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Why Are The Bengal Masters So Less Known At The International Level?  

Interestingly, of the nine, six are the Bengal Masters. Yet, like a Picasso, or a Van Gogh, why are these Masters remain relatively unknown internationally,
A painting by Jamini Roy
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How many are aware of the ‘Navratnas’ or the ‘Nine Gems’ as they are popularly called, of Indian art, that the government of India declared as ‘national treasures?’ Well, for the uninformed, they are Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Sailoz Mukherjee, Amrita Sher-Gil, Raja Ravi Varma and Nicolas Roerich.

Interestingly, of the nine, six are the Bengal Masters. Yet, like a Picasso, or a Van Gogh, why are these Masters remain relatively unknown internationally, as compared to say, a MF Hussain or a Tyeb Mehta?

Artwork by Nandalal Bose
Artwork by Nandalal Bose

The answer lies, again, with the government. The government celebrated these nine painters by declaring their works of art ‘national treasures’ through a legislation passed in 1972. But, The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act also specified that from the date of enactment of the law, the works of these artists — some of whom were active in the Indian independence movement as well — were not to be taken out of the country, even for an exhibition.

Unfortunately, this concerned act of ‘preservation’ and ‘protection’ of these ‘national treasures’ inadvertently led to the lack of exposure of them.
Renowned cultural and art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta, a director and professor in History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, whose extensive research work on Kolkata’s Durga Puja led to its inclusion in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, gives a historical perspective. “This would be true about the Indian middle class and modern Indian art.

One of the things we have to understand is that the extent to which the average middle class knows writers, singers and actors, is not true in the case of artists.

Artists and their artwork would be known within definite circles in India. That is the unequal history of the modern where the modern belongs specifically to the West. And it’s the West’s modern that the world has come to know about, while the modern of the rest of the world still belongs to a certain geographical context. So, many contemporary modern artists, who entered the art market in a big way, are far more well-known because of their presence in the international market, like say, a Subodh Gupta or a Pushpamala N or Jitish Kallat. The historical modern was never part of that global market. They became part of the global network only after liberalisation. But if you think of the mid-20th century, that circulation had not happened. Many artists became aware of European art in the mid-20s, but there was never a reverse flow. Indian artists like MF Hussain and SH Raza began to travel to the West and settle there. They were the modern artists in the terms that Europe understood. But an Abanindranath or a Nandalal Bose or a Jamini Roy would have had no exposure like such,” she explains.

The famous painting 'Pratima Visarjan' by Gaganendranath Tagore
The famous painting 'Pratima Visarjan' by Gaganendranath Tagore

The fact that these paintings are non-exportable, is not helping the situation any further. At the present, the government is not the major buyer of these artworks owing to a lack of funds. While government-run galleries showcase some works, around 3,000 others are said to be in private collection or trusts. This has led to a considerable lack of visibility. “I think, when these were declared ‘national treasures’, one of the concerns was protection and preservation for the nation. Abanindranath, for instance, is all kept in a private trust, which was given by his son. Also, Rabindranath, Gaganendranath painted for themselves. They didn’t paint for the market. So, that meant the bulk of Rabindranath remained with Visva-Bharati. Academy of Fine Arts would have some as Rabindranath would have given some to Lady Ranu Mukherjee. Among them, Jamini Roy sold widely. A bulk of Abanindranath’s works is now with Victoria Memorial, which they are planning to put up for show. Also, their works are not meant for extensive public display as it requires different lighting and set-up,” says Guha Thakurta.  

Reena Lath, owner of Akar Prakar, which has galleries in Kolkata and New Delhi, and who, right now, is exhibiting the works of Bengal trio – Nandalal Bose, Binode Bihari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij at her Delhi gallery, echoes Guha Thakurta’s sentiment. “Since they are ‘national treasures’, it’s not in the market. Lack of buying and selling makes them frozen. These cannot be taken out for exhibitions even. If they’re not taken outside, how will they get publicity or be known to an international audience? I travelled with (the art of) Jayashri Chakraborty all over the world. At times, it seems she is more well-known than them,” she says.

Artwork by the stalwart who started it all: Rabindranath Tagore
Artwork by the stalwart who started it all: Rabindranath Tagore

Though Thakurta doesn’t quite agree to Lath on this. She believes that knowing doesn’t necessarily means that the works have to travel. “Like Jamini Roy exists in major collections in London. There could be a show and the West would be aware of one of the greatest modernists of the century,” she reasons.

Then, there is the larger question of public education regarding artists, and artworks that is severely lacking. Which is why the art world still remains so niche. Sounak Chakraverti, an independent art curator and archivist, says, “Art education and its awareness in our country is woeful. Indians are unaware of their own heritage. Art does not get the same space of discussion and writing like literature and politics. Art-ignorance is deep-rooted. The popularity that a Sachin Tendulkar enjoys across the world, is absent for a Nandalal Bose or an Abanindranath Tagore as there is hardly any entertainment value in it compared to cricket. There is much more knowledge about Tyeb Mehta or Vasudeo S Gaitonde as they have been auctioned. Plus, some of these artists have lived abroad which is responsible for their popularity. Nobody fought for Bengal painters”, he says.

Artwork by the relatively rare artist Sailoz Mookherjea
Artwork by the relatively rare artist Sailoz Mookherjea

Guha Thakurta lays it bare. “Within the national circuit, a lack of average exposure is a reason. For our generation which have had a reasonably better education and exposure to the Arts, it’s a bit different. To have the ability to paint and have a know-how about art, are two different things. Even history of art is not so much part of the curriculum in art colleges in India. The fact that in order to be a painter you have to know the history of art is not a given. Plus, our standard school education is severely wanting compared to the west as far as art is concerned. There are not enough museums in our country. In Kolkata, students go to Indian Museum, but that is a very routine tour. They’re not taught that history is as much about these objects that they see as what’s written in books. This is true about all states in our country. Even in elite school curriculum this is true,” she says.

Painting by Abanindranath Tagore
Painting by Abanindranath Tagore

Ina Puri, curator and art writer, says there was and is indeed an interest in Bengal art owing to the ubiquitous Tagore – Rabindranath. “Bengal art is unique and original. The Tagore stalwarts, along with Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy, brought fame not only to Bengal, but nationally. Yet, I also want to ask the question, “why is Bengal art so less known?” she asks.

Pen-and-Ink by Nandalal Bose
Pen-and-Ink by Nandalal Bose

However, the most important and essential factor seems to be the question of an unequal exchange between the West and the East. “It’s basically the American-Euro dominance. Do we know that many contemporary African literature writers? Or, how much do we know about Chinese or Japanese art? We know some of the Latin American authors because they get translated. So, it’s a general problem. Artists don’t need a translation, but they need a different promotion. Indian art has had its own very unique history. But the push isn’t strong enough,” rounds off Thakurta.

Echoing her sentiment, Ina Puri says – “We have a long way to go.”

All images: Akar Prakar (Nandalal Bose), Wikipedia Commons, Google. 

A journalist.

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