Parallel Modernism: the avant-gardes of Santiniketan.
Among the Santiniketan artists, Benode Behari Mukherjee & Ramkinkar Baij stand out with their experimental flamboyance. A student of Kala Bhavan in 1917, Benode Behari resisted attitudes of received wisdom. Benode Behari eschewed mythological & historical themes with the same spirit of independence with which he refused to be drawn into the nationalist stream. Benode Behari’s sympathy lay in the evocations of nature, particularly of his travels in Bihar, Bengal & Nepal. His paintings with its broad flat brushstrokes & quick calligraphic line is an objective art, of a selective, interpretive reality. Benode Behari stands apart among his contemporaries for an interpretation of nature that is neither overly valorized nor sentimental. Such a vision of nature came from his deep interest in Far Eastern painting. Among the Santiniketan artists, he more than anyone else had tried & succeeded in imbibing the principles of the Far East calligraphic painting, which appealed to his contemplative & analytical mind. Benode Behari is a valuable guide to his own evolution. In him, we sense a creative tension between nature & tradition & between decoration & firm structural drawing., existing in a state of a delicate balance. While he felt the need to learn from the past, he also understood & believed in the need of progress. Tragically, when he lost his eyesight after a botched operation he continued to paint & create collages & break new grounds. His bravery & his experiments provided inspirations to future generations. Another point of departure & what made his art so compelling was the new ‘subaltern’ canon, the swarthy elongated faces with large noses & thick lips that had little in common with either the delicate oval-faced women of the Bengal School or the nubile beauties of the academic artist Ravi Varma. By every parameter in vogue today, Ramkinkar Baij is seen as an arch modernist who made a very distinct contribution both in sculpture & painting. He is widely recognized as the most outstanding Indian sculptor. In painting, he was not merely the first to display several post-cubist features, but also the first to demonstrate a convincing understanding of their linguistic rationale. It is often argued that Ramkinkar represented a disjunction within the Santiniketan ethos. The crux of this claim is the focus he placed on the human world & especially on the representation of Santhals. While rural life was seen as subsumed within the larger reality of rural nature by both Benode Behari & Nandalal, Ramkinkar focused on the human figure. His works were an open-ended chronicle of his daily encounter with the world around him. Ramkinkar is in many ways a figure of transition whose approach to his subject & craft veered between a romantic idealization & a socially committed art. As an artist, he stands out for both his adherence to & departure from the Santiniketan approach. Broad-based in his eclecticism, he drew freely from early Indian sculpture, cubistic paintings, expressionistic watercolors & landscapes. Ramkinkar revealed an emotional response to his subjects matched vigorously by his willingness to experiment with material & form. In the process, both Benode Behari & Ramkinkar stand outside & beyond the school of Santiniketan, representing in their art vibrant Indian modernity. Vinayak Pasricha