Author: Asok K Bhattacharya
Photographer(s): Debashis Gayen/ Ramananda Bandyopadhyay
Publisher: Indian Museum Calcutta
ISBN/UPC (if available): N/A
In the middle of the final decade of the nineteeth century two independent events silently took place in Kolkata: Abanindranath Tagore, a young painter in his early twenties, drew a few fragile miniatures depicting the mythical romance of Radha and Krishna; and E.B. Havell, an English artist in his mid-thirties came from Chennai to take charge of the Government School of Art and Craft as its principal.
These two persons, born at places thousands of miles apart and brought up in two different socio-cultural milieu, had many a characteristic that distinguished them individually. But such was the compulsion of a common realization regarding the Indian art of the time that they joined hands to change its course towards a direction which was, in a sense, diametrically opposite to the prevailing current. The new trend, set into force by their combined efforts, was known as Neo-Bengal School, and also after the name of its initiator, Abanindranath.
To understand the significance of the emergence of Neo-Bengal school in the context of origin and development of modern Indian art, it is imperative to refer to the prevailing circumstances of art in the country. Since the late eighteenth century traditional Indian art, whether Mughal or Rajput, the Deccanese or eastern Indian, was languishing in a state of decline.
The traces of creativity in painting was only flashing in the noble miniatures of the Pahari School in the Punjab Himalayas; and the reverberation of vitality, even if in somewhat subdued tone, could only be heard from Nathadwara in Rajasthan and Travancore-Cochin in Kerala, where peripheral regions apart, no where in the mainland the classical tradition of painting could survive the political turmoils and changes of the period.
The scenario at Kolkata, the seat of British colonial power, was however different. From the last quarter of the eighteenth century its European and native inhabitants started to cultivate the art of the West. The canvases, painted in oil in a style that may be best termed as conventionally academic, were primarily imported to adorn the walls of the neo-rich European merchants and their native compatriots. A few British painters also reached the city to earn money by painting portraits of these rising aristocrats.
Havell, a man of rare perception and strong foresight, had acquired an intimate knowledge of the greatness of Indian classical art tradition and popular crafts during his stay in the then Madras Presidency before his arrival at Kolkata. He saw the aesthetic poverty in the art teaching of the school pursued with the help of live models and compositions visualized in terms of mechanical stage setting. Since the ideoplastic nature of Indian art, based on memory images instead of visual images, was fully revealed to him by then, he felt that it would be inconsistent and injurious to teach an Indian ‘cheap pastiches of the Royal Academy’, which resulted in following a trend of hybrid character.
The new school’s early recognition was earned when Havell, returning to England in a sabatical leave, published an article on it. The article included some of Abanindranath’s paintings, including Abhisarika and Buddha and Sujata. They were the first crop of Neo-Bengal school and in them it was not difficult to see the absence of an assurance usually found in a fully matured style. But when Abanindranath’s Last days of Shahajahan, a historical theme painted on a woodrn plaque in oil following spread throughout the country. In this painting the artist’s desire to enrich the Mughal style with human feelings, which it usually lacked, by his personal empathy was fully achieved.
When Okakura Kakuzo, the Japanese savant, reached Kolkata in 1902, after successfully ensuring a new lease of life for Japanese classical style of painting in the face of Western impact, the newly emerging school of Bengal art received a fresh impetus. The leading members of the school, who came to be associated with Abanindranath, were already inspired with the Swadeshi movement developing in Bengal during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Several young members of the Jorasanko Tagore house were taking leading part in the movement by organizing Hindumela. Abanindranath and his artist elder brother Ganganendranath, among others, heard from Okakura on his concept of ‘Asia is one’. This concept influenced them to enlarge Bengal art movement’s commitment from ‘Indianness’ to Orientalism.
Since Abaindranath joined the Art school in 1905 his first batch of students, inspired by his art and art ideal, came to enrole themselves in his class. They were Surendranath Ganguli, Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar, Kshitindranath Majumdar, K. Venkatappa, Samarendranath Gupta and others. His style of painting was enriched by these students both in diverse expressions and wider choice of subjects. Most of them were talented and devoted to their teacher, who taught them to develop in accordance to their own ways. Abanindranath’s method of teaching was also distinct from that of the Western academic style.
He himself worked before them and made them acquainted with the Indian epics, noble literature and significant aspects of history, so that they could visualize and select their subjects from these source. Besides, he instructed them to study the nature and men at work outside the walls of the school, placing them in their proper ambience. His intention was to make them imaginative without loosing contact with their own land and people. In a sense he wanted to create an art which would satisfy the following expectation of one of his mentors Sister Nivedita:
“An Indian painting, if it is to be really Indian and really great, must appeal to the Indian heart in an Indian way, must convey some feeling or idea that is either familiar or immediately comprehensible, and must further, to be of the highest mark, arouse in the spectator a certain sense of revelation for which he is the nobler.”
Broadly with this aim and vision the Neo-Bengal school worked in the years of its foundation, which took place during the first two decades of the last century by Abanindranath, his associate Gaganendranath, and his front-ranking students. In this period the Bengal artists chose their subjects chiefly from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Kalidasa’s immprtal works, lives of Gautama Buddha and Chaitanyadeva, Rabindranath Tagore’s poems and life of Gautama Buddha and Chaitanyadeva, Rabindranath Tagore’s poems and life and Nature of rural Bengal, mostly in an idealized or idyllic way.
The paintings of this album, selected from the rich collection of Indian Museum, are some of the finest examples of the school. In these paintings discerning eyes would not fail to appreciate the delicate handling of brush, extreme restraint in choosing the colours, and a rare sensibility born of cultivation of an aesthetic which is essentially Oriental, and specifically related to the root of Indian culture. In these days of tension in an extremely competitive life, and mental unrest, these paintings would, hopefully, bring some solace and peace.
I. BUDDHA AND SUJATA
Exhibited in the Delhi Durbar Exhibition of 1903, this is one of Abanindranath’s most renowned early paintings.
Krishna, the central character of the great Indian epic Mahabharata, was also known by his other name Partha.
III. KARNA – KUNTI
Gaganendranath’s Karna-Kunti delineates one of the vital events related to the great Mahabharata war.
IV. RADHA – KRISHNA
Sunayani Devi, younger sister of Abanindranath, was a self-taught artist.
V. PARASH (TOUCH)
Kshitindranath is possibly the most sensitive and lyrical of all the deciples of Abanindranath.
VI. PIPE PLAYER
Asit Kumar is an artist of versatile expressions, both in the choice of subject and style of delineation.