A picture can speak a thousand words. And sometimes trigger a million thoughts.
At the 19th Century Swadeshi Art show, organised by Delhi’s Akar Prakar Gallery (on till 31 October 2017), this image of goddess Kali, on a cigarette pack, set me thinking how religion, identity, politics and business get interwoven through art.
My student Pushpita Dey did a rough translation of this cigarette adv. in Bengali. The cigarette brand was called Kali, and was projected as a “Swadeshi product”. The adv. assured the buyer that as the pack had the image of Kali, the cigarette was not harmful. “It is not injurious to health.” Goddess selling cigarettes? It will cause outrage today in the 21st century but in the 19th century this probably was a cool idea. The cigarette, a gift of love from AH Johar (probably the sales agent) was targeted at the Hindu bhatrigan (community of brothers). It implored them to buy the cigarette in order to support the Swadeshi movement and the poor labourers of Bengal. So, goddess Kali became a model for a cigarette that was manufactured by East India Cigarette Manufacturing but was sold as a Swadeshi product!
Amidst the 30-odd works on display in Akar Prakar Gallery – oil paintings, lithographs and oleographs – the unique images of goddess Saraswati are even more engaging. Popular Hindu iconography depicts Saraswati as a woman clad in white, playing the veena, holding a book, a water pot and a string of beads with her multiple hands. The goddess of wisdom and knowledge is usually presented as a spiritual being. But many 19th century artists created a different Saraswati – more decorative and enchanting. She too graced some advs. selling Ayurveda products ranging from hair oil to malaria medicine.
Religious and mythological figures were powerful messengers of ideas of identity and nationalist spirit. Curator of the show Ashit Paul, a painter and an expert on woodcut prints of Kolkata, is fascinated by the inter-play of ideas in this period. There were protests against use of Kali’s image on a cigarette pack, but Paul doubts if the British would have bothered about them. He asserts that the use of religious, mythological characters revived the self confidence of Indian artists in the 19th century.
After 1857, Paul says, local artists in Bengal consciously chose to depict themes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata or the Puranas. Many trained at the Calcutta School of Art (established in 1854) to learn the naturalist technique of painting but chose to evolve a more “Indian” visual language that was inspired by Mughal miniatures and folk art.
What was Bengal like in the 19th century? It was definitely crowded with pioneers – Ramakrishna, Chaitanaya Mahaprabhu, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Madhusudan, Swami Vivekananda, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sharatchandra Chatterjee, and Jagdish Chandra Bose. Many of them cradled the Bengal Rennaissance when religious, art, literature and social norms were challenged. This period witnessed the creation of Brahmo Samaj, ban of Sati and child marriage, beginning of women literacy and demand for widow-remarriage in Bengal.
Swadeshi became art
In art, local became popular. The pat paintings of Kalighat appealed to the fast-emerging urban class of Kolkata. Kalighat paintings, with their confident brushstrokes and vibrant colours, depicted mythological characters, social scandals and even satire.The potuas (local makers of Kalighat art) captured an even larger market with the introduction of the litho print – a technique which helped them print the outline of an entire picture. The artist only had to fill in the colours. It became possible to mass produce art. The idea of Swadeshi travelled through art.
Nalini Sundari, lithoprint on paper, Kansaripara Art Studio, 1890
The new group of artists, named the pre-Bengal School, discarded the themes that were attractive to their colonial masters – family portraits, still life, house pets, landscapes. Among the prominent pre-Bengal School artists were Annadaprasad Bagchi (1849-1905), Shyamacharan Shrimani, Nabakumar Biswas (1861-1935), Phanibhushan Sen, Krishnachandra Pal, Yogendranath Mukhopadhyay, Bamapada Bandyopadhyay (1851-1932), Shashikumar Hem and Bhabanicharan Laha (1880-1946).
Bagchi started the Calcutta Art Studio (near Bowbazar) along with Biswas, Sen and others in 1878. The studio artists included patriotic themes besides religious and social. Most of the works produced were neither dated nor signed. Five-six artists collectively created a single work. Frequent visitors to the studio included Surendranath Bandyopadhyay, Keshabchandra Sen and Swami Vivekananda. Paul says Calcutta Art Studio’s works were most sought after and even replaced the “high art” of that period. Similar, smaller studios emerged in Kansaripara and Chorbagan that printed many paintings through litho technique.
For close to three decades, the pre-Bengal School dominated the visual terrain of Bengal. They not only gave Swadeshi ideas an indigenous artistic vocabulary but prepared the foundation for a bigger art movement – the Bengal School of Art.
All pictures from the exhibition are courtesy Akar Prakar Gallery.