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Chapter:  Art & Culture
Author # Title:  Click to visit article
Soumendranath Tagore
1 Excerpts from 'Chapter 3: Rammohun and the evolution of Bengali Prose'; Rammohun Roy: His Role in Indian Renaissance; The Asiatic Society,1975; page 26 to 30.
An excellent introduction to the evolution of Bengal's prose, beginning with the situation in the early 19th century.
Samaren Roy 2 Excerpts from 'Calcutta : Society and Change: 1690 - 1990; "The Painters"';  Rupa & Co publishers, 1991; page 176 - 186.
Describes the development of painting in Calcutta, especially the European influence; ends with its state in the 20th century.
  3 Watch this space for new additions!
  4 Watch this space for new additions!
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  6 Pop QUIZ on 'Art & Culture'
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1. Excerpts from "Chapter 3: Rammohun and the evolution of Bengali Prose' ", by Saumendranath Tagore; in 'Rammohun Roy: His Role in Indian Renaissance'; The Asiatic Society, 1975; page 26 to 30.
The Bengali prose of the early 19th century was mostly a jumble of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words and was pitiably amorphous in form. It was then at the mercy of the pandits who vied with each other in introducing as many Sanskrit words as possible. This Sanskritized Bengali prose was anything but Bengali in form.

Bengali prose was initially developed by the missionaries of Serampore and the pandits of the Fort William College, which was established in 1800. The missionaries wanted it as a vehicle for spreading Christianity, and William Carey, who was a pioneer of the creation of Bengali prose, translated the Bible into Bengali. The pandits of the Fort William College run by the Government wanted to utilize Bengali prose for the purpose of administration. Young British officers were taught Bengali so that they could converse with and understand the people they were to administer. Nathaniel Brassy Halhead's Bengali grammar was published in 1778. On its title page, it was stated that the grammar was for the benefit of the Feringhis. (Firinginàm Upakàràrtha).

The next attempt to write a Bengali grammar was made by William Carey in 1801. This, too, was written in English for the express purpose of acquainting newly recruited British 'Writers' with the native tongue. The first attempt to write a Bengali grammar in Bengali for the people of Bengal was undertaken by Rammohun. Before leaving India, Rammohun wrote a grammar of the Bengali language, Gaudiya Byàkaran. It was published by the Calcutta School Book Society in 1833. It comprised eleven chapters and dealt with sixty-eight topics ranging from the necessity of grammar to rhyme. It is interesting to note that in his grammar, Rammohun has used such expressions as 'kumiria nadi' (a river full of crocodiles) and 'hariniya laf' (deer-like jump). This linguistic innovation was later adopted by Rabindranath in some of his poems.

The first Bengali book in prose was published in 1801. It was a text-book, Raja Pratapaditya Charita, written for the new English 'Writers' by Ramram Basu. He wrote another book, Lipimala. His writings were full of Arabic and Persian words, and the construction of sentences was loose in structure. In 1802, Batrisa Simhasana written by Mritunjaya Vidyalankar was published. It was certainly an improvement on Ramram Basu's Raja Pratapaditya Charita. Nevertheless, it was replete with Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words and was just a text-book. Vidyalankar wrote three other text-books, Hitopadesh, Rajabali and Prabodh Chandrika. He had a deep contempt for the Bengali language, which he described as 'unchaste' and 'wayward' in his Vedanta Chandrika. It should be noted that the efforts of these two writers were entirely limited to Bengali text-book writing.

Then appeared Rammohun. In 1815, he published Vedanta Grantha, his first prose-work. It was a complete departure from previous Bengali prose writings. It was not a mere translation but an original writing in Bengali prose. Moreover, the prose was not burdened with numerous, incomprehensible Sanskrit words. It was Bengali prose in the truest sense. In his introduction, Rammohun gave his readers instructions on how to read the Bengali prose written by him. He also explained the rules to be followed in constructing a sentence in Bengali. This remarkable introduction shows the methods adopted by Rammohun for creating prose literature in the Bengali language. From 1815 to 1830, Rammohun wrote 30 books in Bengali.

The excellence that Bengali prose achieved in literary form under Bankim Chandra and Rabindranath owes its beginnings to the Bengali prose developed by Rammohun.

Ishwar Gupta, a reputed journalist and poet of the 19th century, wrote about Rammohun's prose writings: "He used to write Bengali in an extremely simple language in which all discussions, examinations of issues and disputes were expressed very clearly ... but there was nosweetness in his writing." ...

... The great Bengali litterateur, Bankim Chandra, in an article in the Banga Darshan on 'Bangla Bhasha' wrote: "In spite of the presence of the Mahamohopadhyays, it was Rammohun who had brought tide into the stagnant pool of Bengali language." And Rabindranath has also said: "Politics, education, social reform, Bengali language - there is not a single sphere in the life of modern Bengal which was not enriched by Rammohun."

Pramatha Chaudhuri, the famous Bengali writer, said about Rammohun's contribution to Bengali prose ..."Rammohun ... was fully conscious of the fact that the Bengalees of his time had not mastered the techniques of writing Bengali prose. That is why he had to first establish the rules for construction of sentences in the Bengali language. He knew that one cannot write Bengali prose in imitation of Sanskrit. And in his grammar of the Bengali language, he had clearly stated that the grammar of one language cannot be applied to another ... His prose is imitation of neither English nor Sanskrit. It is pure Bengali."

Professor Sukumar Sen, the celebrated historian of Bengali language and literature wrote: "In old and medieval Bengali literature, prose had no place ... Prose was used in epistles and legal documents ... Then came Rammohun. His wonderful genius was then applied to the rescue of Bengali prose-style from the unintelligible cumbrousness and verbosity which distinguished the writing of his predecessors. Again, Rammohun - in order to make his language easily comprehensible - introduced the use of punctuation mark: the full-stop, at the end of complete sentences ... although he was not always consistent in the use of this mark, especially in his earlier works."

In the sphere of Bengali songs, Rammohun's contribution is also significant.

Thungri, Tappa, Kirtan, songs in Ramprasadi tunes, Baul, Sari, Jari and other folk-songs with folk-tunes were prevalent in Bengali language. But there were no Dhrupad songs in Bengali. Dhrupad songs were rarely heard, since these songs were all in Hindi.

Rammohun was the first to compose Dhrupad songs in Bengali in 1828. He felt the need of Dhrupad songs - noted for their depth, grandeur, simlicity and absence of decorative tonal effusion - for his Brahmo Sabha meetings. Tappa and Thungri, he felt, were much too frolicsome for such occasions.

He composed thirty-two songs in Dhrupad style and introduced them in Brahmo Sabha gatherings.

After Rammohun, the Brahmo Samaj took it up and under the inspiring guidance of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, the members of the Brahmo Samaj composed innumerable songs in Dhrupad style and thus enriched Bengali songs beyond measure.

Comment # 1: Received from
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2. Excerpts taken from 'Calcutta : Society and Change: 1690 - 1990; "The Painters", by Samaren Roy ; page 176 - 186'.
Painting in Calcutta began late in the 18th century, with illustrations of biological specimens. It was the continuation of a genre prevalent in the preceding century at the court of Jahangir, whose famous specimens are Ustad Mansur's Blackbuck and Turkey, the latter presently being on show at the Indian Museum, Calcutta. A century before Mansur, the German painter and engraver Albrect Durer had illustrated a rhinoceros taken to Rome from India. The artists engaged to illustrate biological specimens were brought to Calcutta from Murshidabad and Patna. The painting of wool-bearing goats from Bhutan executed by Zainu (abbreviated from Zain al-Din) of Patna is an example which, having been taken to Britain, cannot be seen at Calcutta anymore. He stayed in the city till circa 1780.

Several European painters and engravers flocked to the city after Warren Hastings, married to a baroness, established a court on the model of minor European Barons. He and his wife sat to Zoffany for portraits, but the more important portrait painter was Robert Home. The Daniells, Thomas and William, uncle and nephew, and William Hedges were illustrators of sights, while Solwyns was of market scenes, etc.

Collection of objects of art began institutionally in 1784 with the founding of the Asiatic Society. Individual collectors were mostly rich Calcuttans. Among the earlier of them was Dwarkanath Tagore, whose collection at Belgachia Villa was dispersed on the sale of the house and its effects around 1857 to the Singhas of Paikpara Raj. The few Reynolds and Gainsboroughs seen in existing collections have only vague histories of their arrival in the city. The Brush Club exhibition of 1830 was held with paintings borrowed from the collections of Henry Derozio, Dwarkanath Tagore and Srinath Mullick.

Apart from the visiting artists there were resident Italians, who worked as architects, sculptors, painters and teachers of the arts at the same time ...

Bourne and Shepherd were the first to open a photographic studio. That was in 1839, and it is claimed on their behalf that theirs was the second such shop in the world ...

Little deserving mention happened in more than thirty years of the functioning of Art College established in 1854. Annadaprasad Bagchi was active between 1889 and 1905. His contemporaries were Bamapada Banerjee, Sashi Hesh, Gangadhar Dey, Manmathanath Chakravarti and Upendrakishore Ray Chaudhury. Some link with the Brahmo movement can be seen here. Both Ray Chouwdhury and Hesh belonged to the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj group. Ray Chowdhury, more famous as a writer than as an artist, was the grandfather of the film director Saytajit Ray ...

Illumined books were on the way out, because of linguistic changes. English had replaced Persian as the language of the elite. A Persian translation of Nala Damayanti was the last illumined text done at nearby Murshidabad in the 18th century. Bengali and Sanskrit texts were better handled in the pat scrolls produced in Birbhum and Midnapore. Kalighat produced only isolated pat paintings and not scrolls ...

Dissatisfaction naturally developed, because no outstanding work had been produced by this group ...

Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), who was an artist, took up the task. The Bengal School (1897-1920) was the result. Neither he nor his elder brother, Gagendranath had to earn their living by painting. Jaminiprosad Ganguli was a contemporay artist and their relation. The three attained eminence, but each painted in their own style. Whatever the shortcomings of the Bengal School, it restored to health the indigenous tradition in painting and infused self-confidence. Miniature portraiture was past recovery; the professional middle class, lawyers, physicians and teachers who led society were neither as affluent nor as anxious as the feudal landowners to spurn photography ...

The leading painters of the Bengal School were Nandala Bose, Asit Halder, Mukuls Dey, Kshitin Majumdar and Abdur Rahman Chutgai. Bose, Halder and Dey worked at Bichitra between 1912 and 1918, and also at Santiniketan. Bose spent a lifetime at Santiniketan, which became an art center. Bose had younger contemporaries like the painter Binodebehari Mukherjee and the sculptor Ramkinkar Baij. Now more than half a dozen artists stay there and exhibit at Calcutta.

A revolution in Indian art was in progress ... but ideologues among artists are as fanatical as those in religion and politics. Ravi Verma, who hailed from Kerala, was the leading practitioner in the Academic style; he was proclaimed to be in bad taste, because his treatment was un-Indian, although his subjects were Indian. Calcutta had not yet produced an artist of high stature. There was a tinge of anti-westernism and pan-Asianiam among the leaders of the art movement, as evidenced by the difference in enthusiasm over the reception to the Japanese Kakuzuo Okakura and the Englishman Rothenstein, who were in the city within a few years of each other.

The Indian Society for Oriental Art was founded in 1907, sponsored by Europeans - Woodroffe (a British judge who specialized in Tantra under the pseudonym of Arthur Avalon), James Cousins (a scholar) and Stella Kramrisch (a Hungarian who later made a name for herself as an art critic).

Polemics enetered the city's art circles with the founding Indian Society for Oriental Arts. Ravi Verma attracted more disparaging remarks than local personalities like Annada Bagchi, Bamapada Banerjee and Sashi Hesh, who were largely ignored by Kramrisch and O C Ganguly. The two Tagore brothers were the leading artists of the Bengal School.

Ganendranath, elder by five years to Abanindranath, shared his brother's enthusiasm for painting, but not revivalism. He was interested in near-contemporary experiments like Cubism. Their uncle, Rabindranath Tagore, encouraged their movement, but withheld a committment to revivalism or Cubis; he became the first truly modern when he turned to painting in 1920. Meanwhile, Rabindranath played the role of patron by providing a studio to painters at his ancestral house at Jorasanko. The studio was named Bichitra - meaning variety - indicative of his reluctance confine himself to the narrowness of a single style, while still a poet.Bichitra played a major role in the development of painting in the city.

Around 1915, Havell was replaced as Principal of the Art College by Percy Brown, who did not think much of Indian painting of the past as a model for aspiring artists ...

While Abanindranath followed the Moghul style to the extent of putting his siganture in Urdu characters, the others visited Ajanta, Elora and Bagh to sketch as well copy paintings. By the mid-twenties, they were important painters, but the movement had lost momentum. It had become respectable. Mukul Dey taught at the Art College at Calcutta, Asit Halder at Lucknow and Abdul Rahman Chugtai at Lahore. Nandalal Bose stayed at Santiniketan from 1922, an association which lasted a lifetime, and developed the Kala Bhavan.

The Bengal School came into existence in a period of incipient nationalism, and its decline coincided with the partial success of nationalism. The appointment of its members to teaching jobs and Nandalal's closeness to the Indian National Congress robbed the movement of its force: rebelliousness against academic art. The artists who had stayed out of the Bengal School came into their own after its official acceptance. Atul Bose (1898-1977) achieved eminence as a portrait painter; L M Sen as a painter of Christian themes; Depiprasad Rai Chowdhury (1893-1975) as a sculptor and a teacher at the Madras School or Art and Hemen Mazumdar (1895-1944) as a painter of the female form ... in a manner which the spiritualist Bengal School decried as carnal.

Meanwhile, Rabindranath Tagore had cut down his involvement as a patron of the arts from 1920, and taken to painting. By 1926, he was exhibiting his work and since then has won for himself a place as a painter in addition to being a poet, novelist, playwright, thinker, composer ... and several more ... There was resistance to his acceptance as a painter. Yet, he was the first modern, neither copying nor imitating any.

The Bengal School exhausted itself by 1920. Moghul art ceased to be inspiring; Ajanta seemed beyond initationon the limited canvases of Calcutta artists. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the painter who attracted most attention was Jamini Roy (1889-1972). He had joined Atul Bose and Hemen Mazumdar in 1920, and thirteen years later joined another group in rebellion against the Bengal School. Because he covered large spaces in the same colour it was said that he was painting in the Kalighat pat style. Jamini Roy slowly emerged after 1920, was far too complex for this simplistic description.

Jamini Roy came from Bankura where folk art is still alive, especially in terracotta pottery. He had experimented with landscapes in the Impressionist manner. Hasan Suhrawardy, who had spent several years in Moscow and Paris before returning to Calcutta, recognized in Jamini Roy an individual creativity of the highest order.

Gopal Ghosh was the next luminary with an eye for chiarascuro. Binodebehari Mukherjee (1904-1980) was virtually blind from an early age, but had an awareness of form and colour untrammeled by conventional conceptions. He lived and trained in Kala Bhavan at Santiniketan, which he raised to an art centre comparable to Calcutta. Somnath Hore, Ganesh Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharya are the outstanding contemporay artists. Among women, mention must be made of Meera Mukherjee (scupltor), Shanu Lahiri and Karuna Saha ...

To sum up:
The 18th century was a period of visiting foreign artists who were attracted to the city and the picturesque countryside. Native artisits honed their skills to illustrate biological specimens in the pursuit of science, mementos for pilgrims and miniature portraits for families separated from those who had come to India to shake the pagoda tree. At least two native artists are known to have stayed in the Karaya locality within walking distance of the Asiatic Society and the Museum.

In the latter half of the 19th century, a change took place. The Industrial Revolution had arrived at Calcutta and the elite was being transformed from fedual landlords and princes to leaders in learned professions and politics. The Art College (then School) was started the same year that the Railways came to Raniganj for transporting coal to the projected jute mills by the Hooghly. Significantly, a society for the promotion of industrial art was also formed the same year.

The 20th century saw the emergence of art movements and polemics. The earliest was the Bengal School begun in 1897 by Abanindranath Tagore, in which the cultivated "Orientalism" of the School got a boost from the political movements protesting the first Partition of Bengal in 1905. One of the activities associated with the movement was Swadeshi - a preference for everything Indian, including art.

The patronage that the Bengal School received from British officials made it suspect in the eyes of younger painters ... Atul Bose, the first painter from Calcutta to visit Paris and London led a revolt against the stylization of the Bengal School. Atul Bose was protrait painter and his protests would not have counted much, had he not been joined by Jamini Roy and Hemen Majumdar ... The overthrow was ultimately achieved by Rabindranath Tagore, whose exhibitions abroad had attracted much attention. Rabindranath was too accomplished to copy Moghul, Ajanta, impressionist or Cubist styles.

Those attending exhibitions and buying pictures had to be educated. The task was undertaken by Hasan Suhrawardy, who was the Bageswari Professor in Arts at Calcutta University and wrote for The Statesman. Suhrawardy taught English at a Russian university when the revolution broke out. His acquaintance with European painting was mostly French and Spanish art executed before 1914. But that was modern enough for Calcutta. Suhrawardy discarded the religious and mystic criteria used by Coomaraswamy, O C Ganguly and Stella Kramrisch. He discussed pictures in terms used in Europe.

After understanding Jamini Roy, those serious about painting had a second look at Rabindranath's work, which many had dismissed before as mere doodling, since most the pictures lacked colour ... Enthuusiasm in Tagore and Jamini Roy led to a fake "modernism" in which there was much imitation of Cezanne, Gaughin and Van Gogh. The creative ones did not and do not imitate, and there has been a succession of fine artists - Gopal Ghosh (1913-1960) and Sunilmadhab Sen (1910-1979) flowering in the fifties; Chintamani Kar (sculptor and pupil of D P Rai Choudhuri), Prakash Karmakar (born 1933) and Sunil Das in the sixties; Ganesh Pyne and Somnath Hore in the seventies; and Bikash Bhattacharya in the eighties.

The present organization of artists in Calcutta is centered aroud the Society of Contemporary Artists, founded in 1960. The principal galleries for exhibition are at the Academy of Fine Arts, which has been under the guidance of Lady Mookherjee for about 40 years and the Birla Academy of Fine Arts and Culture for about 20 years.

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Q1. The Bengali prose of the early 19th century was mostly a jumble of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words (true or false)?
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Q2. Nathaniel Brassy Halhead's Bengali grammar was published in ______ ?

Q3. Rammohun was the first to compose Dhrupad songs in Bengali in 1818 (true or false)?
(in words; lowercase)

Q4. Abanindranath Tagore founded The Bengal School of Art (true or false)?
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Q5. Rabindranath Tagore was the first modern, neither copying nor imitating any (true or false)?
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