Review by Tanishka D’Lyma
December 01, 2018


Review by Tanishka D’Lyma


Quest of Identity - Early Modern Art of Bengal

AbanindranathTagore, BenodeBehariMukherjee, GaganendranathTagore, K.G. Subramanyan, 
NandalalBose, PrasantaRoy, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramkinkar Baij, Somnath Hore, SudhirKhastagir
November 16-December 19, 2018
Akara Art, Mumbai 


The work of ten artists displayed under the title 'Quest of Identity - Early Modern Art of Bengal' imbibes the nationalist movement in the 1900s that created waves reaching every corner of the country. Art had its contributions, giving way to an avant-garde movement reviving and reassuring Indian traditional roots overlooked and disregarded by colonial aesthetics.


During the early 20th century, with the surge of a nationalist consciousness, the movement to embrace 'swadeshi' as a stand against the imperialists found itself an expression in art. While British naturalism was well delved into and taught in great lengths, it was a few names that recognised the value of Indian culture and spirituality. E.B. Havell, as the principal of the Government School of Art in Calcutta, questioned the alien British mannerisms being taught to Indian artists. He believed that art was to be developed from indigenous traditional roots. His efforts were a complement to Abanindranath Tagore who sought an Indian identity free from the influence of colonial hegemony. Looking back at the culturally rich Indian traditions, ancient murals, medieval miniatures, Abanindranath Tagore rejected the oil on canvas paintings and imperialist-taught sensibilities imparted to create a class of workers and not artists, to suit British taste. Adopting a perspective gathered from a revival of indigenous values, a contemporary outlook on reality, as well as taking from Chinese and Japanese artistic techniques like the wash technique with watercolour, he created a pan-Asian school of work that celebrated Indian roots and expressed a modern and ever-changing reality. In this, he also took to indigenous material and form as the use of tempera. 


Along with Abanindranath Tagore, names like Gaganendranath Tagore, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sister Nivedita, Okakura Kakuzo began their quest for an original identity, one that wasn't taught or borrowed from the colonial aesthetic but instead reflected something of their own traditions, values and spirituality. In doing this, they laid the foundation for future generations of artists to celebrate traditions, understand a reality that was truly Indian, and build on such values to create aesthetics that would be a continuation of heritage. This understanding came to be called the Bengal School of Art and was the early beginnings of modernism in Indian art. 


Admitted under the sensibilities of this school and with the absence of a singular agenda, the movement gave way to multiple approaches, styles and perspectives including personal expression and outlook which resulted in a 'pluralistic method' that encompassed a developing sense of modernity of reality at the time with its reflection in art.


This movement boasts mainly of sombre palettes, the use of limited colours; inspiration taken from Ajanta style of painting, the Mughal, Rajasthani, Pahari influences are clearly evident as well; frames consisting historical themes, portraits, scenes from daily rural life that were expressive of Indian values and spirituality and that encompassed a pictorial vocabulary, one that was particularly 'swadeshi'. And through ‘Quest of Identity’, this is exactly what you will see in the show. Expect a lustrous lineup of work from the famed Tagore family who made for the centre of the modernist movement. The overall selection for the show includes artists who have had considerable weight in the movement: Abanindranath Tagore, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Gaganendranath Tagore, K. G. Subramanyan, Nandalal Bose, Prasanta Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramkinkar Baij, Somnath Hore, Sudhir Khastagir. 


A walk through the show will reveal a great deal of the traditional and oriental aesthetic vision and mannerisms that in turn suppressed the western naturalism and materialism earlier taught to Indian artists. Rabindranath Tagore's work comes with a self-taught detailed "dexterity" of skill shown through art with a "primordial wilderness" touch that borders reality and imagination. It is indicative of the range of aesthetics and freedom that the movement offered to drive instincts to explore the past, the reality around them and the consciousness within. Gaganendranth Tagore's penchant for the "mystic and mysterious" is evident through a subtle play of light and shadow in watercolour. He was also considered among the nation's first cartoonists with line drawings abundant with satire and sarcasm. By far the most important name here is Abanindranath Tagore who pioneered the modernist movement and contributed to its early works. He opened to other artists the possibilities of exploration of themes, forms, styles, narratives. An identity in himself, K. G. Subramanyan's pedagogy consisted the search of an appropriate language that includes the vital roles and interaction of medium, material and aesthetic inputs. His panel of four terracotta faces retains the original quality of clay yet imbibes the characteristics of facial expression and a certain humanness. Somnath Hore, although he taught at Santiniketan in the latter half of his career, rejected the aspirations of the Bengal School to champion the voice that was being suppressed under the social-political situation at the time - migration, partition, famine. The themes of wounds and scars were ever present in his works that innovatively manifest techniques of lithography and intaglio. These are just four of the ten artists showcased.