Kshitindranath Majumdar: Naïve Evocations

He was born in Nimtita, Murshidabad District, West Bengal and had no formal education in art. His knowledge was acquired from village plays and devotional hymns. Majumdar in 1905-06 like many other students, enrolled at the Government School of Art when Abanindranath Tagore was the Vice principal becoming one of his early students. Through this inner circle of students, that also included many famous names formed around Abanindranath, emerged the new art movement- the Neo Bengal Art Movement; with paintings which broadly confirmed to Abanindranath’s formula of an “Indian-style’. It is this core group which helped in disseminating the layered wash technique developed by Abanindranath Tagore.

Majumdar worked in the layered wash technique, as his visionary subject-matter lent itself to the fulfillment of the need of his passionate devotion to familiar Hindu eternal themes of Radha- Krishna and Chaitanya. This approach made his art introspective making him turn his gaze away from nature and man. Majumdar’s lyrical and sentimental style was expressed through spatial compositions with fine outlined drawings, detailed ornamentation and highly mannered postures and expressions that became representative of his visual expression reflected in his later paintings on the life of Chaitanya. His exquisite sense of line and subdued coloring that remain the hall mark of his visual language, attempts to evoke his own meditations on such subjects and were truly his own personal visions. His works represent clarity of vision and statement, moving away from the haze that characterized Abanindranth’s works. The works are suffused with a sense of the spiritual. In many respect it connect to the past tradition of Indian miniatures because of their small format In 1921, Kshitindranath was appointed Principal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta and from 1942-64 he became Principal of the Art Department at Allahabad University.

Hemendranath Mazumdar: Penchant for Realism

Born in a village of Gachihata in today’s Bangladesh, Hemen came away to Calcutta in 1910 and against much family opposition joined the Calcutta School of Arts and Crafts in order to become an artist. Soon after joining within a year he left this institution to join the Jubilee Art School; a break- away by a group of students as an alternative school that sought to jealously preserve the tenets of academic realism. This was founded in opposition to the Indianized curriculum that Havell had introduced in the Calcutta School of Art. The curriculum paralleled the Swadeshi style art of Abanindranath Tagore, to which Hemen had neither interest nor any predilection towards; fascinated and influenced as he was by the French and Dutch painters. Hemen was the product of this private institution. In 1919 he became the co-founder of the Indian Academy of Art.

Considered one of the finest Bengali artist, but not sufficiently recognized, as he remained in the shadow of academic realism of Ravi Varma. In his works he showed a developed mastery over his medium. He evolved a romantic and a sentimental style attracted to the popular Ravi Varma model of Indian painting in an attempt to perpetuate it through religious and mythological themes with focus on sentimental and sensual studies of women.

The images of women with their ‘wet look’ was based on his expertise in the creation of the true Bengali romantic language in visual arts, which had varying moods of languor or states of undress, yet through their suggested identities as wives and mothers and ideal feminine types he kept up a respectable veneer and came to occupy ‘legitimate’ areas of middle class taste. This genre of women studies by Hemen fed directly into the genre of the ‘calendar art’ stereotype spreading through prints and repeating itself through a host of other obscure artists.

He fused his technique so sensitively that he created a visual titillation, with eyes sending out coquettish messages, the glimmer of ornaments reinforcing the sensuality. Hemen was adept at handling all media, oils, water colours and crayons and his principle emphasis has been the study of the female form.

Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury: Expressionist Evocations

He was a master sculptor, an excellent painter, famous teacher, powerful writer of short stories, wrestler, hunter, cartoonist and a skilled flute player. He was initially the disciple of Abanindranath, at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta. His bold experimentations in water- color, oil and mixed media attracted the attention of many western art critics of the 1930s. In his paintings he used Chinese technique, Japanese wash process combining it with his scratching method. His works pictorially relate to Kshitindranath Majumdar with a predilection toward attenuated linear forms, but with the difference. Conceptually the former’s works are visionary bordering on the spiritual while Roy Chowdhry’s manifest a world of feelings and emotions establishing an expressionist mood. Roy Chowdhary shifted his medium from painting to sculpture, which according to him afforded not only great power of expression but also negotiation of different materials like stone, clay and bronze to suit his sensibilities. As a teacher, at the Madras School of Arts and Crafts he effectively guided the hands of his students and inspired their minds. As an administrator he directed the institution with energy and authority. He described his mode of teaching “I can perhaps teach the skill needed to draw and paint but no one can be taught to be an artist. The perception and sensibility needed to be an artist are inherent in a person. I do not think they can be taught or acquired”. This was a mode of thinking and perception based largely on the Nineteenth century romantic notion of a ‘genius’, but within the modern paradigm his approach and conceptualization in art expression was that of a modern romantic. Roy Chowdhury as a pedagogue, demonstrated profound contempt for conventions and hence did away with the use of plaster casts for drawing. In his pedagogy he laid emphasis on drawing and structure of the human body, which was to become the hall mark of his teaching. Life study was insisted upon with drawing and painting from live models and day long trips to the surrounding suburbs. This laid astrong foundation for perceptual observation. The drawback in his teaching was his lack of contact with modern European art, with the consequence that his students remained ignorant of the innovations and experimentations of modern European masters.

Roy Chowdhary’s art can be categorized as elitist and not rustic as was the trend at Santiniketan where the art movement came to draw sustenance from the earthy lineage of folk art and indigenous cultural traditions. His elitism in art was to reinvent portraiture in its realism and valorize subject matter as labor. In his persona it was his aristocratic lineage of landed gentry reinforcing his subjectivity of aloofness and a consciousness of authorial power and influence. Despite all this he nevertheless seemed to have sown the seeds for a future development of the individualistic Madras Art Movement, with his modern romantic/westernizing agenda. In his independent creations, his sculptures reflected socialist subjects as the ‘Triumph of Labour’ and Martyr’s Memorial. Cast in bronze, the style shows the influence of French sculptor Auguste Rodin and deals with the theme of man’s struggle for existence. The rough unfinished surfaces, creating rich textures and an animated play of light and shade, reflect the influence of Rodin. The poses are exaggerated for dramatic effects and are highly theatrical. He retired as principal in 1957 after serving for 28 years – the longest tenure in the history of art schools in India.

Paritosh Sen:

Social Satire and Cubist Visual A painter, illustrator, teacher and a writer, he is considered as one of the pioneers of the Indian Modern

Art Movement through his formation of the Calcutta Group in 1943. Paritosh’s interest in art was aroused through the popular art conscious journal Prabasi. He came from a large family of twenty children well known as ayurvedic healers. From a young age he demonstrated a predilection for drawing and when he took the conscious decision of learning art; there was severe resistance from his family.

Consequently he ran away from home and came to Madras to join the Madras School of Arts and Crafts where Roy Chowdhury was the principal whom he immensely admired. Later in Paris, he studied at Andre Lhote’s school, Academie Grand Chaumier, Ecole des Beaux Arts and Ecole des Louvre where he studied the History of Painting. He was amongst the very few young Indian artists to have had the

opportunity to meet and spend time with the great modern masters like Pablo Picasso and Brancusi in Paris. Recalling later, Paritosh said, “Picasso’s works and methods taught me more than what I was prepared for and it took me some time to assimilate the concepts and integrate them with my own work.” In 1940 when he joined Dally College in Indore as a teacher, the English principal had a collection of big collotype reproductions of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugin and other masters, which resulted in his interest in form. The major influences in Paritosh’s works in 1940s were the Famine in Bengal and the Partition of India when his works began reflecting the turbulent socio-political situation. This concern for humanity became a major element in his work. A figurative painter, he used bold lines against a twodimensional picture plane to express his views on contemporary life.

Though Paritosh paints urban themes and portraits, it is the human figure that dominates his art. During the various phases of his career he worked with different media and the nature of his work changed, shifting from the highly stylised to the impressionistic. He liked strong, sensuous colours the consequence of copying miniature paintings particularly the early Rajasthani and later Basohli schools. He invested his energy in human figures, because it became a visual medium to convey his thoughts, sentiments, feelings and emotions. These varied from social satire, to political comment to human frailties of vices. The distortion of the human form was premised on his interest in folk art tradition, the primitive strength of its visual language made him connect with the works of Picasso. His female nudes in various attitudes of daily living are planar linear drawings yet manifest a semblance of voluptuousness. His social and cultural environment offered the referential sources, allowing him to critique life around him. Said Paritosh, “A painter cannot live in a vacuum, he has to struggle just like any other member of the society and let his art derive from life. He must contribute in a concrete way to the society in which he lives”. Little wonder that his sustenance for art and as an artist was provided by society continuously trying to enrich his idiom for more meaningful communication.

Paritosh Sen in 1964 joined the Regional Institute of Printing Technology, Jadavpur, teaching design and layout until his retirement. It was here that Paritosh in mid 1970s attempted to develop new Bengali type face based on calligraphy. But he soon realized that resources available in India were limited and aborted his experiment. Until his death in 2008, the artist continued to be prolific with his artistic output.

Gopal Ghosh: Personalised Landscapes

A Calcutta born artist, his early formative years were spent at Simla as his father was employed there. Later he also travelled to Benaras and Allahabad. Under Sailendranath Dey he had his earliest training in art at the Maharaja School of Arts and Crafts, Jaipur [1931-35] and later under Roy Chowdhry at the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, studying for three years from 1935 to 38. After this he started teaching at the Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta and at the Bengal Engineering College where he taught architectural design. After 1950 he taught at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Calcutta, until his retirement.

Ghosh is the founder member of the Calcutta Group that was established in 1943. He came in close proximity of the communists with the Bengal Famine. This was partly reflected in his art. But soon he moved away from being a figurative artist to concentrate on landscapes. He is today recognized as the foremost landscape painter of modern India with capacity to interpret nature on his personal terms. And human figures if they appeared in his landscapes were insignificant. Western academicism for Ghose was sterile and did not offer inspiration as an exploratory channel for emotions and evoking feelings. His predilection rather was towards Chinese water colour tradition particularly in ink and water colours and with the Impressionists in the colour application. These two techniques were cleverly synthesized by Ghosh in the interpretation of landscape marking his works as mysterious and visionary.

His painted landscapes were borne out of his memories of his early years spent at Simla and later at Benaras. It is the significance of these memories not as nostalgia but remembrances, which allowed Ghosh to construct landscapes out of his imagination. The mine of images is freely drawn out, taking on significant form to produce a world of vision and design. The ambience here is not permeated with asurreal feel rather he casts an aura of mystery that he cleverly translates through his technique of wash and impressionistic colours with Chinese calligraphic brush strokes. He urges a response from the viewers to gently lift the veil of mist and enter its domain. The colours are quietly nuanced as his quest had been to capture the fleeting mystery of light upon nature translated through subdued tones and quick calligraphic brush strokes. Sensitive and evocative of moods and feelings, his landscapes transcend reality to enter the spiritual realm. Light is the dominant topos that serves as an effective trope, establishing the topography of not any particular location but distinctly imaginary.

K. G. Subramanyan: Alternate Modernism Through Indigenist Interplay

A multifaceted and versatile artist, muralist, printmaker, influential pedagogue and an art theoretician, he remains a seminal artist within modern Indian art, emerging from Indigenist thinking in the 1960s. He grew up in Kerala and Madras at a time when nationalist swadeshi sentiments dominated India. He was imprisoned by the British for taking part in Quit India Movement in 1942 while a student of Economics at the Presidency College, Madras. On his release his family sent him to Santiniketan to pursue his interest in art at Kala Bhavan, where the educational system was based on Indian culture and moral values. This was a liberating experience as him under the tutelage of eminent artists Nandalal Bose, Binod Behari Mukherjee and Ram Kinker Baij, he learnt to acknowledge the three basic concepts on which to base his art, namely nature, individuality and tradition. These ideals stayed with him despite his exposure to western modernism. In his art he was able to achieve a successful synthesis of India’s linear folk tradition and modernism with his strong sense of design and structure, manipulating the pictorial space that he filled with Indian flora and fauna, making his works vibrant and rooted in the Indian spirit. In the 1960s Subramanyan, had joined as a Faculty in the Painting Department of Fine Arts at M.S.

University, Baroda. This decade witnessed crystallization of his ideas and some of his best essays on art were written during these years. It was also a decade of a rich engagement with art education and administration. Intellectually prudent and shrewd; as an artist he gave his students the advantage of viewing nature and process of creating art as well as gaining insight into their own. In his evaluation of students work he went beyond mere ‘analysis’ and ‘experimentation’ to emphasize the need to contextualize the creative process both in its intent and method. Hence students had to search for painterly problems and work out directions of their respective art.

During this period, Subramanyan and other artists began to think in terms of modernisms existing simultaneously and guided not by a single formalist model or ideology as conditioned by western Eu- ropean models but by different cultural determinants as within the country through engagement with folk art traditions and the craft process. This quest for a modernism in which history and art traditions found place took Subramanyan beyond Western stylistic ‘isms’ while exploring their affinities. It resulted in doing away with the injunction against narration, literary inspiration, and various other modernist purist taboos which made his art more varied.

In his approach to art making, the subliminal and illusory perceptions of everyday life became springboard for his artistic vision – the ground upon which it was built. He saw painting, sculpting and crafting as the transformative act, which was premised on language to perform this function. As an artist he was analytically inclined; attracted to the formal structure of cubism with its internal dynamics of form and the neutrality of its subject. In the cubist structure and the two dimensionality of Indian folk art he found resonating similarities. At the same time he was within a rich rural living culture with its folk embroidery, wall painting, printed, painted and woven textiles and the domestic designs of rural Gujarat and Rajasthan.

In his painting process, Subramanyan worked rapidly, seeing spontaneity as equivalent for life force in his art. This preference was developed from an apprenticeship at Santiniketan and the influence of Far Eastern work ethics of the calligraphic principles as a life force embodying energy. In addition Subramanyan as a teacher did not focus only on studio teaching but his lectures lifted his pedagogic exercises into a set of lucid and experimental insights on the play of visual perceptions. The lectures provided his students an insight into the range of artistic activities. He encouraged his students to engage with a variety of materials in order to explore their suppleness and coax out of them a linguist principle responsive to the observed world. Through such an approach to his pedagogy where he insisted on an engagement with craft processes for realizing artistic intent and purpose he became responsible for bridging the art and craft divide by mingling local and modern methods of art making. According to Subramanyan, “I think that this balancing of the abstract with the objective is one of the most significant characteristics of the traditional arts of my country… I also want my work to live in such a twilight zone of sensibility, although the ingredients I put into it are not what they used to be, but are of this time.”

A stint in New York on J.R.D. Rockefeller Fellowship, opened Subramanyan to fresh visual contacts. American Pop art, the comic book, advertising and the billboard gave new dimensions to his work. Subramanyan’s works are empirical based on his experiences. The vibrancy and vigour in his paintings are the result of the manipulation of colours meant to be expressive and brilliant. His style of brush manipulation varies from the dot to a scrawl that translates as pronounced gestural strokes. He looks at tradition as it is practiced. His works are conspicuously varied as he has worked in buon fresco and monumental murals in terracotta tiles. He has designed an entire menagerie of wooden toys and woven rope sculptures. Within the contemporary reality, Subramanyan continues to exert influence on many artists through his erudite lectures and writings. He continues to be active designing murals and terracotta tiles decoration as well as in painting. Within the pre and post-independence political, social, cultural and artistic milieu of Bengal, in the visual language of these artists, it is possible to read a range in gamut of expressions from academic realism, soft and nuanced wash techniques for creating a spiritual aura as well as evoking moods and feelings, impressionistic brush strokes, cubist visual language to an engagement with traditional art and craft processes with modernist styles. Their works exemplifies the breadth of cultural experiences that informs their art. At first colonialism, and later the survival of traditional arts and their support systems alongside industrialization in the  postcolonial period, gave them an ideological and experiential basis for telescoping the values and languages of traditional and modern arts into each other as a part of their modernist project. These artists nevertheless have made significant contribution, caught as they were between conflicting identities in the twentieth century of whether to be traditional and Indian or modern and international. The two approaches find reconciliation in their works. Individuality meant for them reconciling both Western modernism and traditional antecedents with their contemporary reality. The changes in modern Indian art are related to their changing perceptions of these and the new realignments it called for.

Ms. Ashrafi S. Bhagat M.A., M.Phil, Ph.D. is an Art Historian. She is an Associate Professor and Former Head, teaching at the

Department of Fine Arts Stella Maris College, [Autonomous] Chennai. She has written monographs on artists as A.P. Santhanaraj

[2006], R. B. Bhaskaran [2009], K.C.S. Paniker [2011], P. Perumal [2011]. She was invited to be the Guest Editor for a special issue on Marg titled “The Southern Terrain” [2010] She writes on modern and contemporary art in various magazines

and journals.


Biswas Kali, Devi Prosad Roy Chowdhury, Contemporary India Art Series, [New Delhi, Lalit Kala Akademi, 1973]. Chakravarty, Sebanti sarkar, The Pre-Independence Years, Exhibition catalogue, Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Calcutta, 1997. Chowdhury, Santi, P. Paritosh sen, Contemporary India Art Series, [New Delhi, Lalit Kala Akademi, 1975].

Moitra, Dwijendra, Gopal Ghosh, Contemporary India Art Series, [New Delhi, Lalit Kala Akademi, 1966].

Sheikh, Gulammohammed, [ed.] Contemporary Art in Baroda, [New Delhi, Tulika, 1997].

Thakurta-Guha, T., The Making of a New Indian Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal, [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992].

Art of Bengal: Past and Present 1850-2000, CIMA, Calcutta, 2000

Exhibition Catalogue, Gallery Navina, New York 1967.

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