How the Bengal School of Art Revived Ancient Indian Art Forms

The iconic paintings of Ajanta and Bagh caves never fail to capture our attention. Did you know that these magnificent paintings inspired the creation of one of the most sublime Indian art forms and also massively contributed to Indian nationalism? Want to know how? Let's take a brief look!

Ajanta-Painting
Ajanta, cave 1, Bodhisattva Padmapani by Arian Zwegers is licensed under CC BY 2.0

During the British rule, as a part of the colonial agenda; the British established art schools at Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, to propagate Western values in art education. They persuaded the educated Indians to believe that Indians had no cultural heritage of their own. This lead to the downswing of the traditional conventions and styles of Indian Art. At this point of an identity crisis, arose the Bengal school of Art with highly gifted artists like Raja Ravi Verma, Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, and Jamini Roy. These artists gave a sense of direction to the art movement of the country and thus prevented its downfall.

CAUSE OF THE RISE OF THE BENGAL SCHOOL OF ART

The Bengal School of Art was an art movement and a style of Indian painting that originated in Calcutta and Shantiniketan. It promoted Indian modernism, which blossomed throughout India during the British rule of the early 20th century. The artists aimed at bringing a dynamic voice to Indian identity, freedom, and liberation by synthesizing folk art, Indian painting traditions, Hindu imagery, and depictions of contemporary rural life. It grew out of Swadeshi and was a form of resistance that gave rise to Indian nationalism.


The Bengal School of Art arose as a revolutionary and nationalist movement reacting against the academic art styles previously promoted in India. It replaced the western styles by Mughal, Rajasthani, and Pahari styles that presented elegant scenes of distinct Indian traditions and daily life. Ernest Binfield Havell, a huge lover of Indian art forms, attempted to reform the teaching methods at the Calcutta School of Art by replacing European paintings and plaster cast of Western antiquities from the school’s art gallery with Indian artworks. Havell also helped the artists of the Bengal School, such as Abanindranath Tagore and his sister Sunayani Devi to fully develop the tenets and style of the movement and promote its dissemination through educational systems. He persuaded Abanindranath to study Mughal and Rajput paintings and appointed him as the Vice-Principal of the Art School as well. Abanindranath being a pioneer, learned the watercolor technique, and synthesising it with the European colour technique, created the novel Wash technique. This became the hallmark of Bengal school and marked the significance of the traditional Tempera method.

START OF THE MOVEMENT

In 1907, many art lovers formed the "Society of Oriental Art." Artists like Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar, Samarendranath Gupta were sent to copy the Ajanta and Bagh paintings, which were later published in European journals. Thus, the antiquity and greatness of Ancient Indian Art reached a global audience. This enthused the Indian artists to get inspired by their true native tradition rather than the blind copying of the lifeless western realism. They sought to develop an ancient yet modern style in art following the concept of "swadeshi" to express Indian themes in their paintings that deliberately turned away from western styles. Thus, the Bengal School of Painting emerged as an important art movement in modern India. It laid the foundation stone for the growth of Modern painting by giving traditional Indian painting styles a new cultural consciousness.

In 1908, the society arranged its first exhibition in Paris, where the paintings of Abanindranath and his students were exhibited. It was supported by both Britishers and influential Bengali high-class society. This exhibition brought the paintings of the Bengal style of art before the common people of Calcutta for the first time and created an awakening among them and throughout the art world.

PREDOMINANT STYLES AND PAINTINGS

The Bengal School is known for the impressive combination of simple and clear paintings with attractive color schemes, soft rhythmic figures, light shade effects of Ajanta, and the characteristics of Mughal and Rajasthani schools of art. The Bengal School artists avoided landscapes and portraits, representations of contemporary life and events, and remained more or less artificial. Later on, they went to England and acquired considerable skill in different mediums of artistic representation. They infused a new spirit into Indian Art by introducing Woodcut, lithography, etching and sculpture, commercial art, comprising book illustrations, posters, and other forms of propaganda art in the Bengal School.

Shiva-painting
Siva Drinking World Poison by Nandalal Bose

The Bengal School of painting emphasized more upon lining and sketching. It is known for its impressive application of different color shades of soft, misty, and light colors. Abanindranath adopted the Japanese wash technique, but he did not copy it! He experimented and made some changes to it by adding white in his colour schemes- a colour that was never used in the original technique. In this technique, the painting is washed several times after applying colors, and because of this, the excessive color gets washed away, giving it a transparent effect. Due to mistiness, the colors appeared soft and delicate in the Bengal style of paintings. The white colour mixed with the misty brown and yellow color combination granted a peculiar texture and created an impression of mysticism in the painting.

The painters of Bengal School mostly used tempera, a traditional technique of Indian Miniature Paintings. The tempera works were done on handmade paper with brush and opaque colors. Colors were applied in a flat manner, similar to miniature painting using a flat pattern, details, decoration, and soft finished lining.

The main themes of the Bengal school of art were historical and religious paintings. Abanindranath's Buddha, Sujata, Traveler, the lotus, Ganesh Janani, Sita in Captivity in Lanka; Kshitendranath Mazumdar's Chaitanya Mahaprabhu; Nandalal's Shiva Drinking poison, and Parthasarthi paintings are some remarkable examples. Landscape paintings were also done in Bengal School. Some of them are- the Spirit of Rock (by Abanindranath Tagore) and Puri Temple (by Gaganendranath Tagore). Body structures of Bengal School of Paintings are much influenced by Mughal and Rajput miniature and Ajanta paintings. Just like Mughals and Rajputs avoided detailed body structures in their paintings, the Bengal School neglected it too. Facial expressions except for sadness, shyness, and anger are also unclear in the Bengal style of paintings. Therefore, sad expressions and expressionless artworks are presented in large numbers.

Tagore-paintings
Shaded Flame by Gaganendranath Tagore (Source: Google Arts & Culture)

With the spread of modernist ideas in the 1920s, the influence of the Bengal School began to decline. However, the revolutionary movement fueled the artists to look for a distinct Indian style in art, and so, the Bengal School turned out to be the forerunner of Modern Art in India.


Deepikka-Laxmi

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Deepikka Laxmi

Pratha Content Writing Intern


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