In the last few months, those who wandered over to Rangsharda Hotel in Bandra’s reclamation area in search of a reasonably-priced quaff, have been startled by an odd-looking building that’s sprung up opposite it. The sand-coloured three-storied structure, which curves in unexpected places, is the new premises of Bombay Art Society (BAS). Its unabashedly contemporary design is the 127-year-old institution’s way of saying that it is ready to take its place in the city’s contemporary art scene.
With its three galleries, a library (still being stocked) as well as a 90-seater auditorium and a 15-seat conference room, the BAS is positioning the new building, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 13, as a complete space for artists. “We’re looking at this as a place where the artist community can come together to discuss and exchange ideas. Artists can exhibit their works in the galleries, and use the conference room and the auditorium to conduct talks, give presentations or screen movies,” says Shraddha Purnaye, curator and administrative officer of the BAS.
In the last few decades, as private art galleries opened and took over the task of promoting and selling the works of individual artists, the Bombay Art Society stopped wielding the type of influence that it once did. But it was through the BAS’s annual exhibitions and competitions that many of India’s greatest artists — Amrita Sher-Gil, KH Ara, SH Raza, MF Husain, FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Badri Narayan and KK Hebbar — first gained recognition. Sher-Gil is a case in point. The artist, relatively unknown at the time, won the society’s gold medal in 1937 for her now-iconic work Group of Three Girls. As art historian Yashodhara Dalmia says, there can be no denying that the Bombay Art Society’s gold medal brought a lot of attention to Sher-Gil’s work.
Similarly, it was the Bombay Art Society’s salon, established when the society found a “home” in Rampart Row in 1939, which offered space for solo shows to artists like Raza, Hebbar, Souza and Ara. It also hosted talks, lectures and film screenings, which were attended by artists, critics and art lovers from the city. When the BAS was established in 1888, the intention, as stated in The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island Vol. III, 1910, was to encourage art, “particularly among amateurs, and of educating the native public to an appreciation of its merits.” This was done mainly through the annual exhibition which was then a major event in the society’s, and the city’s, calendar. The exhibitions continued to be important until the late 1950s and early 1960s, when connoisseurs and collectors like Dr Homi Bhabha visited in search of new works.
The earliest artists who showcased their works were European amateurs — British officers stationed in Bombay and their wives, who had taken up painting as a hobby, and students from the Sir JJ School of Arts, which was founded in 1857. However, MV Dhurandhar’s clinching of the prize for the best black-and-white work in the 1892 exhibition, opened the door for other Indian artists and by the time of the annual exhibition of 1923, 136 of the 192 participating artists, were Indian.
Besides the Sir JJ School of Arts, the BAS was one of the major influencers of Bombay’s art movements, which were distinct from those that came up in other parts of India, notably the Bengal School that grew and flourished in the early part of the 20th century. The style favoured by the school and the BAS was heavily academic, drawing on European ideas of realism and using techniques like chiaroscuro and perspective while depicting Indian subjects. Indian nationalism, when it finally did began influencing art in Bombay, found expression, not in the rejection of the academic style, but in the growing sensitivity of Indian artists like SL Haldankar to India’s natural environment, as well as the later period of Indian “revivalism”.
Some believe that the BAS lost its relevance because its “academic” approach clashed with the modernist aspirations of post-Independence artists. Curator Ranjit Hoskote, however, suggests that the tendency to view the BAS as “backward-looking” is part of a “canon-making narrative” that builds up the so-called Bombay Progressive group as rebels. Even in the 1950s and later, he observes, exciting work was being done by artists such as Shiavax Chavda, KK Hebbar, Mohan Samant, Jehangir Sabavala, Prabhakar Barve, and this was being recognized by the BAS. The society, which has always functioned as a charitable organisation run solely on donations and with no government support, also found it hard to keep up with the growing number of private galleries and art fairs which had a more commercial approach.
“We are still firm about wanting to promote young and mid-career artists through exhibitions, awards and scholarships, while remaining a charitable organisation,” says Purnaye, “We plan to charge a very nominal amount for the gallery spaces, the auditorium and the conference. We even have two rooms on the premises where artists from other parts of the country can stay while they are exhibiting their works in our galleries.”