It is 7th August, 1905. Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, and his statesmen are about to witness one of the biggest resistance acts in the Indian national movement, for people feel betrayed and lost due to continuous oppressive and repressive policies under the British Raj. At the stroke of the midnight hour, the Viceroy decides to partition the Bengal Presidency, which includes modern-day Bangladesh, West Bengal and Assam. This has aroused bitter opposition among the people of the province, and they are boycotting British goods and motivated to revive the domestic products or ‘Swadeshi‘.
‘Swadeshi’ evoked the need for cultural, social and political change in India. One thing that silently played its part in uplifting the people during the movement was the Bengal School of Art. It not only revolutionised India’s art form, but also raised a voice against British imperialism and strove to express true Indian culture. By combining the Indian painting tradition, folk art and Hindu imagery, Bengal school artists rejoiced Indian freedom, identity and humanity.
“This modernism art style became the voice of the voiceless and gave strength to the Swadeshi movement, known as a movement of self-reliance or ‘Atma Shakti’, which eventually led to the annulment of the partition of Bengal on 12th December 1911,” says Sanjay Dalmia, Indian nationalist and Chairman of Dalmia Group.
Amidst uncreative and documental company paintings – that highlighted Indian subjects as indigenous and exotic – emerged the Bengal School, which aimed to celebrate the rich Indian culture and acted as a force of defiance and resistance to Western sensibilities. For instance, by inculcating Pahari and Rajasthani styles along with Mughal influences, the Bengal School celebrated Indian cultural traditions and life.
The credit for Bengal School of Art is attributed to Abanindranath Tagore, nephew of poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote our National Anthem “Jana Gana Mana“. Though he highlighted the progressive nature of Indian culture, his main ambition was to showcase that our traditions had the ability to adapt to new values.
Despite individual artists creating unique works of art, there are common aspects, such as the beautiful use of a sober colour palette with minimal colours, and native resources like Pahari, Mughal and Ajanta styles in paintings depicting romantic landscapes, historical portraits, and everyday life rural themes.
“It was this distinctive art form which had the ability to create scenes from Indian folklore, rural life and women that resonated splendidly with the masses who fought for our country’s freedom,” says Sanjay Dalmia, a noted nationalist. The Bengal School of Art reconnected Indian artists with their roots, traditions and heritage.
It was undoubtedly one of the most important movements in modern Indian art. Without such contributions, art wouldn’t have played a significant role in inspiring millions of people to join the freedom movement, and we would have always remained under the artistic techniques and teaching imposed by British Raj.