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.

The prolific artist entered the art arena in the mid-1920s when two art trends reigned supreme in the Indian art world. One being the Bengal School which followed literary painting with rigid standards. While the other was the art school brand of pseudo-Victorianism.  He refused to bow down to either of the two schools of thought that dominated modern Indian art. When the set norm was to paint divinities or female figures en route temples, Mr. Ash chose to silently jump off the bandwagon. He painted a gypsy mother clutching her newborn tight to her chest and tired farmers laboring in the fields. And this was how he sparked a new trend of social realism in India.

Gypsy Mother by Gobardhan Ash, Gouache on Board, 1950

“Renunciation is the fundamental principle of art for all ages. The real spirit of art is the universal language which freely, frankly correlate and enlighten the human society.” [1]

- Gobardhan Ash

 In 1926, Gobardhan Ash enrolled in the Government School of Art in Calcutta but dropped out 5 years later, rejecting the pedagogy that disillusioned him. In 1931, he trained at the Madras School of Art under the mentorship of the famous- painter and sculptor Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury. However, he resisted the highly skilled academic realism and segued into the confident flamboyance of the impressionistic technique. Ash refused to succumb and limit his artistic dreams and aspirations to a set curriculum. He left Madras to head back to Calcutta to pursue his career as a full-fledged artist. That was where he worked with Atul Bose at his studio for several years.

"His genre picture depicting 'Tillers of the land' and labourers with their dilapidated abodes, won for him popular recognition as far back as 1930. Since then he has travelled a long way." [2]

- Atul Bose

The 1930s stood witness to two artist groups competing for a place in the sun in undivided India. The first was a rather large group of artists called Realists wanting to represent Indian life and themes in an academic Neo-classical style. The second group of artists was more inclined to explore the age-old tradition of Indian art. And at that time, Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, and Gaganendranath Tagore were trying hard to establish links with the tradition of modern art in their own manner. Gobardhan Ash however was a young and restless artist who was branded as a rebel against the tradition. In 1931, he founded the Young Artists’ Union in Calcutta with like-minded artists such as Abani Sen, Kalikinkar Ghosh Dastidar, Renu Roy, and others. 

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.

In the same year, he established the Art Rebel Centre alongside Abani Sen, Annada Dey, and Bhola Chatterjee to create fearless, true, and assertive art in its desire to fuel artistic freedom. 

“Our aim is to create an art that is strong, bold, verile 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.” [3]

This young art activist along with other artists wanted to steer away from the mainstream mythological and historical depictions at that time and express contemporary life through their art. This urgent desire gave birth to artist groups such as the Young Artists’ Union in 1931 and the Art Rebel Centre in 1933. Both these ventures enabled a conducive creative space for young artists of this country.

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 not only stirred an emotional response but also reflected the crucial changes taking place in the social and political fabric at that time. The famine that hit Bengal in 1943 furthermore awakened a sense of artistic duty and responsibility amongst artists to represent the life of the people suffering in rural Bengal. Gobardhan Ash stripped bare the stark and uninhibited truth of life through scanty washes of earthy brown tones, reflecting endless human misery. While his contemporaries such as Zainul Abedin and Chittaprosad Bhattacharya preferred black and white, or the use of 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.

Untitled (Famine series) by Zainul Abedin, 1943

"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."[4]

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 new 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 at this time 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 man.

The founders and core members of the Calcutta Group were Prodosh Das Gupta (notable sculptor), and the painters Gopal Ghosh, Rathin Maitra, Nirode Mazumdar, Subho Tagore, and Prankrishna Pal. They were later joined by Abani Sen (1947), Gobardhan Ash (1950), Sunil Madhav Sen (1952), and Hemant Misra (1953). In 1943, the Calcutta Group released a manifesto stating Realism as the crux of their artistic endeavor. Their works depicted the horrors, stark social reality, and their personal 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 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 in his work. 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. 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.

Comrade by Gobardhan Ash, Gouache on Paper, 1950

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 Mitra. Oblivious to the treasures that hid in his modest mudhouse, they stumbled upon piles of bright 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 down on 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! [5]

- Gobardhan Ash

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, and S.K. Bakre at Calcutta in 1950. In 1953, he took part in the Calcutta Group exhibition in New Delhi.

Joint Exhibition of the Calcutta Group and the Progressive Artists’ Group, 1950

Ash has had several solo shows in major Indian cities and participated in a lot of all-India expositions. However, after the Calcutta Group disbanded due to a lack of artistic camaraderie; Ash slipped back into his solitude. His works from the 1950s were manifestations of his elective affinities with Bengal folk painting followed by a neo-naturalistic phase. In 1956, Gobardhan Ash opened the Fine Art Mission free Art School in Begampur. 

The reclusive genius switched to oils in the 1960s, where he painted a whole series on children; reflecting and gauging their various moods. In the 1970s, he switched to open landscapes- painting tired farmers laboring in the fields reflecting the socio-economic reality. 

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 ageing.

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.


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

[2] Gobardhan Ash by Atul Bose, 1969, Ash's exhibition catalogue of 1969

[3] 1933 Guide, Art Rebel Centre Exhibition Catalogue

[4] 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

[5] My tryst with the Calcutta Group by Gobardhan Ash.


Related Posts

Any questions?