Founded at the turn of the twentieth century by EB Havell and Abanindranath Tagore, the Bengal School was a Modernist Indian art movement that came about in an atmosphere of nationalistic fervour in colonial India. During this time, undivided Bengal had emerged as an epicentre of cultural agitation that, among other things, initiated a concerted move away from formal European aesthetic ideals. The search for a national visual identity that was both historically rooted in the subcontinent and modern in its outlook came to be realised as the Bengal School. It sought to reject the aesthetic sensibilities of European Academic painting and replace it with cultural frames of reference which its members considered authentically Indian. The Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, the Indian Society of Oriental Art, the Bichitra Club and Jorasanko, were the centres of pre-Independence India’s first major campaign for artistic freedom and its first attempt to define Modernism by its own terms. Artists influenced by and associated with the Bengal School include Nandalal Bose, Kshitindranath Mukherjee, AR Chugtai, Asit Kumar Haldar, Sunayani Devi, Mukul Dey and K Venkatappa — many of whom were taught directly by Tagore.
At its core was a Revivalist agenda that found resonance in the anti-colonial sentiments and the Swadeshi ideology that was gaining currency at the time — and which grew stronger after the partition of Bengal in 1905. This coincided with a growing distaste among the Indian intelligentsia for the Company Paintings commissioned by British collectors and administrators, which its dissenters believed imposed a colonial and exotising gaze on India’s natural, cultural and social landscape. The Bengal artistic programme was also, in part, a response to the populist paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, which portrayed Hindu mythological themes in the Western Academic tradition. The subsequent mass production of these paintings was criticised and rejected as inauthentic and profane by idealogues such as Sister Nivedita and AK Coomaraswamy. Simultaneously, the Bengal School undertook an examination of pre-colonial artistic traditions, including Mughal miniature painting, Rajasthani miniature painting, Pahari miniature painting and folk visual culture, as well as corresponding materials and subjects such as tempera and religious mythology. They sought to create a pan-Asian aesthetic that was a counterpoint to European Realism and Academic Formalism. The visual idiom that emerged was characterised by the use of a sombre colour palette and Romantic depictions of themes such as landscapes, rural life, Hindu mythology and history. However, evidence of the influences of Art Nouveau and a Pre-Raphaelite affinity to nature and natural forms challenged the Bengal School’s claims to homegrown authenticity. Instead, some scholars offer a model of divergence from Western art movements and pedagogy.
As the principal of the Government College of Art and Craft between 1896 and 1905, Havell encouraged the study of decorative arts in the handicrafts traditions of India, as well as the visual vocabulary of Mughal miniatures, in an attempt to elevate the values of Indian spiritualism over Western industrialism and materialism. However, this notion of spiritual contrast, which steered him towards the codified traditions of the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures, resulted in his problematic conflation of Indian nationality with Hinduism. This approach of valourising an idealised Indian past was criticised and denounced for subverting the emerging nationalist movement in the subcontinent. Whatever the criticisms that may have arisen, Havell is responsible for laying the pedagogical foundations of the Bengal School by ushering in curricular changes and shaping revolutionary thinkers and new visual idioms.
Its influence can also be attributed to the proliferation of the journals Probashi and The Modern Review, which promoted painting from India. Several of Abanindranath Tagore’s students were also instrumental in disseminating the values and methodologies of the Bengal School across the nation through their contributions to both art and academia. As such, it gradually created a space for modern art in India outside Western academic institutions and brought with it a culture of art journals, critics, art salons and a new art-consuming middle class that espoused its revivalistic thrust as a product of and a response to the dominant colonial forces.
By the 1920s, the influence of the Bengal School began to wane. The painters associated with it introduced little to no alterations to their style and soon began facing the same problems as the traditions to which they were responding. Further, the establishment of Kala Bhavana at Shantiniketan (in erstwhile Bengal) under Rabindranth Tagore brought with it different ideals and conceptions of both art and the nation. Nandalal Bose’s appointment at Kala Bhavana in 1922, following his exit from the Indian Society of Oriental Art, marked a final and decisive break from the Bengal School’s dual approach and its mission of formulating universal standards of ‘Indianness.’ The legacy of the Bengal School, in terms of its aesthetic and technical contributions, if not its ideological foundations, still lives on in the Government College of Art and in Kala Bhavana.
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