The Renaissance in Europe (c.1420 – 1650) lightened the burden of religion prevalent in medieval times and initiated a revolutionary thought in science and art which led to industrial revolution. It encouraged the adventurous Europeans to establish East India Companies which had ambitious plans to explore the Indian sub-continent for its riches – spices and trade. The Portuguese reached India first, in 1498, the British in 1600, the Dutch in 1602 and the French in 1664. The British East India Company survived and ultimately became a colonial power.
The British transformed India through major changes in the administration, judiciary, transport and communication systems. The field of arts and crafts were no exception. The appreciation of Western art increased, while the patronage for traditional and indigenous art was considerably reduced. Concerned with the diminishing tradition of art and craft and on the request of Indian social activists and traders, art schools were established at Madras in 1850, Calcutta in 1854, Bombay in 1857 and Lahore in 1875. Based upon the curriculum of South Kensington school, London, the art school in Bombay was initially called Sir J.J. School of Art and Industry (known as J.J.). The education imparted there, brought a significant change in the style of artists who were trained in the western, especially British academic style. Eventually two distinct traditions emerged – Bengal School and Bombay School.
In this auction, nineteen well known and two relatively unknown painters from the Bombay School have been included, representing the distinct phases – Academic realism, Bombay Revivalist School, Stylization - Distortion and Abstraction. This essay elucidates this development chronologically.
Pestonji Bomanji (1851 - 1938) was the first celebrated painter from the tradition of Bombay School. A student of John Griffiths at J.J., he was an assistant to Griffiths and became a team leader for the ‘Ajanta Project’ of copying the Ajanta murals (1872-1884). He also assisted Valentine Prinsep, Queen Victoria’s personal artist, who was on a visit to India to paint for the Indian royal families. Pestonji had his own studio and is known for his portrayal of eminent personalities as well as common people. His mastery over portraiture is evident in ‘A head of a Gosain’, which echoes the influence of Prinsep with a dramatic use of light and shade, revealing the spiritual conflict within, and having an orientalist approach.
Abalal Rahiman (1856-60 – 1931) was an exceptionally talented painter whose work was instrumental in establishing the Kolhapur School of European Naturalism. Winner of Viceroy’s Gold Medal in 1888 while studying at J.J., he returned to Kolhapur after his art education. Due to a dispute with his father and step-mother he left home and lived like a recluse in a forest on the outskirts of Kolhapur; instinctively painting impressionist landscapes. The ruler of the Princely State of Kolhapur, Shahu Maharaj, appointed him as a court painter where he made a few paintings and worked as per his whims and moods. Abalal’s drawing here, seems to be a study from life (undated), done during the earlier years while he was studying at J.J.
M.V. Dhurandhar (1867 – 1944), a bright student and a popular teacher at J.J., inspired many students. He was the most significant painter after Raja Ravi Varma who painted myths and legends from Indian epics as well as historical incidents. His prolific work includes - book illustrations, posters, calendars, oleographs along with paintings and Murals for the Government and royal families. His work here is an example of his skill and mastery over drawing and the medium of water color, evident even while being a II year student, at J.J.
L.N. Taskar (1870 – 1937), a student and teacher at J.J., he is known for his landscapes with a narrative element, done in oil and water color using white paint. His landscapes are full of human figures in various postures, blended into a genuinely Indian ambience. Women in his paintings, apart from their feminine beauty, reflect their social status with a sense of authentic documentation. In a panoramic view, in this painting, a group of ladies and children are depicted in pleasant colors with a play of light and shade around the iconic idol of Shiva’s vehicle, ‘Nandi’.
M.K. Parandekar (1877 - 1961), was a passionate landscape painter who travelled all over India. His landscapes were widely appreciated by rulers of the Princely states and the Governor, Lord Willingdon, who conferred on him the title, ‘Artist to His Excellency, Governor of Bombay’. His landscape of Banaras is full of realism created with illusionary perspective and harmonious colors.
S.L. Haldankar (1882 - 1968), was known for his sensitive handling of water colors and had a mastery over oil colors. He was an eminent painter, founder of Haldankar’s Art Institute and one of the founders of The Art Society of India established in 1918, who also supported music. ‘Lady in the Garden’ creates an ambrosial atmosphere, where the elegant lady with a water pot is surrounded by nature, lost in sweet memories.
M.R. Acharekar (1907 - 1979) is known for his portraits and paintings in water color and oil rendered with angular, forceful brush strokes. He was commissioned to paint the silver jubilee celebrations of the coronation of King George V and the coronation of Pratapsingh Maharaj of Baroda. He also worked as a reputed art director for Hindi movies. His prize-winning painting at the Bombay Art Society exhibition, ‘Shringar’ depicts a Maharashtrian lady draped in a nine-yard sari and holding a veiled semi-transparent yarn within dreamy palatial surroundings.
LANDSCAPE PAINTING: FROM ACADEMIC REALISM TO FREE EXPRESSION
Landscape painting in the twentieth century India, kept changing from extremely skilled rendering to free expression. Gradually it led to the expressionist approach initially practiced by Narayan Shridhar. Bendre, G.M. Solegaonkar, Walter Langhammer, Sayed Haider Raza and many more.
J.D. Gondhalekar (1909 – 1981), was a versatile artist and scholar who was Dean of J.J. and also worked as Art Director at ‘The Times of India’. His landscape captures the atmosphere of ‘Gateway of India’, a tourist attraction of Bombay, done during his student days, a strong rendering in gouache on tinted paper.
G.M. Solegaonkar (1912 – 1986), known for his landscapes, and works in a different genre, prepared his own shades by mixing colors inspired by Ajanta murals. His experiments covered a wide range – from academic and revivalist style to distortion and abstraction. This landscape depicts a gate of the temple complex with a dry pond. His innovative use of colors is evident even in this incomplete work.
Manohara (Manohar) Joshi (1913 - 1991) who played an important role in advertising and visual communication, was basically a painter. He studied at the Indore School of Art along with N.S. Bendre and did illustrative paintings for corporate calendars in the 1960s. The painting, ‘The Village Patel’ displays his skill, understanding and command over the technique, and won an award at the Bombay Art Society exhibition.
The two landscapes by L.V. Shenvi, painted around 1952, show a clear expressionist approach adopted by artists like S.H. Raza and A.A. Almelkar, on the verge of India’s independence.
BOMBAY REVIVALIST SCHOOL
The end of the nineteenth century witnessed a revivalist movement at the Government School of Art, Calcutta, inspired by E.B. Havell, to re-establish the values of Indian art which is known as Bengal Revivalist School. Around 1921, another revivalist movement started, at the Sir J.J. School of Art, which was also in search of an Indian identity. This lesser-known art movement is recognized as the Bombay Revivalist School. It was inspired by Principal Gladstone Solomon (1880 - 1965) and was developed under the guidance of G.H. Nagarkar (1892 - 1956), teacher of the Figure Composition class and J.M. Ahiwasi (1901 - 1973), teacher of Indian Class at J.J., important painters of the Revivalist movement. Shiavax Chavda (1914 – 1990) and Laxman Pai (1926 - 2021), both were students of Nagarkar and Ahiwasi but they did not follow their teachers. Their influence could be traced down through the lyrical lines in the paintings of Chavda and Pai. The two paintings, by Kusum Ketkar, an unknown artist, probably done during her student days, are done in wash technique.
A.A. Almelkar (1920 - 1982), not directly related to the revivalist movement at J.J., was friendly with artists from the Progressive Artists’ Group. But he was obsessed with Indian miniatures along with tribal and folk traditions. His paintings after 1952, are truly Indian in character and full of rhythm, enhanced by a rich texture and the graceful serpentine black line, encompassing various forms into a coherent whole. The painting of a tribal girl, ‘Untitled (Bride)’ is an example of Almelkar’s signature style.
Laxman Pai (1926 – 2021) explored the decorative element in a painterly language inspired by his Goan environment. His paintings, ‘Mirror’ and ‘Teen Murti’ are a combination of nature and socio-cultural metaphors.
Homi Patel (1928 – 2004) and Laxman Shrestha, (b. 1939) both left the narrative tradition of J.J. and became abstractionists.
Apart from the painters mentioned above, many celebrated painters born in the first half of the twentieth century are part of this auction. They are – Narayan Shridhar Bendre, Maqbool Fida Husain, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Sadanand K. Bakre, Francis Newton Souza, Mohan Samant, Badri Narayan and B. Prabha. A majority of them belong to the Bombay School tradition or are contemporaries who have contributed substantially towards modern Indian art.
The Bombay Revivalist Movement at J.J. took a new turn, resorting to stylization and distortion which gradually led to abstraction. There are many painters from the Bombay School tradition, who are responsible for this transition but are barely acknowledged. It also belies the assumption that suddenly, the Progressives and a few celebrated painters brought modernism to Indian art.
Written by: Suhas Bahulkar, painter, art teacher, art historian and curator
Translation: Deepak Ghare, writer and art critic.