At exhibition celebrating Kala Bhavana, questions about guru-shishya tradition, how we frame legacies
Curated by sculptor and Kala Bhavana alumnus KS Radhakrishnan, the exhibition — titled 'Pillars of an Artscape' — is based on portraying the lineage of contributions made by the seven “pillars” of the institute — Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, KG Subramanyan, Somnath Hore, and Sarbari Roy Choudhury.
Titled 'Pillars of an Artscape', the exhibition revisits 60 years of the institution's history as part of its centenary celebrations through numerous photographic archives.
The exhibition has been curated by sculptor and Kala Bhavana alumnus KS Radhakrishnan.
The seven "pillars" of the institute named in the exhibition are Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, KG Subramanyan, Somnath Hore, and Sarbari Roy Choudhury.
An ongoing exhibition at Nandan, Kala Bhavana, in West Bengal's Santiniketan — audaciously titled 'Pillars of an Artscape' — revisits 60 years of the institution’s history as part of its centenary celebrations through numerous photographic archives. Curated by sculptor and Kala Bhavana alumnus KS Radhakrishnan, the show is based on portraying the lineage of contributions made by the seven “pillars” of the institute — Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, KG Subramanyan, Somnath Hore, and Sarbari Roy Choudhury.
Quite literally, seven pillars have been erected in the gallery at Kala Bhavana, starting at the courtyard and leading indoors, with Tagore — founder of Visva-Bharati — being the first in line.
The exhibition offers a window into the institution’s eccentric history, and reveals its key role in subverting the prevalent norms of imparting art education through the teacher-pupil hierarchy in India. You see images of classes in session — some populated almost entirely by women, and others involving intimate conversations and tender moments shared between renowned artists and figures from the institution.
The exhibition designer, Miti Desai, along with Radhakrishnan, settled on a visual narrative mode that fits many images within a single banner, following a clockwise logic, with captions at the bottom. There are repetitions through the show, but there are moments of revelations too, when you feel privy to precious archival material — like a photograph in which a group of male artists and two female artists are seen seated on the floor, huddling around a white female artist, who is introducing them to a technique of clay modelling. One can spot Ramkinkar Baij from among them, an artist who would go on to become one of the country’s most significant sculptors.
Firstpost engaged KS Radhakrishnan in a larger conversation around the show, where he speaks on the rationale behind the chosen title, the archival source materials, and the invisibilised legacies of female artists within the larger existing discourse on Kala Bhavana’s history. Edited excerpts:
Let’s start with the name of the exhibition. What is the logic behind using the term “pillar”?
In a retrospective — whether it’s of an institution or an individual — you’re looking at a kind of inherent social structure. That structure stands with the support of pillars. What happened is that I, being a sculptor, sculpt around that independent structure. Keeping that in mind, I conceived them to be load-bearing pillars.
The idea we were working on was to think about Kala Bhavana as an institution: What exactly is the whole formulation? How did it come up? How did things evolve over a period of time? I shortlisted the pillars upon whom the institution stands right from the beginning, but the pillars could vary for others.
So what was the shortlisting process? How did you arrive at these seven?
If you look at Kala Bhavana or the entire Visva-Bharati University, the space was envisioned by Rabindranath Tagore. Even before the university was formally formed, he thought of working on Kala Bhavana. So, naturally, he became the person who really initiated the process; the first organ who conceived the whole thing. He was the main pillar to me, or to anybody, for that matter. I don’t think anybody would be able to conceive an exhibition without having him as a pillar. And then, who comes next?
It was Tagore’s idea to have Nandalal Bose lead the institution, and he was given full responsibility to set it up. So he’s the next pillar after Tagore. After that, the two obvious personalities who emerge from the first batch are Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee — among the first generation of artists to come out of Kala Bhavana and have a strong presence in the Indian art scene.
When these artists took over as teachers, the next generation followed. One of their most important students — for both Benode Behari and Ramkinkar — was KG Subramanyan, who (himself) became a teacher later, the big 'mastermoshai' of today. And who were KG Subramanyan's contemporaries at Kala Bhavana? If you look at their individual standings and the way they have contributed to the institution — Somnath Hore and Sarbari Roy Choudhury. So, for me, selecting these seven persons was not difficult. But I’m not denying that somebody else would have chosen some other people.
There is an element of curatorial freedom of understanding and judging their contribution… Of course, I was a student, and so, I may not be objective. Keeping in mind all of that, if I had to choose, these are the seven people I would choose.
Then again, you decided that instead of 100 years, you would look at 60 years of Kala Bhavana...
Yes. I was there till 1981, Kala Bhavana was started in 1919, so that's 62 years. I wanted to make an obvious (time)line, instead of one that comes up to the present day, because I left Santiniketan. After which many people have come, and have made their personal contributions. Some of the most important teachers and students came out — so all that is there. I didn’t want to touch that time.
Don’t you think that forces the exhibition to be stuck in a certain nostalgic past, without establishing its continuity?
It becomes a kind of a memory-scape. I don’t know much about those 40 years — from 1981 to today. Almost insistingly I, therefore say, that on the occasion of 100 years, I am doing an exhibition covering the first 60 years of Kala Bhavana. Even today, if anybody wants to do a retrospective of 100 years being an insider, I don’t know if they can come up with the idea of looking at it through an individual perspective, and still be objective. It’s tough.
So (perhaps work on) the area that you know about, have heard about, to which your memory goes back. I never met Tagore, Nandalal or Benode Behari. When I came, Nandalal was not well, and Benode Behari Mukherjee had gone. So I really knew only four of the artists, among which were Ramkinkar Baij and Sarbari Roy Choudhury. But to me, it was obvious that they were the people. I really don’t know if I could have done any justice to looking at the time after I left, so I felt the demarcation was necessary. I am standing in 1981 and taking a look back, and then examining what I've got. Maybe, in 125 years, someone will do 100 years. Nobody will be able to come up to date with how it’s existing. It’s a very tough task, and it doesn’t work like that. Or, maybe, somebody has to be really looking at it from the outside, you know what I mean? Should never have been a student; somebody who has seen the institution from how it was earlier, having not being a part of it.
Because I've done a retrospective on Ramkinkar, the university asked if I could come up with this exhibition using the archives.
Could you tell us a little about the archives you consulted?
You see, this exhibition is possible only if you explore the stock you have. Visva-Bharati has fantastic digital archives, and I was familiar with them to a certain extent, because of my work on the Ramkinkar retrospective. Then, of course, there are the Kala Bhavan archives. So, the institutions’ archives were the main sources for me.
My many years of research on Ramkinkar was extensive, and during that period, I came across many images, which I did not use in the retrospective. Those kind of personal archives evolved over a period of time, which I knew would be counted. Then, I was also friends with various artists, who I knew would open their doors for me, people who are still around, like Jagdish Mittal, and A Ramachandran. I could, therefore, collect useful material from them as well.
Also, they really guided me in identifying some of the artists for this exhibition. Since most of the archives here are not well polished with details, I really had to explore different possibilities.
I think what confused me a little in the exhibition was the lack of citation of sources. There were captions, yes, but I had no sense of where a particular image was coming from, except for very few instances where it was mentioned. So it’s loosely called archives, but the danger in such labelling is that we then no longer know which archive, or whose archive. Those very critical questions get erased.
The way the images are used is like banners, so it's been composed. I couldn’t use some in bigger formats because the source becomes a problem. Sometimes, the source is even Facebook.
But is that not still a source, which should ideally be credited?
Well, you know, because it’s put up by many people, the same photographs...
But even to say it is from Facebook is to acknowledge Facebook as its source, right?
Yes, that I should have done. Probably since I wasn’t mentioning, or rather, there wasn’t any mention of any source anywhere in the photos found on Facebook. In one banner, small images are put together to create a kind of a persona around it. Larger images would have been high-resolution images, and I don’t want people to be able to photograph them as they are archival material. It may not always be coming from important archives. There are some artists whose names I knew, but then you look via Google and find these images. You cannot even say it’s from this person’s Facebook profile, like Krishna Reddy. People were happy that certain people were credited irrespective of the sources. Having no representation would have been a problem. At least they were represented. That is what’s most important.
When you were looking at these materials, were there some narratives that emerged? For me, it was interesting that there were so many images with women, but you don’t imagine or see any of the women as pillars. Why was that? Was it that women came and then left without making an impression?
Not always. There are some women artists who completed and became faculty members at Kala Bhavana, like Gauri Bhanja, Nandalal Bose’s daughter, who studied here and developed a design school here. One makes certain artistic judgements that become the criteria for selection. It’s true, what you said — from the beginning, one can see the presence of many female students. It’s truly democratic, in terms of having equal number of men and women as students. Even when I was a student, in my first year, they selected 10 boys and 10 girls, so 20 students a year.
Somewhere, as an outsider looking at the exhibition, the institution tends to come across as an extremely patriarchal one. This notion of the guru and the shishya gets overemphasised, and so the culture comes across as an overtly reverential one.
In this country, there are many painters who are women. Like Meera Mukherjee — she was not a product of Santiniketan. I naturally had to look at people who came out of this institution, and when you look at the kind of standing they have, it was very difficult for me to choose. I can’t force myself to look at a woman artist who could make for a pillar. That would be a very forced situation.
So then Kala Bhavana is a patriarchal institution?
It’s a question of, you know, well, what can one say to that. Most of these well-established women artists happened to come out of this college. Now if you ask me, Ira Chowdhury, (Maharaj Kumari) Binodini (Devi) are from Kala Bhavana, but it depends on the kind of work they have done. I had to really look for that and that was a criterion for the pillars.
Even during my time, there were female students. Some got married in the middle of the course and didn’t complete it. I don’t know why some of them came here, why some of them continued, some discontinued even after completion. So then, one has to touch upon social situations, which then becomes a different kind of debate. What made many of the women discontinue practising? Internally, one has to introspect and look again to find out as to how many female printmakers or muralists are there, who did work in the same scale as KG Subramanyan, or female sculptors who did work like Ramkinkar Baij and Sarbari Roy Choudhury. I did really think about why I was unable to make a woman artist from Kala Bhavana one of its pillars.
But that’s the problem with the pillar model — it immediately privileges men because it is looking for things to erect. It is, in a way, pedestalising them, isn’t it?
But at the same time, there’s one more point. It’s not just the pillars that are there. Each and every panel has many representations of different kinds of artists.
Yes, of course, but the pillar model still claims a hierarchy, doesn’t it? There are certain overarching figures influencing a certain tradition. For me, that’s an approach that pedestalises men by literally enshrining them. You are casting their legacies in formaldehyde, like one can't question them anymore...
For one, let's look at who are the people who came back to contribute to the institution...
But that’s tricky too, because it’s also a question of privilege, among other things. There could be many reasons, and how people contribute to a legacy can never be measured in just one way.
Many of these artists are powerful in their own way, in their own space. Even people like A Ramachandran, Ira Chowdhury, among others, they have their own space and their own strengths and presence. But what happens when it comes to the making of an institution? Why were they not chosen to be some of the important teachers here? Sincerely speaking, there were very, very few female artists here who became teachers (at Kala Bhavana). I cannot avoid that reality. That itself is one. If they were there, it would be different, they could have participated differently and would have eventually become a pillar. I cannot rewrite history. It’s not happening even in my memory of understanding of Kala Bhavana. Because when I was here, I don’t remember any female teachers in 1981. Somnath Hore — an outsider who came in the late 1960s — and Sarbari Roy Choudhury could have probably brought in a female artist, but that didn’t happen.
In my presence, when I was there, I never encountered women faculty members. Recently, people started questioning the lack of female teachers. At the same time, there were women who were there and were responsible for the alpona traditions and design traditions.
One has to look at what one encountered, and take it forward. I hope more female artists are trying to get into art colleges, and many of them are, if you look at it. Look at how many female teachers are there in Delhi Art College, or in Mumbai and Chennai. During KCS Paniker’s time, you’d see a very minimal representation of female artists. So it’s not just Kala Bhavana. The exhibition wasn't intentionally made to look patriarchal, but the institution so happened to be. It’s something to be looked into more, so it doesn't get repeated in the time to come.