“There are no ‘Old Masters’ properly speaking in our Indian Galleries because there are none in India. The living semblance is too well known to make one inclined to regard deceased Genius as dead; for ancient powers are delegated to a million skillful Indian fingers today.” Thus wrote William Ewart Gladstone Solomon, principal of the Sir JJ School of Art from 1918 to 1937 and curator of the Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) from 1921 to 1937, in his book The Charm of Indian Art.
Solomon was the prime mover in the wave of revivalism that swept through the Mumbai art world in the early 20th century, and in his position as head of the city’s art school, championed his students’ ability to merge the classical forms of Europe and India to produce a ‘truer style’ of Indian art.
As a tribute to Solomon, CSMVS has opened ‘Pravaha’, an exhibition of paintings from the Bombay School, which covers the period from the late 19th to the mid-20th century and features works by artists such as Pestonjee Bomanjee, Salvalaram Haldankar, Antonio Trindade, JM Ahivasi, SH Raza and KH Ara.
Born of South African Jewish parentage in 1880 in Britain, Solomon arrived in then Bombay after serving in the Royal British Army as a captain.
An accomplished painter who had been trained in the Royal Academy of London, he took over as the principal of the Sir JJ School of Art in 1918, at a time when the institution had been surpassed in both influence and government patronage by the Calcutta School of Art, led by Abanindranath Tagore’s model of modernisation of Mughal and Rajput styles and rejection of the Western styles.
With Solomon’s arrival, Mumbai came back into the reckoning. Prasanna Mangrulkar, assistant curator for European and modern Indian painting at CSMVS, says, “The first thing that he did was to remove the old curriculum, based on the South Kensington School of Art, and install Royal Academy syllabus. He initiated the study of nude models, which had been rejected by the Bengal school as not being true to Indian art tradition.”
With revivalism in mind, mural painting, designing for murals and enlarging figures to scale became the cornerstones of the Bombay School. Solomon believed that merging Indian and European principles of art education was necessary if his students were to imbibe their heritage as represented by the murals of Ajanta and Indian miniatures.
In The Charm of Indian Art, Solomon wrote, “In spite of that hallmark of frigidity, which is so jealously prized by those who only recognise its severer religious phases, Indian Art is permeated with Realism…is not the Realism of the Bombay Art student more likely to lead to the new Ajanta than the lifeless or sterile copying of great originals?” The changes in Mumbai — and the birth of a new ‘Indian’ style — didn’t go unnoticed, least of all by rival artists at the Bengal school and their supporters. In his book The Triumph of Modernism, art historian Partha Mitter reports that OC Gangoly, editor of the publication Rupam, who was aligned with the Bengal school, dismissed Solomon’s efforts in his review of The Charm of Indian Art. Gangoly wrote, “If the Indian artist was as imaginative as claimed by Solomon, why impose life classes on him?” Solomon fired a few salvos at critics of his revivalism in his writings and lectures. He wrote, “The people who profess to see deadly danger in progressive discoveries in art such as drawing a life-size figure accurately from life…cannot admire a picture by an Indian artist if it looks like it has been painted in their own time, though they do not object to the Indian artist wearing boots!”
Solomon’s vision triumphed when in 1928 he managed to clinch for his students the prestigious project of decorating the new Imperial Secretariat in Delhi, although the rivalry with the Bengal school remained fierce. When he became the curator at the museum, Solomon continued his campaign on behalf of the Bombay School and thanks to his position as principal at the art school, he managed to acquire works by some of his best students. “It was because of his foresight that the museum has a large number of paintings from the Bombay School in its collection. They are now preserved for posterity,” says Mangrulkar.