It is one of the foremost art institutions in India but is there a definitive style that defines Santinikean? The investigation forms the crux of an ongoing exhibition at Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) in the Capital. With 150 works of art and a publication, an answer is sought in the history of the institution, right from its foundation as Bhramacharyasrama in 1901, when Tagore turned a desolate barren land into an art school with handful students.
The story of Santiniketan and the exhibition encircles around its founder, Tagore, and the work of its three principal artists, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee. Four artists who are stylistically distinct but share common concerns. If Bose and Behari were interested in the issue of art language and correspondence between representational convention and visual facts, distinct from Bose, Behari was neither a nationalist nor an activist. Baij participated in the nationalist movement, but for him, human figures occupied the foreground, unlike the two for whom figures mostly remained part of the landscape. “If Rabindranath and Nandalal were the pioneers who articulated its (Santiniketan’s) ideals, Benode Bihari and Ramkinkar carried it forward in time,” says R Siva Kumar, former principal, Kala Bhavana, the fine arts faculty of Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan.
So we are given glimpses into the Santiniketan visualised by Tagore. Kishore Singh, Head, Exhibition and Publication, DAG, says the origins of Santiniketan’s art practice were in Jorasanko — the Tagore residence that was the salon for art and culture. The scene inside is best depicted in a Bose ink-on-paper, with the three Tagores (Abanindranath, Gaganendranath and Samarendranath) relaxing in the premises with art critic Ananda K Coomaraswamy and Bose himself. There is also his iconic depiction of Mahatma Gandhi with his walking stick, sketched postcards that Bose used to communicate and among the rarer works, his 1950 self-portrait made as a copy of a portrait of his by Gaganendranath Tagore.
Born into a family of hereditary barbers in rural Bankura district, Baij’s early memories of watching the village potters at work influenced his choice of sculpture as a medium. The labouring Santhals right outside Santiniketan were his primary subjects, exemplified in Santhal Family and Mill Call. A ’40s canvas of the latter has the striding figures of two women responding to the mill siren. The display has his flirtations with cubism and landscapes and a 1938 cement head of Rabindranath Tagore, where he dares distortion, attempting an inside-outside connect. Grappling with poor eyesight that eventually rendered him blind, Mukherjee was closest to nature. In his works, we see the open greens of Santiniketan, its lotus ponds and tranquil trees. Then, there is the founder himself: Tagore, who started painting only in his sixties, until his last months; there are his birds and portraits, several of his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, who was often his muse.
Together, the four influenced Santiniketan like no other. Their persona perhaps is best described by Singh when he says, “Four more different people might be difficult to imagine: Nandalal Bose, the gentle and elegant artist-teacher; Ram Kinkar Baij, stubborn, primal, a genius; Benode Bihari Mukherjee, ailing for most of his life but with an amazing visual memory; and Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel-laureate, unafraid to test the boundaries set up by conservative establishments.”
The exhibition at Delhi Art Gallery, 11 Hauz Khas Village, is on till December 10. Contact: 46005300