I first became curious about the Kala Bhavana at Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan, India, a few years ago when I read a short biography of the Indonesian painter Rusli. Born in the Sumatran town of Medan in 1916, Rusli left Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) at the age of 16 to study art in India (then the British Raj) between 1932 and 1938. The Visva Bharati University was founded in 1921 by the world-famous Indian intellectual and nationalist Rabindranath Tagore, who had visited Medan briefly in 1927. Perhaps it was this short appearance that stirred Rusli’s curiosity and motivated his decision to take the big step of moving overseas at such a young age. When Rusli attended the Kala Bhavana, it was directed by the influential Indian modernist artist Nandalal Bose, who implemented his own unique version of Tagore’s educational theory.
I visited Shantiniketan in the framework of my research on transnational encounters between modernist artists from Indonesia and India. This blog entry is my public scrapbook of that short trip, with notes and some photographs of the art I saw. I wanted to gain a firsthand impression of the art school and its surroundings and to visit the Tagore Museum in the Uttarayan complex and the Visva-Bharati Library on the campus. I hoped to experience what made – and still makes – the art school so attractive to international students and pilgrims. I was also looking for information about ideas on art and art education that Rabindranath Tagore and art teachers like Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee or Ramkinkar Baij passed on to art students like Rusli.
Before I arrived in Shantineketan, I had done some background reading, including Raman Siva Kumar’s ‘Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview’ (1999) and Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism (1997), as well as Partha Mitter’s Triumph of Modernism: Indian Artists and the Avant-Garde 1922-1947 (2007) and Indian Art (2001). I will reflect on these texts in greater depth in my forthcoming essay on the work of Rusli, the Indonesian painter and art teacher whose work constitutes a case study in my work on the transnational cultural dynamics of modern art in Asia. Below, I will share what I recalled from my reading of Kumar and Mitter while strolling around the Kala Bhavana building complex and the courtyard, a hybrid space that is part park, part sculpture garden and part open-air class room, where ample seating accommodations, combined with the shade from the many trees, provide opportunities to connect with students and other visitors.
In his brief overview of modern Indian art, the art historian R. Siva Kumar compares Indian conceptions of modernism to the dominant Western conception of modernist art. Whereas Kumar positions Western modernism as conceiving of itself as avant-gardist, original, and against the ‘post Renaissance Western realist tradition,’ he argues that Indian modernism claimed no such ‘aggressively progressive’ position for art.  Analyzing Indian modern art through the lens of identity politics, Kumar describes modernist dynamics in India as a ‘set of cross-cultural encounters experienced differently from the two sides of the colonial divide’. His stance is that nineteenth century colonialism had turned the traditionally non-hierarchical relationship between Indian and Western culture into a hegemonic one. As a consequence, modern art in India was motivated by a nationalist and anticolonial attitude which manifested in, for instance, the reanimation of indigenous cultural production. Indian modernists shared Western artists’ passion for creating a modern identity, but they constructed modern Indian identity through an eclectic revival of Indian indigenous and/or pan-Asian culture.
Even though the historian of art and culture Partha Mitter does not refer directly to Kumar’s work, both authors share the view that Indian modern artists were motivated by a critical attitude toward the Western concept of progress and the colonial industrialization of India. In a chapter called ‘The Indian Discourse of Primitivism’ in Triumph of Modernism, Mitter explains ‘the rise of a form of political primitivism in India’ as a reaction to colonial education and cultural values. Mitter’s argument draws indirectly on his extensive knowledge of colonial art education in India, but his research extends to the modern art movement as resisting the ‘trappings of colonial urban civilization’ by idealizing the figure of the peasant as a symbol continuous with an authentic Indian way of life. The most famous contributors to the cultural discourse of the idealized peasant are Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. On a critical note, Mitter explains that the discourse perpetuates the myth of the timeless ‘noble savage’ created by colonial anthropology. However, in the context of Indian modernism, this myth was re-appropriated and employed against material colonialism and Western-style industrialization, thus promoting the formation of an independent, critical, and modern Indian cultural identity.
Mitter identifies a ‘environmental primitivism’ at Kala Bhavana in Shantiniketan that arose from Tagore’s educational ideology, which Nandalal Bose adapted and adjusted for his art teaching. Mitter draws a parallel between the Bauhaus and the Kala Bhavana. At both schools, the teachers were invested in a form of primitivism that was inspired by Eastern ‘spirituality,’ but Mitter also points to the difference between Tagore’s ideas on education and those at the Bauhaus, a school with a strong commitment to progress and technology. At Visva Bharati University, Tagore implemented a teaching method based on direct communication instead of relying on book learning and which, in Mitter’s words, was ‘inspired by ancient Indian thought that would nourish emotion and intellect’ as opposed to colonial civilization, which depleted it. In Shantiniketan, ‘environmentalist primitivism’ led to manifold artistic representations of subalterns and adibasis (aboriginals), especially the local Santal people, as well as to experiments with traditional architectural construction techniques and local cultural production methods.
Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, and Somnath Hore worked as artists and educators at the Kala Bhavana. As the director of the school, Bose combined Tagore and Gandhi’s ideas with his own ‘ideas of a non-hierarchical community at the Kala Bhavan’. Bose saw himself as a participant of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation movement and continued it in his own, artistic way. During my trip to Shantiniketan, I found Vision and Creation (1999), a book with the English translations of Bose’s writings on art and art education that was originally published in Bengali in the 1940s. Bose’s Vision and Creation, Kumar’s Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, Mitter’s views of art education in Shantiniketan, and Tagore’s Nationalism (1917) are all crucial sources in my forthcoming essay on the work of the Indonesian painter Rusli.
- Kumar, R. (1999). Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview. Art Journal, 58 (3), 14-21.
- Mitter, P. (2007). The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-garde, 1922-1947. London: Reaktion, p 29.
- Idem. Further reading: Mitter, P. (1994). Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press; and: Mitter, P. (1977). Much Maligned Monsters: History of European Reactions to Indian Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Idem, p. 79.
My field trip to Shantiniketan was supported by the Mondriaan Fund.