The long and rich traditions of India’s modern Bengal art have been eclipsed in recent years by members of the famous Mumbai-based Progressives Group such as Syed Haidar Raza, M.F.Husain, F.N.Souza and Tyeb Mehta who have dominated the headlines and international auctions at a time when Indian modern art has become more popular.
That is now being corrected with a revival of interest in Bengal artists who were influenced in the 1800s by British and other foreign painters visiting India’s old colonial capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and then emerged with their own distinctive developing styles.
Ramkinkar Baij, who died in 1980 aged 70, was one of the most important of India’s early Bengali moderns, both as an experimental sculptor who broke away from the formal celebratory styles of British India and as a painter. He is now being recognised with a splendid retrospective exhibition of over 350 works at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi (till March 31, then Mumbai and Bengaluru).
Meanwhile the privately owned Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) has had an exhibition of 102 Bengal artists beginning with early works derived from traditional miniature painting in the 19th century to the latest well-known names such as Jogen Chowdhury and Ganesh Pyne with strong figurative works. This show – The Art of Bengal – will be at Kolkata’s Harrington Street Centre from April 4-17.
The extrovert and widely travelled Progressives, who came together in the 1940s and 1950s, always had more visibility and international exposure than the more secluded Bengalis. “Ramkinkar and the others in West Bengal were not outgoing artists and he didn’t bother with how he was looked at and appreciated,” says K.S.Radhakrishnan, a leading sculptor who was a student of Ramkinkar (as the artist is usually known) and has been curating the NGMA show over the past four years.
Bengal works are usually smaller than the Progressives, and many are classified as national treasures so cannot be exported out of India. The Progressives also benefited, says Kishore Singh of the DAG, from the commercial capital of Mumbai (then Bombay) becoming an active art market with rich buyers and critics that Calcutta lost when the British capital moved to Delhi in the 1930s.
These factors partly explain why the Bengalis have not captured headline-hitting record prices such as those achieved, for example, by Raza who established an Indian art record with an acrylic on canvas abstract work that sold for £2.4m ($3.5m) at a Christies’ London auction in 2010.
Works by artists like Jamini Roy appear in most international auctions and there was one notable recent Bengali sale, also in 2010 at Sotheby’s in London, of twelve smallish paper works by Rabindranath Tagore, a revered Nobel Prize-winning writer, poet and artist who dies in 1941. This yielded prices up to £313,250 and set records for both Tagore and Indian paper works. It illustrated the potential if more were available without export restrictions, but the Sotheby’s sale was a rare event, made possible by the Dartington Hall Trust of the UK selling a collection gifted to it by Tagore in 1939.
Ramkinkar revelled in the remoteness of Santiniketan, the ashram, art centre and university town north of Kolkata that is the cultural home of Bengal art. Much of his work drew on tribals of the area and other rural scenes. “He reflected the vibrancy of local life,” says Radhakrishnan. “Anything that moved around him moved him – women threshing paddy, big storms, tribal celebrations, marriages.”
He understood how western artists used watercolours. “His experience was totally Indian but he understood foreign art – Santiniketan was looking at Japanese art in the same way as the Impressionists did,” says Raman Siva Kumar, a professor at Santiniketan who has written a large book on Ramkinkar for the NGMA and DAG.
The NGMA exhibition is dominated by Ramkinkar’s evocative and colourful watercolours (below), but he is most famous as a sculptor who moved away from the staid formal statues of British rulers to portray local life.
“He was probably the first sculptor on the Indian art scene whom you could call a creative sculptor,” says veteran artist K.G.Subramanyan in another of the Ramkinkar books. “He made sculpture for his own pleasure, not in answer to a patron’s wishes”. Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, Subramanyan said that Ramkinkar would sometimes paint on bed sheets when he couldn’t afford canvases and did little to protect his works.
He usually worked with cement and pebbles for his outdoor sculptures because he did could not afford other materials, quickly moulding the mix before it set and then chipping at the cast. Some of his sculptures were later cast in bronze using moulds made from the original works.
One of these, a striking abstract head of Rabindranath Tagore called The Poet, is on show in both forms – the original cement work, tinted black to relieve the monotonous grey cement (above), is with the DAG, and a bronze cast is at the NGMA. Also on show is a famous sculpture of Mahtama Gandhi on the Dandi civil disobedience salt march against British rule (above).
Most of his largest sculptures are at Santiniketan and are shown in large ceiling-height photographs at the NGMA. Notable among them is Santhal Family (originally done in 1938 and cast in bronze by the government after his death – seen right at Santiniketan). This depicts members of the large Santhal tribe, who are spread across eastern India, moving home with their possessions.
Siva Kumar says this work marks “a dramatic shift” in Indian sculpture because it brought tribals, who had been virtually invisible, into the centre of the Santiniketan campus and because it merged classical and modern sculpture. Another work is a woman threshing, again shown as a ceiling-high photograph, but accompanied by a small statue and watercolours that Ramkinkar did first as sketches.
With all that rural West Bengal history and context, it is something of a surprise to find two smoothly finished carved sandstone statues by Ramkinkar guarding the doors of the Reserve Bank of India’s offices in Delhi. They are of Yaksha and Yakshi, guardian spirits of Kuber, the god of wealth, and were done in the early 1960s, but they are far from typical of his work.
I asked Radhakrishnan about Ramkinkar’s special legacy for young artists today. “He was one of a kind, cut off from the material world,” came the reply. “Here is someone who was passionate about his work which he did without caring about the market”. That is quite a contrast with so many market-driven modern artists who, helped by galleries, work to boost their prices!
A shorter version of this article is on The Economist‘s books art and culture blog, Prospero - http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2012/03/art-ramkinkar-baij