Clutching my polaroid camera in one hand and a leather-bound writer’s journal in the other, I blink away sweat from my eyes as I look up at the arches of the recently renovated Old Currency Building. The 19th-century colonial structure, standing at the very heart of Kolkata in Dalhousie Square, was given a new lease of life in early 2020 and now draws in eager history buffs and art enthusiasts; its grand interiors house an exhibition titled ‘Ghare Baire | The World, The Home and Beyond: 18th-20th Century Art in Bengal,’ a goldmine of unparalleled proportions. Organised by the Ministry of Culture through DAG Museums and the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, more than 600 artworks by Nandalal Bose, Sakti Burman, Jamini Roy and Jogesh Chandra Seal, among others, are on display indefinitely.
It’s the month of March and muggy, yet. I can’t help but stop to take in the courtyard of the elite three-storey building: overwhelmed and spoilt for choice. The structure holds 12 different eras and styles of Bengali art in its many rooms, one accommodating sinuous sculptures while another pays tribute to Satyajit Ray via the intimate lens of his friend and photographer, Nemai Ghosh.
The plaque at the exhibit’s entrance had described how Bengal’s contribution to global art lay not so much in complying with the western practices, but rather resisting this in favour of a more indigenous modernism that was rooted in the soil. Very befitting for the state’s resilient soul, I think. It was, after all, considered the nerve centre of nationalism back in the day.
That said, European artists did have a role to play in the region’s rich creative history. As I walk up a wooden staircase, I’m distracted by a series of colourful etchings by François Balthazar Solvyns, a Flemish marine painter, printmaker and ethnographer who worked in India from 1791 to 1803. His arrival in Calcutta was at a time when British portrait artists like Tilly Kettle and Thomas Hickey had already found royal patrons across the country. Perhaps in hopes of securing patronage himself, Solvyns took on a new and more challenging pursuit. He documented the daily lives of ‘Hindoos’ through a catalogue of 250 hand-painted etchings, each in the pursuit of detailing their manners, customs, character, dress and religious ceremonies.
The catalogue received controversial publicity when British publisher Edward Orme took out a pirated version of Solvyns’ work. He converted the etchings into caricature-like renditions of tailors, eunuchs and dance girls, all exotified and composed of darker skin tones than the originals.
Behind-the-scenes shots of Satyajit Ray (top left) and his famous cast like Sharmila Tagore (bottom right) by Nemai Ghosh are on display at the exhibition; Famous Bengali art works like ‘At a Social Gathering’ (top right) by Bikash Bhattacharjee and Kisory Roy’s portrait of celebrated writer Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (bottom left) can be found here. Photos By: Sanjana Ray
The late 1700s brought a proverbial pageant of European artist-adventurers in search of India’s ‘picturesqueness,’ aiming to feed off the burgeoning European interest in the East. Over 60 recorded artists came to India on this hunt, be they watercolourists or portrait miniaturists, the people, culture, flora and fauna of their destination becoming fodder for their frames. Since Calcutta was then the capital of the British Raj, they all passed through the city, painting portraits of Bengal’s landscapes and people.
I delve into depictions of my hometown by William Hodges, Olinto Ghilardi and Lt. Colonel James George, among others, lingering by locales I can recognise. A panoramic oil painting of the ghats at Chandannagar, once a prosperous French colony, catches my eye. I check for the creator of this masterpiece. Credit: Anonymous.
By the 1920s, Bengal had been prepped to welcome the advent of naturalism, with local artists being encouraged to honour the motherland through their brushstrokes and take classes in private universities on academic naturalism. The style had re-emerged under the tutelage of Percy Brown, with legendary artists Hemendranath Mazumdar (a specialist in female nudes) and Atul Bose (a portrait painter) taking centre stage. In the initial part of his career, Jamini Roy also stayed true to the Mazumdar and Bose schools of art. Soon, the noted works of Jogesh Chandra Seal, B.C. Law, illustrator Satish Sinha and sculptors Prahlad Karmakar and Pramatha Mallik started turning heads. Most of these artists were trained at Ranada Gupta’s Jubilee Art Academy, where such naturalists were given a platform to rise and, if need be, food and shelter.
Some of the artworks spanning this room are familiar to me—my grandmother had great love for Bengali naturalist art that I fortunately inherited. As I stand in front of a side-profile portrait of the great novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee by Kisory Roy—the former’s white hair gentling the austere hooked nose—I can almost imagine the two men sharing some scotch after the final swirl of the paintbrush on canvas. I make a mental note to go home and dig up my grandmother’s old hardbound copy of Devdas, some of its yellowing pages taped together with care.
The next room I wander into is both strange and delightful. It hosts a wide-ranging display of what we, today, call “Kalighat pats, ”inherited from a style of scroll painting used by itinerant rural performers. These gouaches and watercolours of Indian divinities were painted on sheets of paper to be sold to 19th-century tourists on pilgrimage. As these paintings grew in popularity, the theme changed from solely the divine to other iconic subjects—for instance the decadent lives of the ‘Bengali babus.’
The evidence of the latter is conveyed through a six-part portrait series, labelled “Amorous Lovers,” of a well-dressed Bengali Babu and a voluptuous courtesan caught in…ahem…some interesting embraces. Beside me, a small boy gawks onwards as his blushing mother tries to drag him away.
A six-part portrait series, labelled “Amorous Lovers” depicts the evolution of the Kalighat pats. Photo By: Sanjana Ray
Bengal has always harboured a deep sense of reverence and worship for the ‘Devi’ and her many avatars. Legend has it that Calcutta was initially called ‘Kalikata’ after ‘Kali’, the patron deity of the city. From traditional patachitra artists to modern renditions of her avatar the representations of ‘Devi’ have changed through the centuries. One of the main walls in the courtyard of the Old Currency Building itself has become a popular Instagram draw: a larger-than-life portrait of a Haren Das-styled Goddess Kali.
While each portrayal of the goddess warrants its own praise, there are two depictions at Ghare Baire that draw me in immediately. The first, Sakti Burman’s watercolour on handmade paper, which is a prime example of art inception, a painting within a painting. In addition to the traditional many-armed Durga who is seen in the most celebrated pandals during the revelry of the annual festival, he’s also sketched his daughter Maya, sitting astride a peacock (the vahana of Lord Karthik), and himself, painting the Goddess on canvas. Another, is the Devi by Sudhanshu Ghosh, reflective of the ‘Bengal School’ style. His Durga seems almost masculine in representation, her forearms heavily muscled as she drives the spear into Mahisasura’s head.
The next room brings back childhood memories of my grandmother telling me about Abanindranath Tagore—the father of the Bengal ‘School’ of Art or anti-Western art movement in the state. Tagore and his pupils were of the belief that art must be expressed through the “inner eye.” As the movement gained international prominence in the early 20th century, many referred to it as a “powerful cultural struggle for redemption.” A tendency to ditch the traditional linear perspective for the Mughal aerial perspective and more atmospheric Far Eastern movements took firm hold in this style, and a large chunk of the subject matter denoted past glories of the nation.
The room adjacent to this has the work of the famous Santiniketan artists displayed proudly; the names of Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij jump out at me. Down the corridor, I browse through a few of my favourite Jamini Roy’s, particularly taking ample time to pause in front of “Mother and Child.” I see a minimalist painting of the Himalayas by Bireswar Sen, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, and feel a little smug, dismissing the fact that I can barely draw stick figures to save face! The next door down, I smile at Rabindranath Tagore’s portraits. Secretly, I never thought his art was very good but I daren’t have confessed this to my grandmother. She’d have taken it personally.
The mood on the floor above is sombre. Works by Chiitaprosad and Somnath Hore limning the unimaginable reality of Bengal after the famine of 1943-1944 hang on the walls. I walk uncomfortably through the room, the piercing depth of the artwork drawing me in, while pushing me out.
Strewn across the walls in one of the exhibition’s best displays, are the intimate, candid shots of Satyajit Ray captured by his ‘photo-biographer’, Nemai Ghosh. Photo By: Sanjana Ray
Too late, I realise that I’d made the same mistake I’d made two years ago at the MET in New York: not manage my time well in a gallery. The building is set to close at 5 p.m. and I have just 15 minutes before I get shuttered in and have my very own Night at the Museum.
I make the hard choice of giving the printmaking and sculpture rooms a miss, muttering a promise to come back for them, and trod off to escape within the magical world of Satyajit Ray.
Now, the grand old man has an unofficial shrine of his own in my home and I’ve been watching Ray’s cinema since before I could speak, so I walk into the exhibit almost giddy. Strewn across all the walls are intimate behind-the-scenes photographs of Ray, his actors and crew clicked over the years by Nemai Ghosh, who many called Ray’s photo-biographer. As per Ghosh’s own admission, as candid as his photographs were, “Manik da was always aware of my presence.”
Notwithstanding the cinematographer’s cat-like senses, Ghosh’s lens was magnetic.
Monochrome moments of Ray smoking a cigarette between scenes; Ray at his piano composing music while cradling his trademark pipe; Ray in the Director’s Chair speaking animatedly. My gaze flits from portraits of a young Sharmila Tagore and Simi Garewal from Aranyer Din Ratri (1969) to Amjad Khan at his make-up van in Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977). Lastly, come the stills from Ghare Baire (1984)—the inspiration behind the exhibition’s name—that make me time-travel to what my family calls the ‘Golden Age of Cinema.’
With my 15 minutes up, I make a mad dash through the courtyard towards the gates, but not before asking a passerby to click my photograph in front of the Kali wall. The minute I step out onto the main road, my ears are assaulted by a riot of blaring horns, loud shopkeepers and half-deaf kakus bellowing across the road. I look back at the building behind me. I’ll be back, I mouth.
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The Ghare Baire Exhibition, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and organised by DAG, in collaboration with NGMA, is being held indefinitely at Kolkata’s Old Currency Building and is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.. Entry is free for all visitors. For more information, visit www.dagworld.com/exhibitions/ghare-bhare/.
is a writer, and also an unwarranted tour guide that people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food.
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