By Debopriya Bhattacharya
In the words of Dr. Michael Shank, “the arts are an emotionally powerful and transformative medium; using them must be done strategically and systematically” (‘Redefining the Movement: Art Activism’, Michael Shank). Art, can hence, be understood as an audio, visual or audio-visual medium that can be used to carry a social message so as to be able to impact the larger audience while affecting their emotional capacity to register dissent. This idea brings forward the concept of protest art, which, in the easiest way can be understood as an art born out as a result of social movements or activism.
This form of art has been used to confront various political and social issues. While some famous protest art pieces include the poster, ‘Beauty is in the Street’, the famous portrait of Adolf Hitler, ‘Adolf the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spits Tin’ by John Heartfield, Picasso’s Guernica, and many more, it would be interesting to note how some famous artwork from the time of the Indian freedom struggle fits well into the category of protest art.
In 1905, Bengal in India was under the threat of partition on the behest of the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The nationalist struggle, which was undertaken to resist this decision, inspired the second Swadeshi Movement in India. But, if one can ask, what was Swadeshi?
Swadeshi can be understood as the protest registered by the Indians against the British Raj on two major fronts i.e. boycotting the goods produced by the British manufacturers and promoting the goods produced in India. The impact of Swadeshi was also seen in the domain of culture with artists entering the political arena and using their art as a political weapon. As stated in the essay ‘Ideology of Swadeshi Art’, “cultural autonomy complemented economic self-sufficiency.”
This was followed by the initiation of cultural movements to dispose of British Western literature and visual arts to produce works exceptional to India – all of which resulted in the production of ancient Indian painting styles. One such outcome was the initiation of a movement that led to the formation of the Bengal School of Art under the guidance of Abanindranath Tagore, also known as the ‘Father of Modern Indian Art’.
One of the most famous paintings from this era of Swadeshi unrest was Abanindranath Tagore’s famous painting, Bharatmata which established the pattern of patriotism in art. Originally called Banga Mata, this painting was later renamed Bharatmata by Tagore, “almost as an act of generosity towards the larger cause of Indian nationalism”, as told by him in his memoir.
Depicted as a serene, saffron-clad ascetic woman with four attributes seen as objects symbolic of nation’s aspirations which include spiritual knowledge, food, cloth and learning, it was only after the revelation of the ‘Mother’ “that patriotism worked miracles and saved a doomed nation”, as argued by Aurobindo Ghose in 1907.
The beginning of the Bengal School of Art movement saw an increase in the number of artists producing paintings to serve the cause of what political scientists call, ‘nation-building’. To quote Aarti Khare, “The period of Indian nationalist movement saw a heightened self-awareness of an indigenous identity among the masses. Rising nationalism attempted a conscious revival of Indian art.”
The Bengal School artists’ condemnation of the work by the Company painters on the grounds that their work appealed to the British sensibility and that Indian tradition was merely presented as something out of the ordinary. They collectively rejected the Western aesthetics and turned to styles like Rajasthani and Pahari which were more reflective of Indian traditions and happenings in day-to-day life. For instance, Kalighat paintings which originated in the 1850s but had fallen out of popularity for not having appealed to the taste of British administrators have inspired works of Bengal School artists like Jamini Roy. Based on folk and rural themes as carried by the Kalighat paintings, Roy’s paintings were reflective of how he had clung to the traditional art form to embolden the message of Swaraj.
Yet another artist from this school was Nandalal Bose whose art was reflective of the Swadeshi spirit imbibed by him. Haripura Posters, a series of posters painted by Bose in 1938 rejected Western material and style. Rather, it used natural colours to celebrate the spirit of Indian life and indigenous occupations. Bose’s other paintings like Dhaki and The Shehnai Players portrayed characteristics of vigour and movement and were carriers of the message of the resilience of the Indians and how their goals and visions were aligned.
The fact that Indian artists in the 1900s were carriers of the message of the Swadeshi played a major role in transforming and transferring to the people the idea of self-reliance and reviving the Indian culture by means of complete boycott of everything produced in Britain. This new way of registering dissent was widely accepted and utilised by artists in the country.
How some of these images are perceived in contemporary times owing to the different criticisms they are subjected to, is a different debate to follow. However, they sure have helped to strengthen the sense of nationalism among the Indians, when the call to stand united was made. However, by using art as a medium to transmit and subsequently express the patriotic fervour in their heart, artists have had a way of bringing people together.