The Calcutta Group:

by- Sanjoy Mallik

“Man is supreme, there is none above him” — this was the guiding slogan when the Calcutta Group was formed in 1943.  Those were dark days for Bengal. Famine and pestilence were then stalking the land. The barbarity and heartlessness all around moved us, a few young artists, deeply.  We began to think, to search our hearts and ask ourselves: ‘…… which way?’”

The note in the 1953 publication of the Calcutta Group comes from the group a decade after its initial formation, when a considerable change in the configuration of its constituent members had already taken place. As such, not only is there the possibility of an element of hindsight, but also that of an anachronistic superimposition of later realizations/rationalizations over those of the actual moment of inception. However, strictly speaking, the note was not a manifesto, but an attempt to express what it considered to be common motivating ideals, interspersed with retrospective recalling of the Group’s past history.

The focus on “Man” became specifically grounded when the authors turned to the history of their collective. The man-made famine and the worldwide violence of war were suffering beyond expectations that humanity inflicted upon itself. It is only natural that artists, responding to such disasters, should have felt impelled to ask themselves “which way?” The question remains then of the way they ultimately chose. One group of artists had responded to the same situation by stripping art bare to the elemental basics, direct and even to a certain extent topical — developing an “iconography of the famine” itself. As they took on the responsibility of showing the viewers starkly in their faces, the disasters all around directly as theme and unmitigated in representation, political propaganda and art often walked a tightrope balance together. But in the instance of the Calcutta Group it was a different choice. For them, although the immediate factors triggering off their quest were the socio-political transformations, primarily it did not assume the question of direct thematic representation. Rather, they saw it as an era on the thresholds, moving across into a period when past languages no longer seemed adequate. The stagnancy required being broken with the innovation of a totally new, and necessarily modern, visual language.