Thursday, February 27, 2014

Evolution of Bengal modern art on display - Mumbai meets Kolkata


Mumbai: The Delhi Art Gallery — one of the national capital’s richest galleries with a vast archive of Indian classical and modern art — expanded its footprint in Mumbai inaugurating a new display space Feb 25, 2014 with an exhibition “The Art of Bengal” and unveiling of a book, “Emeralds”, an illustrated volume about the precious gemstone widespread in India as a heritage jewel discovered in the geo-surface of the earth five million years ago.      

The gallery which promotes 20th century art has a collection of over 32,000 artworks — ranging from early 20th century classicism to the contemporary art post-Independence art continuing till date.   

The exposition, “The Art of Bengal” features more than 200 works documenting the movements in Bengal art in a chronological sequence from the 19th century modernism to contemporary multi-media visuals. 

The exhibition follows the journey of Bengal aesthetics with 19th century art when local and ethnic artists created vernacular idiom based on micro-myths, lores and mythological legends using an array of village-oriented crafts influenced artistic iconography like the pata chitra (scroll narrative art) and the “battala” illustrations of north Kolkata printing avenues. 

The pata chitra as a oeuvre flourished in the villages around Midnapore and Bankura district in the 18th century (though they date back to over a millennium). In the 19th century, groups of scroll painters from Midnapore migrated to Kalighat in Kolkata looking for sustenance during the early years of the East India Company reign. They began to paint the social realities of the time in Kolkata — breaking away from the mythology, religion and folk as traditional themes. The strange adoption of urban Kolkata as a new homeland and the mingling of rural-urban sensitivities gave birth to the “babu-bibi” scrolls in Kalighat — a direct engagement between European, elite Bengali and semi-urban cultures of suburban Kolkata.

Legend says “the babu-bibi” tradition of art began with a famous love scandal between a young housewife Elokeshi, wife of a Bengali babu Nabinchandra Banerjee and head priest of the Taraknath temple  at Tarakesvara” which became the muse of several chitrakar (painters) in the 19th century. The painters — both the Kolkata School of Pata Chitra and their counterparts in the countryside — began to hunt for humorous and “mischievous” social trends to add to their iconography.  The signature imagery include “cat and the shrimp”- an allegory for the general decadence of the era, the “courtesan, babu (East India Company employee) and bibi (wife)” and “the British sahib ruling India”.  

The century-long presence of European painters in Bengal influenced the local art practice and aesthetics, resulting in interesting blends of academic oil portraiture and traditional Indian art as a parallel school of mainstream art— evolving from the early folk stylisations. By mid-19th century, trained local artisans began creating paintings using oil as their medium and the “till then-absent perspective”, termed the Early Bengal Oils.

The showcase tries to present Bengal art in the way it matured following in the steps of European classicism. It hosts rare works by oil pioneers like B. P. Banerjee, leading to the work of salon and ‘gentleman-artists’ produced by the newly-emergent art schools and institutions in Calcutta in late 19th-early20th century, such represented by J. P. Gangooly. The oils are complemented by water techniques — a genre that was honed to an unique refinement by the Bengal artists.   

The school that came to be known as Bengal School with its dreamy, romantic imagery using the technique of watercolour wash is represented substantially at the show, featuring works of Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Asit Haldar, Kshitindranath Majumdar and D. P. Roy Chowdhury.

The artists of the 1930s and 1940s, however, rejected this school in favour of a new and robust Indian art.
These modernist masters include the stalwarts like Somnath Hore, Prodosh DasGupta, Chittaprosad, Rabin Mondal, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Jogen Chowdhury, Nikhil Biswas, Bijan Choudhary, B. C. Sanyal, Chintamoni Kar and others, as well as those claiming allegiance to an older Bengal order, such as Bireswar Sen.

 With ‘Bengal’ as the connecting thread, this exhibition – mammoth in scale –the artists featured not just claim ancestry to Bengal but those who vitally nurtured in its cultural climate. Bengal’s cultural and intellectual climate, together with its artistic imagination continues to exert a great pull on contemporary Indian art.

“This exhibition is a tribute as much as a celebration. For us, showing the extensive repertoire of the Bengal School in Mumbai was critical to the understanding of the development of Modern art in the country, and Kolkata's immense contribution in this," Kishore Singh, project editor and head of exhibition and publication at the Delhi Art Gallery said.

- Staff Writer 


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