Das Gupta joined Calcutta’s Government College of Art as professor of sculpture. He served as Curator of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, from 1957 to 1970. Das Gupta was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London, and participated in several international exhibitions from 1953 to 1981. Posthumous exhibitions of his work include those held at Kumar Gallery, New Delhi, in 2007; and the show 'Works of a Lifetime: 1936-91' at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata, in 1991. In 2008, the NGMA hosted a major retrospective of his works.
He passed away in 1991.
In the late 1920s the Bengal School movement rose to its apex. By then, eminent artists of the Bengal School took the banner of the revivalist movement into the four corners of the country propagating the cause of Indian art and thus gathering disciples under its banner. The network of the movement spread from Bengal to Gujarat in the west, Lucknow and Lahore in the north, Madras, from Machlipattanam to Sri Lanka in the south. It is really amazing that the whole country was surcharged with a new aesthetic understanding in art that was national in character. The gigantic movement can be compared only with the spread of Buddhism during the time of king Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. There is no gainsaying the fact that this new national upsurge was possible only because of its political background. People suffering politically under the domination of a foreign power became conscious of their national art heritage, as if on the political spur, without weighing the merit of the case in its proper perspective: whether revivalism in art was appropriate in the context of modern times-its new environments, new political and social consciousness. They never thought that the image of Gods and Goddesses and the borrowed themes from the Epics and the Puranas were a total misfit in the new conditions of the society where the awakening of man as the supreme being must have a unique position in human society and thus should occupy a major role in the concept of aesthetic expression. For nearly forty years this hideous gap in the concept of Indian art was there and nobody, it seems, cared to notice or take care of it.
Three artists from Bengal and one from Punjab did not feel quite at home in this situation. Rabindranath Tagore saw this gap in this revivalist movement and repeatedly urged his nephew, Abanindranath and his disciples to see the whole truth and rebuild the course of Indian art in a significant way. He pointed out the very truth of the whole situation existing then thus - "When in the name of Indian art, we cultivate with deliberate aggressiveness a certain bigotry born of the habit of a past generation; we smother our soul under idiosyncrasies unearthed from buried centuries. These are like masks with exaggerated grimaces, that fail to respond to the ever-changing play of life."
He therefore pleaded: "I strongly urge our artists vehemently to deny their obligation carefully to produce something that can be labelled as Indian Art by conforming to some old-world mannerism. Let them proudly refuse to be herded into a pen like branded beasts that are treated as cattle and not as cows."
The drawback of the Bengal School painting was looming large as the years progressed. The whole school, it seemed, was becoming bloodless, famished and devoid of any strength within. The master, Abanindranath himself being of the poetic bend often visualised his themes shrouded in mystic appearances. In the layers of his paints form lost its stability and what remained was a picture of hazy effusion-a dreamland without any definite form. This style of painting took even a weaker rendering in the hands of his disciples. The whole artistic atmosphere in the country became effeminate and wishy-washy, bereft of any inner strength. Rabindranath the poet realised all this and must have felt very sad within himself in not being able to show directly the right path as he himself was not a painter. The doodling in which he was indulging then, scratching through the manuscripts, could not yet convince him of any potential of an artistic possibility. He had the urge within him to paint and draw but his lack of knowledge of the technique appeared before him as a stumbling block. He therefore could only urge and give advice through words. But these golden words fell on deaf ears. Finally, Rabindranath found that nothing would come out of it unless he himself took to painting. So, after the initial struggle of about ten years when Rabindranath finally, at the age of 69, emerged as an authentic artist of the modern era, he shook the world, and people looked at his creations in wonderment. The very vitality of his colour and vigour of form in definite terms created a new norm of Indian aesthetics.
Jamini Roy, the other stalwart in modern Indian painting searching his way out of the impasse realised the immensity and vigour of Rabindranath's painting which broke new grounds. While discussing Rabindranath's emergence as a painter he said, "In my opinion the increasing gap that was marked in our national art in the last two hundred years from the period of the Rajputs down to the present day, attracted Rabindranath's attention and as if in his paintings he raised the voice of protest against this situation-Rabindranath tried to find out a powerful backbone. This protest is against the whole of the neo-Indian art and the propaganda for the so called Eastern art."
Jamini Roy' touched two very crucial points with his usual conviction, though in a subtle way, which laid bare the correct situation of the Bengal School movement- 1. that there was an increasing gap in our national art which was yet to be bridged up; 2. that the Bengal School painting lacked vitality and needed a powerful backbone; and 3. that the false sense of Indian national art and the propaganda for the so-called Eastern art should be resisted.
Jamini Roy seldom said anything publicly and if at all, gave vent to his feeling about art and aesthetics either through informal conversations or in private letters to his friends and admirers. In his quiet and non-interfering attitude he would normally keep away from any controversial issue, but no doubt, within himself he was a man of conviction and on this rare occasion he did not hesitate to speak out. The other painter Gaganendranath Tagore, though, did not give vent to his suppressed feeling of protest, finally came away from the Bengal School mannerisms and tried to establish a new path for himself bringing about a synthesis between the Eastern sense of mysticism and the formal Construction of cubism. Arid this experiment he did as far back as in 1920s when the whole of the Indian continent was literally flooded with an emotional outburst of nationalism and the Bengal School painting as its byproduct was accepted as the national art. This courageous bid on the part of Gaganendranath Tagore drew Rabindranath very close to him and Rabindranath had expressed his appreciation of this courageous move at the initial stage, and on his death in the year 1938 Rabindranath was moved to express this same sentiment in these lines :-
"You ranged from shore to shore of colour and line you were merged deep in the very heart of beauty!'
Here the words "You ranged from shore to shore" are most significant.
The youngest of the four Indian artists who joined hands with these protesters was Amrita half Hungarian and half Indian bybirth.Afterhertraining in Ecole-de-Beaux Arts in Paris she returned to India and tried to identify her inspirations with Indian soil and its people. She travelled extensively in India visiting places of our art heritage and painting Indian life in a milieu that was half way between India and France. She was not yet fully mature in her experiences and experimentations. She was only 25 years old then. But her acute sense of observation and sharp intellect prompted her to say some harsh words about the crisis in Indian art then. She castigated the Bengal School in these words ``The Bengal revival, as its name implies, claims to have brought about a renaissance in Indian painting; but it is to be feared that far from fulfilling its vast ambitions this school is actually responsible for the stagnation that characterises Indian painting today. The tenets of the Bengal School seem to have a cramping and crippling effect on the creative spirit." Amrita Sher-Gil then suggested a solution of the impasse advocating a liberal attitude in art than the conservative attitude of false sense of nationalism. Art, she was convinced, should be viewed in its international context and only then could our national art be enriched. She regretted and said: "It is greatly to be deplored that while there is in existence such a significant potent school of painting and sculpture in the West, India should remain ignorant or worse still, foolishly derisive of it. I am speaking of the modern school. It is a significant fact that modern painting and sculpture have innumerable points of contact with the Eastern art of the good periods. Great art everywhere has the same roots and the comprehension of the one brings in its wake the true appreciation of the other. Were our artists to seek inspiration from modern Western art-just as the moderns discovered a new means of self expression through the study of Eastern sculpture and painting, not only would they infuse new life into Indian painting but would help them really to understand the underlined principles of the ancient art of their own country." These words of Sher-Gil only echoed the very sentiments of the three older artists who were born much before her-Rabindranath, Gaganendranath and Jamini Roy.
Amrita Sher-Gil died very young at the age of 29 in 1941, unknown, unhonoured and unsung. It is curious to note in this connection that almost at the same time a band of eight young artists in Calcutta who formed into a group in 1942/43 were thinking in the same way as that of Amrita Sher-Gil. How similarly they expressed their view in the words "The guiding motto of our Group is best expressed in the slogan: 'Art should aim to be international and interdependent.'-In other words, our art cannot progress or develop if we always look back to our past glories and cling to our tradition at all costs. The vast new world of art, rich and infinitely varied created by masters of the world over beckons us .... We have to study all of them deeply, develop our appreciation of them and take from them all that we could profitably synthesise with our own requirements and tradition. This is all the more necessary because our art has stood still since the eighteenth century. During the past two hundred years the world outside of India has made vast strides in art, has evolved epoch-making discoveries in forms and techniques. It is therefore absolutely necessary for us to close this hiatus by taking advantage of these developments in the Western World.
"And this is inevitable, whether we like it not. In our world of supersonic planes and televisions, it is not possible or desirable to preserve the lily-white purity of our tradition, because art, like science, is also becoming an international activity. It is better that we consciously discriminatingly, choose and integrate foreign influences with our national style and tradition; for otherwise, influences unconsciously imbibed might distort rather than enrich our art This is the ideal motivating the Calcutta Group, and we hope to succeed, because we try to understand the spirit of our times and acknowledge the dictates of necessity."
The years 1910-43 were among the most eventful in our recent history. This period saw an increasing secularisation in politics and an expansion in the democratic consciousness in our country. This change is of fundamental importance to the understanding of modern art since it provides its new ideals. The great French movements in art- Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, etc., all evolved through this changed ideal in art. In our country too, with the great impact of the 2nd World War, perceptible social, political and economic changes made inroads into the fives of the Bengalees.
Added to that, horrors of the Bengal famine of 1943 shook the very basis of the old values of humanism. These were dark days for Bengal. Famine and pestilence were then stalking the land. The barbarity and heartlessness all around moved us, the members of the Calcutta Group, deeply. Some of our members were even driven to the periphery of the Marxist philosophy of communism. Sporadic outbursts were evinced in the other creative fields as well. Indian Peoples Theatre Association and the And Facist Writers and Artists' Associations were born about the same time with direct and tacit support of most of the well-known intellectuals; writers, artists, actors, dancers, musicians and film makers. Thus the birth of a second renaissance in Bengal was in the offing, as if automatically, under the compelling situation to forge a new cultural revolution.
By 1940 the Bengal School was a spent force. The heyday enjoyed by it was over and a new beginning of the artistic impulse was felt with the emergence of the four artists of the new era. None of the three artists, Rabindranath, Gaganendranath and Amrita Sher-Gil however, lived to see the changed face of the new world caused by the tremendous impact of science and industry after the second World War. The drastic change in the social environment, the political thinking and its economy had its influence on the Indian artistic scene. In this ominous situation the Calcutta Group artists tried to get over the nostalgic feeling of the Bengal School and inspire a new ideology creating a new synthesis between the East and the West. Their forerunners-Gaganendranath, Rabindranath and Jamini Roy had already paved the way in this respect. But it was only as a spirit of adventure and more as a matter of individual exploration in the fields without formulating any collective effort to a new systematic reorganisation that these three artists worked. It was only a new light that was thrown upon the possibilities that might help in augmenting the resurgence of a new movement.
This new shift, however, is in a state of chrysalis. In spite of this new energy created by these three artists it could hardly create any definite change in the situation.Noneofthesepainters excepting perhaps Jamini Roy was appreciated and accepted during his life time. Rabindranath's and Gaganendranath's works were restricted to the knowledge of the Bengalees only. Amrita Sher-Gil from Punjab would hardly make herself known beyond Delhi and Punjab, and to some extent in Bombay so much so, that we in Bengal hardly came across any of her paintings either in original or in print when we first mooted the idea of our Group movement in 1942 in my studio and finally organised the Group in 1943. The young painters and sculptors of the Calcutta Group took up the challenge and raised their voice against the Bengal School of painting. The time to preoccupy oneself with Gods and Goddesses was over. The artist could no longer be blind to his age and surroundings, his people and society. This realisation took concrete shape in the birth of the Group. In this Group six painters and two sculptors worked, without having any common bond of artistic realisations but they formed into a group as a matter of conviction with the sole idea of propagating the cause of their views on art and life. The painters who joined the Group were Nirode Mazumdar, Subho Tagore, Gopal Ghose, Paritosh Sen, Rathin Maitra, Prankrishna Pal and the sculptor members, Kamala Das Gupta and the present writer. Later on, Ramkinker, Gobardhan Ash, Abani Sen, Sunil Madhav Sen and Hemanta Misra joined the Group.
It will be most pertinent in this connection to quote from an article in Marg-"Prolegomena to Contemporary Indian Painting" by Mulk Raj Anand, who was perhaps the first noted writer from Bombay to come into contact with the Calcutta Group artists and their works in 1944. He wrote- "The poet (Rabindranath Tagore) was not quite sure of what he had done and remained always a child in this respect. But he gave courage to the young painters of Calcutta. For they began to question all the hypothesis of the elders, as well as the Europeans and made brave gestures of defiance. Thus, the Calcutta Group was formed. Among the first members of the coterie were Rathin Maitra, Nirode Mazumdar, Gopal Ghose, Subho Tagore and Prodosh Das Gupta. They were encouraged by a few pioneer critics like Professor Shahid Suhrawardy, Sudhindra Dutta and Bishnu Dey. The foundation had been laid for the coming of a modern movement in art.
"The exhibition of the Calcutta Group showed that the younger Bengalis were all highly talented, and that they were aware of the crisis of Indian painting. But, as they were all individualists who had got together in a group, their work fortunately proceeded in unique directions without any subservience to the written words of a manifesto. And if they achieved only a few pictures and sculptures of great worth, they had shown tremendous courage in confronting the conservatives with a new direction for 'creative art."
During this period the concomitant creative activities in literature, dance, drama and to some extent music came to the fore innovating new interesting forms particularly infused with social content. Amongst the landmarks created during the time in the sphere of drama and music Jyotindra Maitra's lyrics-"Madhu-Bansir Gali" and "Navajivaner Gan" stand out as epoch making. Similarly, Bijon Bhattacharya's "Navanna" conceived with the same outlook made its mark. The thematic expression invariably was based on class struggle of the downtrodden. The actors who joined to enliven the spirit of the content and form of the operatic performance were among others the stalwarts like Sombhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra, Sabitabrata and Gangapada Basu who helped to give a new meaning of the stage performances. About the same time Jyotirmoy Roy's book "Udayer Pathe" made a tremendous impact upon the people of Bengal in its most original style and forceful expression, and when the story was filmed by director Bimal Roy it was hailed as a new path finder much before the appearance of Satyajit Ray in the film world. Amongst writers and poets the "Kallol Group" consisting of the eminent poets and writers like Buddhadeva Bose, Premen Mitra, Achintya Sen Gupta, Jivanananda Das and Ajit Dutta were already there creating a rebellious mood of pessimism mostly on the line of the Western writers. Premen Mitra expressed forthrightly his Group's credo thus-
"I am the poet of the carpenters, of the brass-workers, of the labourers, I am the poet of the low."
Although many would find in this credo an incentive towards communism, Premen Mitra or for that matter, any of his colleagues never aligned himself with the politics of communism. The poets and writers who were closely associated with our Group and gave us unstinted support usually had leftist leanings in their political attitude. Bishnu Dey, Sudhin Dutta, Samar Sen, Chanchal Chattopadhyaya, Manindra Roy, Binoy Ghosh, Gopal Haldar, Dr. Nihar Ray, Dr. Susovan Sarkar and Hironmoy Sanyal were amongst them. It will be indeed interesting to note in this connection that as far back as 1945 in a review of our exhibition, the art correspondent of the Amrita Bazar Patrika cautioned us against the danger of being trapped by political propagandists. He wrote-"A shrewd and subtle attempt is being made by ingratiating flatterers to rope in our artists to function as cheap propagandists for politics. It is to be hoped that artists will escape these traps to strangle their spiritual freedom in the name of a political substitute. The spiritual gold is much more precious than political platinum. Art is super-political and yet above the politics." No doubt, our Group at times had to face similar situations, but we managed to steer clear of any political interference. I remember to have had such an occasion when we organised the annual show of our Group in 1949. During the seven years 1943-49 our members made innovative, progressive strides in the pursuit of understanding the basic aesthetics of form, colour, harmony, balance, etc. and creating something significant where form and content merged into one another without one being in any way perfidious to another. That particular exhibition was mostly abounding in such experimental works. Gopalda (Gopal Haldar, the veteran communist leader) one of our supporters at the initial stage, felt completely out of sorts after visiting the exhibition. He, in his own inimitable style, almost apologetically, enquired of me whether we were not going astray from the cherished path of socialist realism. My answer to this query was simple, yet emphatic-"We never took a pledge to follow the path of socialist realism. All we want is to understand life and interpret it in terms of creative art indeed, we believe in humanism without any political binding or direction." Unfortunately, after this dialogue we lost a good friend in Gopalda, but in our aims and achievements we felt progressively enriched.
The GroupMembersmeteveryevening during the formative period of the Group and those evening hours were full of our discussions, ambitions, plans and schemes. Often, lectures on art were also arranged. Of the many distinguished visitors we had in those days were E.M. Forster, the English novelist, Frederic Mc. Williams, then Slade Professor of sculpture in the London University, and painters and sculptors from among the members of the Allied Forces. Both Forster and Mc. Williams were much impressed by our work, and after returning to Britain, Forster gave a talk on Indian Art on the BBC devoting a considerable portion of it to the Calcutta Group. A few years later while discussing past and future art of India in the light of the Royal Academy exhibition, London, in 1947, F.H. Baines wrote in "Our Times," London, thus-"There was the Calcutta Group, with the forceful sculptor Das Gupta, which gropingly sought to turn the uncertain lead of Jamini Roy to the expression of contemporary ideas."
At this juncture we were fortunate in coming into contact with Mrs. Casey, a true lover of art. She was mainly instrumental in bringing about the first informal exhibition of our paintings and sculptures at 5-A, S.R. Das Road. Shortly afterwards, in 1944, the first public exhibition of our Group was held under the auspices of the Services Art Club. The exhibition succeeded in creating a commotion in the circles of art critics. The praise and the criticism that were showered on us clearly indicated that a new art movement was born. Some of the critics had it against us that we were bent on destroying the true tradition of our art. But there were other critics who welcomed us warmly as "trail-blazers, the pioneers of a new epoch in Indian art."
The Group members having been encouraged by the local appreciation sent two large exhibitions to Bombay in 1944 and in 1945. These two exhibitions created a great stir among the critics and connoisseurs of Bombay. There also the Group was hailed as the pioneer of a new movement of art in the country. In the Times of India its art critic, Rudolph von Leyden wrote-"Bengal has exercised a very strong influence on modern Indian art ever since Abanindranath Tagore and his followers inspired the "Indian Renaissance" movement some 40 years ago .... Opposition to this school has been growing for years. Jamini Roy was one of the first in Bengal to turn his back on Ajanta and the classic tradition, and to start afresh with a Neo-primitivism, basing his design on live Bengal folk painting. His highly formalised style opened a breach, through which poured a sizeable avant-garde of young artists, quite determined to break with the past, to be modern and to explore with the same experimental processes that have led to some of the modern styles in the West.
"We welcome this exhibition of the 'Calcutta Group' which brings to Bombay the first specimen of modern Bengal art since Jamini Roy's exhibition 3 year ago." The younger artists there who were already feeling unsure and unsettled felt immensely inspired with this new hope. Amongst them the name of K.H. Ara may be specifically mentioned, who later took the lead in association with Francis Newton Souza-the two rejects from the Bombay Art Society exhibition-to form the Bombay Progressive Group in early 1948. It is no doubt interesting now after the lapse of decades to recall with a sense of gratitude, how Ara helped us in those days of our maiden ventures in the two exhibitions in Bombay. In 1947 when I visited him in his small flat at Sital Kunj, I found most of our exhibits (of 1944 and 1945 exhibitions) still lying there with him in heaps, uncleared. I am sure, although very much inconvenienced due to restricted space, he did not grudge it. He was always a lover of art and artists, particularly when he was associated with something new and inspiring.
By 1947 the Group had considerably consolidated its position and the year saw the best reaping of our 'sweat and toil.' In December the same year three of the Group members including the present writer were present in Bombay and were invited by Rudolph von Leyden, one of three European patrons of the younger artists of Bombay, to a small conference in Artists' Aid Centre to help form a similar progressive group of artists there. Early in 1948 the Bombay Progressive Group was formed with K.H. Ara, Francis Newton Souza, Syed Haider Raza, Hari Ambadas Gade, Maqbool Fida Husain, and Sadanand K. Bakre. In April 1950 the Calcutta Group, realising the possibility of a great future of art in India in this direction organised the first and the only joint show of their works with that of the Progressive Group with the idea of creating a deeper impact upon the people of Calcutta and thus strengthening the new movement on an all-India basis.
This turning point in the history of the Group was significant in creating an all-India influence towards a progressive and healthy outlook in art. By the end of 1940s the main art centres of India took charge of the situation and got prepared to express their art with a refreshed and liberal outlook and caring more for their immediate social environments rather than religious dictates. Their next preoccupation was based on experiments with the basic aesthetics of form, colour, rhythm, harmony etc. The country was thus surcharged with a new artistic inspiration mostly encouraged by the new experiments and innovations of the West. In the beginning this new artists generation of India could only make a faltering expression with perceptible influence of the Western masters like Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Vlaminck, Braque, Henry Moore, Brancusi and others and had to face adverse criticism. With the passage of time these influences in most cases were integrated to the best advantage of the artists' individual expression. In 1953 we had our last and the most eventful show in Delhi. It is almost four decades that the Calcutta Group was formed and its members worked together only for a decade from 1943 to 1953 to create the avant-garde movement on an all India basis. Modern art in India since then has evolved new stages of development in long strides leading finally to non-objective abstraction. This reminds me of those hectic days of the formative period of the Group in 1944 when we had our periodical discussions on the problems of contemporary art. I still remember with a feeling of nostalgia of a serious discussion we had through our forum on the subject-"Scope of Non-objective Abstraction in Contemporary Indian Art" in which many leading authorities on art took part. The consensus of that meeting was that if we believed in our own Indian root, its philosophy, culture and social background then visual image-making in terms of non-objective expression seemed to be a misfit. In India visual images always seem to have been concretised in terms of the cosmos, in relation toitsfloraandfauna-whether in iconic representations of Gods and Goddesses, or bird, animal or plant life.
Our Group was basically tradition-bound although we had a liberal attitude borrowing from the outside world to enrich ourselves to express in a better and much fuller way-the immediate concern, however, being our own social environment. Unless one has a firm footing in one's own soil one cannot obviously assimilate any foreign influences. Once one is off the soil one floats in the air without any mooring or identity. I know some of the contemporary artists of the younger generation attempted a compromise by superimposing some Indian motifs to get an Indian identity. But there also, unfortunately, the super-imposition of the motifs betrayed from within the very authenticity of its character as it did not grow from within as an organic whole. Our Group members therefore, scrupulously avoided experimenting with any non-objective abstraction even in their most mature stages. We always recognised the six limbs of Indian art including that of "Sadrishyama" meaning verisimilitude.
Four of our Group members are no more in this world. One of them Abani Sen expired in 1972 and Sunil Madhav Sen, Gopal Ghose and Ram Kinker passed away only very recently. They have undoubtedly left their mark in contributing significantly towards the shaping of modern Indian art. The rest are still alive to the problems thrown up from time to time by cross-currents of the international art situations in the creative world.
Relocating peripheries: Kathmandu Triennale
Reflections on the KMB - Forming in the pupil of an eye by Roobina Karode
Protagonist of Tradition: A legend passes
Reconstructing Visual Imagery in the Age of Mass Production by Arshiya Lokhandwala
T J Demos speaks to Gayatri Sinha
The Queer Speculum by Arshiya Lokhandwala
A fertile land of pellucid light by Soumitra Das
In conversation by Ashrafi S Bhagat
Printmaking, A flashback by Keshav Malik
Science, facts and fiction by Soumitra Das