The Centre’s plans to promote Kolkata’s heritage buildings are part of a political game, but promise much cultural gains

But no mention was made of the invaluable collection perishing at Gurusaday Museum

On January 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated ‘Ghare-Baire, The World, The Home and Beyond, 18th-20th Century Art in Bengal’ — a dazzling exhibition of original works at the 19th century Currency Building in Kolkata’s BBD Bag. Bengal had hitherto lacked a museum to showcase its art — an inexplicable gap since it is within this matrix that Indian modernism was born. In his inaugural speech, Modi made it clear that by opening this new space, he was assuming the mantle of patron and custodian of Bengal culture. So, was it a charm offensive to win over a recalcitrant State whose people have a weakness for culture with a capital C? Yet, no mention of the invaluable and irreplaceable collection perishing at Gurusaday Museum was ever made.

The exhibition, planned, curated, executed and funded entirely by the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), was the answer to Kolkata’s prayers. As of now, ‘Ghare-Baire’ is on till March 5.

The Central Public Works Department had demolished the three massive domes fitted with skylights above the courtyard of what was originally known as the Currency Office, a handsome building in the Italian style constructed in 1868. It originally housed the Agra and Masterman’s Bank and served as the currency department till the late 1960s.

Exhibiting heritage

The demolition was stopped during Durga Puja on October 19, 1996, when Kolkata Municipal Corporation and Intach intervened. Much later, after it had been denuded of its Italian marble floors, the building was restored by ASI, which is now its custodian.

Belvedere House in Alipore was once the residence of bigwigs of the Raj.  
| Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

At the inauguration, Modi announced that three other heritage structures of Kolkata, which have been restored of late — the Victoria Memorial Hall, Metcalfe Hall, and Belvedere House — would also be used to host exhibitions.

All three sprawling floors of the grand Currency Building and the stairwell have been used to great advantage for ‘Ghare-Baire’, an assemblage of several hundred works in the DAG collection, with only a handful loaned from the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. From planning to execution, it took the team two months to mount it. Yet, few in Kolkata, not even the scholars and art historians quoted in various panels, ever got wind of it.

With adequate space for the timeline and background information, the chronological narrative is presented in seven sections: ‘European artists in Bengal’, ‘Early Bengal Indigenous Art’, ‘Realism and Academic Art in Bengal’, ‘Bengal ‘School’’, ‘Santiniketan: Charting Untrodden Courses’, ‘Visualising Bengal’s Man-Made Famine’, and ‘The Liminal Language of Bengal’s Modernists’.

There are also three sub-sections: ‘India’s National Art Treasure Artists’, ‘Devi: Intrinsic to the City’, and ‘Printmaking: Democratising Art’. Modern sculpture in Bengal occupies a good part of the ground floor.

Going through the multiple galleries, I immediately recalled the brilliant, path-breaking exhibition ‘Art of Bengal 1850-1950’, which Ganesh Haloi had single-handedly put together in 1997 at the Calcutta Information Centre. The Tagores had been there in full glory. CIMA galleryheld a similar exhibition titled ‘Art of Bengal’ in 2001. So, there was a certain sense of déjà vu. But it was with great delight that I scanned the Solvyns, Daniells, Henry Salt, Olinto Ghilardi, Captain Robert Smith, Lieutenant-Colonel James George (Chittagong views) and a host of talented academic Bengali artists like Bamapada Banerjee, Kisory Roy, Atul Bose, J.P. Gangooly, Prahlad Chandra Karmakar and Hemendranath Mazumdar (no Sashi Kumar Hesh though), alongside Kalighat pats and oil paintings of Hindu deities that once hung in affluent Kolkata homes. The flickering light was a distraction.

A giant replica of the Bengali ‘topor’ at Metcalfe Hall.
| Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

As a reaction to colonial academism and in keeping with the rise of nationalism, Abanindranath Tagore had, at the start of the 20th century, rejuvenated and contemporised ancient Indian art, consequently siring modern Indian art. This departure is well represented through Asit Kumar Haldar, Sunayani Debi, M.A.R. Chughtai and Kshitindranath Majumdar. “The inclusion of this large selection of popular paintings and prints, academic painting and Bengal School paintings produces a new art historical narrative of the Bengal Modern,” says art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta.

Reduced to absurdity

While this is true, there are major gaps. There is no trace of K.G. Subramanyan, without whom Santiniketan is unthinkable. Hardly any representative works of the Tagores feature. And if this exhibition is about Bengal art, why has the Bengali language been reduced to absurdity? The Bengali text is littered with ludicrous errors. The roomful of Nemai Ghosh photographs of Satyajit Ray needs ruthless stock-taking.

At the Victoria Memorial Hall, all the clutter has been removed, and the grandeur of the domes is revealed soaring above the ground-floor galleries. While the entire gamut of European painters is still there, to these has been added Vassili Verestchagin’s panoramic work — one of the largest oil paintings on a single canvas — depicting the Prince of Wales in a stately procession in Jaipur in 1876. The focus has shifted to Indian public figures, and it is a pleasure to see the simplicity of native flora and fauna in the Company School drawings close to Abanindranath’s resplendent ‘Bharatmata’. A series of photographs documenting the making of the Victoria Memorial from 1910 to 1920 is displayed in the entrance hall, and Indian labourers toiling at the construction site is a revelation. “An effort is on to decolonise the whole display, while retaining a sense of balance,” says Jayanta Sengupta, secretary and curator (director), of the Victoria Memorial Hall.

Belvedere House in Alipore, after serving as the residence of bigwigs of the Raj, was turned into the National Library by Jawaharlal Nehru. After its restoration by the CPWD, it serves as an exhibition space — but shorn of its alcoves and wainscoting, the large hall, once the reading room, has lost its gravitas. In November 2011, the magnificent exhibition ‘Treasures of Ancient China’ opened here. Used for temporary exhibitions now, a “Centre for the Word” was earlier proposed there.

Metcalfe Hall at the crossing of Strand Road and Hare Street was modelled on the Temple of Winds in Athens. Now, it hosts an exhibition titled ‘Ami Kolkata: Its History and Culture’. With its farcical giant topor (the crown that Bengali grooms wear during weddings) and clichés piled upon clichés, it makes a travesty of everything that is held sacred in Bengal, and desecrates this proud colonial structure. Just a reflection of our times.

The author is a heritage and culture writer from Kolkata.

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