Identity and History: A Rendezvous with the Bengal School of Art

Anumeha Verma
Published: March 2019

In a not so distant past, several modern day art critics and artists relegated the Bengal School of Art to the annals of history and denounced it as a part of the revivalist movement in India. Their verdict, however, has not lessened the footfalls to its exhibition and the interest it is garnering. The epicentre of this newfound curiosity is the Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH) in Kolkata where rare collections of paintings from the Bengal School of Art have now found a permanent residence. Many of these paintings have come into public view for the first time.

Walking down the halls of the VMH and experiencing its exhibits from the Bengal Renaissance, a cultural movement in Bengal during the colonial rule, is like standing at an intersection where art and history have fused together. These paintings and sketches speak volumes not just about their subjects but also about India of the 18th and 19th centuries. The city was a hub of modern Indian art during the two centuries and has left an indelible mark on India’s history.

The position of pride is occupied by the works of Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) and his successors amongst the displays. It makes tremendous art sense for the Indian master, his contemporaries and successors to be given a permanent place at the VMH.

In the 1850s, the British Empire had already gained a foothold in India. The western influence was abounding everywhere, including the art scene. The artists of a nation caught in the whirlwind of colonial rule responded in the only way they could-through art. They experimented with styles which broke set patterns and defied materialism, linear perspective and shading that were common features of the Company Style. Abanindranath Tagore was a key influence here. His sketches and paintings gradually broke free of the very rules that he had learnt under the European masters who came to India during this period. Eventually, he laid the foundation of the Bengal School of Art.

A part of the curated collection was inspired by his childhood home at Champdani near the river Ganges and his ancestral home in Kolkata. Many of these were pen and ink sketches while others were done in watercolours. These are not as easy to interpret as his later paintings, which convey delicate and intricate tales. For instance, a boat on the river with a house in the background is clearly an inspiration from his days at Champdani. The house is more of a ruin. Was it a little boy’s grief at losing his father that came out in the artist at a later age or just a casual observation? One can only wonder.

Impressions made by the sprawling house and its gardens where he spent a few years of his childhood become apparent in several of his other sketches. Three different studies of a woman putting vermilion on her head clearly allude to the culture he experienced in his Bengali household. A number of still arts featuring hookahs, sofas and other common objects find their way into his paintings as well. However, in the later years, the oriental style became dominant in Abanindranath’s paintings as he found his niche and popularised the Bengal School of Art.

He experimented with the Chinese, Mughal, Japanese, Persian and Ajanta styles. In many cases, he has also incorporated the Pahari and Rajasthan styles in his works. The exhibition at VMH houses some arresting specimens of his paintings that feature these styles. The Krishna Lila series, one of his most defining set of works finds a place here, bringing to life scenes from Indian scriptures. The paintings have an air of liveliness about them and stem from the artist’s early experiments to create his signature. Calligraphy in Bengali is coupled with subjects inspired by Rajasthani and Pahari styles, giving this series a feeling of Mughal miniatures.

In his quest to find a new voice for modern Indian art, Abanindranath Tagore deviated significantly from his contemporary, Raja Ravi Varma of Travancore. While Ravi Varma’s Shakuntala borrows from Indo-European techniques, The Passing of Shah Jahan, one of the most celebrated paintings of the founder of Bengal School of Art takes inspiration from Indian and Mughal art forms. The painting in question is a poignant image of Emperor Shah Jahan on his deathbed with his daughter Jahan Ara sitting at his feet. It plays on the longing of the dying emperor, his face turned towards the Taj and the helpless grief of his daughter. The exhibition showcases several other paintings from the Taj series.

One of the aims of this latest overture from VMH is to showcase the diversity of the Bengal School of Art and its founder. Hence, the Mask series and original illustrations for Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat have also been included in the fray. The Mask series is a breakaway from delicate storytelling techniques of his other paintings. It draws the onlooker to explore what lies beneath the façade. A mask of Rabindranath Tagore and three different paintings titled Mask, each detailing a different shape and structure of a face are some of the highlights from this particular group.

Besides other styles, the Japanese influence on his paintings is a clear indication of Abanindranath Tagore’s ambition to make art more oriental and not just Indian in the face of western cultural influence. His interactions with the art historians Okakura Kakuzo and later on with Japanese artists Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso in Kolkata had much to do with it.

A delightful example of Asian influence on Abanindranath Tagore’s paintings can be sampled in the Arabian Nights series at the exhibition. The artist employs his storytelling techniques through the characters of the Arabian Nights to take a look at Kolkata during the colonial period.

The founder of the Bengal School of Art inspired several other artists whose works have found a place at the exhibition. Throughout the 1920s, Abanindranath Tagore’s works attracted several artists in search of an identity. Some of the prominent ones were Mukul Dey, Asit Haldar and Sunayani Devi. Jamini Roy, another prominent artist from Bengal, experimented with techniques of Abanindranath. Some of his paintings from the 1920s, integrating people with natural settings, are a part of the VMH exhibition. Later on, Jamini Roy turned completely to folk art forms giving the Kalighat style and other folk art traditions a new lease of life.

A thread of historicity runs throughout the exhibition, neatly tying together the works of several famed, lesser known and even unknown artists of the Bengal School of Art. Many of the paintings on display have gone through a thorough restoration before being opened to the public. It is an opportunity for art lovers to take a peek at the genesis of modern Indian art and understand the context, which had set the stage for artistic experiments in an era when freedom of expression was a luxury and not a right.

The exhibition is held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, 1, Queens Way, Kolkata- 700071.

 - Anumeha Verma is at present working with Jain University and believes that strategic communication plays a major role in solving development issues.