Neo-Bengal School is the first organized movement in modernity of Indian art with a basic motto of search for an indigenous identity. It originated in Bengal but spread through out India. Hence it is often cited as ‘neo-Indian School’ of modern Indian art. The movement originated as a protest against the hegemony of British originated academic naturalistic style of art practice and art education that dominated Indian art field since 1850-s. The beginning of the movement may be traced in the year 1897, when Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) painted his ‘Radha-Krishna’ or ‘Krishna Lila’ series of paintings through assimilation of medieval manuscript illustration style of paintings of Indian (Lucknow column) and Western origin (Irish Melodies). Abanindranath was initially trained in academic naturalist style and worked in that form during the initial years of his career, but in the environment of nationalist movement he felt that modernity of Indian painting should grow out of our own national and traditional root. The initial outcome of such contemplation was the ‘Radha-Krishna’ series of paintings.
Since 1897 till the end of his career he delved deeper into various directions of classical, medieval and folk forms of Indian art, out of which he devised his own style of painting. An indigenous form of modernity thus came into being that flowered in various directions through the works of his disciples, which till the present day is a very relevant form in modern Indian art practice, even in modernist practice. In 1907 ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ was formed in Calcutta, which acted as an organizational platform of the movement of neo-Bengal School.
Apart from Abanindranath another personality played a pioneering role in initiating and organizing the art education through Indian form of art practice and thus generated important influence behind origination of the indigenous style of neo-Bengal school. He was E.B. Havel (1861-1934). Havel joined as Superintendent of Government School of Art at Calcutta in 1896. The school was established in 1854. Since then the curriculum of art education followed here was academic naturalist style of British Kensington School. Havel was the first British artist, scholar and art educationist who questioned the validity of such alien form in art education. As an art scholar he was very much convergent with the greatness of Indian art tradition, both classical and folk. So he questioned why art education for Indian art students should not be generated from their own traditional root. He took active measure to initiate art education through Indian traditional form. He was acquainted to Abanindranath in 1897. By that time Abanindranath completed his ‘Radha-Krishna’ series of paintings. Their collaboration and friendship acted as a great impact in initiating and generating Indian style in art education and art practice since 1897. In 1905 at request of Havel, Abanindranath joined the Art School of Calcutta as Vice Principal and acted in this position till 1915.
In 1905 when Abanindranath joined as faculty in the art school, Nandalal Basu (1882-1966) got admitted to the institution as a student and learnt under Abanindranath. Their relation as teacher and disciple played an enlightened role in the development of neo-Bengal style. 1905 was a very important year from the point of view of national movement in Bengal. A rebellious popular movement against partition of Bengal had shaken the political and cultural field, where among various personalities Rabindranath Tagore also played enlightened role. Nandalal was the second personality after Abanindranath, who devoted all his wisdom through out his life to build up a nationalist form of art. Other artists through whose works neo-Bengal school flowered in various directions also joined the art school during the tenure of Abanindranath. Surendranath Ganguly (1885-1909) joined in 1905, Asit Kumar Haldar (1890-1964) in 1906, Kshitindranath Majumdar (1891-1975) in 1907, K.Venkatappa (1887-1965) in 1909. Other artists such as Durgeshchandra Singha (1892-1928), Shailendranath Dey (?-1972), Samarendranath Gupta (1887-1964), Jatindra Kumar Sen (1882-1966), Pramod Kumar Chattopadhyay (1885-1979), Satyen Dutta, Hakim Muhammad Khan and others joined during the nearby period. If Abanindranath is honored as the pioneer of the first generation of neo-Bengal school, these artists, who were his disciples, may be placed as second generation.
Before proceeding further let us ruminate on the fact why the school is called neo-Bengal. The term ‘Bengal School’ first appeared in a news paper at Madras that is present Tamilnadu. In 1917 there was an exhibition of the works of the Bengal artists at Madras. There the news paper ‘New India’ published an article on this exhibition on 19 February 1917, where it was stated ‘world famous painting of the Bengal school of artists’. But Abanindranath did not like the term as he believed art should not be branded in such a way. However the name persisted, but was changed later. In some opinion it is thought that originally ‘Bengal school’ meant the works of the artists of the Government School of Art, Calcutta during the tenure of its first Principal Henry Hover Lock from 1864 to 1882, probably to distinguish it from the works of the artists of Bombay region. When the nationalist style created by Abanindranath and his disciples came into being it was termed ‘neo-Bengal school’ to differentiate from previous ‘Bengal school’. There is another genre of Bengal paintings of nineteenth and early twentieth century done by unknown artists on mythical themes in naturalist form, who learnt the technique through their association with the British artists. This genre has later been called ‘early Bengal school’. So there are three separate schools: ‘Bengal school’, ‘early Bengal school’ and ‘neo-Bengal school’. We are concerned here about the art of ‘neo-Bengal school’ created by Abanindranath and his disciples in search of indigenous identity. To enter deeper into the nationalist art movement let us trace the historical perspective.
Between 1765 and 1857 British rule spread through out major part of India. The regional dynastic ruling power disintegrated. The artists working in the atelier under mughal and other regional rulers lost their job. Since 1780 various European artists and print makers stared arriving in India in search of job. They settled and worked centering the big cities like Calcutta and others. The form of European naturalism spread here through their practice. The unemployed regional artists who lost their job started coming to the city in search of fortune. They came in contact with European artists and were influenced by their artistic form, which at that time had great appeal to local artists and connoisseurs.
From this contact of the native artists with European artists, two major art form or school came into being. One is Company School, the other is urban-folk style of oil paintings depicting various mythical and religious subjects by unknown artists, as mentioned earlier.
Apart from Company School and Early Bengal School of paintings another famous genre of painting appeared since the second quarter of nineteenth century. It is the Kalighat paintings, created by the village artists who settled in Calcutta around the newly built temple of Kalighat. It was a brilliant folk-urban style of painting that generated out of traditional wisdom. These three schools are marked as pre-modern trend of Bengal painting. After these modernity appeared through academic naturalistic style of painting and sculpture generated by art school trained artists like Annada Prasad Bagchi (1849-1905), Bamapada Banerjee (1851-1932), Shashi Kumar Hesh 1869-?) and others. Ravi Varma (1848-1906) is a most celebrated name of this trend, though he was not an art school trained artist. Neo-Bengal School with a nationalist outlook may be considered as the second movement of modernity.
The development of neo-Bengal School since its beginning in 1897 and having an organizational set up with the formation of ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ in 1907 was not an isolated event. It had a wide background, both national and international. We may cite a few events to have an idea of this development of nationalist environment. In 1861, the year of birth of Rabindranath Tagore, the famous epic narrative poetry based on Ramayan named ‘Meghnadbadh Kabya’ by Michael Madhusudan Dutta was published. A few years before it in 1854 the organization called ‘Indian Art Society’ was formed with which the personalities like Rajendralal Mitra and Jatindramohan Thakur and others were associated. ‘Durgeshnandini’, the first novel by Bankimchandra Chatterjee was published in 1865. The first exhibition of Ravi Varma was held at Madras in 1873 that displayed nationalistic mythical subjects in naturalist form. John Griffith wrote his essay on techniques of Ajanta paintings in ‘Indian Antiquary’ in 1874. Rajendralal Mitra published his celebrated work ‘Antiquities of Orissa’ in 1875. Shyamacharan Srimani, a Calcutta Art School trained artist, wrote his dissertation on emergence of fine arts in India and aesthetic sensibilities of the Aryans in Bengali under the title ‘Sukshma Shilper Utpatti and Arya Jatir Shilpachaturi’ that was published in 1874. ‘Hindu Mela’, a nationalist ensemble started at the beginning of 1875. Two Bengali Journals with nationalist ideology, ‘Bharati’ and ‘Bangadarshan’ were born in 1877.
These incidents indicate how in Bengal nationalist feelings in various forms were being developed gradually that induced Abanindranath to develop a nationalist form of art. During the later period this national and oriental feelings gradually extended. In 1897 Griffiths published his book containing copies of Ajanta paintings made by him. Okakura, the celebrated Japanese scholar and aesthetician came to Calcutta for the first time in 1902. The Japanese artists, Yakohama Taikan and Hishida, also came during the same time. A relation with Japan in the field of art and culture was thus established. The famous book by Okakura ‘Ideal of the East’ was published in 1903. Sister Nivadita wrote its introduction. Through this book the idea of oriental philosophy of art took a concrete shape. In 1905 a serious rebellious movement emerged in protest against partition of Bengal designed by the British Government. As a consequence of it nationalist feelings could find deeper aesthetic root in literature, music and fine art also. Some time earlier in 1903-04 Abanindranath painted the image of ‘Bharatmata’ as an emblem and symbol of national ideology. Ananda Kumarswami came to Calcutta at the end of 1906. He delivered a few lectures on Indian Art in 1908 at the National College at Boubazar of Calcutta. His book ‘Essays in National Idealism’ was published in 1909, and ‘Art and Swadeshi’ in 1912. The theoretical base of Indian and Eastern ideology was established through these books. Okakura arrived at Calcutta for the second time in 1912. His relation with Abanindranath and Tagore family could be more intimate through this visit. ‘Prabasi’, the Bangali monthly journal edited by Ramananda Chatterjee was first published in 1901 and the English journal ‘Modern Review’ also edited by him first appeared in 1907. These two journals had considerable impact on development of the art of neo-Bengal school. The personalities through whose thoughts the idea and philosophy of national art gradually developed were Kakujo Okakura Tenshin (1863-1913), Ananda Kentish Kumarswamy (1877-1947, Ernst Binfield Havel (1861-1934), Arabinda Ghosh (1872-1950) and Sister Nievdita (1867-1911).
This aesthetic development in India had some greater link with the development of the philosophy of romanticism in Europe developed as a reaction and protest against the mechanization of life and utilitarian philosophy generated as a consequence of industrial revolution. Ananda Kumarswamy was very much influenced by the philosophy of William Morris (1834-1896) and the medieval philosophers St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and Meister Ekhardt (1260?-1328).
The art of neo-Bengal school, developed out of such wide spread of anti-colonial, anti utilitarian and nationalist philosophy, had its first phase of development through the works of Abanindranath, Nandalal and other artists mentioned above, who were disciples of Abanindranath. The basic formal structure in the first phase was based on regeneration Mughal and other medieval miniature as in the works of Abnindranath and classical forms as developed by Nandalal and other artists. Japanese technique also had considerable impact. Abanidranath’s paintings between 1897 and 1900 like ‘Birth of Buddha’, ‘Buddha and Sujata’, ‘Building up of Taj’ ‘Death of Sahjahan’ etc. had considerable impact of medieval miniatures. Between 1906 and 1911 he painted the series on ‘Omar Khaiaam’ through the influence of Mughal drawings and wash technique. Here he could establish his original style. From this point his artistic philosophy gradually developed and could find its zenith in the ‘Arabian Night’ series of 1930, where he could amalgamate myth with local reality.
Nandalal Basu completed his art school in 1910. In the early phase he came out of the influence of Abnindranath through assimilation of forms and technique of Ajanta. His visit to Ajanta to copy the murals under Lady Harringham while he was still a student in Art School had considerable impact in his later development. This classical rhythm found expression in his works like ‘Nouka Bihar’ of 1909, ‘Jatugrihadaha’ of 1910, ‘Parthasarathi’ of 1912 etc.
The early phase of this school, at least till 1915, was mostly religious and mythical in subject and considerably revivalist. To some of the critics it lacked considerable backbone and formal structure. Many voices of criticism were raised due to these limitations. Sukumar Roy (1887-1923) and Binoy Sarkar (1987-1949) were two of such personalities who pointed out the limitations. Neo-Bengal School’s total rejection of naturalistic form brought enough dissent even among the students of art school. In 1897 when Havel proposed art education through national form, some artists under the leadership of Ranadaprasad Gupta (?-1927) came out of the art school and established Jubilee Academy at Boubazar, where they continued art practice in academic naturalism. Many famous artists like Fanindranath Basu, Basanta Ganguly, Prslhad Chandra Karmakar, Hemendranath Mazumdar (1894-1948), Atul Basu (1898-1977) and others came out of this school. The conflict between these two norms of art practice continued since the beginning of neo-Bengal school. Later these two forms often came closer to each other. Neo-Bengal School’s airiness in form and content invited lots of criticism.
At a certain point Rabindranath also noticed this lacuna. He patronized and supported the activities of the movement during its early phase. But after 1915 he also pointed out its limitations concerning revivalism, regional bindings and lack of interest to be connected to the broader perspective of the outside world. To distract it out of such limitations he formed Vichitra Studio at Jorasanko in 1915 to invest it with fresh air from the out side world. But the project did not succeed. Vichitra was closed after one and half years in 1917. In 1919 he started Kala-Bhavan at Santinikatan In 1921 the school at Santiniketan was upgraded to Visva-Bharati.. Kala-Bhavan became integral part of it. Rabindranath invited Nandalal to take the responsibility of Kala-Bhavan. Kala-Bhavan flourished under Nandalal’s leadership from 1921 to 1940-s. A global spirit was ingrained within national traditional traits. There was a regeneration of the neo-Bengal school in its third phase developed at Santiniketan.
The students of Nandalal at Kala-Bhavan through whose works this third or Santiniketan phase of neo-Bengal school developed further were Hirachand Dugar (1998-1951), Ardhendu Bandyopadhyay (!902-1964), Krishnapada R. Warior, Dhiren Krishna Debbarma (1903- ), Ramendranath Chakraborty (1902-1955), Manindrabhuahan Gupta (1898-1968), Binodbehari Mukherjee (1904-1980), Sudhir Khastagir ((1907-1974), Haripada Roy (1895-1971), Satyendranath Bandyopadhyay (1896-1977), Kanu Desai 1907-1980) of Gujrat and others. The works of some of the artists like Hirachand Dugar, Dhiren Krishna Debbarma, Satyendranath Bandyopadhyay developed in the line of mythical classical trend. Some of the artists like Ramendranath Chakraborty, Manindrabhuahan Gupta, Sudhir Khastagir tried to assimilate indigenous form with traces of western modern attitudes. The art of Nandalal Basu at Santiniketan phase developed widely to accommodate the intrinsic rhythm of flowing life and reality. Actually the concept of ‘nation’ was widely expanded through inclusion of oriental, far-eastern and universal philosophical and aesthetic values. The attitudes and ideas of Rabindranath played a vital role in this development.
The art of Binodbehari Mukherjee is the most shining example of such emancipation. The other artist Ramkinkar (1906-1980), who was almost contemporary to Binodbehari, also liberated the usual forms of neo-Bengal school and came out of the influence of Nandalal through assimilation of Western modernistic modes with indigenous primitivist sensibilities. Through him the local was raise towards the global.
The other artists raised from Santiniketan under the influence of Nandalal were Gouri Basu (Bhanj) (b.1907), Sukumari Devi, Prabhat Mohan Bandyopadhyay (b.1904), Bishwarup Basu (b.1910), Satyen Bishi, Indu Sudha Ghosh, Rani Chanda, Vinayak Masoji of Nagpur, V.R.Chitra from Andhra Pradesh, P.Hariharan from Mysore, Sukumar Deuskar (1912-1942) from Hyderabad, Kanai Samanta, Nihar Ranjan Chowdhury (1908-191977) et.al.
The influence of Neo-Bengal school extended through out India and abroad firstly through the exhibitions organized by Indian Society of Oriental Art, secondly through the second generation of artists, students of Abnindranath and Nandalal, who were attached as faculty in various art institutions outside Bengal. The exhibitions of Indian Society of Oriental Art were held at Calcutta from 1908 to 1910, at Allahabad in 1911, Paris, London and Java in 1914, again at Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore in 1917 and 1919. These are only a few of the outside expositions. Anni Besant and James kazins were two intimate well wishers of this school. Responding to their invitation in 1916 Society exhibited at Madras. James kazins wrote in an article published in the journal ‘Rupam’ in its July 1922 issue, “The direction in which these pictures will influence the art of the world will be upwards, by which I meant that it will have the tendency to direct Western art towards the finer impulses and the suggestions of the spirit”. This appreciation was not raised out of void. It has some realistic base. At that time neo-Bengal school could earn such a reverence outside Bengal. The search for indigenous identity had an important relevance.
Among the students of Abanindranath Asit Kumar Haldar taught in Lucknow Art School as Principal, Samarendranath Gupta joined Lahore Art School as Principal in 1914. Apart from them K.Venkatappa, Ravishankar Raval, Manishi Dey, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Sarada Ukil taught in various art institutions outside Bengal. Through them the form and spirit of neo-Bengal school spread through out India.
In general term the neo-Bengal school means the form and spirit of the art developed by the Indian artists through the search for an indigenous identity between the periods 1897 to 1940. It was not limited within the classical forms of Ajanta and medieval miniatures only. It assimilated the forms of far-Eastern art also. Gradually it proceeded to assimilate the spirit of folk and rural India. The approach towards the folk started during the period nearing 1920, when Mahatma Gandhi extended his national movement towards village India. Abanindranath made his research on the feminine rituals of village Bengal and published a small book on ‘Banglar Brata’ in 1919, which was an important step in assimilating the rural spirit. Sunayani Devi, the sister of Abanindranath and Gaganendranath was working in the interior of Tagore family at Jorasanko with the traditional ritualistic forms, which influenced Jamini Roy to enter deeper into the artistic forms of village Bengal. Ultimately during 1930-s he developed his own form assimilating the folk tradition of Bengal. This was a kind of resurrection of neo-Bengal school. During 1938 Abanindranath painted the series of ‘Krishnamangal’ and ‘Kabi Kankan Chandi’ through assimilation of folk forms. Nandalal made the Haripura posters in 1937, where he extensively used the folk forms and life of rural Bengal. Neo-Bengal school revived through new life.
Neo-Bengal school was not only a form; it was a total world out look. It tried to create a national identity within modernity as a protest against British colonial domination in our culture. The importance of this form consciousness can be realized through a statement by Georg Lukacs that he made in his book ‘Soul and Form’ in 1910. He stated like this: ‘This form, which springs from a symbolic contemplation of life symbols, acquire a life of its own through the power of that experience. It becomes a world view, a stand point, an attitude vis-à-vis the life from which it sprang: a possibility of reshaping it, of creating it anew.’ This form consciousness is the achievement of neo-Bengal school.
Its relevance has not been lost even after later movements have surpassed it. To the artists of succeeding generations it has opened up several indigenous fields of view. As noted by Ratan Parimoo in his article ‘Revivalism, Indigenous Factors or Modern Indian Art Reconsidered in the Context of Post Modernism’ published in Lalit Kala Contemporary 38, March 1993, the points of influences are: (i) miniature painting, (ii) folk art, (iii) motifs of South Indian art, (iv) formal decorative elements, (v) Indian life and environment and (vi) Indian esoteric thought. Indian art of post 1940-s has moved to assimilate these fields due to the research made by neo-Bengal artists.
When the artists of 1940-s, 50-s and 60-s along with their attachment to the global field of modernity tried to create an indigenous identity, they had to assimilate these indigenous sources. The art of Gopal Ghosh, Rathin Maitra, Pran Krishna Pal, Sunil Madhab Sen, Chittaprasad, M.F.Husain, K.K.Hebbar, K.C.S.Panikkar, Ganesh Pyne, Ganesh Haloi, Sanat Kar, Dharmanarayan Dasgupta, even Jogen Chowdhury is relevant in this respect. They have some how or other respected the ideals of neo-Bengal school. Apart from this there are artists in the contemporary field who worked and still works directly in neo-Bengal style and extend the form in various directions. Some of these artists are Indra Dugar (b.1918-), Maniklal Banerjee (1916- 2002), Dhiren Bramha (1924), Amal Chakladar, Ajay Kumar Ghosh (1938), Shanti Ranjan Mukherjee(1930), Amit Sarkar(1938), Ratan Acharya (1957) and others. So neo-Bengal school is very much living till now, both directly and indirectly.