Like those Japanese cherry flowers blooming in the faraway lands across the pacific, the discourse of modern art in Assam also is a fine example of transplantation ( cultural transplantation in this case), of appropriation and adaptation , which grew out of the Western roots to become a phenomenal artistic strand of hybrid manifestation in the Indian soil. At the advent of colonialism, the rich and vibrant tradition of Assamese traditional manuscript painting started dwindling and eventually died down. This was due to lack of patronage from nobility and clergy; under whose aegis, the art forms thrived, as they were rendered powerless both politically and economically by the colonial rule. However, the wave of westernization had tilled the ground for the growth of a new art form, a new tradition, new in the context of changes in the stylistic, idiomatic, mediumistic and thematic representations, which was a pan – Indian phenomenon. The seed from which this movement towards “modern” painting grew in India were the influences resulting from western academic art education in British academic realism with the new medium of oil, and various other new elements like perspective, three dimensional naturalistic representation, etc.
In Assam this seed of modernism took root during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The cultural scenario seemed conducive and pregnant with innovative and experimental dynamics. Assamese literature had already struck the modernist chord before the beginning of the century with the publication of a literary magazine Arunodoi(1846) by the American Baptist Mission. It was in this magazine that art-illustrations in wood block Relief printing was introduced for the first time. Portraits of great people, pictures of different animals, illustrations of Bible and other literatures and many others were printed. All the elements of British Akademic Realism such as chiaroscuro, perspectives, tonal variation, proper anatomical proportion, depth and volume, etc were visible in these illustrations. Some of the artists were Rev. Nathan Brown, Tularam, Kanuram, Mohiram, Tuleswar, Young, etc. Later on, the circulation of modern art works of artists (both local and western) and the appearance of the first article on art by Sarbeshwar Kotoky in another magazine ‘Avahan’ (the second decade) created a wide public awareness about modern art for the first time . Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla’s artistic engagement in espousing aesthetic concept like the Krishna Tatva in this periodical and Bishnu Rabha’s engagement with art both as practitioner and theoretician also contributed a lot.
However, it was the first set of four Calcutta trained Assamese artists namely Muktanath Bordoloi, Suren Bordoloi, Jagatsing Kachari and Pratap Barua who ushered in the first modernist phase in the second decade of the 20th century in true sense. (Unfortunately the exact date of their duration of stay in Calcutta could not be traced out. But in an article written by Nilamoni Phukan*, it is mentioned that Suren Bordoloi was the classmate of sculptor Devi Prashad Roy Chaudhury) Though these artists were trained in Calcutta during the heyday of the Bengal school, interestingly except in the works of Pratap Baruah, the artistic oeuvre of none of the other three artists shows the influence of the Bengal school. In few works of Pratap Barua such as “In the Hat” (open bazaar) or “Joymotir Xasti” (Punishment of Sati Joimoti) the typical Ajantasque figure types of “Bengal School”–the slender–elongated–elegant bodies with dreamy eyes and the typical hazy landscape or the mysterious setting can be witnessed. Barua’s still life “Apples” (1930) the first ever recorded still life in Assam till date, is a unique rendering of composition, mature handling of colours and tonal variation with subtle playfulness of light and shade in the impressionistic manner. However the first Assamese artist to imbibe and assimilate the oil medium, western perspective, chiaroscuro and illusionistic rendering was Muktanath Bordoloi. It was in his art that the element of social reflexivity and critical self-consciousness as modernist manifestation was evident for the first time. In his painting “Opium Eater”(1926), the modernist socialist concern is manifested through the depiction of the horrific reality of a social evil. Tarun Duwara’s “Weaver” , a lyrical rendering capturing the mundane yet creative moments in the everyday life of Assamese women seemed to weave up the identity narrative in a very subtle manner.
The artists of this early modernist phase were obsessed with certain definite range of thematic explorations, like that of scenes from the rural life of Assam – its collective social occasions, the scenic landscape of the lush green Brahmaputra valley, and certain mythological (“Buddha and Sujata” by Citrasen Barua) and historical (“Sati Joymoti“ by Muktanath Bordoloi) themes taken from literature. The language or artistic idioms could not go further than the limitations of academic realism or Renaissance like depictions with an underlying mood for a lyrical romanticism.
The highlights of this emerging modern art scenario in Assam can be traced through some significant turns such as the establishment of the first art school by Jibeshwar Baruah in 1947, convention of the 4th National Arts and Crafts Exhibition by Lalit Kala Academy in 1958 and the National Art and Craft Exhibition organized by Art and Craft School of Assam in 1960. These exhibitions not only highlighted the important aspects of contemporary art trends in the national scenario but also brought forth a new interest and understanding among the public and the aspirant artists in Assam. The other artists who belonged to this modernist phase were Ratneswar Barua, Chitrosen Barua, Tarini (?), Prajna Das, Piyari Mohan Chaudhuri, Jibeswar Barua, Hem Mahanta, Hemchandra Barua, Chittaranjan Barua, Prakash Barua, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Jugal Das, Sashidhar Saikia, Tarun Duwara, Brojen Baruah and Robin Bhattacharya.
To survive as an art professional in Assam is an uneven path of hurdles even today. So one can easily imagine what the situation would be in the early phase which offered hardly any opportunities and openings, few secure avenues of livelihood and even fewer promotional platforms that could sustain a professional artistic life. Yet these artists sailed on in the rough sea to chart the course for the one hundred year old tradition of modern art in Assam today.
(Moushumi Kandali is short story writer, art critic and translator. She is a faculty in the ‘School of Culture & Creative ex