Bauhaus and India

Elizabeth Otto takes a deep dive into the earliest Bauhaus show outside of Germany - in Kolkata - and the profound relationship between the German School and Indian culture

By Google Arts & Culture

by Elizabeth Otto

It's a little-known fact that the Bauhaus’s first foreign exhibition was not held in any of Germany’s neighboring countries, nor even anywhere in Europe. The Bauhaus’s first foreign exhibition in fact opened in India in December of 1922, as a part of the Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta—today Kolkata.

The show was made up of two hundred and fifty Bauhaus works, “water-color paintings, pencil sketches, etchings, and woodcuts,” according to its catalogue, by Bauhaus masters Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Lyonel Feininger, and students Margit Téry-Adler and Sofie Korner.

Sketch 160A, Wassily Kandinsky, 1912, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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In addition to artworks, included with the shipment were copies of Utopia: Documents of Reality, a journal that had been collaboratively produced by Itten, Téry-Adler, and another Bauhaus student, Friedl Dicker, under the editorship of Téry-Adler’s husband, the Weimar-based art historian Bruno Adler. While it is remarkable that this exhibition occurred, perhaps equally surprising is the fact that, although it was a sale exhibition, only a single work sold. And it was not a work by Kandinsky, Klee, or any of the other established modern artists, but a watercolor by one of the students, the Viennese Sofie Korner, purchased by none other than the Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. All the rest of the Bauhaus works were shipped back to Germany at the end of the show.

1925, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Rabindranath Tagore

The occurrence of the Indian Bauhaus exhibition was thanks entirely to another young Austrian woman: the art historian Dr. Stella Kramrisch. She knew Itten from Vienna, and wrote to him in May of 1922 to inquire about the possibility of mounting the show. Kramrisch, a specialist in ancient Indian art and architecture, was living in India and teaching at the progressive Kala Bhavana art school outside of Calcutta, a post she had been offered by Rabindranath Tagore when the two met in London the previous year.

Kala Bhavana (Institute of Fine Arts), Shantiniketan, Bengal

Founded by Rabindranath Tagore in 1919

Kala Bhavana was part of the Visva-Bharati College in Shantiniketan, which Tagore had founded in 1919 with the funds from his Nobel Prize, concurrent with his renouncing of his British knighthood in protest over the massacre of unarmed civilians in Amritsar. Not only were both the Bauhaus and Kala Bhavana founded in 1919, both were also educational experiments based in progressive ideals and a drive for cultural renewal, and were situated outside of cosmopolitan centers, the Bauhaus in the Thuringian town of Weimar, Kala Bhavana in the countryside of West Bengal. But Kala Bhavana was also distinct in that its rejection of European cultural traditions was part of an anti-colonialist move for Indian independence.

Self Portrait, Abanindranath Tagore, From the collection of: Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
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Against this fraught cultural backdrop, Kramrisch’s curating of the Fourteenth Annual Exhibition provided a platform for a particularly rich moment of cultural exchange through Modern art. In addition to the Bauhaus works, the exhibition was also made up of works by progressive artists connected to Rabindranath Tagore and Kala Bhavana including the school’s head, Rabindranath Tagore’s nephew Abanindranath Tagore; his student, Nandalal Bose, who also taught there; Abanindranath’s brother, the artist and caricaturist Gaganendranath Tagore; and their sister, the self-taught painter Sunayani Devi. While the Bauhaus and Bengali art may initially appear to have little in common, Kramrisch's catalogue essay sought to draw strong parallels, describing "the transformation of the forms of nature in the work of an artist" as "common to ancient and modern India and Europe."

Abul Hassan, Abanindranath Tagore, From the collection of: Lahore Museum
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In her review essay of the show, Kramrisch sharpened this point; “Whichever nation and whatever artistic mentality these artists may represent, one feature is common to them and this is their training. All of them were brought up in art academies, so well known all the world over. But every one of them was driven by sheer inner necessity to abandon their lifeless scheme. And they struggled each in his own way through decoration and symbolism, through impressionism and post-impressionism and all the various artistic currents which have agitated the surface of European art during the last twenty years.”

That there was significant interest on the German side in Indian artists’ modern experiments is evident in the fact that during the following year, 1923, there was a reciprocal exhibition of Bengali artists held in Berlin.

In its spiritual and artistic experiments, the idea of India animated the Bauhaus from its earliest days. In the early twentieth century, publications on Indian art and culture began to appear in Germany and were met with broad interest. Already in 1913, students at the Bauhaus’s predecessor school in Weimar celebrated an “Indian Festival” with exotic costumes and a realistic-looking and life-sized sculpture of an elephant. Such presentations of the self as Other might have bolstered the European colonialist project, in which Germany was still an active participant in 1913. But in an art-school context, the presentation of oneself as Indian—or as any cultural Other—was also a way to signal rejection of the European past.

Ghost of a Genius, Paul Klee, 1922, From the collection of: National Galleries Scotland: Modern
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Once the Bauhaus was established, many of its masters were inspired by Indian art and ideas. Klee’s works demonstrated deep knowledge of Indian art, literature, and religious cosmologies. So did Itten’s, as his Bauhaus colleague Oskar Schlemmer pointed out at the time, describing him as profoundly influenced by “the cult of India.”

When Itten joined the Bauhaus in 1919 along with sixteen of his students from Vienna, they all came as practitioners of the hybrid religion of Mazdaznan, which drew on a range of Eastern philosophies, including Hinduism and Zoroastrianism; many more Bauhaus students began to practice Mazdaznan, and the canteen offered only foods that adhered to its strict vegetarian diet. Indian ideas remained so important for Itten’s work and teaching that, even decades later, his friend Hans Finsler memorialized him as a multitasker—in the 1940s he was working simultaneously as an artist, art teacher, and museum head—by montaging his photographed head onto the many-armed Hindu god Shiva.

The early Bauhaus also hosted Indian speakers, including, in the fall of 1921, the musician, poet, and founder of International Sufism Inayat Kahn, who was invited by the full council of Bauhaus masters. Kahn’s musical performance and his lecture on “The Nature of Art” and the centrality of experiencing pleasure in art to Sufi philosophy had a profound impact on the students, who were hungry for knowledge of non-Western spirituality and the metaphysical. Rabindranath Tagore himself visited the Bauhaus that same year, which surely helped to pave the way for the 1922 Calcutta exhibition.

Gandhi Ghat, Habib Rahman, Late Forties, Original Source: Ram Rahman
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Famously, the Bauhaus made a hard turn away from its early expressionist, soulful approach to a more industrial practice under the new, 1922 slogan, “Art and Technology, a new unity!” Bauhaus members’ interest in spiritual experimentation and Indian and other non-Western currents of thought certainly became less visible in their art, but it nonetheless continued to be evident in their work and teaching.

Joost Schmidt, often remembered for a particularly objective approach to graphic design, studied at the Bauhaus from 1919, and taught sculpture, typography, and advertising as a junior master from 1925 through 1932. Despite his dry reputation, Schmidt’s classes always included sections on the philosophy of yoga in relation to health and creativity, and his lecture notes included detailed drawings of the chakras, each carefully labelled in both Sanskrit and German.

India International Center, New Delhi, Joseph Allan Stein, 1958
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Much later, once India achieved independence in 1947, the idea of “Bauhaus” would once again become important in the country as an architectural movement. It manifested India’s break with the British colonial past and provided what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called “the garb of modernity.” The Bauhaus’s emphasis on functionalism suited India as a newly-founded country with many practical needs, including the urgent task of raising living standards for its large and diverse population. The establishment of design journals Marg (1946) and Design (1957); large-scale projects like Le Corbusier’s building of the new city of Chandigarh in the 1950s; and the founding of schools including the National Institute of Design and the Industrial Design Center in the 1960s provided nodes for modern design and experimentation in this visual vocabulary of the new.

The Oberoi Hotel (formerly known as the Intercontinental Hotel), New Delhi, Durga Bajpai and Piloo Mody, 1958
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An early example of this Bauhaus influence is evident in the pared-down and partially cantilevered forms of Habib Rahman’s 1949 Gandhi Ghat Memorial in Barrackpore, near Calcutta. Rahman had studied at MIT in the early 1940s and during which time he likely encountered Gropius, by then a professor at Harvard University. Rahman completed his degree in 1944, and worked for Gropius and other modernist architects before returning to India shortly before independence, where he would complete significant public buildings and large-scale projects, including perhaps his most whimsical, the Delhi Zoo. A number of Indian and international architects were working concurrently during the late 1950s in the Bauhaus-influenced International Style as a part of building out and modernizing India’s capital in New Delhi; their projects included the Intercontinental Hotel, now known as the Oberoi Hotel, by Durga Bajpai and Piloo Mody, and Joseph Allen Stein’s India International Center.

Delhi Zoo

Delhi Zoo

Delhi Zoo

Perhaps Habib Rahman's most whimsical project...

Delhi Zoo early example of Bauhaus influence on Indian architecture.

The Bauhaus’s century-long relationship with India reveals how essential global influences were to the movement. Many ideas borrowed from beyond Europe’s borders enabled Bauhäusler to dream up its reforms. In turn, as early as 1922, Bauhaus aesthetics provided pictorial and, later, architectural vocabularies that spoke to emerging ideas in faraway places. In exhibiting Bauhaus artists, the Calcutta exhibition foregrounded a European art school in the process of rejecting the hegemony of Europe’s own aesthetic traditions; it thus offered inspiration to a generation of artists aiming to do the same. A quarter of a century later, another idea of “Bauhaus”—as shorthand for International-Style architecture—took root in India to manifest the utopian possibilities of a new, free India in the built environment.

Discover more in Bauhaus Everywhere

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