The Calcutta Group:

by- Sanjoy Mallik

This modern language, they claimed could evolve only when we stop looking back “to our past glories and cling to our old traditions at all cost”. A language to articulate the contemporary had to begin from fresh grounds altogether. And the call of the hour was that art had to become “international and interdependent”. The self-negating remark in the catalogue note — “our art has stood still since the seventeenth century” — should be viewed along with their oblique reference to the romantic sentimentalism of the “Bengal school”, pointing out the past-clinging anachronism that they wished to discard. Yet, this statement itself has to be reviewed now, since it views the ‘school’ as a monolith. What began originally as a personal style and language in the hands of Abanindranath, later underwent several shifts in Nandalal Bose, before it became a “school” in the hands of the not-so-imaginative followers. Further changes from within would then consist of the later works of Nandalal, (even, the late examples, from Abanindranath himself), as well as the complete transformation in the works of Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay and Ramkinkar Baij into a “contextual modern” language. These, coupled with the uniquely significant attempts by Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy to formulate a viable contemporary alternative outside the “Bengal School” practice, are left out in the tracing of the pre-history, whereby the Group almost tended to project itself as an exclusive phenomenon. The members of the Group could hardly be believed to have been unaware of their precursors.

In the concluding paragraphs of the catalogue note the Calcutta Group maintained that while India had remained stagnant, the world outside had “evolved epoch-making discoveries in forms and techniques and that it was necessary to “close this hiatus by taking advantage of these developments in the Western world” (7). But, formal and technical innovations, far from being ends in themselves, evolve as a logical consequence of a search for a new language system. The consideration of modern movements in world art at merely the level of formal and technical innovations tends to overlook the internal necessity and logic of such a development that led European modern art from one movement to another.

The eight participants of the very first exhibition of the Calcutta Group held in 1945 were Prodosh Das Gupta, Kamala Das Gupta (nee T.C. Kamala), Gopal Ghosh, Paritosh Sen, Nirode Majumder, Subho Tagore, Rathin Maitra, and Prankrishna Pal. There is no clear consensus regarding his membership, but Banshi Chandragupta’s works were shown along with other members of the group in their second exhibition held in Bombay (1945, under the auspices of the I.P.T.A.) but since then neither he nor Subho Tagore exhibited with the group again. Abani Sen joined the group just before the fourth exhibition in 1947, and Rathin Mitra was nominated a member in 1949. Immediately before the joint exhibition with the Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay (held in Calcutta, 1950) Rathin Maitra and Gopal Ghosh had withdrawn from the group and Govardhan Ash was invited to join in their place. This was also the solitary exhibition in which Ramkinkar Baij participated. Sunil Madhav Sen and Hemanta Misra joined the group in 1952 and 1953 respectively as the final recruits.

Beyond 1953, most of the artists of the Calcutta Group evolved into their individual trajectories. Familiarity, therefore, associates their identity with the works of the later period rather than what they produced as members of a collective attempt. Moreover, the lack of any kind of systematic documentation building up an inventory of the visual images, makes it impossible today to form a comprehensible idea of the range and dimension of creative expression during the ten years of the Group. Most of the originals are dispersed or untraceable; what little remains in the form of a few illustrations accompanying contemporary publications are the only source of our knowledge where the authenticity of the date of execution of the work of art remains beyond doubt. Two such sources would be the Calcutta Group handbook/catalogue and the article by Klaus Fischer in the journal “Marg” both published in 1953.

Hemanta Mishra drew on his native Assam for themes, but this self-trained painter traversed a wide range of styles from pointillist rendering (as in “Wood gatherers”) to the expressionistic (as in “On the courtyard”). In the late fifties he shifted gradually towards an intuitive surreal imagery as in “Chaturanga” (1958), where intertwined arabesques and disjointed shapes co-mingle to create an image that draws its motifs from visually observed sources but transmutes them to imagined juxtaposition of disparate units.

(Extracted from the article entitled THE CALCUTTA GROUP (1943-1953) b Sanjoy Mallik : The article was earlier published in Art & Deal, No. 16, Volume 3 No. 2,October-December 2004)