The prototypical scope of ‘scenery’ painting and the concept of the ‘picturesque’ did not have any historical and cultural manifestations in India until the mid-eighteenth century. For centuries, the genre of landscape painting in Indian art history found itself in a subsidiary position. The predominant thematic evident throughout the ancient and mediaeval history of Indian art had been the portrayal of human stories. The range of narratives discernible across all sites of traditional mural painting, and the many classifications in manuscript painting, primarily played the role of propagating religious texts and their distinct iconographies. Themes of religion, mythology, portraiture, and court chronicles found prominence in the distinct schools of miniature painting produced approximately between the tenth and the seventeenth centuries in many regions of the subcontinent. The depiction of landscape was essentially restricted to being a narrative indicator of regional distinction within the schools of miniature painting and as a metaphorical tool within the genre of raga-mala scenes. Evidently, landscape painting did not emerge as an independent genre, until European traveller artists and colonial art education policies prompted artistic aspiration for ‘naturalism’ in India. [1]

In the colonial art institutional ambit, ‘nature study’ was restricted to copying old European masters to maximise the retention of ‘naturalism’ in academic art in the subcontinent. The Government Art Gallery, a first of its kind, was established by Lord Northbrook, the then Governor General of India and the then Governor of Bengal, Richard Temple, as a pedagogic resource for the students at Govt. School of Art, Calcutta in 1876. To further the cause of pedantic education policies and to refine artistic taste among Indian art students, Northbrook donated a substantial collection of copies of European landscape and portrait paintings as the central corpus for the gallery. It is thought-provoking to observe that as a counter stance to this ‘academic’ purview of art, the Bengal School’s vision to reinvigorate the philosophical and artistic basis of Indian art practice did not quite break away from its inherent disposition towards human themes. The movement fundamentally endorsed the prevailing tendency to represent human narratives through art.

During the 1920s, a distinct focus on and evolution of pan-Asian philosophy and way of life emerged at Santiniketan under the influence of Rabindranath Tagore.[2] Responding to Okakura’s call for pan-Asian unity beyond mere bureaucratic tropes, Tagore advocated a deep-rooted notion of cultural confluence through the spatial, spiritual and pedagogic proclivities of Santiniketan. [3] More acutely, through the opus of his songs and festivals, Tagore highlighted ‘nature’ as a unique source for creative vitality. This inspired artists and scholars alike, prompting a range of projects in and around Santiniketan which celebrated the environmental offerings of Birbhum. [4] The philosophical basis of Kala Bhavana’s pedagogy, along with the aesthetics of the campus and the larger space of Santiniketan, grew in sync with its natural environment. The first three official faculties at Kala Bhavana exemplified elements from nature as at the core of their pedagogy. Asit Kumar Haldar was the first artist to use flowers and leaves and their patterns in alpona,[5] prior to which it was primarily contoured through religious narratives. Surendranath Kar considered the unending horizons of the Birbhum landscape when devising architectural motifs and structures in Santiniketan. Nandalal Bose urged students to study nature as their initiation into studying ‘art’.

Such a ‘study’ included observing seasonal change in the colour of leaves, identifying structural differences in different kinds of trees, understanding the life cycles of flowers and generally scoping the larger eco-system that Birbhum offered.[6] Though there was no prescribed curriculum during the formative years of Kala Bhavana, nature study was the foundational basis of art pedagogy in the institution. This pedagogic exercise, beyond the canonical or pictorial prospects of the genre of nature painting, gradually introduced art students to the significance of the site as the immediate stimulus for intellectual insight. Benode Behari Mukherjee, being among the first generation of students and under the mentorship of Nandalal Bose at Kala Bhavana, found his subjects all around campus - the flora and the fauna, animals and humans, the Sal and the palm trees and the formations of the Khoai.[7]

In a discussion of the exhibition ‘Scenes from Santiniketan: Benode Behari’s Handscrolls’, curated by R. Siva Kumar and showcased by the Kolkata Centre for Creativity in collaboration with Rasa Gallery & Archives, this brief background to the history and purview of landscape painting in India and the pedagogic history of Kala Bhavana becomes important. First, it indicates the momentous shift from the predominant representation of human narratives in Indian art to the reconfiguration of human figures within a natural landscape, mainly marked by Benode Behari’s unique perspective of scaling human to nature and rarely attempted by any of his contemporaries. Second, it underlines the dexterity with which the curator has premeditated upon this historical context when positioning the handscroll ‘Scenes from Santiniketan’ for the first time in the public realm, approximately hundred years after its execution.

At the very onset of the display, R. Siva Kumar leads the spectator straight to Benode Behari’s probe into the notion, scale, and projection of the self in comparison to the magnanimity of nature. This section of the exhibit includes a reproduction of his self-portrait ‘Artist in Studio’ painted in 1933, a detail from the Cheena Bhavana mural called ‘Life in Campus’ executed in 1942, and a detail from the handscroll ‘Scenes from Santiniketan’ painted in 1924. Mukherjee broke away from western academic conventions of single-point perspective and freeze-frame compositions, experimenting with the expansive range of a handscroll, which allowed for the projection of a limitless horizon. This also enabled Mukherjee to put in perspective the meager value of the human self against the immensity of nature. The curator of this exhibition posits this selection of paintings almost as a citation to his curatorial argument about Benode Behari’s “engagement with landscape as a means of self-expression and a record of the evolution of his inner self”. Through this curatorial intervention, Kumar demonstrates how the artist effectively countered the erstwhile predominance of the narrative of human primacy in Indian art.

The other extreme end of the gallery space exhibits the 44.6 feet long handscroll titled ‘Scenes of Santiniketan’, attributed to be the artist’s earliest and longest. Secured insideawood-framedglass top box, the scroll’s narrative progression moves from right to left, reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings, which Mukherjee was increasingly influenced by. The scroll is marked in nine parts, with each part identifying a seamless journey from one distinct topographical and seasonal character to the other: the emerging university campus coexisting with the surrounding villages, the villagers working on their winter harvest in sprawling fields, the fresh greens of the spring, the torrential rain charging towards the surface of the land, punctuated by stark black palm trees under the shadowless sun of the Birbhum landscape. At the extreme right, Benode Behari positions an unassuming human figure under a dense maze of trees, looking towards the unending horizons of Santiniketan. The artist perceives the various stratifications within the terrain-in all its seasons as well as through multiple focal points-and brings them to a coherent linearity in the scroll. The experience of looking through the scroll at the exhibition is complemented and enhanced by an audio guide narrating the nuances of the scenes, making the artwork accessible to all kinds of audiences.

The exhibition carries reproductions of his other landscape paintings and handscrolls, like the fragments of his ‘Early Handscroll’, the ‘Sal Forest’ scroll, the ‘Small Landscape Scroll’ painted in ink on cloth, the much-acclaimed tempera scroll depicting ‘Khoai’ and the ‘Village Scenes’ scroll, all painted by Mukherjee during the 1930s. The exhibition also included ‘Scene in Jungle’, a scroll painted on banana-pith in 1942, which is part of the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The choice of banana-pith as material is a rare one in Mukherjee’s oeuvre. The inclusion of these reproductions provides a comprehensive view into the artist's experimentation with scale and perspective within the genre of landscape painting. The gallery space is punctuated with a canopy display of a reproduction of the ‘Birbhum Landscape’, an egg-tempera mural painted by Mukherjee in 1940 on the ceiling of one of the dormitories at Kala Bhavana Boys’ Hostel. This is an exemplary recreation of a site-specific artwork into an immersive experience specifically designed for viewing within the white cube.

In my discussions with Prof. R. Siva Kumar and Rakesh Sahni of Rasa Gallery and Archives, I learned that the photograph of the ‘Birbhum Landscape’ mural was taken by Muthooswamy, a student of Kala Bhavana in the 1940s, who was trained in cinematography. Using the monochrome analogue technique, the photo-documentation of the mural was completed in eight parts. Much later, when Siva Kumar co-curated the centenary retrospective exhibition on Benode Behari, along with Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, he came across these segmented photographs at the Kala-Bhavana Nandan Museum and digitally stitched them together to precision. In this extremely intricate and multi-dimensional landscape composition, one discovers a Birbhum village on a mundane day from a bird’s eye perspective. The people, their pets and livestock, the huts and the variety of trees around the village pond, though seemingly humble, weave extremely intricate scenes. It compels the viewers to periodically shift their position to view the work, as they would have done when physically walking through a village, as a single-point perspective does not practically allow a comprehensive view of the entire mural. In my tour of the ‘Birbhum Landscape’ mural, I observed a hunter taking aim. It led me to wonder if this is Mukherjee’s way of positioning his own self within the natural setting and, through the viewfinder of the hunter’s rifle, navigating his viewers towards a distinct perspective. ‘Seeing’ is a continuous process. It can be a linear exposure, like the horizons in the ‘Scenes from Santiniketan’, and it can be stimulating and absorbing, like the view under the ‘Birbhum Landscape’ mural. Mukherjee managed to offer a surplus of visual and sensory provocation through the many perspectives of Santiniketan.

The exhibition, which sets a momentous precedent in curatorial methodology and archival intervention, is scheduled to travel to Santiniketan in the months of July and to Kochi, in the month of September this year. As I write this piece sitting at Santiniketan, negotiating between the scenes from Benode Behari Mukherjee’s Santiniketan to my days of tutelage here and coming to terms with the drastic shifts in its landscape, I take refuge in the metaphor that is Khoai, a land that once was, and now is lost.

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