bihari Mukherjee is considered as one of the most significant artists of the Bengal School. He chose to express his artistic abilities through murals at the Santiniketan. He first painted the ceilings of his hostel room and from there the visually challenged artist created huge stunning works of art. Here National Gallery of Modern Art captures a snapshot of his most important murals such as the ‘Life on the Campus’ n Cheena Bhawan(1942), Life of Medieval Saints,Hindi Bhavana. His life’s story was captured by Satyajit Ray in a movie called the ‘Inner Eye.’ He completed his diploma in Arts in Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan and subsequently became a teacher there.
Benode Bihari’s style was unique as he created larger than life murals and frescoes. His visuals take a cue from his other senses – such as the rhythm of daily life at Santiniketan, his imagination and acute sense of perception about colour depth and space. He was taught by Nandalal Bose who encouraged him to follow his passion. These murals are exquisitely detailed and to even think that the artist was visually impaired is unimaginable. His strokes are long and strong and the stories are expressed beautifully.
Soumik Nandy Majumda,in his article describes Mukherjee’s talent “Turning away from the prevalent trends of painting romantic landscapes, mythological illustrations or nationalist subjects, Benode Behari was finding his themes in everyday scenes and the pastoral life around. For this he was largely depending on the observed visual facts and searched for a suitable pictorial idiom. He took lessons from the indigenous traditions but was never in favour of a stylistic or manneristic revival.”
Ram Kinkar Baij (1906-1980)
Ram Kinkar Baij was a modern artist whose work emerged out of so many art philosophies and trends. From impressionist inspired to pointillism and realism. His predominant area of artistic expression was sculpture even though he did make paintings. ‘The Economist’ in an article, pays tribute to Baij penning “Ramkinkar Baij, who died in 1980 aged 70, was one of the most important of India’s early Bengali moderns, both as an experimental sculptor and as a painter. K.G Subramanyan terms Baij as a ‘creative sculptor’ who made sculptures for his own pleasure and not for others.”
His breadth of work is like Nandalal’s work –which has so much vigour on paper. Baij’s work is movement in his sculptures. His work is considered an outstanding example Indian Modern Art. He took nature and the life around him, Santhals and the rhythm of everyday life into his work.
Abanindranth Tagore’s attempt to revive pride in the nation’s history of mythology, culture and stories left out the political, social and cultural capturing in art. Also art trends such as cubism, impressionism, realism, primitivism was all a part of the Bengal School of Art and hence prompted some to give it the name of Neo Bengal School of Art or Contextual Modernism. Amrita Sher-Gil, wrote in one of her letters that “In terms of true Art it matters very little what ‘school’ or age a work of Art belongs to, because just as in all ages there has been a fundamental analogy in the characteristics of good painting and sculpture, so there is similarity linking the inferior Art of the present (this includes both Eastern and Western Art).”
Bengal School of Art, as it is popularly known, had avant garde artists who were not afraid to experiment and push the boundaries of what was then known as traditional art. By the 1930s the Bengal School’s momentum had petered out. Artists like Benode Bihari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij kept Bengal on the art lovers list and taught another generation of artists.
The role of Santiniketan in the training of these artists to become stalwarts, is noteworthy. For some time, this project of love of Rabindranath Tagore did undergo financial difficulties but with the support of patrons, it was painstakingly kept alive. The art produced by artists coming under this umbrella of Art school has been declared as national treasure and it cannot be taken outside the country.
Avijit and Bratati Lahiri were art connoisseurs and had with them extensive collection of art from Jamini Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore and others too. As recently as 2016, 71 pieces of their collection were auctioned by Christie’s in New York.
We can see a revival of interest in the work of these great masters by collectors all over the world with the prices running into lakhs for paintings belonging to the Bengal School of Art. Many other great artists connected with this school have contributed greatly to the sheen and glamour of this movement. There is no doubt that the paintings from this School are a pride of the nation and the birth of this movement was a turning point in the world of Indian Art.