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Ten Hidden Gems of Indian Painting

In India, the divine origin of painting is narrated in the Mahabharata, which speaks about Nara and Narayana who were meditating in penance in the Badari grove. Indra chose this moment to send a group of celestial damsels to disturb their asceticism. Undaunted, Narayana took a fresh mango leaf and, with its juice on its thigh, sketched a beautiful form of a nymph. This sketch gave birth to Urvashi, whose superior grace and perfection put to shame all the damsels. Later Narayana passed the skill on to Visvakarma, who spread the knowledge in the world. This is how art is said to have been passed on from the deities to the upcoming generation of humans.

Nonetheless, no art form can persist if legendary artists don’t carry it with them. It is skilful painters, who keep our rich traditions and legacy alive. Some of these were able to leave a mark on the world with their unique sense and renditions of painting. While India produced hundreds of artists, we shall read about a few of them, who changed the dynamics of paintings in India.

Abanindranath Tagore

Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, was one of the most prominent artists of India. He was the first major supporter of swadeshi values in Indian art. Abanindranath first created the ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ and later went on to establish Bengal school of art. His sole aim for establishing the school was to counter the English influence on Indian artists. He did that by incorporating Indian elements in his works and achieved success when British art institutions gave in and accepted to teach and propagate his style of works in their organizations. His idea of modernizing Mughal and Rajput paintings eventually gave rise to modern Indian painting, which took birth at his Bengal school of art. Abanindranath is also regarded as a proficient and accomplished writer. Most of his literary works were meant for children. Some of his books like ‘Budo Angla’, ‘Khirer Putul’ and ‘Rajkahini’ are best examples of Bengali children's literature.

The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore

Though Abanindranath Tagore started painting at a young age, his career took shape in the late 1890s. Most of his works revolved around Hindu philosophy and other things Indian. In the year 1930, he came up with a series of paintings titled ‘Arabian Nights’. The paintings depicted Calcutta’s emerging cosmopolitanism but used the stories from Arabian Nights as its trope. Even today, this collection of paintings is considered as one of the finest achievements of Abanindranath Tagore. Thanks to his revolutionary ideas and his unconditional love for tradition, cultural figures from other parts of Asia were fascinated by him. Some of them include Okakura Kakuzo, Japanese art historian and Yokoyama Taikan, a famous Japanese painter. His meeting with such personalities paved the way for him to incorporate Japanese and Chinese calligraphic techniques and traditions into his works. He also collaborated with William Rothenstein, an English artist and author, who tried to incorporate Indian traditions into his own works. William Rothenstein was a good friend of Abanindranath and helped Rabindranath Tagore to publish his work ‘Gitanjali’ in English.

Abanindranath Tagore believed in the traditional Indian techniques of painting. He rejected the materialistic art of the West and emphasized on returning to the Indian traditional art forms. He believed that Indian art and its art forms gave importance to spirituality as opposed to the West which stressed on materialism. He was very much influenced by the Mughal School of painting as well as Whistler's Aestheticism. In his later works, Abanindranath started integrating Chinese and Japanese calligraphic traditions into his style. The intention behind this move was to construct an amalgamation of the modern pan-Asian artistic tradition and the common elements of Eastern artistic and spiritual culture. His works reflected his ideologies and since they were simple in nature, his paintings were a hit among Indian art lovers.

Some of his most notable works include:

Ganesh Janani – Painted in the year 1908, ‘Ganesh Janani’ depicts an image of Lord Ganesh in his child form. The Lord is seen playing by hanging on to a branch of a tree while his mother wears a concerned look on her face.

Bharat Mata – This beautiful painting was completed in the year 1905. The painting depicts Bharat Mata (Mother India). She is portrayed as having four hands, carrying important elements in each of her hand. The painting reflects Indian tradition, which features in most of his works.

The Victory of Buddha – ‘The Victory of Buddha’ depicts a portrait of Buddha after achieving enlightenment. It also answers Buddha’s ultimate question pertaining to the human sufferings.

The Passing of Shah Jahan – This is a scene straight out of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s final day. The picture depicts Shah Jahan in his death bed, trying to get a final view of Taj Mahal, which would be his final resting place.

Journey's End - Painted in the year 1913, ‘Journey's End’ depicts a tired looking camel, which looks more relieved than happy after coming to an end of its journey.

Chaitanya with his followers on the sea beach of Puri – As the name suggests, this painting is all about Chaitanya and his followers.

Art and Aesthetics of Abanindranath Tagore

Radhika gazing at the portrait of Sri Krishna – This is one of his many paintings based on the life of Lord Krishna. These paintings were created during the early stages of his career.

Departure of Siddhartha – This painting narrates the story behind Buddha’s departure, when he decides to leave behind his wife and son for the greater good.

Aurangzeb examining the head of Dara – Painted in the year 1911, this creation portrays the cruelty of Aurangzeb. In the painting, Emperor Aurangzeb examines the severed head of his brother Dara.

Illustrations of Omar Khayyam – Painted in the year 1909, this beautiful portrait depicts the illustrations of Omar Khayyam.Summer, from RituSanghar of Kalidasa – Completed in the year 1905, this painting is about the legendary Indian poet Kalidasa.

Birds and Animals series – As the name suggests, this is a series of paintings that depict birds and animals. It was painted in the year 1915.

The Call of the Flute – Painted in the year 1910, ‘The Call of the Flute’ narrates one of the many interesting stories from the life of Lord Krishna.

Devi Prasad

He started learning painting at the feet of Italian painter Boiess. Later he abandoned European technique and style and became a disciple of the master artist Abanindranath Tagore. Though in the early days of his career, Deviprasad worked as a painter, later he devoted himself as a sculptor. His meticulous and spontaneous endeavour in this direction earned him fame as a sculptor. His monumental as well as life-size compositions deserve admiration of art connoisseurs and viewers alike. Devi Prasad may be ranked among the eminent artists of the twentieth century who absorbed oriental and occidental style of art. Same of his notable works are: 'Ma' 'Sharad Pratima', 'Jiban-Sandhya' 'Surer Nesha' 'Gadi' where blending of western mode of perspective, composition and oriental style of drawing made his works rhythmic and uncanny and at the same time sublime and exquisite.

RABINDRANATH TAGORE (Philosophy of Education and Painting)

Artist Devi Prasad created numerous sculptures. He was the first modern artist of Bengal who worked on bronze. His monumental and life-size sculptures exemplify qualities of movement, inherent energy and pensive mood. His sculptures entitled 'Triumph of Labour' housed at Delhi, 'Shahid Smriti' placed in front of Bihar Secretariat and 'Temple Entry Proclamation' at Tribandram, 'Gandhiji's Dandi Obhijan' at Calcutta and portrait of 'Sir Ashutosh' etc are some of his famous works. Two of his other famous portraits are of Bishop Lieubiter and Annie Besant. Besides the arena of art world, Deviprasad's literary pursuits made him all the more famous. Among his students Gopal Sen and Paritosh Ghosh earned international repute as artists. Deviprasad Roychowdhury died on 14 October 1975.

Dinkar Kowshik

A sensitive master painter, a prolific writer, and a perceptive teacher, Dinkar Kowshik, passed in February a decade ago in Santiniketan – a place he was closely attached to – a place where his creativity was nurtured as a student, and where, he in turn, nurtured the talent of many painters in the past four decades that he lived there. He brought a fresh and a positive stimulus to Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan when he took over as the principal of one of the most celebrated art campuses in the world. This was the time when both Binode da and Kinker da came into their elements again - and he got some of the great minds in art to move to Santiniketan. Somenath Hore, K.G Subramanyan, Sharbari Rai Choudhuri and others came to the institution to give it a new life and the original creative edge.

At Santiniketan, the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore on art and teaching continued for a long time as a monumental model. Subsequently, there developed in the art arena of Santikietan the three pillars of ideas – Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. They together raised Santiniketan to a level of unique eminence in the field of modern art in pre-independence India. In the post-independence period, the revivalist idiom of the Bengal School of Art was discarded and a new momentum was visible in the works of many artists. Dinkar Kowshik was a prominent name in the star-studded group. Protest is the very core of the modern vision in contemporary art. Amongst the other prominent names associated with the art arena at Santiniketan in the post-independence era are K.G. Subramanyan and Somnath Hore.

Nandalal Bose: The Doyen of Indian Art (An Old and Rare Book)

A quiet and an unassuming person, Dinkar exuded calmness and happiness – so visible on his canvasses too.  The rootedness and the reaching-out that mark the Visva Bharati ethos is apparent in Dinkar Kowshik (1918-2011) himself. After all, he’d imbibed its searching eclecticism as a student in the 1940s, and infused this legacy with contemporary practices as the Kala Bhavan principal in the late 1970s.

A December 2019 show at Birla Academy paid a tribute to the artist and academic by bringing together more than 200 works by his teachers, associates and students, and included some 18 by Kowshik himself. Semi-geometric oil figures that are like spry cut-outs; dappled watercolour stains; a chatty litho of tiny marks and scratches: they gave the viewer a taste of his explorations.

Jamini Roy

Jamini Roy started off his career as a portrait painter but wasn’t entirely happy about being a portrait painter who worked for commission. It was in the year 1925 that he heard his true calling outside the famous Kalighat temple in Calcutta. After observing a few Kalighat paintings, displayed outside the temple, Jamini instinctively knew what his preference and interest was, when it came to art. He knew that the Bengali folk art could be used as a stone to bring down not two but three birds –a way to simplify and portray the lives of common people; to make his art accessible to all; to bring back the glory of Indian art. From that moment onwards, his paintings started reflecting the Kalighat style of art. By the early 1930s, Jamini Roy became fully conversant with the lines of the Kalighat idiom and produced a greater number of art works.

 In 1938, his art works became the first Indian paintings to be displayed at a British-ruled street in Calcutta. Jamini’s thought process began to bear fruit in the 1940s when his works were bought by average middle-class Indians. What surprised him though was the interest shown by the European community towards purchasing his paintings. With the passage of time, his paintings were only reflecting the indigenous art of Kalighat painting, along with the terracotta's of the Bishnupur temple. In the following years, his works were exhibited at prestigious shows in places like London and New York City. By now, Jamini Roy had accomplished what he had intended to do when he first switched over from the Western classical styleto the folk art of Bengal.

The Art of Jamini Roy - A Documentary Film (DVD)

Some of his Notable Works include:

Ramayana – Art lovers and critics would unanimously agree that his 1946 masterpiece ‘Ramayana’ is his magnum opus. Created using Kalighatpata style, this particular work of his is a series of paintings portrayed across 17 canvases. Roy used vegetable colours and pigments derived from natural elements to narrate his version of the great Indian epic. Sarada Charan Das, the successor of K.C. Das, bought the entire series, which now adorns the walls of his residence ‘Rossogolla Bhavan.’ The residence boasts of the artist’s largest private collection with 25 of his original paintings. Jamini Roy also came up with individual episodes of Ramayana, some of which are now displayed in places like the National Art Gallery of India and the Victoria Memorial Hall.

Dual Cats with one Crayfish - Jamini Roy, during his lifetime, came up with a number of paintings portraying cats, which are now collectively called as the cat series. This particular art was created in the year 1968. The painting looks somewhat restrained when it comes to the usage of colours but has a distinctive style to it.

Bride and two Companions – Painted in the year 1952, this particular piece stands out for its majestic indigo of Bengal. Critics described this painting as having a meaning and reason attached to every aspect of it. 

Crucifixion with Attendant Angels – This painting depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Opaque watercolor is used on a material that is made out of woven palm fiber.

Krishna and Balarama – Lord Krishna is depicted along with his brother Balarama in this painting. Roy had used distinct earthy colours against a majestic red color backdrop.

Jamini Roy Vishnu De : Vinimaya (Bengali)

Santal Boy with Drum – Jamini Roy came up with a number of paintings depicting the Santal tribe as the people belonging to this particular tribe fascinated him. This particular painting was created in the year 1935.

Krishna and Radha Series – Roy created a series of paintings depicting the colorful life of

Radha and Krishna. He even painted the life of Krishna along with his other Gopis (girlfriends).

Makara – ‘Makara’ is a strange looking sea animal mentioned in the mythological tales of ancient India. Roy created this painting in the year 1945. While most of his paintings revolve around people, one might wonder what prompted him to paint this mythological creature.

St. Ann and the Blessed Virgin – All his paintings that represented the Christian iconography had Hindu idioms, making his works that much more interesting. This particular painting had three versions and was created in the year 1945.

Seated Woman in Sari – This is arguably one of the most recognizable works of Jamini Roy. It was created in the year 1947.

Jangarh Singh Shyam

The bare bones of Shyam’s story are well-known enough: he was discovered in Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh, and mentored by artist Jagdish Swaminathan, who was the then director of Bharat Bhavan, a multi-art complex and museum in Bhopal. Shyam, despite little education and no training in art, was a quick study. He soon developed his unique artistic language, using it to convey memories of his childhood and the stories of gods, men and beasts that were his cultural inheritance.

His canvases were hypnotic: dots and dashes in various hues depicted birds like the red-wattled lapwing and the brown wood owl along with an assortment of trees, gods and goddesses worshipped by the Gondi people, an adivasi tribe indigenous to Central India. He is known as one of the greatest Gond artists in history, spawning an entire branch of Gond art named after him, called ‘Jangarh Kalam’. Shyam was one of the first artists to include images of Gondi gods and goddesses like Bada Dev, the great god and Medi Ki Mata or the protector of the grains, Mashwasi Devi and even Raksa the Gond demon.

He exhibited nationally and internationally, becoming a well-respected artist and gaining prestigious commissions, including the painting of murals at the Charles Correa-designed Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal. In 2001, however, Shyam hanged himself in his room during a residency at the Mithila Museum in Tokamachi, Japan. It is believed that he took his own life because he was depressed about being forced to stay back longer than he wanted and produce more work than he wished to.

Kailash Raj

Kailash Raj is a descendant of a family of traditional Jaipur painters, and was strongly influenced by his grandfather (Nanu Lal) and by work of his great-grandfather (Amba Shankhar). His family is one of the few who managed to keep their traditional art alive throughout the 20th century, by continuing to serve as painters for the Jaipur royal family. Today, Kailash Raj is the master artist of his workshop, with several apprentices under his tutelage. In addition, he serves as a mentor to young artists from other areas of Rajasthan, who travel to him for guidance and inspiration. Although schooled in the family Jaipuri tradition (previously known as Amber school), Kailash has studied Mughal and regional styles intensively, and he and his workshop produce fine works inspired by other schools.

The Birth Of Andhaka, From Devi Parvati's Playfulness Upon Mandara Parvat

Nandalal Bose

Nandalal Bose is credited with designing the original manuscript of the Indian Constitution and emblems of India's highest civilian award Bharat Ratna. He also designed the Padma Shri. The contribution of Nandalal Bose to Indian art is unparalleled. He is known for being the man behind the creation of a new age art movement in India.

As a young artist, Nandalal Bose was influenced by the murals of the Ajanta Caves, built around 400-650 AD, described as one of the finest examples of Indian art. Nandalal Bose sketched the emblems for the Government of India's awards, including the Bharat Ratna and the Padma Shri Nandalal Bose and his disciple Ramkinkar took up the historic task of decorating the original manuscript of the Constitution of India.

Rhythms of India - The Art of Nandalal Bose

Nandalal Bose exhibited his paintings for the first time in 1911. Thereafter, the works of Nandalal Bose were displayed at several national as well as international exhibitions. Some of them include those at Crystal Palace of England, Societe des Peintres Orientalistes Francais at Grand Palais in Paris, The Netherlands & Imperial Institute of England, Indian School of Oriental Art, American Federation of Art, Athenee Gallery of Geneva, Centenary Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, etc. Even the Lucknow and Haripura Session of the Indian National Congress exhibited the works of Nandalal Bose. In the year 1976, his works were included among the ‘Nine Masters’ by the Archaeological Survey of India. The works included in the ‘Nine Masters’, are considered as art treasures because of their artistic and aesthetic value.

Nandalal Bose's students included legends like Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, Beohar Rammanohar Sinha, KG Subramanyan, Henry Dharmasena, Pratima Thakur, Ramananda Bandopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, Dinkar Kaushik among others.

Satish Gujral

Over the last six decades, Indian art and architecture has been greatly benefited, thanks to the fickle-minded nature of Satish Gujral. Because of his ability to get bored of things easily, he kept changing his profession, but perfected each one of them. At the end of it all, the man turned into one of the most brilliant multi-faceted personalities India has ever seen. Though he wouldn’t agree to it, art has remained his constant love, even as he experimented with it like no other lover would. Over the years, he has constantly changed his medium and materials in order to differentiate his art from that of his previous creation. Known for creating some of the most exquisite paintings, murals and sculptures, Satish Gujral is one of the greatest as well as the most versatile artists of India. He also ventured into architecture, even as people criticized him for doing so since he was already successful as an artist. Had he not ventured into architecture fearing failure, India wouldn’t have got one of the finest buildings of the 20th century – the Belgium Embassy, situated in New Delhi.

Satish Gujral: An Artography

In the initial stages of his career, his work was heavily influenced by the suffering of people who lost their homes and families because of the partition of the country. The Partition of India and the associated agony of the immigrants impacted a young Satish and manifested itself in the artworks he created. From 1952 to 1974, Gujral organised shows of his sculptures, paintings and graphics in many cities across the world such as New York City, New Delhi, Montreal, Berlin and Tokyo, among others. Since he had witnessed the cruel act first-hand, he couldn’t help but to incorporate his personal experience in his creations. Later on, he realized that people would not appreciate the same kind of art over and over again and hence started to change his style of work. Slowly, Satish started diversifying his sculptural materials with machined industrialized objects made up of steel, copper, glass, etc., and even gave life to sculptures by using junk materials.

The period of 1952 to 1974 saw Satish Gujral organizing solo shows all over the world. The shows featured his sculptures, paintings and graphics. The cities in which he organized his shows include Mexico City, New York, New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Montreal, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Stockholm. Since the late 1980s, paintings and sculptures of Satish Gujral have shown a greater expansion, both in terms of materials as well as content. He started making large murals, mostly in mosaic and ceramic tiles. Later, machined steel elements overtook the tiles. Satish Gujral's sculptures, made out of burnt wood, come across as visceral exposure of human and other forms.

Satish Gujral (Selected Works 1947 - 2000)

No matter what the subject matter is, Satish Gujral creates his works after understanding their nuances and the history behind them. This gives his works depth and sets them apart from the works of his contemporaries. Like many great artists, Satish too, is a master of creating modern art without disturbing its tradition, for there lingers the real beauty of any art.

Syed Haider Raza

One of the most distinguished artists of the Indian subcontinent, Sayed Haider Raza, simply known as S.H. Raza, is famous for his usage of rich colours in all his portrays. During the initial stages of his career, Syed Haider Raza’s paintings mainly revolved around expressionistic landscapes. His very first show was held at Bombay Art Society, even before he moved to France. Though he finished his education in 1953, he chose to remain in Paris, as he thought that his works would receive appreciation from the European art lovers. For this reason, he even travelled across most parts of Europe. During his stay in Paris, Raza was highly influenced by its landscape and incorporated it in his creations. He also painted the landscapes of his mind which looked more abstract than expressive. He also incorporated elements of Indian scriptures and other things Indian that would make his art look more impressive and meaningful. In 1962, he started serving as a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. There, he influenced many American painters and taught them the nuances of incorporating interesting Indian elements into modern art.

Sayed Haider Raza (The Journey of An Iconic Artist)

The paintings of S.H. Raza revolve mainly around nature and its various facets. Over the years, his paintings evolved from being purely expressionist landscapes to abstract ones. He believes the Bindu (dot) to be the center of creation and existence and his works reflect this particular thinking. Even though the vibrancy of his paintings had become subtle later on in his career, the dynamism remained as alive as ever.

Vasudev Sharan Agarwal

Vasudev Sharan Agarwal (1904 - 1967) was a writer of India's history, culture, art, and literature. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his book Padmavat Sanjivani Vyakhya. Born in Vaishya family, brought up in Lucknow, Vasudev Sharan Agarwal received PhD in 1941, and was awarded D.Litt in 1946. He headed Archaeological Museum, Mathura. In 1951, he joined Banaras Hindu University as a professor of Indology. He has written nearly 200-250 works in his lifetime. His literature revolves around Hindi and Sanskrit, most of them being written in “Khadi Hindi Boli”. He was also deeply interested in penning essays, translations and chapters. His famous works include Meghdoot, Harshcharit, Padmavat, Markandeya Puran, Kirtilata, Bharat Savitri, Bharatiya Dharma Mimansa among others.

वासुदेव शरण अग्रवाल (रचना-संचयन): Vasudeva Sharan Agrawala (A Selection)
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