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The Art Hubs of India: Part IV – Kolkata

Kolkata, the “City of Joy,” boasts a rich artistic heritage that stretches back centuries. This article delves into three key aspects of this dynamic scene: the deep roots of traditional art, the birth and lasting impact of the Bengal School of Art, and the transformation of Kolkata’s art into the contemporary scene it is today – a scene fueled by rebellion and a deep connection to its past.

The Traditional Folk Art of Bengal

Long before the bustling metropolis of Kolkata emerged, the artistic soul of the region bloomed in the villages surrounding the Hooghly River. Bengali folk art, rich in diverse artistic forms, wasn’t merely decoration; it was a language for storytelling, religious devotion, and capturing the essence of everyday life. 

A Bengal pattachitra painting depicting goddess Durga. Image source: Wikipedia

One prominent example is pattachitra, a captivating art form where cloth becomes the canvas for storytelling. Bold outlines and vibrant pigments like ochre, lampblack, and vermillion bring to life gods and goddesses like Durga, the slayer of demons, or Krishna, the playful cowherd. These paintings, traditionally created on cloth scrolls, narrated mythological stories, scenes from epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and depictions of local deities. This rich visual language connected villagers to their cultural heritage and religious beliefs. 

A set of dokra sculptures. Image source: Sowpeace

Beyond pattachitra, Bengali folk art boasts a spectrum of forms. Dokra, an ancient metal casting technique used by indigenous tribes in West Bengal, creates intricate figurines and objects. Putul is the art of making puppets from wood or cloth which are used in religious performances. Alpona, an auspicious practice, adorns floors with intricate rice flour patterns during festivals. Kantha embroidery transforms old saris and other cloths into beautiful textiles depicting stories and motifs. These are just a few examples of the rich artistic legacy that continues to influence Kolkata’s art scene, even as the city itself transforms.

The Birth of the Bengal School of Art

The arrival of the British in the 18th century marked a turning point for Calcutta. As the capital of British India, the city attracted European artists, architects, and their artistic styles. Grand colonial buildings like the Victoria Memorial, with its imposing white marble facade and neo-Renaissance architecture, stood in stark contrast to the existing Bengali art forms. This cultural clash, however, proved to be a catalyst for a period of intellectual and artistic awakening known as the Bengal Renaissance.

The entrance to the Government College of Art & Craft, Kolkata. Image source: MAP Academy

Established in 1854, the Calcutta School of Art (later renamed the Government College of Art & Craft) initially followed European academic styles, focusing on realism and historical narratives. But British art educators like E.B. Havell played a role in shaping the curriculum, advocating for the inclusion of Indian art forms and aesthetics. Amidst this, a new generation of artists soon emerged. These artists were deeply inspired by the artistic heritage of Bengal and fueled by a growing sense of national identity. They felt the European styles didn’t accurately represent the essence of Indian art and culture.

Reviving the Past and Creating a National Aesthetic

While other schools of art at the time such as the Baroda School of Art developed a modernist approach, the artists of Kolkata looked inwards towards their indigenous traditions. Abanindranath Tagore, a nephew of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, emerged as a pivotal figure during the Bengal Renaissance, redefining the Bengal School’s direction and solidifying its style. 

Inspired by a growing sense of nationalism and a deep appreciation for their artistic heritage, Tagore led a movement towards a more “national” style of art. One of his most famous works, “Bharat Mata” (Mother India) became a powerful nationalist symbol, personifying India as a benevolent goddess. Tagore’s influence extended beyond his own work; he nurtured a generation of talented artists like Nandalal Bose and Gaganendranath Tagore, who further developed the Bengal School style.

The painting ‘Bharat Mata’ by Abanindranath Tagore, created in 1905. Image source: Wikipedia

Following their lead, artists of the Bengal School embarked on a conscious effort to revive and reinterpret the rich traditions of Indian art. But this revival wasn’t merely a nostalgic exercise. The Bengal School artists looked to the past as a source of inspiration to create a new visual language that expressed a burgeoning national identity. They drew heavily from the exquisite detail, vibrant colours, and expressive forms found in Mughal miniatures. These elements were incorporated into their own work, creating a connection to India’s artistic past. 

The movement actively revived and adapted traditional Indian techniques like tempera painting and the use of natural dyes. This not only enriched their visual vocabulary but also served as a form of cultural resistance against the dominance of Western artistic methods. Beyond the refined world of courtly art, the Bengal School found inspiration in the vibrancy and energy of folk art traditions. The bold outlines, flat colours, and often narrative themes of folk art infused their paintings with a distinct earthiness and connection to the everyday life of the people. 

This careful selection and reinterpretation of past artistic traditions wasn’t simply about aesthetics. By consciously moving away from European styles and embracing indigenous techniques and themes, the Bengal School artists asserted a distinct visual identity for a nation on the path to self-governance. Their works, often drawing heavily from Indian mythology, epics, and religious texts, held a spiritual essence, reflecting the deep-rooted cultural beliefs of India. The Bengal School of Art became a powerful symbol of India’s artistic independence, paving the way for a more distinct visual identity in the years to come.

Kolkata’s Lasting Impact on Indian Art

The Bengal School of Art wasn’t just an art movement; it was a cultural phenomenon. It provided a platform for Indian artists to explore and express their own cultural identity in a time of colonial rule. By reviving indigenous art forms and creating works that celebrated India’s rich heritage, the school laid the foundation for a distinct Indian artistic voice. The Bengal School’s impact was far-reaching, influencing art movements beyond Kolkata, such as the Bombay School of Art and the Madras School of Art. Its legacy can still be seen in the works of contemporary artists who continue to draw inspiration from traditional Indian techniques and themes.

From Tradition to Rebellion: The Hungry Generation of Kolkata

Following independence in 1947, Kolkata’s art scene took a sharp turn. The earlier focus on nationalist themes gradually gave way to explorations of individual expression and social commentary. 

The painting ‘Flood, Dear Flood’ by Bikash Bhattacharyae, created in 1982. Image source: The Heritage Lab

The Hungry Generation, although popularly known as a rebellious literary group, included artists like Somnath Hore, Ganesh Pyne, and Bikash Bhattacharya, who rejected the idealised aesthetics of the Bengal School. Their works were a stark contrast – bold, often disturbing, and infused with a sense of angst and disillusionment. They used distorted figures, harsh brush strokes, and dark palettes to portray the harsh realities of post-colonial India: poverty, alienation, and political turmoil. These works were not meant to be pleasing to the eye; they were a call to action, a stark reminder of the social and economic struggles faced by many Indians.

Their exhibitions, often held in makeshift galleries or cafes, challenged the elitism of the traditional art world and made art accessible to a wider audience. The Hungry Generation sparked controversy and debate, but they also paved the way for a more diverse and critical art scene in Kolkata.

The Rise of Street Art and Public Engagement

In the decades since, Kolkata’s art scene has continued to embrace new movements and technologies. The Government College of Art & Craft and the Academy of Fine Arts, established institutions with a rich legacy, have nurtured generations of artists. However, the city’s true artistic spirit thrives beyond the walls of these institutions. 

A political mural behind Calcutta University. Image source: Anirban Saha – Personal Blog

Murals with social and political messages splatter across crumbling buildings, transforming public spaces into open-air galleries. Contemporary art galleries like Experimenter and Emami Art House showcase innovative works by established and emerging artists, pushing the boundaries of traditional mediums. Street art collectives breathe life into public spaces, making art accessible to everyone. Even festivals like Durga Puja, the city’s crown jewel celebration, become grand artistic expressions. Elaborate pandals, temporary structures housing idols, are not just places of worship but architectural marvels, often incorporating social commentary into their design.

The Future of Art in Kolkata

Kolkata’s artistic spirit remains restless, constantly evolving and embracing new technologies. Digital art, performance art, and installations are gaining popularity, pushing the boundaries of what art can be. Young artists are experimenting with interactive installations and multimedia experiences, blurring the lines between traditional art forms and modern technology. This willingness to experiment ensures that Kolkata’s art scene remains exciting and unpredictable.

In conclusion

Unlike other art hubs in India, Kolkata’s scene isn’t about polished galleries and exorbitant price tags. It’s about raw energy, a willingness to experiment, and a deep connection to the city’s striking history. Here, tradition and rebellion go hand-in-hand, with folk art adorning ancient temples coexisting with street art collectives transforming public spaces. Art spills out of museums and galleries, pulsating through the very streets of Kolkata. It’s a city that invites exploration, where you can discover the delicate beauty of a Mughal miniature in a museum and then turn a corner to be confronted by a thought-provoking street mural.

Kolkata’s art scene pulsates with the city’s lively spirit. It seamlessly blends deep-rooted folk traditions with the rebellious energy of past movements and a constantly evolving contemporary art landscape. Each piece tells a story, evokes emotions, and sparks a conversation between past and present. Kolkata’s art isn’t for the passive observer; it demands an open mind and a sense of adventure. For those who embrace it, Kolkata offers an immersive and unforgettable artistic experience.

Written by Lakshmi Nagaraj, an independent mixed-media artist and arts professional working towards pushing the boundaries of art practices and including marginalised voices while doing so. 

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