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The Art Hubs of India: Part I – Baroda

Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery. Source: Gujarat Tourism

Baroda, or Vadodara, is known as ‘The Jewel of Western India’, and rightly so. The city has a long and rich history of cultural engagement, which will be highlighted through this article. 

The Role of the King of Baroda

Baroda’s support for the arts boomed and flourished during the rule of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III in the 19th century, and it was only upwards from there. It was during this time that the groundwork was laid for the vibrant art hub that we get to experience today. 

Sayajirao was a reformist ruler. Even a brief look at his profile will tell you that he undertook a plethora of reform activities. He had a great regard for education and identified its role in uplifting society. However, the king’s dedication to progress extended far beyond education, libraries, literature, and financial reform. A true visionary, he also championed the arts, architecture, and cultural pursuits like music and theatre. He valued the arts, and was keen on not only supporting artists but also encouraging arts education. Unlike many of his contemporaries, whose view of the arts was restricted to court paintings and royal family portraits, Sayajirao saw the arts as a means to promote education. 

A portrait of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. Source: National Portrait Gallery, UK

The importance of museum education, a topic hotly debated today, was already a matter of consideration for Sayajirao in the late 19th century. His progressive views led him to invest his personal funds to set up the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery in 1894, whose purpose was to provide students and art enthusiasts of Baroda a glimpse into the international contemporary art practices of the time.

His views were shared by T. Madhavrao, the dewan of Baroda. Together, they were responsible for spotlighting some of India’s brightest minds, including esteemed painter Raja Ravi Varma. During their rule, these artists’ work reached not only royalty and aristocrats, but also the middle class. 

With the dewan’s assistance, Sayajirao established the Kalabhavan Technical Institute in 1890, which has proven to be his biggest legacy. More popularly known as Kalabhavan, the institution was to provide technical education in various subjects such as carpentry, calico printing, dyeing, drawing and later, photography and architecture. The founders of the school believed strongly that the teaching at the institute must combine theory and practice in order to produce skilled artisans. The setting up of Kalabhavan marked a significant moment in the history of art in India, owing to the fact that it presented the arts as a serious vocational option. 

MSU Faculty of Fine Arts: The Pioneering Institution of Baroda

The Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU)  was originally established as a college in 1881 – then simply called the Baroda College. It gained university status in 1949, after India gained independence from the British. This year is an important one in the history of Indian art, since it was also the year the fine arts department was set up at the university. The previously mentioned Kalabhavan was assimilated into the Maharaja Sayajirao University and came to be known as the Faculty of Fine Arts.

The entrance to the Faculty of Fine Arts at MSU as it stands today. Source: The Maharaja Sayajirao University website

Ever since its inception, the Faculty of Fine Arts at MSU intended to make space for unconventional ways of thinking and alternate forms of art. While already established art schools such as those in Bengal still focused on traditional Indian arts, MSU aspired to cultivate a culture of modernist practices that learned from and built upon these traditions. The school’s curriculum placed significant value on the concept of “Living Traditions,” believing that traditions are a vital foundation for modern and contemporary art. Students were encouraged to learn from the past to inform their artistic creations.

K.G. Subramanyan was a key player in furthering MSU’s progressive approach to art education in its early days. Arriving in the 1950s, he brought with him an emphasis on dynamic learning. While promoting modern art practices, he also believed that grasping technical skills and drawing from traditional art was needed to bring their artistic visions to life.

These values of his led to the genesis of the Fine Arts Fair at MSU in 1961. The Fair was established not just to showcase students’ work, but more importantly, to connect them with established artists and introduce them to the abundant and diverse styles and techniques from across India. It aimed to expose students to contemporary art movements and foster their artistic development beyond the confines of the classroom.  

Preparations for the Fine Art Fair at MSU Baroda, 1968 – A photograph by Jyoti Bhatt. Source: Asia Art Archive

The Fair, since its early days, served as a catalyst for dialogue. It was a space where tradition and modernity co-existed, where acclaimed artists inspired the next generation, and where art wasn’t just viewed but actively engaged with. The Fair continues to this day (with a recent hiatus of 9 years), inspiring young artists to experiment and push creative boundaries.

The institution, as well, remains a hub of progressive ideologies, experimentation and individual self-expression. Today, the Faculty of Fine Arts takes in over five hundred students each year across departments. To further support artistic development, research facilities have been established within each department. The Faculty also offers a variety of short-term courses and certificates, including a postgraduate diploma program in museology.  Each year, the graduating students showcase their work at the Faculty’s Annual Display.

An activity taking place at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU. Source: The Maharaja Sayajirao University website

The Baroda Group of Artists

A silent revolution was taking place in the Faculty of Fine Arts department in Maharaja Sayajirao University, soon after its establishment. Baroda, and the university in specific, presented as an alternative space for art – one that was wholly different from the Bengal School of Art. While there was a hyperfocus on Indian traditional arts at the time, Baroda became a hub for artists who were forward-looking; those who were itching to make experimental art and bring a renewed sense of contemporariness to the Indian art scene.

The Baroda Group, whose line of thought came to be known as The Baroda School of Art, was founded by N.S. Bendre in 1956. At the time, it comprised a number of big names of the Indian art world such as Shanti Dave, G.R. Santosh, Jyoti Bhatt, Balkrishna Patel, Himmat Shah, Ratan Parimoo and K.G. Subramanyan. Prior to this, artistic movements in India often leaned towards revivalism, like the Bengal School, or European-influenced academic realism.The Baroda Group challenged the prevailing artistic trends of the time.

Invitation to the exhibition ‘Baroda Group of Artists: Second Exhibition of Paintings’ at Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay (1957). Source: Asia Art Archive

As was the custom at MSU, artists of the Group drew inspiration from various Indian art forms and techniques with the aim to both learn from them and preserve them. Jyoti Bhatt documented indigenous communities of India through his photography, while Bendre’s work bridged Asian traditions and Western modernity. Artists like Sankho Chaudhuri experimented with Cubism’s deconstructed forms. By the 1960s, abstraction gained prominence, evident in the works of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Jeram Patel who explored scrap metal sculptures.  By the 1980s, there was a shift towards figurative and narrative elements, championed by Bhupen Khakhar, Vivan Sundaram, and Nalini Malani.

Often, many of the artist names cited in relation to the establishment of Baroda as an art hub as well as MSU as a pioneering institution are that of men, as is clear even in this article. However, it is imperative to take note that there are an equal number of women artists who are pillars of this institution. The prominence given to female artists pales in comparison to that of their male counterparts, and therefore, very little is written about them.

But if you, like me, are an art enthusiast who goes down some deep internet rabbit holes, you will find a photograph of a document titled ‘Baroda Group of Artists – List of Members’ (attached below). Under ‘Life Members’, two female artists are listed: Naina Parimoo and Kishori Kaul; they are two of only seven members in the list. 

Although undated, the document suggests that these women may have been a part of the Baroda Group as early as 1959. Many other women artists who later became a part of the group have made a name for themselves – Nasreen Mohammadi, Pushpamala N., Rini Dhumal, Nilima Sheikh, Ira Chaudhuri, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Jyotsna Bhatt, Manisha Parekh, Rekha Rodwittiya, Neelima Sheikh, Latika Katt and Anita Dubey to name only a few. 

A document detailing a list of members of the Baroda Group of Artists. Source: Asia Art Archive

It is important for me to state here that our women artists deserve more than a footnote in articles such as these. One must not be forced to dig through the internet to read about their role in the history of Indian art. Further research efforts are needed to bring these women artists and their work to light.

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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