Monday, September 10, 2012

A Brief History of Visual Contextualization in India: The Bengal Renaissance and the Birth of Modern Indian Christian Art

Hindostan or British India map, c.1864.

Continuing in my intermittent series on visual contextualization in India, I want to give an overview on the Bengal Renaissance and its influence on 20th century Indian Christian artists.

Orientalist official of the
East India Company (circa 1760)
After the decline of the Mugal Empire in the mid-17th century, India came under the rule of various regional leaders called rajas.  About a century later, the privately-funded British East India Company took control over large areas of India, exporting cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium to Britain and Europe.  It eventually ruled over "India with its own private army, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions... In the modern era, its history is strongly associated with corporate abuse, colonialism, exploitation, and monopoly power."  It was absorbed into the British government's direct control in 1874.

The Bengal Renaissance began around 1895 as a nationalistic reaction to the policies of the British.  Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda writes,

The basis of the Bengal Renaissance was East-West contact. With the spread of European colonial power around the world through the agency of the East Indian Company and similar organizations, many regions of Asia, including India, experienced tremendous upheaval to their traditional cultures. Bengal was perhaps the first region in Asia to have its culture radically transformed through this interaction with the West. In Bengal five important influences led to the Bengal Renaissance: the rise of British–Bengali commerce, the introduction of English education, British Orientalism, Christianity, and perhaps most importantly how the Bengali intellectuals themselves responded to these influences.

Through the academic study of the Orientalists, the British began to realize the depth of Indian culture, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and language (they discovered that Sanscrit was the forerunner of many European languages, such as Greek and Latin).  This flood of scholarship also had a deep impact on the Bengali elite, who interacted most with the British.  The wealth of information engendered in them a nationalistic pride in the culture and past accomplishments of the Indian subcontinent.  As a result, the elite were inspired to pursue education, religious and social reforms, literature, science, and the arts, all based on their Indian identity and history.  The resulting renaissance helped bring India into the modern age.

Rabindranath Tagore
In 1911, the Calcutta School of Art appointed as its director E.B. Havell, a Indian art scholar who began incorporating Indian teaching models in its curriculum.  Meanwhile Rabindranath Tagore founded Visva Bharati University at Shantiniketan in 1921, establishing an art department there which would help birth the modern art movement in India.  The National Gallery of art in New Delhi writes that the school "presented an alternative methodology of art training, in which studio based practice was rejected in favour of learning through observation and living as a part of nature."  This was both a departure from Indian art in previous centuries, as well as Western models.

Several Christians artists began their training at Shantiniketan, where their Christian faith was viewed sympathetically by the Hindu professors, whose nationalism "was a kindly [one], loving and serving its country without any hatred of other races or of non-Hindu religions" (Butler, 127).  These Christian artists included Angelo da Fonseca, Vinayak S. Masoji, A.D. Thomas and Jaya Appasamy.  In fact, due to the tolerance practiced at Shantiniketan, even non-Christian artists such as Jamini Roy often turned to Biblical themes in their artwork.

In my next post I'll write more about one of the Christian artists mentioned above, A. D. Thomas.

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