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Art Compass Points East

Santiniketan and the Bengal school of art are back with a vengeance

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Art historian Kishore Singh once famously said, “When Calcutta ceased to be the capital of  India, everything, including art, experienced a loss of patronage. The centre of art shifted to Bombay, which had big money, collectors and critics.” He was not really off  the mark. Though some of the Bengal masters such as  Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Abanindranath Tagore, Ramkinkar Baij, and Rabindranath Tagore continue to be hot on the auction circuit, the school never really matched the fame and price tags of the Progressives such as F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza.

But there seems to be a certain resurgence of interest in the Bengal school of  late. The Prinseps Autumn Online Auction in October had a showstopper from Rabindranath Tagore. It had three lots on offer from Jamini Roy, seven works in total from Rabindranath Tagore, three works from Prosanto Roy, one art work from Dhiren Deb Burman, one really beautiful work, ‘Uma the Great Mother Daughter of the Mountain’ from Abanindranath, and pieces from K.G. Subramanyan and A.

Ramachandran, all from the twin schools of Santiniketan and Bengal. All lots at Prinseps sold above the estimated prices. Paris-based Sakti Burman had a large retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai, around Diwali in October. It was a really big show celebrating both the artist and some of  his monumental works.

The NGMA also hosted a retrospective of Baij (1906-1980), another Bengal stalwart a couple of years ago. Bengal is, therefore, surely back on the collectors’ radar.

One of the major issues with works from Santiniketan and the Bengal school has been that many leading Bengal artists are national treasures. Their works are non-exportable, which makes these assets largely ill-liquid. Works sold internationally are mostly from Western art collections of the 1930s and 1940s of works that were already overseas. Most collectors shy away from these national treasure works because of all the documentation and restrictions to export.

Let us first discuss Santiniketan. Four artists – the founding principal of the Santiniketan art school, Nandalal Bose; its alumni and faculty, Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee; and the poet-playwright who morphed into an artist late in his life, Rabindranath Tagore, are originally associated with the university town. A.K. Haldar, Somnath Hore, K.G. Subramanyan, Beohar Rammanohar Sinha, R. Siva Kumar, Jogen Chowdhury and Surendranath Kar have been notable faculty at the art school while the likes of A. Ramachandran, Shayan Chowdhury Arnob, Jayasri Burman, Satyajit Ray and Ramananda Bandopadhyay have been famous alumni. Today the works of Subramanyan, Chowdhury, Ramachandran and Jayasri are widely sold, and fetch handsome prices. The likes of Ramananda Bandopadhyay and Rabin Mondal, though living legends, have not received their due in either fame or fortune. Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavana (Institute of Fine Arts), the home to all these giants, was founded in 1919 and is the fine arts faculty of the Visva-Bharati University established by Nobel laureate Tagore.

The Bengal School of Art was an influential art movement and a style of Indian painting that flourished throughout India during the British Raj in the early 20th century. It was associated with Indian nationalism (swadeshi) and led by Abanindranath (1871-1951), a nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. He painted a number of works influenced by Mughal art, a style that he believed to be expressive of India’s distinct spiritual qualities, as opposed to the ‘materialism’ of the West. Abanindranath’s best-known painting, Bharat Mata’ (Mother India), depicted a young woman, portrayed with four arms in the manner of Hindu deities, holding objects symbolic of India’s national aspirations. Painters of the Bengal school included M.A.R. Chughtai, Sunayani Devi (sister of Abanindranath), Gaganendranath Tagore and Sarada Ukil.

Santiniketan, in many ways, was a sub-set of the Bengal school and both streams of artistic creation kind of coalesced together, but seemed to fade away with the spread of modernist ideas in the 1920s. Over the last few years, the rise to prominence of Chowdhury, Mrinal Kanti Das, Ganesh Pyne, Ganesh Haloi, Samir Aich, Shuvaprassana and Bikash Bhattacharjee and lady artists Shipra Bhattacharya and Jayashree Chakravarty have brought the contemporary Bengal school back into visibility.

Rejuvenation of interest in Bengal may also be the result of stratospheric prices of posthumous art, the works of Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, and, as mentioned above, Raza, Husain and Souza. These masters are not only expensive, but availability of good works with good provenance is becoming more and more a problem. This has helped give a fillip to the Bengal masters as well as Bengal contemporaries whose art without doubt has both depth and finesse. Nevertheless, very few galleries in Mumbai or Delhi actually stock up well on Bengal artists. One, therefore, has to either wait for art fairs or art summits for Bengal-based galleries to put out good works of Santiniketan and Kolkata masters. The exceptions, of course, are the likes of Jayasri and Sakti who are widely available. But one must not forget that neither of them now live in Kolkata. Jayasri paints out of Delhi and her uncle Sakti  from Paris.

The even better news from the Eastern front is that Kolkata now boasts a very good second line-of-defence too. Artists such as Lalu Prasad Shaw, Ajay De, Avijit Dutta, Chandra Bhattacharjee, Sanat Kar, Sanjay Bhattacharya, Subrata Gangopadhyay and Aditya Basak today have a global audience. They are well recognised and easily occupy top national rankings. Arghya Priya Majumdar, Atin Basak, Chatrapati Dutta, Indrapramit Roy, Jaya Ganguly, Mahjabin I. Majumdar and Mrinal Kanti Gyne are also producing interesting works. Their art is thematically strong, well executed and retains the essential pristine qualities of good brush-strokes and detailing that still define the goodness of the Bengal school. Other stalwarts from the Bengal school include Ajoy Kumar Ghose, Akhil Chandra Das, Ashok Bhowmik, Arindam Chatterjee, Debabrata De, Niranjan Pradhan, Pankaj Panwar, Partha Shaw and Prashant Shau –  each with his unique style and distinct palate. Their works are visually powerful, and their prices really attractive. And before we forget, India’s No. 1 contemporary sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan also does most of his major work out of Santiniketan despite being Delhi based.

The sun is rising again in the East. And the sunrise is bright and beautiful. Full of promise. Full of glory.

Santiniketan and Bengal schools have always been rooted in Indian-ness. Its current crop have stayed true to the original tenets; only enhanced the offering through a more versatile portrayal of themes, objects and abstracts. The best charcoals, the best ink-on-paper, the best line-engraving, the best lithography, the best wood-cuts, the best etchings, the best print-making all are still best practised out of Kolkata. The talent pool, and the skill set, there remains possibly one of the finest in the country today. More importantly, Kolkata retains a certain creative atmosphere unmatched anywhere else in India.  

Historically, the Bengal school shifted focus from mythology and history to the rhythm and daily lives of people; it rejected stylisation in favour of expression; it refused to be burdened by an ideology other than a need to be ‘Indian’. Old Bengal is back today with a vengeance. And pride.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Tanya Goyal

The author is chaiperson and trustee of The Kailasham Trust

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Carol Goyal

Carol Goyal is a lawyer by training. She also has a Masters from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York.

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