Artist Groups & Collectives

At the very beginning of the twentieth century, the interest in European avant-gardes in India was

delayed due to the bad reputation given to them by the British in favour of academic naturalism, and

because the reproductions of European Modernist art in magazines were few and far between until the

1920s.1 The Bengal School developed as the artistic counterpart to the nationalist movement and

assumed a hegemonic position in the Indian art scene of the early 1900s. However, the gradual

imposition of a fixed aesthetic caused many indigenous artists to feel suffocated within their own

tradition, while artists on the other side of the globe were repudiating traditions of the past.2 This period

spurred many a debate in Bengal around the dangers of losing cultural specificity by Indian artists;

artistic borrowings and influences in creative production; and the universality of art.

In 1921, Rabindranath Tagore invited the Austrian art historian, Stella Kramrisch - and other figures like

the French painter Andrée Karpélès and the French Indologist Sylvain Lévi - to deliver a series of

lectures on Modern European art at Kala Bhavan in VisvaBharati, Santiniketan. Although she positioned

herself on the side of the Bengal School revivalists, she played a major role in raising awareness about

the avant-garde movements of the West. The Bauhaus exhibition organised by Kramrisch in Calcutta at

the Indian Society of Oriental Art in 1922 gave the people a novel opportunity to see the original artworks

of Modern European artists like Klee and Kandinsky in person, alongside paintings of indigenous artists

who, too, were making their own efforts to develop an ‘Indian’ Modern. The exhibition became a cogent

event in our history because, as pointed out by Kramrisch in the catalogue, it brought to light a common

cause between Indian artists and European modernists - “as anti-naturalists against academic art, as

much as they shared their questioning of Western industrial capitalism.”4

This endeavour did not result in an immediate imbibing of European modernism in Indian artistic practice

- with the exception of Gaganendranath who was already experimenting with Cubism in his water

colours prior to the exhibition which led Partha Mitter to qualify this episode of Indian art history as a

“modernist prelude”6 to what would happen in the coming decades. In the search of their own modernist

identity, Indian artists began to seek inspiration in rural India which was increasingly being recognised as

the authentic character of the nation - in keeping with Gandhian ideology. Addressing the issue of

affinities and borrowings, Mitter states, “The Indian artist represents the decontextualising tendency of

our age - a tendency shared as much by artists in the centre as in the peripheries, a tendency we come

across again and again: styles past and present can be taken out of their original contexts for entirely

new modernist projects.”10 While Modern art in Europe emerged as a break-away from the academic

genre, it emerged in India within this tradition, as a departure from the revivalist tendencies.

Subhogendranath Tagore, or Subho, was born in the Jorasanko residence of the Tagore family in 1912.

He was the grandson of Hemendranath Tagore - the third son of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore and

elder brother of Rabindranath. He grew up in an atmosphere catering to a holistic education. His

childhood days were overburdened with a band of tutors - one each for art, music, literature, Sanskrit,

Indian philosophy, physical exercise, and more. The rigorous nature of the imposed daily routine made

him feel claustrophobic and led to his rebellion. For this reason, he was called the black sheep of the

family.12 He was enrolled in the Government School of Art, Calcutta, as a teenager where he struggled

to adapt to the formal structures of institutional education - theoretical knowledge bore him. He failed the

same theory class twice due to his absence during the examination which led the principal to suggest

that Subho join the Indian Painting class instead which was headed by Ishwari Prasad Verma, the

traditional miniature artist from Patna. He trained under the careful tutelage of Ishwari Prasad but the

latter’s traditionalist outlook eventually caused bitterness between the two. Even as a student, Subho

was curious to breakaway from form; his simplistic white chalk drawings, like those on the walls of

Santhal huts, perturbed Ishwari Prasad. Eventually, Subho left his education in Calcutta unfinished and

went to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, for a period of two years, post which he

returned to India.

In 1942, he was invited to teach art at a government-run school in Kashmir where he met Bansi

Chandragupta. The latter aspired to be a painter, and upon the insistence of Subho, he moved to

Calcutta to study painting. Bansi eventually made Calcutta his place of work and went on to become the

art director for many of Satyajit Ray’s films. Subho deeply desired to establish a formal group of avant-

garde artists who could, like himself, experiment with European Modernist notions. The onset of the

Bengal Famine in 1943 urged him to return to Calcutta and provided the required impetus for the

foundation of the Calcutta Group. The initial members of the group were Subho Tagore, Nirode

Mazumdar, Rathin Maitra, Prankrishna Pal, Gopal Ghosh, Paritosh Sen, Pradosh Das Gupta, and

Kamala Das Gupta. Subho wrote in his autobiography,

That time, I had just returned from my workplace in Kashmir and settled down at 3A S. R. Das Road with the help

of my friend Rathindra Maitra. The Calcutta Group was founded under my and Rathin’s heed. There was a streak of

solo exhibitions, one by one, Gopal Ghosh, Nirode Mazumdar, Pradosh Dasgupta. We attempted to convince the

people by poking in their eyes that the independence of an art-less country is like an attire-less widow.13

The artists believed that the art of the subcontinent was facing a crisis of stagnancy, they desired “the

infusion of a lost vitality and new life into the dissipated vigour of the then contemporary Indian art,

through the invention of a visual language suitably modern...and therefore capable of being the vehicle

for expression of the diverse nuances of transformed experience of a new time.”14 Although Subho was

never fond of Rabindranath, his school of thought found its propagation in the internationalism of the

Calcutta Group echoed in the introductory note of their handbook/catalogue drafted collectively by its

members - “Art should be international and inter-dependent.”

The formation of the Calcutta Group transpired at a time when many historical events were underway -

the Second World War, the Quit India Movement, and the orchestrated Bengal famine. However, instead

of politicising theirpractice,theartists stressed on form and style in their search for modernity. They

were criticised for lacking political direction and accused of being concerned only with aesthetic notions,

“with a disregard for the internal logics that led to such developments in Europe.”15 However, in their

defense, the Calcutta Group artists intended to arrive at a “synthesis between the art produced in the

West and their own traditions, in much the same way Modernism was born in Europe with European

artists taking inspiration in traditions from Asia.”16

“Man is supreme, there is none above him”-this was the guiding slogan when the Calcutta Group was formed in

1943. Those were dark days for Bengal. Famine and pestilence were then stalking the land. The barbarity and

heartlessness all around moved us, a few young artists, deeply. We began to think, to search and ask ourselves:

“...which way?”17

Subho’s leftist leanings got him acquainted with the likes of Bishnu Dey, Binoy Ghosh, Prantosh Ghatak,

and Kobi Chanchal Chatterjee. Around this time, there was a buzz in the air that P. C. Joshi, General

Secretary of the Communist Party of India, wished to be introduced to the latest current of thoughts of

modern progressive artists. Soon enough, Joshi paid a visit to Subho’s studio resulting in an invitation for

the Calcutta Group to exhibit their works in Bombay at an exhibition organised under the auspices of the

Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). This second exhibition of the Calcutta Group held in 1945

stirred a great interest in Bombay among artists and connoisseurs. The art critic of Times of India,

Rudolph Van Leyden, wrote:

Bengal has exercised a very strong influence on Modern Indian art ever since Abanindranath Tagore and his

followers inspired the ‘Indian Renaissance’ movement some forty years ago...we welcome this exhibition of the

‘Calcutta Group’ which brings to Bombay the first specimen of modern Bengal art since Jamini Roy’s exhibition

three years ago.18

This exhibition also included some works of Bansi Chandragupta - however, there is no evidence that he

was ever an official member of the group. During the initiation of the Calcutta Group, its members had

collectively sworn to be open towards the constructive criticism of each other’s works. But on one

occasion, Bansi Chandragupta - a close friend of Subho and some other members of the group -

commented on a work of Pradosh Dasgupta, much to the latter’s dismay. Infuriated by the incident,

Dasgupta refused to tolerate Bansi’s presence any longer. This altercation led a disheartened Subho

Tagore to lose faith in the members of the group, some of whom - the ones he considered to be his

friends - had already left the country to study abroad. He voluntarily withdrew himself from the group

post the Bombay exhibition, and thus, his journey with the Calcutta Group came to an end.


1 Trouilloud, J. M. (2017). The reception of Modern European art in Calcutta: A complex negotiation (1910s1940s). Artl@s Bulletin, 6 (2), Article


2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Mitter, P. The triumph of Modernism: India’s artists and the avante-garde (1922-1947). 2007. Oxford University Press. p 35

6 Mitter, P. The triumph of Modernism: India’s artists and the avante-garde (1922-1947). 2007. Oxford University Press.

10 Ibid. p 26.

12 Sarkar, S. (2017, April 15). Another Thakur of Thakurbari.

13 Tagore, S. (1975). Anushtup. p. 18

14 Mallik, S. (2003). Developments in the modern art of Bengal since 1940s. (Doctoral dissertation, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda,

Vadodara, Gujarat, India.)

15 Trouilloud, J. M. (2017). The reception of Modern European art in Calcutta: A complex negotiation (1910s1940s). Artl@s Bulletin, 6 (2),

Article 7.

16 Ibid.

17 Mallik, S. (2003). Developments in the modern art of Bengal since 1940s. (Doctoral dissertation, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda,

Vadodara, Gujarat, India.)

18 Nath Mago, P. (2016). Contemporary art in India: A perspective. P 63-67.

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