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Bringing a forgotten Bengal modernist back into the spotlight

By focusing on four decades of Gobardhan Ash’s practice, the retrospective by Prinseps aims to situate him in the same league as other modern masters

'Soldier's Boots', 1955, Pastel on Board. Photos: courtesy Prinseps Auction House
'Soldier's Boots', 1955, Pastel on Board. Photos: courtesy Prinseps Auction House

Summer may have come early this year, but it is still spring for India’s modernists in the city of Kolkata with three major retrospectives currently on display this month. Along with KG Subramanyan’s much awaited centennial, curated by Nancy Adajania, and Ganesh Haloi’s solo exhibition, a third show, 'The Prinseps Exhibition: Gobardhan Ash Retrospective’ at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC) is quietly offering a course correction in art history.

Co-curated by Harsharan Bakshi and Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil from the Prinseps auction house, the retrospective, which covers four decades of the artist’s life from 1929 to 1969, is an effort to situate Ash in the same league as India’s other modern masters. Over hundred artworks are presented in the exhibition, and they include a wide repertoire in terms of both media and themes—from works in charcoal, pastels, pen and ink, oil and watercolours to portraits, figure studies and landscapes.

Breathing Time (1929), exhibited in the introductory section, is a study of a horse whose bold brushstrokes caught the eye of Jamini Roy at his college’s annual exhibition and turned out to be a propitious break for the artist. With the support of his mentor Atul Bose, he was instrumental in co-founding of the Young Artists’ Union in 1931 and the Art Rebel Centre in 1933, working with fellow artists to counter the influence of the Bengal School.

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What distinguished Ash from his peers early in his career, apart from his outspoken nature, was his remarkable draughtsmanship. He also preferred to work outdoors and consciously chose subjects marginalized by society. Fakir (1939) shows a man begging on the streets in Park Circus area of Kolkata. He drew this portrait in charcoal after observing his subject for days, and it demonstrates his ability to capture the pathos of the downtrodden in his socially responsive works. Other works in the same genre in the exhibition include Street Beggar (1937), Fisherman (1939) and Santhal People (1950).

'Commander-in-Chief', 'Children' series, 1957 - 67, oil on panel
'Commander-in-Chief', 'Children' series, 1957 - 67, oil on panel

The first half also devotes a section to his self-portraits. Mostly done in pen and ink, with a pronounced use of cross-hatching, these chronologically arranged sketches reinforce his image of a quiet and reclusive artist. Unfortunately, while he was known to make self-portraits till his final days, there are none exhibited from his sunset years, thus limiting the exhibition’s scope to showcase the evolution of this vital aspect of his artistic practice.

A glaring miss, again, is the absence of Ash’s series of watercolours on the catastrophic famine of Bengal in 1943, which he has been long recognised for, along with other contemporaries like Chittaprosad Bhattacharya and Zainul Abedin. In past retrospectives on him, or of modern art from Bengal, seminal works of his like One by One—which represented the haunting scene of a family converged around a lifeless child aware there was more death to come—have been prominently featured.

A divergence within the exhibition is a set of non-anatomical figures created between 1948 and 1951. Branded as the Avatar series by the auction house, ostensibly to give them a catchy moniker, these gouaches stand in stark contrast to Ash’s early academic studies, his other modernist works, or ones from his later years exhibited in the show.

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An intriguing work, titled After Raid (1950), shows a mother protectively holding her baby in her lap. The wall text suggests that it “could symbolise the aftermath of the 1942 Japanese air raids in Calcutta”, highlighting how the trauma of the war had continued to inform his work. The series reminds one of Dutch painter Karel Appel’s post-war works, where he used a vivid visual aesthetic inspired by children’s drawings, folk and mythological sources. While the curatorial attempt to draw a likeness between Ash’s figures and recent digital avatars like Cryptopunk NFTs may seem opportunistic, his ability to independently arrive at such a distinctly expressive style makes him appear foresighted compared to his more established Indian contemporaries and creates a dialogue with other global post-war expressionists.

A lesser known fact about him, which the retrospective highlights, is that in 1950, as an invited member of the Calcutta Group, Ash exhibited with the Bombay Progressives. At this point in the show, one is faced with the question: What happened to this nonconformist, who rebelled against the luminaries of the Bengal school, painted heart-rending images of the famine while questioning British mismanagement during the war, and was considered avant-garde enough at his peak to exhibit alongside modernists like Souza, Raza and Husain?

The second half of the exhibition implies a decline in his prospects, both creatively and financially. From 1952 to 1955, he headed the painting department at the Indian College of Art and Draughtsmanship in Kolkata but then withdrew to his home town in Begumpur, where he opened the Fine Art Mission Free Art School in 1956.

The Children series, painted in oil between 1957 and 1967, comes across as a regression to a more traditional approach, especially after he had developed such an individualistic style in his earlier works. The resulting piece, titled Commander-in-Chief, shows three children with the one in the centre holding a whip, while the other two look on subserviently. The artist’s own writings reveal a yearning for legacy, “It was common practice in the olden days for eminent painters in the West to sketch or paint studies on a single subject for 20-30 years. Many of these are now celebrated artworks. Such dedication is rare indeed in painters in this country."

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The exhibition tries to uphold Ash as an influential modernist, who needs to be recognised for his critical contribution to Indian art during a period of turmoil ravaged by famine and Partition in Bengal. The show also underscores the lack of historical scholarship and critical recognition for many Indian modern artists who have withered away from the spotlight.

Prinseps Presents: Gobardhan Ash Retrospective can be viewed at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity, Kolkata till 21 April, Monday – Saturday, 11 AM – 7PM.

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