The ongoing exhibition at Project 88 on Prints from Bengal: Modernism in Colonial India explores the process of printmaking in Bengal and its role in understanding the socio-political climate in British India of the early to mid-20th century. Kalyani Majumdar brings the story
An active art space now, Project 88 was once a century-old metal printing press, situated in Colaba, Mumbai. So, when the art gallery decided to organise an art show on prints from Bengal, it came full circle with its own history. The exhibition explores the nuances involved in printmaking as an art form, by some of the stalwarts from the art world who changed the modern Indian art scene of the twentieth century.
Art as an expression
Artists have often used art to express their observations especially during the time of unrest, human suffering and oppression. Hence, when one looks at the series of prints exhibited at Project 88, it provides a keen understanding of the social life of Bengal and also the political scene in colonial India. The artists whose prints are exhibited at the gallery are, Gaganendranath Tagore (1867 – 1938), Mukul Chandra Dey (1895 – 1989), Ramendranath Chakravorty (1902-1955), Ramkinkar Baij (1906 – 1980) and Rani (Dey) Chanda (1912 – 1997). They were all born in the undivided Bengal in British India and were all associated to Santiniketan.
They grew up during a period when Bengal was going through a lot of political and social upheavals. These artists saw the unrest caused due to partition of Bengal in 1905 on communal lines. Followed by the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi and its repercussions, they played their part in the Swadeshi movement and attempted to find an Indian identity in colonial India. Apart from Gaganendranath Tagore, who died in 1938, the other artists also saw the, Bengal famine, communal violence followed by the partition of Bengal and the Indian independence. These events had great impact on the artists’ works. Also, all the five artists were highly inspired by the 19th century Bengal Renaissance and that too played an important role in how they communicated through their art.
From Bichitra Club to Kala Bhavan
Founded in 1915 by the Tagores in their Jorasankho house in North Kolkata, the primary aim of Bichitra Club was to explore different styles of printmaking and painting. Bichitra, which means, variety, was spearheaded by the three nephews of Rabindranath Tagore — Gaganendranath, Samarendranath and Abanindranath. They had turned the south veranda of the Jorasankho house into a club, fashioned on the concept of an art salon. The club offered classes on printmaking, painting, music, pottery, carpentry and so on. Rabindranath Tagore defined it as the model school and its members and students also had Pratima Devi and Sunayani Devi from the Tagore family as students. It was here that the printmaking techniques were explored in a manner that saw the emergence of woodcuts and lithographs as art forms.
The practice of printmaking as a fine art medium became extremely popular with the establishment of Kala Bhavan in 1919. It is the fine arts faculty of the Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan. And, it was none other than Nandalal Bose, a student of Abanindranath Tagore, and also the creator of the logo for Bichitra Club, who made printmaking a popular art form in Kala Bhavana. Ramendranath Chakravorty, Mukul Chandra Dey, Rani Dey (Chanda), Ramkinkar Baij were all trained at Santiniketan.
Tagore’s satirical depiction of urban life
Artist Gaganendranath Tagore had special interest in lithography, and even went on to set up his own lithographic press in 1917. He was anti-colonial and had no qualms to express it openly through his art. His prints exhibited at the gallery shows, caricatures that made satiric commentaries on colonial Indian urban life. One of his works on display, titled, Metamorphosis: Don’t disturb me now, I am about to become a sab show a Bengali babu pretending to be a European, as he is shown wearing a trouser on top of his dhuti. Through his humour, he would often take on the corrupt politicians and showcase the hypocrisy that existed in the Indian society. Even today, Tagore is considered one of the finest and influential modernist printmakers, India ever had.
Depiction of rural and tribal life
The prints by Chakravorty, Dey, Baij and Chanda at the exhibition, depicts the rural and tribal (santhal) life. Ramendranath Chakravorty began his formal art education in Government School of Art, Calcutta/Kolkata in 1919, but in two years he left for Santiniketan for the newly established Kala Bhavan. It was here that he found his mentor, Nandalal Bose. Chakravorty’s ability to capture the rural Bengal life can be seen clearly in his wood engravings. His work, Untitled, woodcut from 1935 is one such example. His works often expressed a duality, wherein, it finds influences from both the revivalist movement in Bengal and the Swadeshi Movement that was rising during that period. However, he was always keen on exploring techniques prevalent in Japan and Europe.
Mukul Chandra Dey, was one of the prominent member of the Bichitra Club. In 1916, he went to US to learn the technique of dry-point etching. He came back to Santiniketan in the 1920s. His exhibit at the gallery titled, Filling the Pitcher looks hand-painted as the artist has used a variety of tints and smudges to define his subjects.
Ramkinkar Baij went to Santiniketan to become a sculptor and painter, however he also found interest in the process of printmaking. He connected easily with the tribal lifestyle and throughout his lifetime his works revolved around his tribal subjects. In one of his prints at the show, the Vande Mataram chant is inscribed on the top along with a partially visible face of a man and on the foreground the print has jagged uneven broken shapes. His monochromatic woodcuts has dynamic characteristics, combined with a certain ruggedness that makes his prints stand out from the rest.
Rani (Dey) Chanda, was Mukul Dey’s sister. It was Rabindranath Tagore who encouraged her to pursue art. She went to Santiniketan and studied painting, music and dancing. She was imprisoned for anti-British activities for a while. In 1932, Mukul Dey published a portfolio of 25 linocuts by his sister. Her prints are a beautiful contrast of black-and-white compositions creating a dreamlike effect of rural Bengal. Whether it’s the huts in moonlit night or a boat riding the waves, she created magic with her perfect lines and balance of black and white.
When: On till June 16
Timings: 11 AM to 7 PM
Venue: Project 88, Ground Floor, B.M.P. Building, Narayan A Sawant Rd, Azad Nagar, Colaba, Mumbai
(Image credit courtesy: The artist, Galerie 88 & Project 88, Mumbai)