Art Institutions

First published in Viswa Bharti Quarterly, 1935.

What is known as the Neo-Bengal or Tagore School of Modern Art [1] has undergone considerable change in the course of the last few years. This change is so directly related to Rabindranath's Institution at Santiniketan, in particular to the Arts Section of that Institution, that it is not possible to discuss the Art of Modern Bengal today without constantly referring to that centre of art-activity.

This new change, however, for which Santiniketan is to be held chiefly responsible, has not been either arbitrary or eccentric. It is, itself, to be traced to the earliest tradition of the Renaissance Movement in Indian Art, and has therefore to be understood in relation to that tradition.

Broadly speaking, it might be maintained that while the earlier group of artists led by Abanindranath Tagore looked for their inspiration chiefly to Mythology, History and ancient and contemporary literature, the impulses to the later group of artists have come from a different source.

The modern art movement in India may be said to have been inaugurated by the late E. B. Havell. Although this movement was intended to be primarily aesthetic, it could not help being nationalistic, in as much as a conscious and deliberate attempt had to be made to revivify Indian tradition. It was through the writings of that great Englishman that we were made aware of the vast significance of the Indian art and its ideal. And although Havell's own ideal of art got mixed up with the new vision he held up before Indians, the valuable service he rendered in releasing the art of our country from its caves and its museums was such that no Indian artist can be too grateful to him. But Havell, in explaining the ideal and the aesthetic enjoyment of this art, had necessarily to take the help of Indian religion and literature. It was this necessity-ideological rather than aesthetic-that explains the influence of literature on the pioneer group of our artists.

The pioneer genius who gave form, shape and character to this new ideal was Abanindranath Tagore. Even before Abanindranath came under the influence of Havell's guidance, his mind had been nourished in the atmosphere of the literary renaissance which had already swept over Bengal. In fact, the lyrical element in his. art is to be traced to this influence. It was Abanindranath who first created the taste for our Indian Art. But, although undoubted master of its technique, he created through art what he felt through literature; so that the new art came to have a definite bias. This sort of interpretation of the ideal came in later times to stand as an obstacle. To Indians the ideal appeared as a mystic one. And the appeal to the past that it implied evoked an emotional response in them in which the aesthetic significance of the art (which Abanindranath had successfully cherished in his own art) was likely to be lost. In any case it was dangerous to attach art to a movement that was, in its nature, popular. Those were the days of the Swadeshi Movement when a definite patriotic complex was created in the minds of the people so that everything that could be called genuinely Indian came to possess a psychological value, not necessarily proportionate to its aesthetic significance. The movement launched by Havell and Abanindranath was easily carried along to success on the waves of this patriotic fervour. If we go through the discussions which the protagonists and critics of this art-revival had at that time, we can learn in what light this new movement was welcomed.

But there is no doubt that the exuberance of this Swadeshi Movement distorted the ideal with which Havell and Abanindranath had started. The ideal that was safe in the hands of a great genius like Abanindranath, when it passed to the hands of his followers and imitators, ceased to be aesthetic and became narrowly nationalistic. What began as a source of inspiration soon grew to be a worked-up complex that came in the way of any further progress of the Art. Even today we still hear the cry of some Bengali artists to make art properly national.

But Abanindranath's own genius had never ceased to be lyrical and individual. And to some of his pupils at least were transmitted the true impulses of that art. And Rabindranath Tagore, whose genius, more than anything else, had supplied the chief impulse and direction to the entire cultural renaissance of Bengal, kept on insisting that art, before everything else, should be true. He emphasised its cultural and educational value; and to provide for such scope he started the Kala-Bhavan (Art School) at Santiniketan, to be run under the guidance of Nandalal Bose and Asit Kumar Haldar. (The latter soon after left.)

Nandalal was, of course, Abanindranath's student and still worked under the influence of the latter's genius. But, fortunately, those few students who came under his charge had had no previous academic or traditional education. This freedom from trained bias, combined with the influence of the personality of the great Poet and the atmosphere of the place, brought them into an intimacy with Nature which was henceforth to be the moulding influence on this group of artists. Not literary tradition but life and nature supplied the theme and the motive force. This change, happily, did not come as a morbid reaction against the older school of art, for Nandalal himself was responding to it and was therefore in a mood and in a position to direct it.

In this new atmosphere, in direct contact with nature, the art of this school began to grow rapidly. It was freed from the spell of literature and brought in the midst of life. And as this new experience demanded new material for its expression, changes had to be made in the old technique.

Till this time the technique of our artists was the one they had taken from Abanindranath who had evolved it for himself. Abanindranath had begun his training under European artists. Later on Havell brought him in touch with the Indian ideal of art and, in particular, the Moghul form of it. It was chiefly under the influence of the Moghul technique on his European training that his first style was developed (see Pl. VIII). Later, again, under the influence of the Japanese art, he adopted certain of the mannerisms of that art, which were particularly suited to his genius. This style evolved into the one that we now know as characteristically Abanindranathian (see Pl. IX).

It was this style that was at first taken up by the Kala-Bhavan students, for it came to them naturally through Nandalal who had been trained in it. But it could not stay as a permanent influence because Nandalal himself had never been finally confirmed in it, his individual genius having taken a somewhat different bias (see Pl. X). Mythology had been the dominating influence on his imagination in his early age; and this naturally made himsusceptibletothefascinationofthe traditional Indian art, particularly, sculpture. This influence has not only been the most effective in his work, but also the most lasting. It is clearly marked in his creations, much more so than in those of Abanindranath; for this reason, that whilst to the latter it came as a later influence, on Nandalal it had grown as the earliest, and therefore the most potent, influence. Moreover, Nandalal came of a class to which tradition had always been more real than the classics.

It was under these conditions that the new school of art at Santiniketan began its adventurous career. Through Nandalal the students inherited Abanindranath's technique, though in a form so liberal that it left them free to continue experiments with style. And since art at Santiniketan was fostered by Rabindranath not as a national activity which carried patriotic value but as an educational and cultural necessity for the complete individual, opportunity was provided to the artists of the study and understanding of the European and other schools of art and their modern developments; in particular, the admirable analyses of those schools of art by modern European critics. Such comparative study has a natural result of broadening the student's intellectual outlook. This, of course, does not mean that the artists began to look for inspiration abroad; it only means that they were freed from forced fidelity to any particular charmed ideal. The individual was free to choose and accept for himself what ideal suited his genius and his temperament best. This freedom of experiment was generously encouraged by Nandalal in his students; in fact, it has been a consistent principle in his practice of education to leave the individuality of his student as free as possible.

It was no doubt inevitable that such practice should lead to several combinations of styles, not always happy. But there is no need to lament that this irresponsible freedom has destroyed the purity of the national ideal in art; because this purity was not lost without a compensatory gain in strength, even if it be the strength of ruggedness. Nor has this experimenting been meaningless, for a new and definite trend is discoverable in this group of artists, which has little kinship with either the old or contemporary traditions-Ajanta, Moghul or Rajput. At this time it is not possible to discuss this new trend of thought, though it is necessary to say something more as to how this change occurred.

Nandalal came to Santiniketan with a mind well equipped with knowledge of the Indian Classical Art. And although his inspiration remained his own, his ideal has never ceased to be the old Indian conception of form. When the younger group of Kala-Bhavan artists were struggling to find their way and took hold of anything they came against, Nandalal's conception of form stood before them as an ideal. And whilst they strove to free themselves of one tradition, namely that of art moulded under litarary influence, they found it necessary to take stand on another tradition, which was near at hand in the training of Nandalal. The conception of the Indian traditional and classical art, which they began to appreciate through the new education, made their understanding of Egyptian, Chinese, and Persian Arts easy.

But the real influence on Nandalal Bose himself has come from a different source. When an artist begins to give form to his experience he discovers that the material on which he has to work is both the way of his work and the obstacle to its perfect freedom. He has, therefore, perforce to some extent, to accept the limitations of his material. But there is an ideal of art which consciously strives to overcome this obstacle. There is, however, another ideal of art which consciously accepts the limitations of the material and its possibilities. This second ideal may be said to be generally true of decorative art. And as Nandalal's art has marked decorative tendencies, he has evolved a regular discipline for this ideal of adaptation.

Painting was, hitherto, more or less, the only medium of expression for the artists of Bengal. Training under Nandalal Bose, however, roused a desire in his students to experiment with other mediums and discover the proper material for the genius of each; with the result that today artists at Santiniketan find many types of expression open to them and their diverse talents have not to be forced through the same medium. It is not necessary to deal with this point in detail in this paper.

If we critically study the work of our younger artists we shall find that along with that of Abanindranath, the Moghul influence is definitely on the decline with them, whilst the Chinese, Persian,etc. elements are discovering themselves more and more. We seem to be going away from the Bengal school, although at the same time becoming more oriental. The same mentality is at work which makes modern European works seem Oriental. But the greatest single influence responsible for this change is the discipline of decorative art. For this, as for several other things, Nandalal and his students have reason to be grateful to Santiniketan. For it is Santiniketan, with its ceremonies, its seasonal festivals and periodic dramatic performances, that has provided the necessary scope for this side of his genius. Here art is sustained not only for its own sake but also as part of the social life, a fact which has proved particularly stimulating to a temperament like that of Nandalal's.

In this respect, Abanindranath was less fortunate in his surroundings, although he it was who first realised the value of art-activity in social life. His is the first book in Bengali on Alpanas (floor-decorations). He was also the first great mind to perceive the significance of dolls and toys and such other humble objects of folk-fancy and common delight. He has always insisted that people should decorate their daily lives by simple indigenous folk-arts and not employ professional artists to "fancy" for them. But he himself could not get sufficient scope for this activity, although in this respect, as in the respect of Indian art in general, he deserves the credit of having first created the taste for it. It was left to his great disciple to justify the faith of his master.

From this brief survey it will be clear that the influence of Nature at Santiniketan, the guidance of Nandalal which left each student free to pursue the particular bent of his talent while providing him with a variety of mediums, and the ideal of Form that he held out before them, were the chief factors in creating the new departure in the art of modern Bengal, which is associated with the name of Santiniketan. It cannot be said that it was the personality of Nandalal Bose alone which has worked this change, although that personality has undoubtedly meant much.Santiniketanitselfhascontributedtheopportunityandtheatmosphere.And,aboveall, thesubtle,indefinable influence of the creator of Santiniketan-Rabindranath-may not be overlooked.


[1] In using this terminology I do not mean to imply the superiority of any particular province or personality. I merely use a name which is convenient because current among artists since the time of Havell.

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