Gobardhan Ash: the quiet master artist

A silent, dedicated artist content amidst the walls of paintings stacked in his Begampur mud house stirred a quiet revolution against the preconceived notions of artistic expression. No wonder Gobardhan Ash (b.1907) carved a niche for himself as an individualistic artist who fearlessly explored diverse artistic styles and techniques.

Gobardhan Ash came from a humble family. His father cultivated betel leaves for a living in Begampur. Gobardhan lived with his parents, three sisters, and three brothers. The artist’s family was poor but well-educated and had a keener academic aptitude than most acquaintances.  

Perhaps Atul Bose and Gobardhan Ash’s mutual love for the earthen hearth brought them together in Ash’s home time and again. This particular fondness for nature led to a long-lasting relationship between both artists.


Gobardhan Ash completed his primary education at the local school in Begampur. He completed his higher education at the Janai Training High School, an English-medium school in the neighbouring village. While most students are often caught drawing doodles on the back of their copies, Gobardhan’s notebooks were filled with sketches of natural objects, deities, flora, and fauna. This act made Gobardhan quite popular among teachers and revealed a streak of his unconventional genius. However, he did catch the attention of the school’s headmaster Shashi Bhushan Bose who suggested he take up art. “You seem to have a knack for it,” he said. Ash’s financial condition led him to confide in and run away with his close friend Sukmoy Dutta who came from an affluent family. Gobardhan’s dear friend put together some money, and without letting anyone know, they slipped off to Benares to seek admission into the Benares Art College. This was in 1924 or 1925. Gobardhan’s family was worried about the runaway teens and called the police to trace them in Benares. Gobardhan Ash’s elder brother, Churamani Ash, went and retrieved them and asked Gobardhan to complete his higher studies. But the following year, Gobardhan ended his studies and asked to join the Art College.


In 1926, Churamani got him admitted to the Government Art College. Gobardhan had been living in Kolkata for a while at the time. He lived in places like Ripon Street or Poddar Court. At times, as money ran out, he would return home. After staying there for a while, he went back. From his second year onwards, he rarely visited Begampur. 

He used to draw and paint a lot. That meant he needed a lot of paper and paint, which he couldn’t procure from home. So he teamed up with a poor friend going through similar circumstances. Gobardhan and his friend started buying paper and paint from the market and selling these to other students. This enabled them to pay for their art college expenses. And being a good student, Gobardhan was always able to secure a freeship. [1]


In all the art colleges in India, the Principal had always been an Englishman, a European. Ostensibly, Mukul Dey was the first Indian Principal. Before his tenure as Principal, the Art College would provide live models. Dey stopped this practice and suggested the study of stone statues instead. This soon led to the students boycotting his classes, and Mukul Dey retaliated by evicting resident students from the hostel and ending the freeships. 

In 1928 after informing Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose of the ongoing events, classes resumed, and the strike ended momentarily. However, Mukul Dey continued with his methods, and Gobardhan did not wish to comply. He hated those stereotypical classes and mostly did outdoor studies. This again led to complaints that he was bunking classes, especially from Mukul Dey. Dey keenly observed the attendance of courses by students, and Gobardhan was always conspicuous with his absence. So one day, he sends for Gobardhan and tells him, “Aren’t you one of those taking part in the strike? Why don’t you attend classes?” Gobardhan replied:

Well, isn’t the objective of classes to draw and paint better? There’s no teacher in class, no proper demonstrations, nothing. I don’t like that. So, I don’t do classes. [2]

“Then how will you learn?”

━ “Why, I’m producing ample work!”

━ “And where and when do you do all this?”

━ “I have it with me. Would you like to check it out? Okay, I’ll show my work to you.”

And the very next day, he showed Mukul Dey a pile of works. Dey admitted that Gobardhan had been diligent, and he had been wrong in charging him. He even called other students and showed them Gobardhan’s results appreciatively.


Gobardhan Ash, Breathing Time, 1929, Brushwork

In 1929, the Government School of Art organised an Annual Exhibition. Gobardhan’s works were often selected in most of the exhibitions after 1926. In 1929, Gobardhan submitted an influential sketch of a horse with a dry brush in black. Jamini Roy was present on the day of the inauguration. While strolling down the hall, he suddenly noticed a bold horse drawing. He stood still for a moment and inquired about the artwork. Luckily, Gobardhan was nearby. It was his. And that’s how he met Jamini Roy for the first time. “It’s so bold!” said Roy, “Are you still studying here or a pass out?” Gobardhan replied, “I’m still studying here.” 

In all his extensive writings, he has only hoped and prayed that he be unique. Right from ‘The Horse,’ we could trace the evolution of an individual identity that drove him in every pursuit. [3]


Despite all this, Gobardhan was alarmed at the number of students expelled due to their involvement in the strike. He got his guardian to write a letter stating: “My brother can no longer study here,” and he left. So, he left art school in 1930 and didn’t sit for his final examinations. 

Renunciation is the fundamental principle of art for all ages. The real spirit of art is the universal language which freely, frankly correlates and enlightens human society. [4] 


Gobardhan Ash’s works weren’t just creative recreations of his observations of the rural world but emotive renditions eliciting a social statement. His love for nature is seen in the dreamy landscapes of rural Bengal, and his concern for the human predicament emerges in figure studies depicting labouring, poverty-stricken and hungry bodies. When the set norm was to paint divinities or female figures en route temples, Ash silently jumped off the bandwagon. He painted a gypsy mother clutching her newborn tight to her chest and tired farmers labouring in the fields. And this was how he sparked a new trend of social realism in India. 

Gobardhan Ash, Gypsy Mother, 1950, Gouache on Board

His genre picture depicting 'Tillers of the land' and labourers with their dilapidated abodes won him popular recognition as far back as 1930. Since then, he has travelled a long way. [5]

In the 1930s’ he would sit and work in a marketplace one day or at some cowshed the next. This is how he revolutionised subjects, a skill that wasn’t seen before. He’d sit for hours sketching passersby at Howrah Station or Sealdah Station. This was one of his many attempts to capture the realities of human life

Gobardhan was a person who always wanted to change the Indian art scene. [6]


After leaving the Government School of Art, Gobardhan Ash, with Abani Sen, rented a studio space in Ultadanga (presently known as Bidhannagar). Both artists were at the root of every movement in erstwhile Calcutta. Abani Sen, Gobardhan Ash, Annada Dey, and Digin Bhattacharya moved into the space. Around 28 students regularly visited the studio and conducted indoor and outdoor studies with Ash’s and Sen’s guidance. The indoor study involved routine work in life study, still life, and composition with models. In contrast, the outdoor study consisted of sketching, animal drawing, figures, landscapes, and occasional visits to the zoo. This went on for six months and led to a vast body of work. Abani and Gobardhan expressed the need to exhibit these works and wrote to Atul Bose in London. After Bose returned from Britain in 1931, he christened their venture ‘Young Artists’ Union Gobardhan Ash, Abani Sen, Annada Dey, and Digin Bhattacharya decided to set up a stall to further this endeavour at the Rabindra Jayanti Mela commemorating Rabindranath Tagore’s 70th birth anniversary. The booth was booked under the name Young Artists’ Union. The rest of the artist students withdrew but agreed to contribute a couple of paintings and a rupee each.

As per Gobardhan Ash’s handwritten notes:

“In the time leading up to the Exhibition, we would visit the artists each evening after the day’s painting work had ended. We collected paintings from the likes of Purna Chakraborty, Phani Gupta, and Pratul Banerjee from this very place.

Going about collecting paintings from artists was our only way to organise the Exhibition. And well, it was quite a success. The Maharajas of Nepal and Tripura paid visits and even purchased paintings from us.

Purna’s, mine, and a couple of other paintings got sold. Mr. Percy Brown, former Principal of the Government Art School, commented, “Your Exhibition is far better than [the] Govt. Art School Exhibition.” The world-renowned Chinese artist, Mr. Cow, visited the Exhibition. He did not speak English and wrote down his remarks in our Visit Book in Chinese. His interpreter wrote in English: “Friendship between India and China.” [7]

Rabindranath Tagore attended the exhibition, and Gobardhan showed him all the paintings. Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, Hemendrantah Mazumdar, and Atul Bose were also present at the event.


In 1931, Gobardhan trained at the Madras School of Art under the mentorship of the painter and sculptor Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury. However, Ash resisted the highly skilled academic realism and segued into the confident flamboyance of the impressionistic technique. He refused to succumb and limit his artistic dreams and aspirations to a set curriculum. He was unhappy since the school did not provide life and outdoor studies, and he often boycotted classes to paint by the seashore. Answering the furious teachers, he’d say:

I just have one problem. Why do you make us copy images by master artists from books… library books? What is this? Wouldn’t it be better to discuss the method and employ it in our paintings? [8] 


At the Governmental School of Art -  the former bastion of the Bengal School - the appointment of Atul Bose as a teacher in 1926 marked the beginning of an era of change. Bose had just returned from England and encouraged his students who formed the“Art Rebel Centre” in 1933, one of the first organized attempts to counter the Bengal School ideology.  Among the founders of the group were the painters Abani Sen and Gobardhan Ash who were to join the Calcutta Group ten years later. The aesthetics of their works remained within the ambit of academism but they aspired to an art anti‐ sentimental and closer to the art movements of  Europe. Modernism was re‐emerging from within the academic tradition which was regaining strength in Calcutta, as a rebellion against the diktats of the Bengal School. This highlights an important difference between the stories of Indian and European modernism: while Modern Art in Europe was born as a break‐away from the academic genre, it emerged in India within this tradition, as a departure from the revivalist genre. In both cases nonetheless, it constituted an overthrowing of the weight of tradition. [9] 

In December 1932, Gobardhan left Madras to head back to Calcutta to pursue his career as a full-fledged artist. He wrote to Bose about his desire to go abroad, to which he replied by inviting Gobardhan to work with him at his Calcutta studio. This was when the formation of two major artist groups came about. Gobardhan Ash established the Art Rebel Centre alongside Abani Sen, Annada Dey, and Bhola Chatterjee to create fearless, authentic, and assertive art in its desire to fuel artistic freedom. 

Our aim is to create an art that is strong, bold, and anti-sentimental, fearless in its desire for new adventures, a powerful advance-guard, which alone can save Art in India now threatened by traditional conservatism and habitual indifference of the public. [10] 

The exhibition conducted by the Art Rebel Centre comprised 50 paintings among the four members and 150 submissions. The exhibit was held at 49 Dharmatala Street in Calcutta in 1933. In the same year, Gobardhan Ash alongside Abani Sen  Bimal Dey, Jahar Sen, Ardhendu Chatterjee, and Haridhan Dutta participated in the First Annual Exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts, founded by Lady Ranu Mukherjee. 

Standing from left: Abani Sen, Gobardhan Ash, Bimal Dey, Jahar Sen, Ardhendu Chatterjee, Haridhan Dutta. Sitting from left: S.N. Dey, Atul Bose, Amiya Basu at AFA’s First Annual Exhibition, Kolkata -1933.

This young art activist, with other artists, wanted to steer away from the mainstream mythological and historical depictions and express contemporary life through art. This urgent desire gave birth to artist groups such as the Young Artists’ Union in 1931, and the Art Rebel Centre in 1933. These ventures enabled a conducive creative space for young artists of this country. In 1936, the Madras Fine Art Society awarded Gobardhan the first prize. He also received an award from the Delhi Fine Arts Society.


While the Academy of Fine Arts stands strong even today, the artists involved eventually went their own ways. Gobardhan Ash no longer worked at Bose’s studio. However, his intimate connection with Bose remained. At this time, Ash was at his uncle’s place in Shibpur. The artist began wandering the streets and would stop to paint portraits along the way. He visited Zamindari estates and insisted on painting portraits. He has also made portraits at the Ghoshal residence in Serampore. He continued painting portraits for meager sums of money. He’d travel with Atul Bose to paint portraits at a house where he would stay for a couple of months. Ash also accompanied Bose on a painting trip to Mayurbhanj state in Odisha and Ranchi. 

BOATS ON PADMA & TARPASA (an anecdote narrated by son Nirban Ash)

Gobardhan Ash, Bank of Padma, 1937, Pen and Ink on Paper

Atul Bose, On the Padma Gobardhan Sketching, 1937, Brushwork 

In 1937, when Gobardhan was traveling to Tarpasa in Dhaka, he stayed on a boat on the River Padma for nine nights with Atul Bose. Sitting on the boat, he would paint the passing scenery and the river Padma. He said, “One day, I was painting the sunset at twilight. There was quite a crowd on the boat that day.” Atul Bose was sitting beside him. Bose was looking at the formant painting when suddenly, he snatched the paintbrush from Gobardhan’s hands and applied a random stroke to the picture. This attracted the attention of the people around them, and they looked on in interest. Suddenly, a retired artist spoke, “Hey, mister,” addressing Atul Bose, “You seem to be quite agile with a brush in hand.” Now, this comment irked Gobardhan. He recounted, “On hearing this, Master [Bose] pinched me hard in the small of my back. It hurt.” He did this to tone down Gobardhan’s increasing ire at the gentleman’s words. So Gobardhan painted several pictures on the Padma. He also painted many watercolours and gifted the main painting depicting the Padma River to Manik Bandopadhyay, the celebrated writer. 

Gobardhan Ash, On Padma, 1968, Oil on Board

Until 1945, Gobardhan Ash continued to travel, often with Atul Bose and by himself. The artist stayed in various parts of Kolkata, including places as far-flung as Madras, Ranchi, and Hazaribag. He travelled to Mahishadal Rajbari (a royal palace in West Bengal), where he stayed with Atul Bose for a couple of days and drew pencil works of the animals spotted there. One of his famous works, Devi Bahen (1948) from his Avatar series, originated here.

Gobardhan Ash, Devi Bahan, 1948, Gouache on Board

Debiprasad Garg of Mahishadal Rajbari was the then zamindar of the region. Bose was commissioned to paint a portrait of him and his family, who kept Royal Bengal tigers as house pets. Gobardhan went as his assistant and companion. Debiprasad Garg observed that while Atul Bose was painting the portrait, Gobardhan made sketches of dancing girls at night or during Ram Yatra and Dol [Holi] festivities. Gobardhan stayed there for a month. His job had been following up with the portrait painting and helping Atul Bose with it. But he would also wander about sketching pictures. Debiprasad Garg purchased all of these artworks. Nirban Ash said that if you opened his father’s sketchbooks, you could find a tiger sketch. In Gobardhan Ash’s own words: 

“That tiger was so mean. He didn’t let me sleep for a whole month! He lived in a cage right beneath my room, and he would growl all night long.” [11]

Gobardhan Ash, Two Tigers (Majshadal Rajbari), 1940, Pencil on Paper


From the 1930s, Ash’s fascination with nature manifested in his meditative landscapes. Sweeping vistas of glimmering rivers and shores, the thick forestland reminiscent of the fragrance of damp moss, rain, wet tree trunks, and flowers were captured in his gouache and watercolour on paper works. At the same time, some were oil on board, revealing a creamy impasto technique. His pencil-on-paper works in the 1940s captured the Eden Gardens along the banks of the Ganges. These often included intensive studies of trees and figures propped here and there. While the oil on board work portraying Eden Gardens comprises musty hues and an earthy palette that aptly represents the colours of nature.  

The homogeneous form of beauty inside is reflected in the out-look form of nature in relation. The modern approach in the art world is to realise the truth materially and immaterially. And the offerings of devotion towards the ideal appeared in expression by the display of colours and contour and the light and shadow through the rhythmic aptitude represent a tranquil, serene, beautiful form of nature to penetrate the depth.  [12]

Gobardhan Ash, Kolkata Eden Garden 3, 1940, Pencil on Paper

Gobardhan Ash, Old Eden Garden 1, 1940, Oil on Canvas

As he became more socially sensitive in the 1940s, Gobardhan began painting landscapes of his native villagers labouring in the fields; a view he’d often see from his hut in Bengal. Gobardhan Ash was an artist who focused on his immediate surroundings; his paintings reveal a strong social consciousness developed during his travels and keen observations of his milieu. While his landscapes come alive with a medley of colours and a perfect balance between shadow and light, they depict the socio-economic reality of the rural world. The evening glow in this landscape is not part of a greater picturesque scenery but draws one’s attention to the villager hard at work. 

Gobardhan Ash, Ploughing, 1940, Oil on Board


Gobardhan Ash, Fakir, 1939, Charcoal on Board

Gobardhan Ash soon began to excel in portraiture, which was his constant source of income since the mid-1930s. Like Atul Bose, Ash too went on to draw academic portraits of famous personalities. He was invited to paint a live portrait of philosopher, scholar, and politician Hirendranath Dutta. One can find some of his portraits at the High Court. However, what stood out in his paintings was the revelation of the human predicament and an understanding of society. Ash drew this live portrait titled Fakir after observing the man begging on the streets of Kolkata in Park Circus. Notice the subject’s hand on his head, revealing his misery and helplessness. This work was also published in Bangasree Magazine.

On one side, he’d draw portraits of prominent personalities such as Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Sarada Maa. Still, he would give equal importance, if not more, to the plight of a cobbler’s son on the street or a farmer’s child. These portraits were usually done in pencil or oil. This made Gobardhan an artist well beyond his time - his ability to make social statements in various mediums. During his stint with portraiture, he’d always carry a sketchbook from roads to shops to stations and put the observatory artist’s eye to use. 

Sketching is like a world tour. I wander the world through sketches. Travelling on a lifelong pleasant journey in artistic life, the sketch is my best friend and companion. A heartfelt approach, formless, boundless, freely, frankly, and boldly to speak with aesthetic research in an artist’s career for all ages. [13]


Gobardhan Ash, Bengal Famine, 1943, Watercolour on Paper

Gobardhan Ash’s works created a strong statement and raised quite a few social concerns relevant to his social and political milieu back then. Hunger, deprivation, poverty, misery, and suffering seeped through Ash’s use of coherent lines, shapes, and forms. His blatant yet intense depiction of human tragedies stirred an emotional response and reflected the crucial changes taking place in the social and political fabric at that time. The famine that hit Bengal in 1943 awakened a sense of artistic duty and responsibility amongst artists to represent the lives of the people suffering in rural Bengal. Gobardhan Ash stripped bare the stark and uninhibited truth of life through light washes of earthy brown tones, reflecting endless human misery. While his contemporaries, such as Zainul Abedin and  Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, preferred black and white or graphics as a medium. Abedin’s famine works were more figurative and skeletal, as he drew on the lifeless beings collapsed on the pavements of Calcutta. This ill-fated devastation drove many artists to look afresh at their artistic and visual expression. 

"The famine became, as Chaudhuri notes, the catalyst for thinking beyond realism's mimetic power to relieve the suffering of such vast magnitudes. She writes: "Few will forget the searing images of emaciated human bodies and hungry cattle, dogs and crows in the sketches, paintings, and figures produced by Zainul Abedin, Gobardhan Ash, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, and Ramkinkar Baij in those [famine] years. It might even be argued that for Bengal, the real crisis of modernist representation is constituted by the famine and the events surrounding it. These events demanded, for those who lived through them, the sobering, 'truthful,' witness of social realism: yet at the same time, they lay beyond the reach of realism, beyond the comforting illusion of representational adequacy that the ideology of realism propagates."[14]

The decade of the 1940s saw the uprising of a new modern art movement in the country. The social and economic milieu in the 1940s developed a unique aesthetic in the realm of Indian visual art. Realistic art sans middle-class sentimentalism and romanticism was coined as progressive. The Calcutta Group of artists came into existence in 1943 as a reaction and retaliation to the Bengal Famine. The Group represented the time and turbulence of the "man-made" famine. They aimed to give artistic expression and a voice to the concerns of the common folk.

In 1943, soon after Prodosh Das Gupta came back from his European trip, he founded the Calcutta Group with Kamala Das Gupta, Gopal Gosh, Paritosh  Sen, Nirode Mazumdar, Subho Tagore, Rathin Maitra, Prankrishna Pal, who were later joined by  Abani Sen, Zainul Abedin, Ramkinker Baij, and Gobardhan AshIt was the second collective endeavour after the Art Rebel Centre to renew the definition of the Indian modern in relation to the European Modern. [15 ]

In 1943, the Calcutta Group released a manifesto stating Realism as the crux of their artistic endeavour. Their works depicted the horrors, stark social reality, and their sense of concern in a contemporary modernist fashion deeply rooted in the environment and people of Bengal.

At that time, Gobardhan Ash's artworks were already bordering along the lines of social Realism. His work reflected the social and economic milieu during the ill-fated decade of the 1940s. He was a conscientious artist who used poverty, hunger, deprivation, and human suffering as emotional components. He reflected on the time and turbulence of the Bengal Famine in rusty, brown washes.

And despite his self-imposed seclusion in his modest Begumpur mud house, as an artist, he could not exist in isolation. His haunting Bengal Famine series brought him into the public eye when it was first discovered by the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1945. They held an exhibition of Gobardhan’s works in the same year and awarded him a gold medal.

After his Bengal Famine series, Ash adopted gouache as a medium to instill body into his colours. Dabs and patches of opaque paint portrayed rural Bengal at that time. His style bordered on Pointillism, Expressionism, and Folk Art.

Gobardhan Ash as the Chief Artist at the Indian Institute of Art and Industry

In 1946, Gobardhan joined the Indian Institute of Art and Industry as the Chief Artist till 1948. This position affected his creative vision, and his works were mainly in pen and ink, watercolour, and tempera. If you look at the subject of his drawings from this period, you will find birds, horses, and utensils/crockery like cups and pots, which he uniquely fashioned in his designs.


In 1949, the secretary of the Calcutta Group, Prodosh Das Gupta, came across his paintings in keeping with the social milieu and invited him to be a member of the Calcutta Group. Impressed with Ash's pen and wash sketches, Prodosh Das Gupta expressed interest in holding a solo exhibition of his works at the Calcutta Group. Following this conversation, he was soon visited in his Begampur residence by Prodosh Das Gupta and two other members of the Calcutta Group: Prankrishna Pal and Rathin Maitra. Oblivious to the treasures that hid in his modest mudhouse, they stumbled upon piles of colourful and lively modern art, unique and eclectic, steeped in the new wave art form. These were beyond the pen-and-wash sketches that they were expecting. 

The three gentlemen sifted through my stockpile with much industry and finally narrowed it down to 56 paintings for the proposed exhibition. I was to prepare these for the event by sticking boards and so on. The Group would look after the rest. I agreed to the proposal. The exhibition was finally held on January 5, 1950, at 1, Chowringhee Terrace, Gokhale Road, Calcutta, and was curated by Prodosh Dasgupta. It was a grand success! [15]

His works were also exhibited in the joint show of the Calcutta Group and Progressive Artists’ Group alongside masters such as K.H. Ara, Francis Newton Souza, Maqbool Fida Husain, S.H. Raza, H.A. Gade, S.K. Bakre at Calcutta in 1950. 

Gobardhan Ash at The Indian Art College (seated middle row; fourth from right)

In 1952, Gobardhan joined the Indian Art College at Atul Bose’s request as the Head of the Painting Department. He had to demonstrate everything academically. This created a certain amount of pressure on his mind. That’s why he managed his classes at the Art College by organising model and still life studies.

In 1953, he participated in the Calcutta Group exhibition in New Delhi. Ash has had several solo shows in major Indian cities and participated in many all-India expositions.


The Calcutta Group disbanded in 1953. Ash slipped back into his solitude. He quit his position at the Indian Art College in 1955. His son recalls how, around this time, his father’s ties to Kolkata slowly faded away. While several artists still visited him, Ash himself was:

moving away from the limelight and quietly refining his craft… [16]

His works from the 1950s were manifestations of his elective affinities with Bengal folk painting, followed by a neo-naturalistic phase. Around this time, he immersed himself in daily scenes of rural Bengal, watercolour compositions, and pastels on paper works.

Gobardhan Ash, Portrait of a Housewife, 1954, Oil on Board

He continued to work on portraits of family members and the common folk. One such work was titled Portrait of a Housewife, dated 1954. This work was also exhibited at the 24th Annual All-India Fine Art Exhibition in 1954. He continued to master his metier in solitude. He used this time to develop further the paintings he had made in the past.  


In 1956, Gobardhan Ash opened the Fine Art Mission free Art School at his earthen home in Begampur. Many boys from the village would come here to learn to draw. There was a batch composed of seniors, i.e., those aged 28-30, and children. The most important thing was that Gobardhan dispensed paper, paint, and brushes to the students. 

Gobardhan, being a keen observer, would take his students outdoors to fields, stables, or cowsheds to study buffaloes. Ash also wanted to demonstrate life studies to his students. A method used in the traditional training of artists in the Western world since the Renaissance. His involvement in all this began to influence his work during these years. This elicited remarks from art critics such as:

Gobardhan pioneered an imaginative and primitive style, and then he came back to painting in a conventional academic style. [17]


Gobardhan Ash, Commander-In-Chief, 1957-1967, Oil on Panel

The reclusive genius switched to oils in 1957, where he painted a whole series on children, reflecting and gauging their moods. The Children Series is a collection of 16 oil paintings and 45 sketches. In the painting above, the artist depicts three children amidst the infinite sky. The child in the middle stands tall with a whip in his hand, emitting a sense of power. While the other two children sit in oblivion, one is sucking on his thumb, and the other is crawling. Ash writes:

“For ten long years, ━ I drew and painted several studies on children. This culminated in one final painting, dubbed Commander-in-Chief, complemented by oil paintings and sketches of children in myriad moods and postures in pen and ink and in pencil. It was common practice in the olden days for eminent painters in the West to sketch or paint studies on a single subject for 20-30 years. Many of these are now celebrated artworks. Such dedication is rare indeed in painters in this country.” [18}

In 1969, the Fine Art Mission held a solo exhibition of Gobardhan Ash, made possible through much cooperation from the residents of Begampur and nearby villages. It was held on March 23rd at the Calcutta Information Centre at 1 Lower Circular Road and presided over by Subrata Kumar Dinda, a former teacher at Jonai High School. The renowned painter and sculptor Deviprasad Roychowdhury delivered the inaugural speech. Atul Bose, the acclaimed artist, and Rashbehari Dutta, art critics from the press, illustrious members of the Calcutta literati, and a cheering crowd of village folk were in attendance.


The years succeeding 1969 were filled with creative experimentation for the artist, be it large oil on canvas works, watercolours, or huge drawings. This was also the time when Ash ventured into abstract painting. While his later years comprised an array of self-portraits eliciting a sense of self-awareness, he would peer into the mirror, memorise his changing facial features, and document them with every passing year. His portraits were like chapters in a novel of aging. 

 Gobardhan Ash painting his self-portrait in his bedroom in Begampur in 1995.

Image Courtesy: Nirban Ash

In 1984, Gobardhan received the Abanindranath Puraskar Award. In the same year,  on behalf of Art Heritage, Ebrahim Alkazi ( doyen of contemporary theatre in India and one of the country’s leading postindependence theatre directors.) announced that he would be giving a ₹10,000 cash award to Gobardhan Ash for his contributions to art over the years.

In 1994, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture held a retrospective exhibition of Gobardhan Ash in Kolkata. Here, Gobardhan Ash met with artists like Ganesh Pyne and engaged in a hearty conversation about art. 

 Gobardhan Ash and Ganesh Pyne in 1994

Gobardhan Ash, a contemporary of the early stalwarts of Modernism in India, was close to artists such as Ganesh Haloi. Ash was 29 years older than Haloi. However, they shared the same creative ideologies and philosophies. They were alumni of the Government School of Art and Craft in Kolkata. Haloi often visited Ash's Begampur residence for various creative collaborations and discussions. Nirban Ash (Son of artist Gobardhan Ash) recalls one of his visits aiming to arrange an exhibition on the Bengal Famine. While another was with art historian Prakash Das to engage in a rich conversation with Gobardhan.

Gobardhan Ash with Ganesh Haloi and Rabin Mondal at his residence. 

Gobardhan Ash dedicated his entire life to art, carving an artistic language unique yet universal. Nirban Ash reveals how his father continued to sketch self-portraits till the day before his death on December 22, 1996. Even today, a self-portrait of Gobardhan Ash adorns the walls of his home in Begampur. 

Where there is heart, there is art. [19]

 Gobardhan Ash has left behind a treasure trove of artistic versatility spanning various languages of art. His works from various periods of his life portray the different phases of his artistic creativity, experimentation, and expression. His silence filled with the revolting spirit of his paintings that echo loud and clear even today.

A letter from Gobardhan Ash: 


[1] Interview with Nirban Ash

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Critical analysis on Gobardhan Ash's paintings, GOTI

[5] Gobardhan Ash by Atul Bose, 1969, Ash's Exhibition Catalogue, 1969

[6]  Interview with Nirban Ash 

[7] The History Behind the Young Artists' Union (1931) by Gobardhan Ash

[8] Interview with Nirban Ash 

[9] Trouilloud, Julia Madeleine. "The Reception of Modern European Art in Calcutta: a Complex Negotiation (1910s-1940s)." Artl@s Bulletin 6, no. 2 (2017): Article 7. 

[10] 1933 Guide, Art Rebel Centre Exhibition Catalogue

[11] Interview with Nirban Ash

[12] Gobardhan Ash, Fine Art, And Its Aspect

[13] Interview with Nirban Ash

[14] Systems of Life Biopolitics, Economics, and Literature on the Cusp of Modernity, Richard A. Barney and Uiarren Montag, Editors, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY PRESS, NEW YORK 2019

[15] Trouilloud, Julia Madeleine. "The Reception of Modern European Art in Calcutta: a Complex Negotiation (1910s-1940s)." Artl@s Bulletin 6, no. 2 (2017): Article 7. 

[16] Gobardhan Ash, My Tryst with the Calcutta Group

[17] Nirban Ash, Interview with Nirban Ash

[18] Interview with Nirban Ash 

[19] Gobardhan Ash, A note by Gobardhan Ash on the Children Series

[20] Gobardhan Ash, Soumitra Das, Rebel Artist at 87, The Statesman. 1993.

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