AN INTRODUCTION TO EARLY BENGAL PAINTING
The Bengal School of painting is generally recognized as having formally begun in 1905, following the division of the province of Bengal by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India at the time. Calcutta, and more specifically the Government School of Art under the leadership of the influential art historian E.B. Havell, became the spiritual and conceptual home of the celebrated Bengal School. Havell, a reformer, emphasized art that was rooted in Indian rather than Western traditions, and championed authenticity and spirituality over illusionism and materialism. Artists like Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Prosanto Roy, Kshitindranath Mazumdar and Nandalal Bose are some of the most well-known exponents and pioneers of this approach.
The rise of the early Bengal School cannot be explained as linear evolution but represents a beguiling coalescence of different approaches in a region that underwent enormous social, political, economic and ideological change, first under the East India Company and then the British Raj until India’s independence in 1947. One of the practices that led to its formation was what is known as 'Early Bengal School painting' today, one of the most critical and intriguing styles to have flourished in the region during the late nineteenth century. Painters of the Early Bengal School synthesized Eastern and Western traditions to create an aesthetic that was distinctive from any other movement or style of the time. These artists, who remain largely anonymous to this day, were trained in oil painting and in the Western academic realism prevalent in the Royal Courts, and coopted it to create a new style depicting mythological and religious scenes. Working at the same time as the famous Raja Ravi Varma, renowned for mastering oil painting in the Academic Realist style, these artists also showed accomplished skill with oil paintings, albeit in a very different way. What differentiated the Early Bengal School artists was their hybridizing of local or vernacular subject matter to portray iconic mythological scenes. In their work Company School paintings, Kalighat patas, court painting and Western academic realism all combine to give rise to a vigorously syncretic, unmistakable aesthetic. These paintings represent Bengali artisans' creative answer to the History Painting pioneered by French Neoclassical painters in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Lot 456 depicts a sumptuously adorned Court Scene with Shiva, Brahma and Krishna, and perfectly illustrates the early Bengali artist’s hybridization of East and West. The naturalism of the figures and garments and the trompe-l'oeil of the architecture and decor is adapted from Western painting and applied to this Indian mythological subject. In doing this, the artist elevates the subject from the decorative to the academic.
In the Disrobing of Draupadi (lot 457), the artist constructs the composition based on a painting by English artist Frederick Christian Lewis (1813-75), echoed in an engraving produced by his father of the same name, an edition of which is included as part of the lot. While the orginal painting depicted the festival of Dassehra celebrated by the Maharaja of Mysore, here the composition and architecture are appropriated to represent the court of Dhritarashtra instead. In this scene, the artist depicts a famous story from the Mahabharata where Yudhishthira of the Pandava family loses his wife Draupadi in a game of dice against Duryodhana of the Kaurava family. On this loss, it is ordered that Draupadi be publicly disrobed as a final act of humiliation for the Pandava brothers, but she is saved at the last minute by Lord Krishna. A comparison of the two compositions reveals how the later artist’s cleverly chosen replications allow him to adapt Lewis' iconic scene to this story with very few astute amendments, such as substituting the Maharaja with Duryodhana. This painting also reveals how several Indian artists drew on artwork from Europe that they saw in prints and reproductions, their only means of access.
The painters of the Early Bengal School set a precedent in adapting certain elements of European art to their own subjects where non-western figures and narratives were central. Their work laid the foundations for the more overtly nationalistic Bengal School that followed at the turn of the twentieth century.