No doubt one should write coolly on the subject of art, but it is difficult to write from an Olympian height on the so-called Bengal School of Art in India, particularly if the writer happens to be a native of Bengal and has spent his life in what has been called the ‘nightmare city of India.’ Like animals at bay, perhaps in Bengal, people are a little sore and consequently given to self-glorification. But anybody familiar with the development of creative art in India for the last half a century will agree that we should be all grateful to the few artists and art enthusiasts in Calcutta, who started the movement which spread all over India and has lately developed into various styles which might have shocked the ancestors.
And Abanindranath Tagore has justly been recognised as the leading figure in this new life of our art. Of course, there were painters and craftsmen before him, but they were not quite artists with a capital A. Real creative art acquires its significance when the artist has a measure of consciousness of his aesthetic purpose. And neither the painters of portraits and illustrators of legends, nor the simpler craftsmen, had the circumstances, or the minds, to think in terms of fine art. Abanindranath did.
His early work is a little too tentative, and very naturally so; but even the works he did in the nineties of the last century have their distinction. And his total output, covering nearly fifty years, shows his range and the great variety of his interests. As a matter of fact, it is this which perhaps, too fanciful, too ‘fine’, too much given to his own rich whims. As Jamini Roy says, his tragedy was that he was a Tagore, and the Tagores usually lacked in, not extraordinary gifts, but in a professional kind of toughness, except perhaps Rabindranath, whose life and work supply us with the most glowing example of character in triumphant consonance with the personality of superb genius.
Abanindranath’s diverse work can be classified in many ways and the most convenient way is to turn to the development of or changes in his style. His work has, roughly speaking, eight periods or phases. There is no reason why we should restrict ourselves to only one of them, say the ‘Japanese Wash’ period, or let us say, the pictures with Mughal themes, though even the last group has its interest. There is no reason why anyone who delights in the miniature paintings of the various Rajput or the Mughal Qalam should refuse to appreciate the same kind of beauty in more recent work, in the work of Abanindranath Tagore and his school.
But, actually, along with, or in spite of the miniature quality of much of his work, he was very much of an artist in the modern sense, all the various kinds of his work have the stamp of his individuality. It is true he had a highly literary vision; as a matter of fact, he was a writer of magnificent prose and had a luxurious originality. But much of the art we admire of Europe and India has a literary bias. Why should all works of art have the same kind of appeal? We need not be puritans of pure or modernistic art. I, at any rate, am quite moved by looking at all those pictures which reveal Abanindranath’s intimate love of the face of the Bengal countryside or Orissa, or the pathos of domestic or social life, or his illustrations of popular tales and poems.
Even it, however, one genuinely fails to find any enjoyment in his work, in all its various phases, one cannot forget his role in the rebirth of taste and understanding and the release of creativity in the world of our art.
Abanindranath was not alone in this proud pioneering. He had supporters in the huge ancestral home; he had the encouragement of Rabindranath Tagore himself. The patriotic aristocrat also had such friends, as E. B. Havell, John Woodroffe, Sister Nivedita, Coomaraswamy and Okakura.
There is no doubt that without this climatic change in our world of taste, there would not have been artists in India, neither those who follow the Bengal School or the Indian Society or Oriental Art movement, nor those whose aspirations are more contemporary - (as distinct from the so-called Indian for Oriental) or who want to produce modern or pure art. Further, in the imported, cabined atmosphere or our minority culture, so apathetic to our own art, among our new gentry, or the handful of the English-educated, art as a profession would never have been possible without the sanction of patriotic respectability which the Tagores brought to it.
Abanindranath, we can see now, was the leading figure in this liberation, though, of course, there were others. But most of them came after, or were his pupils. Even his elder brother, Gaganendranath, came out much later with his almost spontaneous burst of ink and paint. And the Poet waited for the impersonal ardour of his old age and a further advance in the freedom of aesthetic values in the world, before he revealed himself as an amateur but an astonishingly powerful painter, a great modern artist.
It is hard for young people to realise the difficulties these pathfinders had to face, difficulties of many kinds, the most general of which was the split personality resulting from the narrow education which the lucky few received. As Havell had said: ‘Present methods of education have opened a rift between the artistic castes and the “educated” such as never existed in any previous time in Indian history.’
While Havell’s dream of a special heaven for ancient India, with her artistic castes, can never be reached, what we can keep in mind was pointed out well by Alick West: ‘Behind all this intellectual and administrative chaos, there remains in India, a native living tradition of art, deep rooted in the ancient culture of Hinduism, richer and more full of strength than all the eclectic learning of the modern academics and art guilds of Europe.
That does not mean that the traditional craftsman who works more from habit than from the consciousness of his own urge is the ideal, nor can this ideal be ever achieved in an India and a world where the whole pattern of life is something different. But the truth of this historical statement has to be realised in order to find in one’s own modern, that is self-conscious mode of work, the strength of roots without which mere formal adventure becomes whimsicality and remains only on the surface.
Abanindranath himself, in spite of his aristocratic family isolation and the excessive richness of his fancy, has his roots in this original depth of the mind of Bengal, of India, of the life and culture of her people. I agree with those who think that he was the great ‘guru’, in this respect, that his disciples do not have the quality to any comparable extent. But there was nothing provincial in his work nor in his influence, which spread all over India, directly, as well as through his pupils, and, if one may say so, grand pupils! From Lahore to Madras, Dacca to Baroda and Ahmedabad, thenewmovementspread and developed in many ways. A mere survey of the names of some of these artists and teachers of art all over India will be enough to convince anyone of this fact - Nandalal Bose, Asit Haldar, Ksitindra Majumdar, Venkatappa, Suren Ganguly, Sarada Ukil, Deviprosad Roy Chowdhuri, Sailen Dey, Mahindra Gupta, Ramen Chakravorty, Promode Chatterji, Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Roopkrishna Prabhat Neogi, Mukul Dey, Bireswar Sen, Hirachand Dugar, Masoji, Chitra, Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Mukherjee, Sukumar, Deuskar, Dhirendra Deb Barman, Sankho Chaudhuri, Sridhar Mahapatra, Prabhas Sen, Avtar Singh Pawar, Rudra Hanji, Dharmani, jitendra Arya, Gopal Ghose, Prodosh Das Gupta, Nirode Majumdar, Prankrishna Pal, Paritosh Sen among others.
And some of these artists have passed into oblivion, as we have very short memory indeed. But some are still in the public eye. And quite a number of our younger artists who have tried to break forth into new original styles acknowledge gratefully the early lessons they received from some of these elders. Let us just think of the artists who are not yet fifty and who had been students of Deviprosad Roy Chowdhuri in Madras or Nandalal Bose and Ramkinker in Santiniketan, or of the Calcutta Government School, now College of Art, or even the little school that the Indian Society of Oriental Art used to run.
And of the old masters of painting, still fortunately with us, no one can ignore Nandalal Bose, whose numerous outdoor sketches are very interesting and reveal his loving eye and quick and faithful hand in depicting nature and man in the country, Gaganendranath’s powerful cartoons and, on the other hand, his delicate illustrations of Rabindranath’s books still hold our attention. And there is Jamini Roy, the magnitude of whose achievement needs a volume by itself. The purity of his artistic purpose and his technical competence, earned through years of hard experimental work, made it possible for him to come out, round about the late twenties, as our great modern artist. And strangely enough it was from about 1926 that Rabindranath Tagore took to painting, and the great professional and the great amateur completed the cycle of the renaissance in our world of art, and thereby liberated our younger artists to proceed with their own experiments.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1963