Diversity & Individuality: Experiments in 1960s Calcutta

The Kerala Museum collection of the Society of Contemporary Artists explores the myriad themes, techniques and idioms of this group.

Members of the Society of Contemporary ArtistsKerala Museum


In 1960, a group of young artists seeking independent exhibition spaces in Calcutta banded together to form a new artists group: the Society of Contemporary Artists (SCA). It provided them with a platform to network, opportunities to collaborate with fellow artists and exhibit works. The group was not grounded in any single ideology; its members had very diverse, individual styles, and each created art responding to different themes.

The group continued to expand and grow, and is one of the few artist collectives that is active to this day in India.
Image: Members of Society of Contemporary Artists, including Standing: Sunil Das (extreme left), Shyamal Dutta Ray (third from left), Bikash Bhattacharjee (second from right), Dhiran Choudhary (extreme right). The artists sitting include Ganesh Haloi (second from left) and LP Shaw (extreme right).

Image courtesy DAG Modern

Maya - 18 (1991) by Sanat KarKerala Museum

Sanat Kar was a founder member and one of the first secretaries of the Society of Contemporary Artists.

Maya - 20 (1991) by Sanat KarKerala Museum

His brooding paintings often have a dream-like quality, and are usually executed in dark colours.

Radha Series (1991) by Sanat KarKerala Museum

The relationship between Krishna and Radha has been a celebrated religious theme for centuries, particularly in Rajput paintings. In one of the themes, Radha's self-abandonment due to the absence of her lover is often portrayed, symbolizing her devotion to Krishna.

The choice of colors and the contrast of light gives a sense of eerie void and melancholy mood to the figure. In this work, Radha grips her lover's flute and brushes her cheek against it, expressing how much she longs for Krishna.

Untitled (1986) by Shyamal Datta RoyKerala Museum

Shyamal Dutta Ray was another founding member of the Society of Contemporary Artists. His intense watercolour paintings were inspired by the city of Calcutta, and portrayed its many inhabitants, the decaying splendour of old homes and the contradictions that he witnessed in a rapidly changing city.

The Chief Guest (1986) by Shyamal Dutta RoyKerala Museum

Ray’s sense of humour often came through in his paintings.

For example, in this painting, he brings together two comically unlikely elements. An emaciated and elaborately made up high-society lady is the chief guest here…

...at a competition for body builders!

Untitled (1991) by Lalu Prasad ShawKerala Museum

Bengali men and women are the focus of Lalu Prasad Shaw's paintings. Shaw draws on the stylistic conventions of Mughal and colonial Company School paintings to make his remarkably detailed contemporary portraits.

Portrait of a man (1991) by Lalu Prasad ShawKerala Museum

Shaw's paintings are usually incredibly detailed.

He executes his works with clean, confident lines...

...and many elements within his work are rendered with geometric precision.

Harvest (1981) by Ganesh HaloiKerala Museum

Ganesh Haloi has been a member of Society of Contemporary Artists since 1971. A leading abstract painter, he is known for his minimalist landscapes in which the forms of trees and land are reduced to dots and lines.

Horse by Sunil DasKerala Museum

A founder member of Society of Contemporary Artists, Sunil Das was known for his energetic charcoal drawings of horses and the bull fights that he observed in Spain.

Untitled (1994) by Ganesh PyneKerala Museum

Ganesh Pyne joined Society of Contemporary Artists in 1963. A young Ganesh Pyne was profoundly impacted by the communal riots that shook Calcutta in 1946, during which he saw piles of corpses around the devastated city.

The trauma of the event manifested in his works, which are dark dreams inhabited by death, demonic animals and distorted figures.
Pyne was inspired by the Bengal School and initially worked with watercolours, before moving on to gouache and tempera.

Untitled (1971) by Lalu Prasad ShawKerala Museum

Society of Contemporary Artists' Experiments with Printmaking

The Society of Contemporary Artists is credited with making significant inroads into printmaking in India in the early 1960s. 

After his return to Kolkata from Czechoslovakia, sculptor and printmaker Ajit Chakraborty offered the use of his studio in 157B Lenin Sarani to the group members, who were also able to access to the etchings and woodcuts Chakraborty had brought back from his stint abroad. 

After receiving a grant in the early 1960s, Society of Contemporary Artists members were able to purchase their own printing press, and they collaborated extensively to experiment with printmaking techniques. Many went on to establish themselves as leading printmakers in the country.

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

Lalu Prasad Shaw's works were acquired directly from the artist by Kerala Museum founder Madhavan Nayar.

Nayar visited Shaw's studio in the early 1990s with artist Murali Cheeroth, who assisted Nayar in collecting works for the Museum.

In this video, Cheeroth speaks of the meeting between Nayar and Shaw.

Untitled (1991) by Sanat KarKerala Museum

Founder member of the Society of Contemporary Artists Sanat Kar is an outstanding printmaker who experimented with a range of unusual materials. He is the innovator of cardboard intaglio technique and sun mica engraving techniques of printmaking.

Untitled (1978) by Somnath HoreKerala Museum

Somnath Hore began exploring printmaking techniques in the mid-1950s, and was an influential early member of the Society of Contemporary Artists. His works inspired many of the members who took up printmaking in the 1960s.

Untitled (1985) by Somnath HoreKerala Museum

Somnath Hore presented this work to Madhavan Nayar Foundation in 1992.

Hore's works bear testimony to the social tragedies of the mid-20th century, particularly the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the peasant revolt of 1946. The ravaged bodies of the victims of these disasters became the dominant figures in his prints and sculptures.

Untitled (1979) by Lalu Prasad ShawKerala Museum

Lalu Prasad Shaw started printmaking, particularly etching, after joining Society of Contemporary Artists in 1967. He would later go on to experiment with lithography as a teacher at Shantiniketan. These abstract works are startlingly different from the figurative paintings that he started creating later in his career.

Hanging Circle (1970) by Lalu Prasad ShawKerala Museum

The Society of Contemporary Artists continues to exist to this day, with new artists joining its ranks over the years. The group celebrated its Golden Jubilee with an exhibition in Kolkata in 2009.

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 Members of Society of Contemporary Artists courtesy DAC Modern.

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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