By Madhubani Dutta
Kolkata is often nicknamed as the City of Palaces because of its historical buildings and monuments which are homes to neoclassical architectures, Greek, Baroque and Roman designs, Islamic architectures incorporated with Gothic elements, Ionic-Corinthian styles and what not. Needless to say, art and architecture went hand-in-hand since a very long time in this city of wonders!
When I was in primary school, my mother started taking me to the renowned Rajbaris (plural. a mansion or palace built as a residence for a Hindu king) and art galleries of Kolkata. A popular destination was the Academy of Fine Arts, an art institution established in 1933 by Lady Ranu Mukherjee. It boasts of a huge collection of artworks by prominent Bengali artists like Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Basu, Jamini Roy, and also holds regular exhibitions by contemporary Indian artists.
Another one on our list was The Indian Museum in Central Kolkata. It is the ninth oldest museum in the world, the largest museum in Asia and a powerhouse of rare artefacts, fossils, sculptures, and paintings. Recently, the museum hosted its first ever Australian Aboriginal exhibition in the Indian subcontinent displaying some vibrant art works on fabric. Created by the Bàbbarra Women’s Centre and named Jarracharra: Dry Season Wind was on display.
As we enjoyed some Kalighat paintings from the 19th Century at Ronald and Catherine Berndt’s residential home which were on display at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery located inThe University of Western Australia in 2020, the Kolkata art scene continues to evolve across many borders.
The Crowd and Its Avatars:
The Crowd and Its Avatars was an exhibition of sculptures by renowned Indian sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan which was on view in February 2023. There were about 75 artworks which involved a multitude of large free-standing bronze figures celebrating the poetic aspect of life and existence. Curated by R Siva Kumar, the exhibition had an equal number of male and female sculptures repeating the faces of two imaginary characters Musui and Maiya.
Radhakrishnan was born in the Kottayam district of Kerala in 1956; he studied sculpture at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, and was mentored by famous sculptors like Ramkinkar Baij and Sarbari Roy Choudhury. He was a master modeller and preferred to work with clay and create the essential rhythm of the human bodies in both singular and collective manner.
Behala Art Fest :
Celebrating its fourth successful year, the Behala Fest evolved as one of the most sought-after platforms for artists to bring forward their artworks and connect with the locals. Held around the month of February every year, the Behala Art Fest adorns the streets of Behala with magnificent photography, public art displays, performance art, contemporary art, video installation and many more. Behala Art Fest is a non-commercial entity which aims to “to conglomerate and nurture artistic talents associated regardless of boundaries.”
This year’s topic was based on the theme ‘Unbound’. The connotation implies to the never-ending process of freeing ourselves and explored the roles of historical, political and ideological introspections that leads to greater human liberation. Freedom and constraint are two sides of a coin and the theme aimed to research the constraints of these concepts through the art created by the participating artists. Artist Sanatan Dinda, the convener of the festival aimed to establish a non-commercial platform that will help artists to express their creativity on an unbiased ground along with offering useful workshops throughout the year.
‘Infinite Light’ at CIMA :
One of India’s top painters, Paresh Maity recently hosted a solo exhibition at the CIMA art gallery of Kolkata. Celebrating the emotive essence of human faces his exhibition expressed abstract portraits inspired by Pablo Picasso’s distorted cubism style. Maity loves studying faces and his portraits captured the dissimilar, effortless forms of faces outlining a modern neoclassical shift. One of India’s largest solo exhibitions, ‘Infinite Light’ is an exquisite repertoire of artworks that Maity created across various terrains of his journey and career.
Playing with the chemistry of Illumination and darkness, the Kolkata chapter of Infinite light featured artworks, contemporary paintings in oil and acrylic, sculptures, watercolours, ceramics, and drawings. From profoundness of the banks of Varanasi, the Himalayas, deserts of India to the waterways of Venice and Kerala, his works symbolised the spirit and charm perceived through the eyes of a metaphorical protagonist.
Local Arty Stories :
I must say, I have been thoroughly enjoying modern Kolkata’s art and culture scoops through Indranil Halder’s social media stories and reels all through the last holiday season. A passionate art enthusiast and culture connoisseur, he has been sharing his travel tales about Kolkata’s art cafes and the creativity he discovered in mundane business locations like banks and corporation offices.
On his visit to Art Rickshaw, a school of arts and crafts in Hindustan Park, he fell in love with a wall that was artistically decorated with metals. And when he visited the State Bank of India in Gariahat one day, he spotted vintage artworks narrating stories of Bharatchandra Ray Gunakor – a renowned Bengali song composer and poet from the 18th Century. His most notable work was Annada Mangal. The detailed pen and ink artworks narrated three different stories and were created in 1752.
Art cafes, book cafes, music cafes, Kolkata is now become a home to some unique and creative small businesses across the city. Food is only a part of the service these cafes offer; they appoint professionals like singers and caricature artists to go the extra mile. The Bianco Café (with its wall decorated with plates and cups) in Ballygunge was one of Indranil Halder’s favourite hangouts. Caricature artist Arnab Samaddar of Kolkata offered fun sketches for all café hoppers. Colourful, quirky, and contemporary, these cafes have been playing a prominent role in uplifting the art culture of Kolkata for a while now.
From the nooks of The Z Precinct to the doorstep of the newly opened Galerie de Monsieur Sur of Chandannagar, the Bengalis are also sprawling beyond the city periphery to establish regional art stops. Boutique galleries like Verandah Art on Lee Road is a haven for art lovers and collectors who want to experience diverse handpicked artworks and the old-world charm over a cup of coffee.
A contemporary art gallery which also serves as an incubator for nurturing artistic experiments Experimenter is, yet another hub established in 2009 in Ballygunge. Experimenter hosts several programmes, talks, workshops, and performances for the arty gang.
Exhibition ‘Firelight’, at Queen’s Park in Kolkata deserves a mention too. Created by artist and sculptor Narayan Sinha, this is a fascinating series of installation that resulted from the artist’s various collective experiences. The mansion that housed the exhibition has a story of its own where an old structure has been converted into a stage for local arts and performances.
Believed to be the creative capital of the east, Kolkata has been evolving as the epitome of inclusion and cultural diversity whilst manifesting its art spaces and expressions over centuries now and I strongly believe that its role will expand exponentially in the near future.