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The Art of Bengal

The east also rises


VARIED CANVAS: Bikash Bhattarcharjee's 'Untitled (A Prostitute)' and Jogen Chowdhury's 'Dead IV'. Both artists liked to combine local and modern idioms in their work

The biggest show ever of visual art from Bengal has opened in the Capital.

MF Husain derided them as weak and anaemic. The art boom - driven largely by the Bombay-based Progressive Artists Group, of which Husain was a key member - passed them by. But art from Bengal seems to be finally getting its place in the sun. Just last month, Osian's chose to mark its comeback with an auction dedicated almost solely to Bengal art. And though the sale did nothing to set the market on fire, it did seem a sign of things to come.

And come they did. In a matter of weeks, the Delhi Art Gallery opened the biggest ever exhibition of Bengal art - over 400 works by 104 artists. "The show spans two centuries. Nothing has been done on this scale before, " says Ashish Anand of DAG. Among the earliest works in the exhibition are Kalighat pats which developed from the rural folk tradition of scroll painting. By the late 19th century, the painters, who moved from the provinces to Calcutta to cater to a British clientele, started showing influences of their urban milieu. A work called The Coronation of Rama shows the trio of Rama, Sita and Hanuman with a Bengali babu attending to them, reflecting a shift in patronage.

Gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon as well as myths and legends are central themes in the selection of anonymous Bengal oils. "These are my inspiration, " exclaimed Jayasri Burman at the opening of the show. The Bengali artist draws heavily from myths and fables in her own work. Then there is Raja Ravi Varma's much lesser-known Bengali equivalent, Bampada Banerjee, who made oleograph prints. "They lack the poise, animation and drama of Ravi Varma but conform to the stereotype - cloying sentimental images of gods and goddesses, the mythic heroine in her dual role as temptress and goddess, " writes artist and academic Paula Sengupta in an essay that is part of the archival book released on the occasion.

The exhibition goes on to record the substantial work and influence of what is known as the Bengal School. Spearheaded by Abanindranath Tagore, this school created dreamy, wispy imagery on mythological themes by using its trademark watercolour wash technique. This involved dipping a painting in water numerous times. The entire line-up of Abananindranath's students - Nandalal Bose, Asit Haldar, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Surendranath Ganguly and D P Roy Chowdhury - is part of the show. And though this camp was criticised later for its stereotype of 'Indian-style painting', it did shape the course of art in not just Bengal but the rest of India, not least as a point of rejection and point of departure for the modern Indian artist looking for a robust, new idiom.

Formed in 1943, the Calcutta group, which includes painters and sculptors such as Somnath Hore, Prodosh Das Gupta, Chittaprosad, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Jogen Chowdhury, and others, sought to create a fusion of the local idiom with an international art language. Each, however, had a distinctive style. Nirode Mazumdar (Kali series) is bold and vibrant while Gopal Ghose's watercolours are delicate. Chittaprosad, Zainul Abedin and Somnath Hore use pen and ink to drive in the horror of the terrible Bengal famine.

One of the highlights of the show is a bust of Rabindranath Tagore by sculptor Ramkinkar Baij who trained at Santiniketan under Nandalal Bose.

Though 'Bengal' is the connecting thread, not all the artists featured are Bengali. There are Europeans such as Olinto Ghilardi, an Italian teacher and painter in 19th-century Calcutta who influenced Abanindranath Tagore;M A R Chughtai from Lahore;and K G Subramanyan from Madras, whose art owes a debt to Bengal. "We left out artists like Anjolie Ela Menon and Arpita Singh since there is nothing overtly Bengali about the work, " says Kishore Singh, head of publications and exhibitions at Delhi Art Gallery. Younger contemporary artists too don't find space in the show which is devoted mainly to the moderns and the masters.

'The Art of Bengal' is on at Delhi Art Gallery, Hauz Khas village, till March 10.

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