The Calcutta organization known as the Indian Society of Oriental Art grew out of successive exhibitions of the works of the Tagore School of art which began to be held at the Government School of Art, Calcutta, from the early part of this century. The Society was sponsored by a group of European connoisseurs living in Calcutta who began to take keen interest in the works of Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Surendranath Gangoly-the last two being the earliest disciples of Abanindranath Tagore. The name of the Calcutta society had to be distinguished from an art society which existed in Paris under the name of The Society of Oriental Art.
The career of the Indian Society, as we said, began with a series of annual exhibitions, at which were shown the latest works of the artists of the new movement in Indian painting initiated by Abanindranath Tagore-at first under the guidance of E. B. Havell.
The Society was born about the year 1907, led by a group of Europeans in Calcutta who began to admire the merits of this new school of painting based on the outlook and traditions of the mediaeval schools of Indian painting in its Buddhist phases at Ajanta and Bagh caves and in its secular phase represented by the Moghul School patronized by Akbar and Jahangir. Among the European members of the Calcutta Society at the beginning was the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Kitchener. He was supported by two eminent judges of the Calcutta High Court, Mr. Justice Woodroffe and Mr. Justice Rampini; with them were Mr. Justice Holmwood, and Mr. Justice Ashutosh Chaudhuri. The most active members of the Society at its earliest stage were three merchants of Calcutta-two Swedish businessmen in Calcutta, Mr. Rueboson and Mr. Muller, and an English jute broker Mr. Norman Blount, the senior partner of the firm of Messrs. Sinclair Murray & Co. With this group of European connoisseurs of Indian painting were associated several cultured Indians and artists, of whom the names of Maharaja Jagadindranath Roy of Nature, Maharajadhiraja Bijny Chand Mahtab of Burdwan, Mr. J. Chaudhuri, Bar-at-Law, and Mr. Surendranath Tagore, associated with The Hindusthan Insurance Co. and a writer of distinction, deserve special mention. The first President of the Society was Lord Kitchener, and the first Secretaries were Mr. Norman Blount and Mr. Abanindranath Tagore. Later Presidents were "Mr. Justice Woodroffe, Lord Carmichael, sometime Governor of Bengal, the Maharajadhiraja of Burdwan, Sir Rajendranath Mukherjee and Sir Charles Kesteven. The business meetings of the Society, generally arranged at intervals of a month, were held in the rooms of the Government School of Art and sometimes in the rooms of the Asiatic Society. The Society used to subscribe to a number of journals of art, which were circulated among members. The Society first came into prominence by associating with the project of the London India Society to have new copies made of the frescoes of the Ajanta caves. The Indian Society deputed two eminent artists, Nandalal Bose and Asitkumar Haldar to go to the caves and work for several months under the leadership of an English artist, Lady Herringham, who was an expert copyist of Italian frescoes. The copies made by the group of artists were subsequently published by the India Society, London and were very much admired by the press in Europe.
Other activities of the Indian Society included occasional lectures on Indian art, of which the most epoch-making was a brilliant lecture, illustrated with lantern slides, delivered by Dr. Coomaraswamy at the house of the President, Sir John Woodroffe. The principal activity consisted of exhibitions-first in Calcutta, and then in various other cities of India-chiefly arranged by Dr. James H. Cousins who, as an assistant editor of New India, a Madras journal, used to publish reviews of the exhibitions of the Calcutta Society and to popularize the Bengal movement in other centres of India. The reviews of the exhibitions in Calcutta used to be written at the beginning by Sir John Woodroffe and created mild sensations. Later on the reviews were undertaken by Dr. Cousins who used to come to Calcutta at the special invitation of Sir John Woodroffe. Later reviews of the exhibitions, generally published in the columns of The Statesman, were contributed by Sri O. C. Gangoly who was Honorary Secretary to the Society and later its Vice-President.
The Society also published outstanding examples of the works of Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose, originally in the Japanese process of colour wood blocks which very accurately translated the delicacy and flavour of the modern Indian paintings. The landmarks in this brilliant series of accurate reproductions by the Japanese process began with the colour facsimile of Nandalal Bose's "Sati" which was first published in the Japanese journal Kokka accompanied by an appreciative article from the pen of Sir John Woodroffe. Other successful reproductions by the Japanese process covered Abanindranath Tagore's "Feast of Lamps" and Surendranath Gangoly's masterpiece "Kartikeya".
Great impetus to the movement was generously provided by the distinguished.. journalist and patriot the late Mr. Ramananda Chatterjee who used to reproduce many of the works of the Bengal School in colour plates, published regularly in the pages of the Pravasi and The Modern Review. Unfortunately, the local halftone process failed to translate the delicate beauty of the works of Tagore and his disciples and the Indian Society began to try other processes of colour reproductions undertaken by some London firms of engravers, namely, the firm of Carl Henstchel who reproduced the famous picture of "Kumari-Vrata" by Nandalal Bose and by another firm of engraver named Emery Walker who had invented a new colour process, which very nearly approached the quality of the Japanese one. The Indian Society published, by the Emery Walker colour collotype process, several works of the Bengal School, namely, Tagore's "Queen of Asoka", "Feed the Living God", and Kshitindranath Mazumdar's "Chaitanya" and "Radha and Krishna". These very successful colour facsimiles of Indian painting were distributed free to- the members of the Indian Society of Oriental Art and helped to win admirers for their works chiefly amongst distant lovers of oriental painting who were unable to examine the originals at the exhibitions of the Society held regularly in Calcutta.
Besides colour reproductions of Indian painters, the Indian Society used regularly to publish excellent photographs of outstanding Indian paintings, executed by Messrs. Johnston & Hoffmann, Calcutta, a firm of photographers patronized by the Society. These photographs popularized the famous works of Nandalal Bose's "Jagai Madhai","TheChoice of Damayanti", "The Vow of Bhishma" and several paintings by Abanindranath Tagore.
The movement received an impetus by the migration to Calcutta of a hereditary artist of the Moghul tradition, Iswariprasad of Patna. Many of his pictures published by the Society, chiefly "Pardanashin", became very popular.
But a really great impetus was provided to the work of the Society by the generous patronage of the then Governor of Bengal, His Excellency Lord Ronaldshay, who began to study Indian philosophy and became an enthusiastic admirer of the works of the Tagore School of painting. "With the help of large sums of money allotted from public funds the Society was able to arrange a home of its own by hiring an extensive flat at 6 Samavaya Mansions in the Hindusthan Insurance Building in Hogg Street where a school for teaching painting and sculpture was opened by the Society with the help of two teachers, Nandalal Bose and Kshitindranath Mazumdar, and generally supervised by Abanindranath and Gaganendranath who used to visit the school regularly every afternoon. The sculpture class was conducted by a talented hereditary sthapati from Orissa, Giridharilal by name, who executed several masterpieces in wood and in plaster which were outstanding exhibits in the Annual Exhibition of the Society. Besides the annual exhibitions of the works of Tagore and his disciples, several outstanding exhibitions of other works of art were arranged in this hall. There was, for instance, a magnificent exhibition of Japanese colour prints held at which not only did all the art-lovers of the city come but which was also crowded by the visits of Chinese and Japanese inhabitants of Calcutta who came to the show as a mark of honour to this remarkable display of Far-Eastern art. According to a report in a local daily paper every man and woman and child in Chinatown came including babies in arms, and decrepit and lame old men on their crutches.
Of the students who were trained in the school conducted by the Indian Society of Oriental Art, and who later became famous, one can recall the names of S. Venkatappa who came from Mysore, Hakim Khan and Sami-uz-Zama who came from Lucknow, Roop Krishna who came from Lahore, and several local talents of whom
Pramodekumar Chattopadhyaya, Deviprasad RayChaudhuri, Bireswar Sen, Sailendranath De, Surendranath Kar and Chanchalkumar Bandyopadhyaya attained celebrity.
The activities of the Indian Society not only attracted the notice of other cities in India which frequently invited it to send exhibitions to Benares, Lucknow, Lahore, Bombay, Madras and Bangalore and also to Ceylon, but its fame travelled even across the seas through the enthusiasm of numerous foreign visitors who came to Calcutta during the cold season and were frequent visitors to the rooms of the Society in Samavaya Mansions. The extensive floor and the large walls of its hall provided splendid exhibition space and conjured up an atmosphere of Indian culture which was mystic as well as fascinating.
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