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Business News/ Industry / Media/  Kolkata art college ponders what’s missing as treasure trove opened
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Kolkata art college ponders what’s missing as treasure trove opened

Works of Abanindranath Tagore, the college's most celebrated teachers, and its illustrious alumni are most conspicuously missing at the ongoing exhibition

Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/MintPremium
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Kolkata: Six padlocks. That’s what acting principal Suman Kumar Pal had to remove from the doors to the rooms holding the archives of Kolkata’s Government College of Art and Craft in order to put together an exhibition of paintings celebrating the storied institute’s 150-year journey.

But sadly for Pal and his college—the abode of such stalwarts of the Bengal school of art as Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose—the much-anticipated exhibition failed to live up to its billing, revealing how national treasures are perishing at an institute of national eminence.

“Don’t call it an archive at all," Pal says in disgust, referring to the humid first-floor rooms close to his own in which the college’s collection was kept under lock and key.

He claims his biggest success in his ongoing three-month term as acting principal was the “unshackling" of the college’s collection, or only that tiny fraction of it that is currently on display.

Not surprisingly, works of Tagore, the college’s most celebrated teachers, and its illustrious alumni such as Bose, Ganesh Pyne and Shakti Burman are most conspicuously missing at the ongoing exhibition at the Abanindranath Gallery.

Works of students submitted for routine evaluation were normally preserved by the college, one of the oldest art colleges in India. So such works by its most celebrated alumni were thought to be somewhere in the archive. A large number of exhibits are evaluation pieces, but they don’t include those by well known painters such as Bose or Pyne.

A single Jamini Roy painting and a few sketches from over 140 years ago—the oldest is from 1873—are all that the college could display from its archive to celebrate its glorious past.

There is a fresco by Tagore in the college, but it is in such a state of disrepair that “we couldn’t risk carrying it to the gallery for display", says Pal.

Considering the kind of teachers that this college has had and the quality of artists it has produced, this exhibition is “quite a disappointment", says Ganesh Pratap Singh, an art restorer and collector.

There is no catalogue and the content of the college’s archives remain largely unexplored—out of apprehension that the process of creating an inventory could lead to an embarrassing acknowledgement of losses and lapses.

This apprehension turned into mistrust following a controversy over a 2011 exhibition of Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings held at the college. Almost all the works on display, mostly taken from private collections, turned out to be fakes and the discredited exhibition had to be called off amid protests.

It drove a wedge through the faculty members and alumni, with one section alleging that some teachers and students were directly involved in the creation and display of the fake paintings.

The mistrust that followed led Pal’s predecessors to separately put their own padlocks on the archive, securing the rooms from human incursions, but allowing termites to feast on one of India’s richest art collections.

No one wants to bite the bullet, says Samaresh Mukherji, an alumnus and the secretary of the committee organizing the celebrations. “It took ages to build consensus over opening the archive," he says. “We gained access to it in the third week of September, only about 10 days ahead of the exhibition."

The college could have displayed some more works by its former teachers and students, but had to restrict itself to ones shown previously for want of time and space in the gallery, says Pal.

These works of masters from their time as college students may not be outstanding pieces on their own, but they may help trace their evolution as artists.

It is time to take stock of what remains with the college without shirking responsibility for the feared loss, says R. Siva Kumar, a celebrated art historian and former principal of Kala Bhavana, the fine arts faculty of the Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan, around 160km from Kolkata.

It may be impossible now to determine the extent of the loss and the people responsible for it, says Siva Kumar, but that does not mean a catalogue shouldn’t be prepared at all.

Catalogues and physical audits of inventory are essential to maintain any large collection of art, according to Siva Kumar. At Kala Bhavana, for instance, cataloguing started with Bose, the Kolkata art college alumnus who taught in Santiniketan and became the principal of its art school in 1922.

Besides preparing a ledger with description, Bose would make small sketches to make the catalogue foolproof. There was no imaging in those days, but by now the entire Kala Bhavana collection of at least 15,000 works of art has been photographed, says Siva Kumar.

Physical audits were also conducted from time to time to make sure things aren’t lost; and if any work is loaned out for an exhibition, records are maintained to make sure it is tracked.

Such an exercise requires extensive staffing and expertise. The college in Kolkata may not have them, according to Siva Kumar. But if it doesn’t, the government should pressure them to engage an external agency to build the catalogue, he adds.

Ideally, such institutes should have their own museums: that ensures better preservation. But in India, getting funding from the government for running such museums is a huge challenge, according to Siva Kumar.

Are people at the Kolkata art college willing to act?

“I am only the acting principal," says Pal. “I have prised open the door… It is up to somebody who has full authority as principal to decide what they want to do with the objects inside the rooms."

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Published: 05 Oct 2015, 12:15 AM IST
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