The Bengal School
As superintendent of the Government College of Art and Craft in Calcutta (1896-1908), E. B. Havell took a unique stance in directing young Indian artists back towards their cultural heritage. His first step was to acquire a collection of Mughal paintings. Havell's student Abanindranath Tagore took up the cause to collectively inaugurate the Bengal School, a concerted attempt at nationalism through art took root and united an array of diverse styles in the early twentieth century.
Abanindranath contributed to the revival of a national art consciousness and Untitled (Sadhu) (lot 515) is directly associated: this depiction of the 'holy man' is imbued with further enlightened significance given the circumstances surrounding its creation. The artist's progress toward a national style similarly coincided with his meeting Kakuzo Okakura at the turn of the century. The Japanese art critic travelled to Calcutta to initiate a pan-Asian alliance (declaring "Asia is One") with the intellectual circle led by Abanindranath's uncle Rabindranath Tagore. As in India, a European academic style arrived in Japan and ousted indigenous art from popular esteem. Similarly, a challenge to these values came via the cultural movement lauded by Okakura who declared: "Art can only be developed by nations that are in a state of freedom [..in..] that gladness of liberty which we call the sense of nationality." (K. Okakura, The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan, New York, 1920, p.1 and p. xii respectively).
In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore founded a college, Visva Bharati, at Santiniketan in Bengal. A center for nationalist activity, the school attracted influential painters like Nandalal Bose, Abanindranath's most prodigious student who in 1922, became the principal of Kala Bhavan. All understood modernism not as a mere aesthetic shift but as a fundamental call via art to realize cultural identity anew, to express collective aspirations via the local environment, being at once patriotic and liberating.
In 1907, the Indian Society of Oriental Art was established and from the outset its aims were similarly orientated in service of the new generation of Bengali, nationalist artists. The Society produced an extensive scholarly publication Rupam regularly from 1920, under the editorship of O. C. Ganguly. The Society's activities were served primarily by Gaganendranath Tagore, who rallied support and organized events; Abanindranath, an articulate and respected teacher who attracted young students to the fold; and Rabindranath as the visionary. At the intervention of the Tagores and as recorded in the Bauhaus archives in Weimar, the first exhibition of Bauhaus works on paper to be shown outside Germany occurred in Calcutta in December 1922. It was the first exhibition of its kind in India and included works by Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and others. As per a detailed review that appeared in Rupam shortly afterwards: "[...] It is the revelation of a new point of view [...]." (Rupam, No. 13/14, January - June 1923, p. 14). In this way Gaganendranath may have been influenced by Feininger in producing Untitled (lot 513) which in tandem explores space by way of faceted, interweaving, monochromatic planes. Moreover Anna Pavlova, a Principal artist of the Ballets Russes, was friendly with the Tagores whom she visited in Calcutta. Gaganandranath was likely aware of Ballets Russes stage designs, produced by artists such as Natalia Goncharova as well as Nicholas Roerich who was a known figure in India at the time. Through Untitled (lots 511 and 512) Gaganendranath mercilessly caricatured the attitudes of colonial Bengal and these works may also bear witness to Feininger's influence, given the published social satires produced by both artists in response to respective current events.
Nandalal Bose looked to a revivalist style: celebrating and idealizing rural folk. Painted one year after Independence, Untitled (lot 514) relates to the Haripura Congress posters of 1937, that were commissioned of Bose by Mahatma Gandhi. Importantly Bose and Gandhi shared a belief that India's identity was intimately linked to its rural villages, populated by those who were less tied to the British colonizers. Welcoming the new season with music, young girls in garlands and yellow saris dance, as depicted in Untitled (Dol Festival) (lot 516) simultaneously engaging local forms in a style which was ultimately in service of nationalism.