Swadeshi Art

The Bengal School of Art and the Swadeshi Art movement between the decades of the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century represent not only visual changes in pictorial style but is also representative of the wider context of a changing time. Exposure to new ideologies, new visual tastes, and a growing sense of aesthetic self-awareness, with an emphasis on individuality and self-determination, brought artists and thinkers and influencers at the time to pose the question: what entails an Indian Identity?

I explore the methods and teachings by key artists and thinkers of the Bengal School in finding a new authentic Indian style, that freed them from the orientalist image cultivated by colonial rule and help spread the nationalist message about the rapprochement of Indian culture.

The article will begin by displaying the growing nationalist sentiment through reactions of the works by Ravi Varma and how this led to the importance of spiritualism over materialism. Next it will examine the influences and contribution of E.B. Havell and his reformist agenda. Thirdly it will assess of the ideologies and works of Abanindranath Tagore and his disciples with relation to the swadeshi ethos promoted by the likes of Ananda Coomarasway and Sister Nivedita -commentators on the swadeshi movement.

Figure 1: Raja Ravi Varma, Sita Vanavasa, 1890
Figure 1: Raja Ravi Varma, Sita Vanavasa, 1890

Ravi Varma and his work such as Sita Vanavasa (FIGURE 1) depict a sentiment before the rise of nationalistic aspirations in the late 19th century. He was praised by the academic schools for his universal approach to depictions of Hindu epics in a romanticised and classicising manner. This adaption of Victorian salon art created a new canon of beauty hybridising the West and the East that was initially received by Indian nationalists’ validation of their own literary ‘inventions’ of the past. Though initially praised by formidable nationalists such as Balendranath Tagore, the conception of his work soon turned negative after the national cultural fairs of 1868 and 1869. Questions arose about the loss of ‘an Indian culture’ and self-sufficiency under the British Raj. The general acceptance of Victorian universalism progressed to the whole rationale of questioning the aesthetic canon. For example, Critic Sister Nivedita wrote in The Modern Review that Varma’s paintings do not possess spirituality nor dignity and his work was declared incompatible with the spirit of Indian nationalism. Moreover, of the English educated pioneers of the Swadeshi movement Balendranth Tagore initially sympathised with Ravi Varma by stating that he was able to capture the past’s tranquillity, however in his later pronouncement, he indicated that the form in Varma’s work belongs to an academic historicism, not to an ancient India. Varma’s naturalism was familiar to Western-educated audiences but alien to Indian sensibilities. Therefore, the swadeshi nationalists realised that art in the form of a new ‘Indian’ pictorial language was needed to unite the country to further the nationalist sentiment by forging a new authentic ‘Indian’ style that involves a sharp disjuncture with the Western aesthetic canon.

The Calcutta school was an academic art school teaching in a Eurocentric manner. E.B. Havell was a key reformer in the beginnings of what subsequently became the Bengal school. Assuming the role of the superintendent of The Calcutta school, he eventually explicitly explained his grievances with the art teaching structure in place and unquestionably expressed a necessity for change to gear Indian art students in a ‘correct’ direction. At time the school was a ‘fine arts academy’ with a very Eurocentric approach that ignored the Orientalist art present in India. By reforming the school to be a one of design and applied arts, he put emphasis on the Indian traditions of decorative arts, a type which he felt better suited the Indian landscape. Critically speaking, in his efforts of ‘Indianizing the curriculum’, he has in turn created an implication suggesting that fine arts do not exist in India, that to practice fine arts is a purely European subject, whilst the decorative is naturally an Indian equivalent. Though Havell is considered one of the pioneers in this great wave of cultural nationalism, it is evident that his initial reasons for reform did not extend beyond his idea that ‘the practice of art is a duty, not a pleasure’.

However, towards the turn of the century, this educational reformist ideology developed into his inevitable involvement in cultural politics. He was pivotal in revamping the Government Art Gallery that exhibited a juxtaposition of Mughal miniature paintings, Ajanta murals and reproductions of Byzantine and pre-renaissance art. It is arguable that his appreciation for Mughal miniature paintings alongside the growing Swadeshi sentiment signals a change in his earlier conceived dichotomy of fine arts versus decorative arts. This engagement of a new emerging Indian fine arts scene allowed him to successfully and paternalistically promote paintings by his student Abanindranath Tagore. Havell even later revealed that even though Abanindranath Tagore was already experimenting with his own Indian style, his development as an Indian artist is indebted to the collections’ he oversaw at the Government Art Gallery. One can argue that the entirety of the development of Swadeshi art can be traced back to that exhibition.

The interesting point about Abanindranath Tagore is that he emerged at the time when western influence was beginning to be overtaken by cultural nationalism. It is important to acknowledge that his individualist expression was contemporaneous with the nationalistic cultural assertion at the time and not as a mere confirmation.

Figure 2: The Final Moments of Shah Jahan, Oil, 1902
Figure 2: The Final Moments of Shah Jahan, Oil, 1902

Under the tutelage of Havell, Abanindranath embarked on an array of works. One of his earlier works shows his introduction to the delicate skill of the Mughal masters. The Last Moments of Shah Jahan (FIGURE 2) is painted in a distinct Mughal manner and is considered a self-conscious ‘archaeology’ of the past. He felt however that the overt historicism of the Mughal idiom was ironically more in line with the melancholy spirit of Victorian art and that the work lacked bhava (feeling). Through exposure to Pan-Asian artists and the discovery of the ‘wash’ technique, this quality was realised in its most striking work, The Bharat Mata (FIGURE 3) meaning ‘Mother India’.

The wash technique which was modified by Abanindranath and adopted as gospel by most of the artists of the Bengal School is the result of his interaction with two Japanese artists; Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso– students of Pan-Asian artist Kakuzo Okakura Tenshin. The idea to forge a pan-Asian alliance grew out of the similar sentiment the Japanese felt after their ‘open door’ policy to the West. Okakuro shared the same faith in the common destiny of an indigenous Asia and saw India as the ultimate source of the ancient Buddhist art of Japan.

Upon this interaction, Abanindranath noticed that these artists would go over their paintings with a damp brush creating a softening tone. Abanindranath adapted this technique by submerging his paintings in water creating the hazy effects seen in his Bharat Mata. Furthermore, he abandoned his initial use of strong colours and heavy outlines for light brush strokes and delicate lines of Japanese art. This interaction was impressionable on Abanindranath re-enforcing his art movement as oriental rather than Indian in the fight against the west. Stylistically speaking, although this impacted the development of Swadeshi art, Abanindranath however believed strongly that freedom and individuality kept the soul free – an idea that was alien to the traditional Japanese art.

Figure 3: Abanindranath Tagore, Bharat Mata, Watercolour, 1905
Figure 3: Abanindranath Tagore, Bharat Mata, Watercolour, 1905

The Bharat Mata (FIGURE 3) is one of his most famous works as it not only represents his search for a true Indian style but became an emblematic symbol of Swadeshi. There is no doubt that the Swadeshi ideology building up around the turn of the century inspired him to create such a powerful image that explicitly contradicts the materiality of Eurocentric art.

Through Havell’s reformist ideas of re-orientalising the art of India, Abanindranath begins to conduct his own individual style of what comprises of an authentic Indian Art. However, there is a question as to what extent Abanindranath’s motives were politically charged given that this particular painting was further celebrated and promoted by other nationalists such as Sister Nivedita and carried in fundraising Swadeshi processions.

Bharat Mata is personified by a distinctly Bengali woman holding four objects of symbolic value in the traditional manner of a Hindu deity. At first glance the objects appear conventional enough to represent ‘Indian’ traditions and values. However, viewing them in the context of the Swadeshi movement, these objects overtly signify ‘economic and cultural self-sufficiency’ – a major thematic element of nationalist aspiration: anna (food), vastra (clothing), siksa (secular learning), and diksa (spiritual knowledge).

He promoted and employed the ‘wash style’ taken from Japanese inspirations which became the core ingredient to his stylistics and aesthetics of his artistic language. As seen in the Bharat Mata, this wash phase comprises of pale, hazy tones loaded with a mood of self-observation and a state of trance. Just as Abanindranath rejected the tactile nature of oil painting, he also excluded the narrative and exaggerated structures of academic painting. Here the elegant use of line, the display of a solitary figure floating in an undefined space allow the viewer to objectively articulate the subject matter without distraction. The graceful contours encapsulate the mystique of spirituality personified by the Bengali woman alongside the subtle and mellow use of colour that not only represents the texture of the dress but also makes a statement about the Indian landscape.

To the critic, Sister Nivedita, this was the ultimate example of how the immaterial model of nationalism can be transformed into a form, creating an image that was both human and divine. Although the character itself is inherently divine in nature due to the multiplicity of arms, the halo and white lotuses, Abanindranath did, however, model her after his daughter attaching a personal human element to the piece.

She emphasises the patriotism of this work in Bengali literary magazine called ‘Prabasi’ suggesting that the subject matter and style proved the beginning of a new age, where an artist has successfully detached from the westernisation and really captured the spirit of the motherland. Her writing is highly indicative of the blend between the civic and the historical and concludes that the Bharat Mata is not only a corrective to the inaccuracies of past representation but succeeds in appealing to the Indian heart, as it speaks an ‘Indian language’. Contrastingly, E. B. Havell’s response to the work in 1908 refrains from mentioning the nationalistic overtone of it but praises it as a bold attempt to bring back into modern art the ideal type of Hindu divinity. His statement is important in understanding how artists in the Bengal School developed a Swadeshi art by looking at a glorious past for influence.

Despite Abanindrath, “consciously insulating himself from all Western pictures in fear of contamination” in 1905 he took up the role of Acting Principal at the Calcutta Art School after Havells departure, and he introduced further changes in teaching that essentially weakened the paternalist approach Havell assumed. He put emphasis on liberating art teaching from the mechanistic practices associated with South Kensington. For a strong Swadeshi output, it was evident that artistic sensibility should be valued greater than mechanical skill. 

Though the ethos of the Bengal school dictates the search for an authentic Indian style, Abanindranath had not completely abandoned Western techniques immediately but change happened subtly. For example; linear perspective was modified to suit Mughal Ariel perspective and atmospheric perspective; colours were often muted; chiaroscuro was replaced by a flat treatment of subject matter outlined by bold lines. There was an emphasis on the historicist approach to orientalising India as this was vital for national regeneration. Ananda Coomaraswamy stressed the importance of only depicting certain episodes with loaded significance. “Only on an idealised past can ideal futures be built” she stated. Furthermore, he explained that the depiction of heroic subjects must be impersonal, yet universal. The Bengal School often compared themselves with the Pre-Raphaelites because of their obsession with the past and stylistic revival. Depictions of single forms against hazy backgrounds with figures who were dignified yet suffering creating a strong spiritual sentiment.

Figure 4: Asit Haldar, His Heritage, Watercolour
Figure 4: Asit Haldar, His Heritage, Watercolour

In comparison with what was discussed of the Bharat Mata, a symbol of strength, orientalists of the Bengal school also depicted scenes of national self-wounding. Creating a national sentiment by displaying themes of past oppression, loss and a longing for a previous life. Asit Haldar’s His Heritage (FIGURE 4) captures that sentiment. A bent old man in deep contemplation is a personification of a past Bengali nation. His work gives form to the words of Sister Nivedita, that only the defeated are able to create great art. – “defeat conferred a spiritual strength superior to the conqueror’s materialism”.

One of the first students that studied with Abanindranath Tagore was Nandalal Bose. Bose’s debut as an artist started out through studies of academic artwork by making copies of works by Ravi Varma and European artists. However, he was drawn to the Art school because of Abanindranath Tagore and the new kind of painting he was producing. He was sent to the design classes of Lala Ishwari Prasad employed by Havell where there was a strong emphasis on ‘original’ compositions and the Patna aesthetic. Under the tutelage of Abanindranath, Bose was encouraged to paint themes from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata as a means of cleansing the mind from tainted views of Indian art presented by western models and works by Ravi Varma. For example, Bose’s watercolour study of Arjuna as a dancer (FIGURE 5) is demonstrative of a decorative miniature style.

Figure 5: Nandalal Bose, Arjuna as the Dancer , Watercolour, 1905
Figure 5: Nandalal Bose, Arjuna as the Dancer , Watercolour, 1905

Technically speaking on the work by Bose, the subject matter he presents seem nothing more than depictions of historical and mythological stories of India. However, through analysis of his methods in the context of the Swadeshi movement, it is arguable that his work though not as explicitly nationalistic as that of Abanindranath Tagore, does however deliver the same sentiment concerning an authentic Indian style. Even though his work is a revival of the soul of Ajanta paintings, this in combination of the flow and rhythm of his technical style have consequently become original creations of his version for an authentic Indian art.

Aside from the wash method and use of water colour that was adopted from Bose’s time at the Art school, he used tempera as much as possible. He believed that tempera was the only medium that created a sense of completeness and was the most sophisticated way to portray inspirations from folk art and the murals at Ajanta. His use of tempera can be linked to Swadeshi ideas of self-sufficiency and the movement of boycotting British goods as Tempera was a medium native to India.

To Abanindranath, originality was important in dichotomising the Western and Swadeshi mode of teaching. Nandalal Bose’s work is the result of that dichotomy and by utilising his experimental quality, he was successfully original. Bose’s deep study of ancient Indian art allowed him to produce a more nationalist art made more familiar with his inclusion of contemporary life, comparable to Bharat Mata, as Sister Nivedita say, ‘bridging the gap between the human and the divine’.

There are two main conclusions that can be drawn in thinking about how artists from the Bengal school developed a Swadeshi art. This can be articulated by the impact it had on the nationalist front and the legacy it left for modern Indian art.

In comparison to Swadeshi’s impact on other cultural subjects, its impact on art was significant and was stimulated by the orientalist enthusiasm of Okakura, Nivedita and Havell. Abanindranath and his pupils who broke from Victorian naturalistic taste and the imitation that had dominated Indian art in favour of a return to the heritage of India. As seen through discussion of works, artists turned to Mughal and Rajput paintings and the ancient art of Ajanta. This heritage was once explored by the likes of Ferguson and Griffiths in the 1870’s but assumed greater importance on artists during the Swadeshi movement. They elaborated the spirituality of Indian art as the antithesis of western naturalism by returning to the ‘purity’ of a pre-colonial time. It is evident that artists of the school succeeded in creating something authentically Indian through the wash technique of Abanindranath Tagore and traditional choices of medium. Furthermore, Abanindranath’s more inclusive teaching style encouraging artists to be individuals and more experimental went completely against the western academic norms.

During the early days of the Bengal School, there have been criticisms of the school’s permanent artistic value. Commentators of neotraditional art argued that a total denunciation of western canons can be problematic. Even Coomaraswamy, a key player in the theory of ‘Art and Swadeshi’ said that in comparison to Western classicism, this new art appears weak in drawing and too sentimental in conception. Fortunately, artists outgrew the dictations of neotraditional thinkers and focused on creating individual styles.

Revivalist tendencies employed by the Bengal school were important in developing Swadeshi art and artists were successful in doing so to an extent. However, the irony here is that the short-lived campaign of the Art of Swadeshi can itself be traced back to these very revivalist tendencies. The artists of the Bengal school made the ancient epics, religious and historical subjects the conduit of their pictorial depictions, to express the self-respect of India through a visualisation of the past. Although it was evident that the incentive was that of nationalistic aspiration, it can also be argued that the style was so far removed from the realities of the movement by distancing itself from contemporary issues. The depiction of contemporary life was absent where events of the movement such as the Partition, the famine and the massacre of Jalianwala Bag were of no significance to artists.

Though they were aspiring to unite an entire nation, the art of Abanindranath, and his disciples only picturise the emotions and faiths of Bengal. The ideals and values developed through the art are evidently not clear nor powerful. It was only during the second phase of the Bengal school, where disciples of Nandalal Bose began to advance the imposed experimental thinking by creating art attached with contemporary social circumstances.

The harsh reality of the development of Swadeshi Art lies within its inability to look at contemporary life and recent history. The strength of evolving art forms lies in their ability to absorb new influences. The disseminated nationalism only existed as a counterpart to developments in colonial India and the aesthetic ideology presented completely denies any sort of British presence or influences, without any sort of confrontation. Therefore, the Bengal school’s search for a new national image was by implication a term of exclusion.


  • Cohen, Jasmin, “Nationalism and Painting in Colonial Bengal” (2012). Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 1646
  • Coomaraswamy A.K, The Modern School of Indian Painting (1911)
  • Coomaraswamy A.K, The Modern Review, 1909
  • Asok Mitra, The Forces behind The Modern Movement – Four Painters (1965)
  • Guha-Thakurta, T. (2008). The making of a new ‘Indian’ art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mitter, P. (1994). Art and nationalism in colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Mitter, P. (2001). Indian art. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.175-180.
  • Nivedita, ‘The Function of Art in shaping nationality’, The Modern Review, 1907
  • R. Siva Kumar, Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, (New Delhi: National Gallery of Modern Art, 1997).
  • Siva Kumar, R. “Abanindranath: From Cultural Nationalism to Modernism.” Nandan, 1996
  • Sarkar, S. (1977). The Swadeshi movement in Bengal, 1903-1908. New Delhi: People’s Publ. House.
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