The Emergence of Indian Modernism: Santiniketan and The Bengal School

At the dawn of the 20th century, Bengal became the centre for Modernism in Indian Art, due to Abanindranath Tagore's Bengal School and Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan

Bengal SchoolKerala Museum

Bengal School

At the dawn of the 20th century, Bengal became the centre for the development of modernism in Indian art. Two prominent art groups developed - one movement was Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan, and the other was called the Bengal School, led by artist Abanindranath Tagore. Rejecting prevailing colonial artistic conventions, they turned to India's past for inspiration. They studied stylistic elements of the indigenous traditions: from miniature painting and ornamental design to the Ajanta frescoes, and the art of the Far East was used as inspiration to create politically charged nationalist imagery.

Portrait by Abanindranath TagoreKerala Museum

Abanindranath Tagore

Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of poet Rabindranath Tagore, was the founder of the Bengal School of Art, India's first modern art movement. Critical of western techniques taught in colonial art schools in India, he sought to create an authentic Indian style free of western influence. He found a friend and supporter in EB Havell, the Principal of the Government School of Art, Calcutta. Abanindranath was invited to take up the post of Vice-Principal of the college. He was a teacher to many early modern Indian artists, including Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy.

Bengal SchoolKerala Museum

This image shows Abanindranath Tagore (top, second from left) with his first batch of students at the Government School of Art in Kolkata.
Often working on his own painting while his students worked on theirs, he believed in nurturing the essential qualities of an artist, such as critical thought and a thirst for knowledge.

‘Bharatmata’ (1905) by Abanindranath TagoreVictoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata

At the peak of the Swadeshi movement, Tagore's painting Bharatmata earned his work the epithet of 'nationalist.'

In this painting, we see Mother India depicted as a sadhvi holding the objects of nationalist goals. In her four hands, she holds sheaves of paddy, a piece of white cloth (khadi), a book, and garland conceptualising the idea of secular knowledge and spiritual consciousness.
Although not openly anti-colonial or politically confrontational himself, this image became iconic in the struggle for freedom from the British.

Cloud Messenger by Sarada UkilKerala Museum

This drawing by Sarada Ukil, a student of Abanindranath Tagore, was probably inspired by the poem Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger), written by classical Indian poet Kalidasa. Meghaduta, composed in the 5th Century CE, is a Sanskrit sandesha kavya or "message poem" that invokes the beauty of the monsoons in India.

Getting ready for meals (1970) by Mukul Chandra DeyKerala Museum

Mukul Dey (1895-1989) was an early student of Rabindranath Tagore's. As early as 1916, Dey began travelling widely with Abanindranath Tagore to Japan and the USA, studying printmaking. He pioneered the dry-point etching technique in India.

Untitled by Mukul Chandra DeyKerala Museum

On his return to India, he generated hundreds of images of Indian life using this European medium. His subjects were river scenes in Bengal, bazaars in Calcutta or depictions of rural life in the Birbhum District.

Bengal SchoolKerala Museum

Also in the same picture are Nandalal Bose (second row, on the right of the idol), one of Santiniketan's most influential teachers, Asit Haldar (first row, second from left) and Kshindranath Majumdar (first row, extreme right).

Untitled (1955) by Nandlal BoseKerala Museum

In 1919, artist Nandalal Bose was at the helm of Kala Bhavana, the Fine Arts Department at Rabindranath Tagore's Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan. Students worked closely with teachers. Ordinary people and rural life became the focus of Santiniketan artists like Ramkinker Baij and BB Mukherjee.

ShantiniketanKerala Museum


Nandalal Bose was instrumental in shaping the curriculum of Santiniketan around the ideal of free expression. In this undated photograph, three of Santiniketan's most prominent teachers are visible - Benode Behari Mukherjee (second row, second from left), Nandalal Bose (first row, centre) and Ramkinkar Baij (first row, extreme right).

Untitled (1955) by Nandlal BoseKerala Museum

As a student in 1909, Nandalal Bose visited the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. The unfathomable beauty of the historic caves left a lasting impression, and the ancient site continued to serve as inspiration through his artistic career. This sketch in the Kerala Museum collection is his study of a mural in the Ajanta Cave No. 2, depicting the Buddha's mother, Maya.

Ajanta Cave No.02

In the mural, a heavily adorned Maya is visible leaning against a pillar. Nandalal's faithful rendition of her jewellery and posture helped in the recent identification of the drawing.

Source: Archaeological Survey of India

Untitled by Benode Bihari MukherjeeKerala Museum

Benode Behari Mukherjee joined Santiniketan as a student and later became an influential teacher at the school. A versatile artist, he experimented with various art forms and mediums, including painting, calligraphy and murals.

Untitled by Benode Bihari MukherjeeKerala Museum

Strong dynamic lines that signify movement characterise his work. A monumental mural, his most celebrated work in Santiniketan, on the lives of medieval saints of India, was made after he had lost sight in 1956. He continued working although he preferred more tactile mediums such as collage and printmaking.

Memoir (Revisit) by Murali Cheeroth at Kerala Museum - Part IKerala Museum

Artist Murali Cheeroth was a student at Santiniketan in the early 1990s when he began helping Kerala Museum founder Madhavan Nayar build the collection. Listen to him speak about the artworks by Benode Behari Mukherjee in the Kerala Museum.

Untitled by Ramkinker BaijKerala Museum

Ramkinkar Baij was one of India's leading modern sculptors. He taught and worked in Santiniketan for most of his life. His large figurative sculptures are among his best-known works. He drew inspiration for his figures from the tribal Santhal community, whose spirit and resilience was universally admired by the Santiniketan artists

The Bird by Madhava MenonKerala Museum

Madhava Menon was one of the first artists from Kerala to train at Shantiniketan. Firmly against modern trends in Indian art, he adhered to the oriental style he developed was a student.

Birds by Madhava MenonKerala Museum

Menon loved nature and usually painted delicate watercolours of flowers, animals and trees. He was also a keen birdwatcher and often painted detailed images of birds he spotted in Kerala.

Untitled by Jamini RoyKerala Museum

Jamini Roy

Jamini Roy is widely acknowledged as one of India's most original modern artists. He trained at Calcutta's Government School of Art. In the increasingly nationalist environment of the 1920s, Roy began to seek an authentic Indian style of expression. His quest led him to the folk art traditions of Kalighat and ultimately to traditional scroll paintings called Patua of rural Bengal. Drawing inspiration from these styles, Roy evolved a signature style that was uniquely modern and undisputedly Indian.

Jamini Roy's minimalist portraits of women are compelling yet intimate. His almond-eyed, stoic women unwaveringly hold the viewer's gaze and leave their audience with the sense of having experienced a deeply personal encounter. The elongated narrow frames within which they are usually portrayed seem incapable of containing their graceful bodies.

Untitled by Jamini RoyKerala Museum

Roy typically used thick, sweeping lines to create his striking and deceptively simple works.

Untitled by Jamini RoyKerala Museum

Mythological stories, Bengali women, and rural life were the primary themes Roy focused on in his art.

Untitled by Jamini RoyKerala Museum

Here you can see Shiva and Parvati with their respective vahanas (mounts), Nandi and the tigerish lion called Gdon, a baby Ganesha on his mother's lap.

Untitled by Jamini RoyKerala Museum

Roy's shift to traditional Indian art was also accompanied by the abandonment of oil paints for natural colours. He prepared his colours from raw, locally available materials like clay, indigo and mercury powder. 

He used sensitive organic materials like cloth, woven palm fibre mats and lime coated wood as his canvas, making the works of one of India's National Treasure Artists works vulnerable to the passage of weather and time. 

Credits: Story

Exhibit curator:
Supriya Menon

Content Editors:
Arundhathy Nayar
Aditi Nayar
Jyothi Elza George 
 Gopika Krishnan.

Malayalam Translator:
Geeta Nayar

Memoir (Revisited), by artist Murali Cheeroth, created for the inauguration of the exhibition Collecting the Artist: The Madhavan Nayar Collection.
This project received support from the India Foundation for the Arts under the Archival and Museums Fellowship Initiative, with support from the Tata Trusts.

Video recording and editing by Sooraj and Jose Mohan.

Image of Bengal School Artists and Shantiniketan Artists courtesy DAG Modern.

360° video of Ajanta Cave courtesy Archaeological Survey of India.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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