If Bombay hadn’t trumped Bengal
A huge new collection makes you want to rethink what you have heard about the arrival of modernism in Indian art, says Nisha Susan
SOME OF US are never going to own art. But why should that stop us from possessing beauty? We can carry away some mornings in hazy memories and click everything else on our phone cameras. Other times we troop into a gallery and unexpectedly get a little drunk and covetous. In January, Delhi Art Gallery launched one of its tremendous shows — a collection of 401 works from Bengal by 104 artists. Not the ‘Bengal school’ or Bengali artists but works from the geographical region — ranging from the oldest, an 1858 lithograph The Great Hindoo Reformer by Nabin Chandra Ghose, a dozen stunning Kalighat Pats in mint condition to Ganesh Pyne’s 2004 pastel (The Ape who looks troublingly familiar).
Early in the show, when you see Ranada Prasad Gupta’s nude watercolour (circa 1900), you are jolted out of any received wisdom about modernism hitting Indian art through the Progressives. Every third painting has the air of a front-runner — here the strong influence and clean lines of Japanese art, here a mythological scene for the first time with Western perspective, here an outrageously romantic rendition of a Bengali folktale. Can the big canvas-limelight of what followed have happened without these artists breaking rank? The show is a bit too much to take in at one go. Luckily, as has now become routine for DAG, there is an excellent and enormous book that accompanies the show — essays, images, timelines, hours of fun (no index but you can’t have everything.)
This month in Delhi also saw the launch of two other fascinating books. Raking Leaves, an organisation that curates art projects in the form of books, launched Pakistani video artist Bani Abidi’s The Speechwriter and Sri Lankan artist T Shanaathanan’s An Incomplete Thombu. Both works come in mass-produced and special editions for the beauty-loving, off-beat collector. Some of us are never going to own art but book-shaped art we may acquire with élan.
Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.