It is co-incidental that yesterday we had discussed the contributions of Abanindranath Tagore in Art1st’s “The Visionaries” section and today we are going to talk about Professor R. Siva Kumar who has done extensive art historical research on Bengal School and the other artists involved with Santiniketan. This co-incidence is helpful because it will help us to see things in context. It will help us to understand why the attempts by artists in Santiniketan and Bengal School were not only based on a revival of the traditional Indian arts, but it was also developing a new modern language which was rooted in its Indian context. We are going to look at a seminal exhibition in Indian art history which contextualized the roles of these artists in creating a new modernism which was not ‘blindly imitative’ of the European norms. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” series we introduce you to the exhibition curated by R. Siva Kumar titled Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism.
The Curator #8
Curator: R. Siva Kumar
Exhibition: Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, NGMA
Siva Kumar is an art historian, art critic, and curator. He has been mainly lecturing in Santiniketan for many years but has been invited to many universities in India and abroad as visiting faculty. His main research has been on Indian modernism with special focus on the Santiniketan.
Through this exhibition Kumar introduced an important term “Contextual Modernism” to understand the unique development of modern art in India. The exhibition, through bringing about a hundred works each of four modern Indian artists, namely Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Ram Kinker Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee on the centre stage, put the Santiniketan art movement into focus.
According to Kumar, the “Santiniketan artists did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position.” The year 1997 was very important because the group of artists based in Baroda called the Baroda Group a coalition whose original members included Vivan Sundaram, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, and Nalini Malani came up with an anthology of essays to situate the role of Baroda School in the context of the 1981 exhibition “Place for People.” At the same time Kumar too opened up the possibility to reengage with the role of Santiniketan School in Indian modernism. He argued that “The Santiniketan artists were one of the first who consciously challenged this idea of modernism by opting out of both internationalist modernism and historicist indigenousness and tried to create a context sensitive modernism.”
This detailed extract from an interview with Kumar helps us to understand his arguments in favour of the proposition of contextual modernism. R. Siva Kumar answers the question by Pavez Kabir.
PK: The exhibition title, ‘Making of a Contextual Modernism’ itself is quite fascinating. My question may appear quite naïve, but are you saying that all modernist programs are not contextual enough and that some are more context sensitive than others?
RSK: “To the academic artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries modernism was more a matter of technology, the use of oil paints and the conventions of post Renaissance representational realism. Even when the subjects they painted were Indian, the categories or genres these fell into – history, portraits, and occasionally landscape – were part of the value system they adopted along with the technique. To them the nature of modernism then was both technological and trans-local. The artists of the Bengal school in reaction to this tried to marry indigenous subject matter with indigenous style. We might have disagreements about how indigenous or revivalist this was but this surely made them even more historicist in orientation. Their modernism was then a form of indigenous neo-classicism, a new art that invoked the art of their ancestors.
The progressive artists of the 40s saw this as essentially anti-modernist. Traces of local life can be seen in their work especially their early work, but what made them modern was their engagement with the formal principles of Western modernism. In their hands, modernism once again was trans-national.
It is in contrast to these that I would argue that art produced at Santiniketan was more context sensitive. They did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position. Even though cross-cultural contacts were crucial to the development of modernism and cross-cultural contacts having paved the way to the dismantling of art traditions at large made modernism, unlike any other period in art history, international in its scope, to them art produced in one place did not have to look like art produced elsewhere.
If colonialism brought the West into contact with the rest of the world, the coloniser and the colonised experienced it from two sides and responded to it differently. I do not mean just politically. On either side, it produced a cultural cleavage, led them to question their respective traditions, and made them open up to other cultures, other possibilities. However, it did not wipe out their history, their cultures, the differences of life-experience, and it was not necessary that it should also make their art similar. To them modernism sprang from the new situation one found oneself in – politically, culturally, and environmentally – and how one responded it. Modernism was for them not homogenous but generic.”
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.
In the last issue on pedagogues we discussed the contributions of E. B. Havell. If Havell provided the theoretical impetus for the revivalism of Indian art in the wake of a European cultural hegemony, Abanindranath Tagore provided its artistic foundations. We also understood the context in which Havell and Abanindranath were devising such responses. It also led to the emergence of what we now know as “Bengal School” and the “Revivalism”. The revivalism was not simply a revival of traditional Indian art practices. As many have noted Abanindranath brilliantly re-interpreted and mutated these practices and developed a new visual language as an antinomy to European Academic Realism. More than a visual style it was an ideologically charged movement inspired by Swadesi which also clearly identified its artistic medium. It referred to past traditions as an influence. Its impact was so huge that artists across Bengal and other provinces started following the style.
In her monograph ‘Abanindranath Tagore and the Art of His Times’ (1968), Jaya Appaswamy notes that: “The Bengal School, while it originated in Bengal with the work of Abanindranath Tagore, nevertheless soon became national… in the second generation the activity of his followers spread over the country and their students (the third generation) were from many parts of India. Local artists who had no connection with the master or his disciples also adopted the style, which finally lost itself in remote, attenuated and weak variations.’ Abanindranath’s intervention enabled Indians in developing better understanding of their history and traditional art forms. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Visionaries” we will take a look at the contributions of Abanindranath Tagore.
Abanindranath was born on 7th August, 1871 in the Tagore family residence at Jorsanko. He was educated at Sanskrit College, Calcutta and took his painting lessons from British and Italian instructors on a private basis. At a young age, he came under the influence of Signor O. Gilhardi, Principal of the Calcutta school of Art and another acclaimed artist, Charles Palmer. His visit to Monghyr is believed to have had a significant impact in his career. He returned as a changed man who abandoned oil painting and decided to work on watercolours. Very soon he chanced upon an old illuminated Indo-Persian manuscript which impacted him so much that he decided to adapt the visual style for a new set of paintings based on the life of Krishna. This was titled as “Krishna Lila”. This was his first artistic step towards embracing the visual tradition of India by rejecting the European conventions. This was accentuated by his collaboration with Havell ten years later. He worked closely with Havell at the Calcutta School of art. Their attempts to revive Indian art and use this revival to infuse in a new art practice and teaching was also supported by Gaganendranath Tagore. This culminated in the establishment of Indian Society of Oriental Art. This was a path breaking step towards not only establishing an institution but also a new way of teaching and learning art.
Abanindranath moved away from the Western materiality and sought a spiritual abode in Indian art and philosophy. Rabindranath Tagore also played an important role in introducing him to important Asian cultural figures such as the Japanese art historian Okakura Kakuzō and the Japanese painter Yokoyama Taikan. This inspired him to adapt elements of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and style in his art. He was leading an Indian renaissance. His friendships with European thinkers and scholars such as Sir William Rothenstein, H. Ponten-Moller, Norman Blunt, Sir John G. Woodroffe gave a currency to his ideas in the European art circles.
The University of Calcutta honored his efforts by appointing him a few years ago as the Bageswari Professor of Oriental Art. The series of lectures he then delivered are considered as authoritative and inspiring utterances on art. It is great to know that these lectures have recently been published in a book form to the delight of all lovers of art. His ideas and style were circulated through his equally talented students such as Nandalal Bose, Samarendranath Gupta, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Surendranath Ganguly, Asit Kumar Haldar, Sarada Ukil, Kalipada Ghoshal, Manishi Dey, Mukul Dey, K. Venkatappa and Ranada Ukil.
Abanindranath knew the impact of art education in young minds and he constantly engaged with young minds. Unlike many modern artists he illustrated for and wrote children’s’ books. He also wrote poems and articles. He was popularly known as ‘Aban Thakur’. His important books are Rajkahini, Budo Angla, Nalak, and Khirer Putul are landmarks in Bengali language children’s literature.
His interventions in restoring the pride of Indian art and architecture was not limited in creating a new movement. He also made radical decisions during his tenure in Government College of Art, Calcutta between 1505 and 1515. He replaced the European paintings on the school walls with Mogul and Rajput paintings. He made arts like stencil cutting and origami compulsory for all students. The school also invited miniature painters to teach the students through a modern outlook.
Here is the link to Abanindranath’s autobiographical book “Apon Katha” https://archive.org/details/Apon-Katha-Abanindranath-Tagore
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st
We all know that national galleries across the world represents the nationalist spirit of the country. It assembles works created from different regions and puts it together to imagine a shared past between these regions and art practices. This purpose of national galleries and museums becomes more instrumental in the context of newly liberated colonial countries. These institutions help newly formed nations to position themselves along with the already existing nation-states. While the history of the nation acts as a legitimate claim towards the past, these modern institutions herald the arrival of a new age, as a continuous process in the progress of the nation.
NGMA is the best repository of modern Indian art in this country. It has acquired works of Indian artists from the 19th century onwards, a bureaucratic exercise which continues towards the 20th century, representing important Indian artists from different states. The size of this collection representing different artists, movements, styles, and mediums is vast. It is a curator’s Disneyland and hell at the same time. The task of presenting this giant collection in a legible way to the public is not an easy task. But there are certain brilliant curators who have not stepped away from this arduous mission. In today’s issue of Art1st’s “The Curator,” we introduce you to a seminal exhibition in Indian art history curated by renowned art historian and curator Geeta Kapur.
The Curator 7
Title: Hundred Years: From the NGMA Collection
Curator: Geeta Kapur
NGMA, Delhi. 1994.
It is definitely an unnecessary task to introduce Geeta Kapur to my readers. You must have come across her important book “When Was Modernism?” at some point of your life. Geeta’s pathbreaking works on Indian art has received national and international acclaim and attention. She still remains the critical voice on Indian art on various international platforms.
In the year 19994 she was invited to curate a show marking the hundred year journey of Indian art. In her own words, “The third project at the National Gallery of Modern Art came about in 1994 when I was invited as an honorary member of the NGMA advisory committee of to mount an exhibition from their holdings. I sifted through the Collection by physically looking at hundreds of works. My selection criteria was based on the idea of laying out an itinerary across 100 years — a walking/looking itinerary through modern Indian art. No works were borrowed from other collections, which means there was a constraint on choice; an expressly NGMA exhibition, it was what is called in standard museum language, a re-hang of the Collection.
The passage was mapped, predictably perhaps, from Ravi Varma until the most contemporary work available at the time. But the itinerary had its twists and turns; it was not laid out chronologically nor strictly by schools and styles. The spectator walked through a broadly delineated period and encountered unconventional and hitherto untested juxtapositions. To give one example, I placed Ravi Varma and Amrita Sher-Gil face to face in one room to suggest the ‘studio’ academicism in each, and then in another room, I installed Sher-Gil paintings beside Jamini Roy’s for an opposite ‘thesis’ — because they were contemporaries experimenting with a diverse range of Indian art-historical antecedents and arriving at certain abbreviations that placed them in a keen, tangential relationship to modernist language. I was, in other words, testing and revising our familiar art history — on the walls, in the act of traversal, through the act of looking. There is the art history of the text book, based on carefully sourced influences and the evidence of styles; there is another that reads signs and meanings in conjunctural ways. The latter is experienced phenomenologically, on museum walls and related spaces.”
In the curator’s working notes for the exhibition written in July 1994, Geeta Kapur writes:
‘Nothing serves the cause of investigation better than a point of view for seeing, refocusing, finding alternate perspectives. That is why even if it were possible, it would not be useful to present a conclusive exhibition. A great part of the history of modern art in India not having been written — yet— what we can do best of all is to re-place and sometimes also dis-place the images and their attendant signs and meanings. Thus one begins to make out from the unmade meanings a historical argument. Which is the form of history I, at any rate, would privilege.’
Participating artists included Raja Ravi Varma, Pestonji Bowmanji, Pithawala, Hemen Mazumdar, Xavier Trinidad, Sarada Ukil, Amrita Sher-Gil, Abanindranath Tagore, Masoji Vinayak, K.N. Mazumdar, Sunyani Devi, Karitick Pyne, Dhanraj Bhagat, Ramkinkar Baij, Bhabhesh Sanyal, Sailoz Mukherjee, K.H. Ara, Nandalal Bose, K.K. Hebbar, S.B. Palsikar, Mohan Samant, Laxman Pai, Gaganendranath Tagore, Leela Mukherjee, Jamini Roy, Binode Behari Mukherjee, Akbar Padamsee, F.N. Souza, Harkrishan Lall, Paramjit Singh, Prem Singh, Vajubhai Bhagat, P.T. Reddy, Bhupen Khakhar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Laxma Goud, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Ravinder REddy, Prithipal Singh Ladi, Jayashree Chakravarty, Jagdish Chandra, K.C.S. Paniker, A. Ramachandran, Vivan Sundaram, N.N. Rimzon, Dilip Sur, S. Savarkar, Jaya Ganguly, V. Ramesh, Rabindranath Tagore, Zainul Abedin, Satish Gujram, K.G. Subramanyan, Meera Mukherjee, P.V. Janakiraman, Sarbari Roy Chowdhary, Himmat Shah, Latika Katt, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Raghav Kaneria, Himmat Shah, M.F. Husain, K.S. Kulkarni, Paritosh Sen, Pradosh Das Gupta, Bijon Choudhury, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Anupam Sud, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Shamshad Husain, Vajubhai Bhagat, N.S. Bendre, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chowdhury, Manjit Bawa, Amitava Das, Nagji Patel, Arpana Cour, Gogi Saroj Pal, Ravinder Reddy, Vid Nayar, Zai Zharotia, Kanchan Chandra, Sanjiv Sinha, Madhvi Parekh, Prabhakar Barwe, K. Muralidharan, Manu Parekh, Satish Gujral, Jatin Das, Nareen Nath, P. Gopinath, S.R. Bhushan, Jehangir Sabavala, Vijay Mohan, Arpita Singh, Krishna Reddy, J. Swaminathan, S.G. Vasudev, K. Achuthan, P.T. Reddy, Haridasan, Om Prakash Sharma, G.R. Santosh, Jeram Patel, Rameshwar Broota, Biren De, S.H. Raza, Shobha Broota, Ambadas, K.C.S. Paniker, Vishvanadhan, Nasreen Mohamedi, Rm. Palaniappan, Bal Chhabda, Krishen Khanna, Rekha Rodwittiya, C.S. Douglas, Robin Mandal, Alex Mathew, N. Pushpamala, Tyeb Mehta, Jeram Patel, R.K. Dhawan, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Sankho Chowdhary, Prabhakar Kolte, Ramesh Pateria, and Akhilesh.
Nevertheless, Geeta’s redefining of the collection was not easily digested. Her ideas were way ahead for the time. Her curatorial strategies. non-chronological way of assembling works, especially juxtaposing them to create other interesting parallels was heavily criticised.
Despite these the exhibition remains as one of the important early attempts to re-define an existing institutional collection.
More images of the exhibition view are accessible at the Asia Art Archives website. http://www.aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/archive/another-life-the-digitised-personal-archive-of-geeta-kapur-and-vivan-sundaram-hundred-years-from-the-ngma-collection/object/hundred-years-from-the-ngma-collection-exhibition-view-18823
Please take a look at them and see if you are able to identify the artists. Have a good weekend.
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st
The Peacock who wanted to Fly like an Eagle written and illustrated by Mama Suranya is a marvelous story of a little Peacock called Piku who wishes to fly like his friend the “Little Eagle”. Unaware of his own talent and worth Piku feels neglected and depressed as he watches the little eagle soar higher and higher every day until he becomes a dot in the sky.
But one fine Rainy day as the clouds roared “ Dharram Dharram Dharam!” Piku’s life takes a 360-degree turn when Mama Peacock and Papa Peacock give him the surprise of his life!……. and he realizes his real worth………
Inspired by Indian paintings the illustrations take you on a splendid tour of the life in “Madhuvan Gardens”. Whereas similes such as “ Muchhas of Ravana” add to the beauty of the narration.
Drenched in the petrichor of India this book is a must have for every child.
How do we tackle our times through art and curation? I would like to talk about a show which I had curated in January 2017 as part of the Curator’s Ensemble of Krishnakriti Festival. Four curators (Dhritabrata Bhattacharjya Tato, Georgina Maddox, Faizal Khan and Premjish Achari) were invited to address the relation of technology and art in our lives. We called the exhibition H20~ArT using a mathematical equation related to null hypothesis. The curators divided the exhibition into four vectors Experiential, Existential, Exploratory and Evolutionary. Through these vectors we explored the different facets of technology using art. This issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” talks about the Experiential vector and its curatorial concerns.
The Curator #5
Curator : Premjish Achari
Exhibition: H20~ArT, Experiential: Things are Vanishing Before Us
We are living in a curious time where for the first time in history we inhabit both the digital and physical spaces together. This unprecedented convergence of the digital and the physical has made our lives disorienting. Our constant addiction to screens (ATMs, computer, mobile phones, television, etc.) has flattened our perception of space; it has irrevocably altered our visual experience. In our society, screens have become magical tools used by ‘augurers and haruspices’ or those who read omens in the stars, flights of birds and the entrails of animals, uncovering guilt and foreseeing the future. Through screens, we navigate the netherworld of imaginations. They have become our magic mirrors; it appears that we have formed a Faustian pact with the digital world. Instead of our souls, we have surrendered our unrequited attention and devotion to the virtual.
Our fixation to screens has split our consciousness between the physical and the virtual realm. Software and digitised data are replacing the traditional physical dimensions of objects. We increasingly prefer Bitcoins and digitised banking rather than paper currency, digital images to printed photographs, e-books to paper books; we even seem to spend more money on our online personas. As minimal lifestyles and spaces become fashionable, it appears that our consumption and conversely our clutter have shifted online. Digitisation of objects, information, and emotions has irrevocably altered existing ways of knowing, doing and being.
Will digital versions of objects such as artworks, photos, clothes, etc., render them obsolete? Will objects eventually shed corporeal form and become flat and virtual in the digital world? Will we define ourselves increasingly through what we consume and create in the digital space? Will our digital avatars overtake our physical selves? To address these questions, first, we have to examine the significance of objects in our lives and the role they play in shaping our identity. I am particularly interested in this because humans have defined themselves through the objects they possess or yearn to accumulate. We are at a critical moment in our history; the physical and digital realms appear to be converging. It is imperative that instead of lamenting for the objects that are disappearing around us, we need to urgently take stock of their role in shaping our memories and identity. Therefore, the exhibition attempted to analyse and perhaps even salvage the role of objects in our life, by paying particular attention to their ability to evoke the past through nostalgia and memory.
William James in his seminal work ‘The Principles of Psychology’, published in 1890, outlined how we constitute our identity through the objects we accumulate. According to James, “A man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses and yacht and bank account.” James’s text and the subsequent research undertaken by Russel Belk highlight that objects are not merely commodities; we also have to take into account their indexical qualities particularly their ability to evoke nostalgia. It is evident from their work that objects also serve as mementos that mediate our perception of the past. Objects remind us of who we are, we often use them to demonstrate our identity. There is little difference between us and what we define as ours. William James has observed on this conflation of person and possession as: “It is clear that between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw.”
These aspects continue to differentiate the physical from the virtual objects. Several contemporary scholars such as James Baudrillard have similarly observed that we accumulate objects equally as a necessity and as an emotional investment. According to Baudrillard, objects have a functional value as well as emotional value. He equates objects with mirrors because they send us back not real images, but desired ones. Hence, it is interesting to note that in this relationship between possession and our sense of who we are, the objects create an extended self for us, whose functions are related to having, doing, and being. In his novel ‘White Noise’, De Lillo dryly observes, “The dead have faces, automobiles. If you don’t know a name, you know a street name, a dog’s name. ‘He drove an orange Mazda.’ You know a couple of useless things about a person that become major facts of identification and cosmic placement when he dies suddenly, after a short illness, in his own bed, with a comforter and matching pillows, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, feverish, a little congested in the sinuses and chest, thinking about his dry cleaning.” Human lives tend to be identified by their possessions. Even Sartre in ‘Being and Nothingness’ notes that the sole reason to possess something is to enlarge our sense of self; the only way we can know who we are is by observing what we have.
Apart from these scholars, objects studies have also focused on old attics and wardrobes, particularly the way in which they function as spaces to store secret memories. It appears then that objects produce two types of knowledge – documentary knowledge and associative knowledge. Documentary knowledge is proof; it is a trace of a person or event at a particular time and specific place. Associative knowledge, on the other hand is experiential; the object evokes a memory of a time, place, person or even taste. This exhibition, therefore, highlighted these two important functions of objects.
According to Sartre we constitute the object as a part of ourselves in three ways. The first is by appropriating or controlling an object for our own personal use. He writes that we appropriate intangible objects and those we do not own by overcoming, conquering or mastering them. For example, climbing a mountain or living in a city demonstrates how we master these spaces. Similarly, by learning to ride a bicycle or car or using new computer, we make them a part of our lives. The second way is by creating an object. The object created could be material or an abstract thought and bears the marks of the creator. This identification is then legitimised through copyright, patent and authorship. The third way is by knowing the object in a biblical way where the object is a known place, person or thing. The relationship with them is inspired by the carnal or sexual desire to possess. It is through our intimate knowledge that we make it ours and a part of our self. Hence this exhibition delved onto these three aspects through how we come to regard an object as part of our self. It invites artists to respond to these three propositions.
The proliferation of software and digitised data are replacing the traditional physical dimensions of objects. With more time spend actively gazing at electronic screens, from smartphones to computers and televisions, a chronically split consciousness, the human attention is increasingly divided between the physical and virtual spaces that they simultaneously inhabit. Therefore in this passage of rites towards the virtual objects when things are vanishing before us I invited artists to contemplate on the function of objects, do they see this as a revolutionary paradigm shift, or do they prefer the old ways of possessing physical objects and its production more relevant in the preservation of memory and evocation of nostalgia. It is hoped that this will help us understand the role of personal collection and in shaping our identity and why we continue to seek and comprehend the past through objects?
Aman Khanna | Arti Vijay Kadam | Atul Bhalla | Chandan Gomes | Chinmoyi Patel | Dayanita Singh | Mansoor Ali| Muktinath Mondal| Nikita Maheshwary| Prajeesh A.D.| Riya Chatterjee| Roshan Chhabria| Sharmila Samant| Sumedh Rajendran| Umesh P K| Varunika Saraf| Waswo X Waswo
Please read, share, discuss. We would love to hear from you.
The details about this exhibition can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KmN9G5km1g
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st
Mr. Lincoln’s Way by Patricia Polacco is a sensitive book that talks about the importance of the role a teacher plays in a child’s life. How being a good teacher does not only entail having the knowledge of once subject but the ability to guide and unfold the abilities of a child rather than trying to mould her/him.
This is an excellent book about an elementary school principal who takes the time to help a troubled child. It addresses racism, bullying and teasing, and it’s also great for bird lovers.Though the story touches upon the issues of bullying and the harm that it does, but it highlights another very important factor, the conditions that cause a child to become a bully in the first place. Mr. Lincoln’s Way draws the connection between what a child learns at home and what he does at school. The story encourages us to ask whether it is really the child’s fault that he is a bully.
Polacco’s illustrations add to the story as she has meticulously detailed her story with people of all ethnicities, which makes the story relatable to all. She has marvelously captured different emotions, moods and gestures through her watercolour and pencil illustrations.
Read the book to find out how Mr. Lincoln helps “Mean Gene” become his true self “Eugene Esterhause”.