Why West Bengal?

My interest in Modern Indian art stretches back to my junior year abroad, when I studied in the UK. While at Oxford, I was able to give gallery talks at the Ashmolean museum on the ongoing exhibit on Bengal and Modernity. As I learned, modern art in India began during the colonial period–in West Bengal. The movement culminated as a result of three key forces:

  1.  East India Company artists were in India and painting for documentation purposes, creating pieces depicting Indian natural history, architectural forms, archeological sites, and ethnographic studies. As they were based in the capital of the British Raj, Kolkata, renaissance naturalism thus became more widespread in the bhadralok circles of West Bengal.
  2. Kalighat, a pilgrim center outside the British capital of Kolkata, became a center for mass-produced religious pictures. Art was now available and a consumable good for the average Bengali.
  3. The first art school was opened in Kolkata. This created a new class of artists who were essentially freed from aristocratic patronage. For the British rulers, the art school had another important function: to inculcate ‘good taste’ in Indian subjects and use art to reproduce the cultural values of the west.

This all led to West Bengal (widely known as the cultural capital of India) becoming the birthplace of the modern art movement as we know it today. Later, swadeshi ideology influenced Indian artists who sought to create an authentic Indic artistic identity, rather than subscribing to western stylistic choices.

For the purpose of my research then, I didn’t choose West Bengal: it chose me. I am especially excited to spend time in both Kolkata and Santiniketan. Santiniketan (founded by Rabindranath Tagore) is where many of India’s greatest modern artists were trained. I will speak more about its rich history in another post.

My parents are from Hyderabad, now part of Telangana, in South India. This means that I have very little experience with Bengali language and culture outside a trip to Kolkata some 12 years ago and a few bhajans that I learned while attending services at the Ramakrishna Mission. Thanks to a CLEA grant from the Department of State, I will have the opportunity to learn Bangla for 3 months before officially beginning my research. I cannot wait to begin this journey.





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