Prinseps


Misreading Dhanraj Bhagat's Durga

Dhanraj Bhagat, a master sculptor and Padma Shri recipient, was active in Delhi during the mid-1940s to the 1960s. Two of his sculptures (Reunion-1947 and Three Women-1953) are listed as belonging to the collection of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Modernism in sculptures in India starts with Ram Kinker Baij (in the late 1930s), followed very closely by Dhanraj Bhagat (mid-1940s) and then by Bakre (of the Progressives) and Meera Mukherjee. Adi Davierwala was inspired by Bakre and so on...

Dhanraj Bhagat and his language seem to be have been somewhat overlooked so much so that an abstraction of Durga has been misread as Ravana!   

durga

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jamini-roy-ravana A bit of history - Dhanraj Bhagat was part of the Delhi Shilpi Chakra, a group formed around the time of Independence:

Delhi Shilpi Chakra

Founded in 1949, it included B.C.Sanyal, Dhanraj Bhagat, Ram Kumar (also of the Progressives), Paramjeet Singh, Satish Gujral and Rameshwar Broota amongst others.

Chakra believed that art, a creative adventure, should be the total expression of life, keeping pace with time and environment. Art was, of course, mainly the artists’ business, but its purpose was to communicate. Its life-blood was the responses of its receptive audience, whether it was their condemnation or praise, but never their apathy.

With the assistance of Ram Babu of Messers, Dhoomi Mal Dharam Das, an art gallery - the first of its kind in India - was inaugurated on 7 October 1949 in Delhi. This was a pioneering step by the Delhi Shilpi Chakra in promoting art and artists’ interests.

The first Chakra exhibition, held in the barracks of the Masonic Lodge on Janpath in November 1949, made a great impact on the art scene of the capital. The Chakra’s vibrant existence lasted almost till the mid-1960s.

Dhanraj Bhagat

Dhanraj Bhagat Sculpture, Durga 1960s
                    Dhanraj Bhagat, Durga 1960s

One needs to visualize this work a bit. There is the head with the crown, the abstraction of the hands with the various weapons, and even the lion (in reduced form) - quite a powerful imagery (compare to the Durga above). Speaking of the lion, even though Richard Bartholomew liked and admired Dhanraj Bhagat, he was not particularly fond of the lion in the above sculpture - calling it a 'bovine' lion.

And if this is not clear, one can simply rely on his preparatory drawings (dated 1966).  

dhanraj-bhagat-1966-drawings-1

dhanraj-bhagat-1966-drawings-2 

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Some quotes on Dhanraj Bhagat:

Richard Bartholomew laments the absence of Ram Kinker's and Bhagat's sculptures during the fifth All-India Sculpture Exhibition (in the late 50s?) and says," From the many examples of progressive work we have seen, that of Ram Kinker and Bhagat, not represented in this exhibition ..."

Bhagat has always been a distinguished sculptor.

"Moving away from the British colonial legacy of academic naturalism, Bhagat was among a number of Indian artists, in particular, who turned to a combination of abstraction and figuration to articulate new ideas. Symbols speak to his larger practice of pitting the artistic language of figuration against the wood’s simplicity. He foregrounded its materiality, coating it with minimal paint varnish and leaving its surfaces visible. A vertical stack of cubic and spherical shapes culminates in a yawning, face-like ovoid that hints at figuration, yet its totemic abstraction precludes any narrative reading." - Grey Art Museum, New York University

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Grey Art Museum Gallery, New York University

"Dhanraj Bhagat is one of the most inventive sculptors of India. He has carved a niche for himself in the art history of the Indian subcontinent. It is because of his exceptional creativity that he gained recognition in the art world. Works and installations by Dhanraj prove the excellence of his arty talent. " - Gogi Saroj Pal

Durga or Ravana ?

Why is this important?

Because early sculptures are somewhat scarce. The reasons for this scarcity are again elucidated by Richard Bartholomew, "Lack of public patronage and production costs. Casting difficulties and expenses, and the inability to make editions are problems which the Indian sculptor faces."

The fact that in India (due to various aesthetics and sensibilities), a sculpture depicting Ravana would likely only make sense in a museum, whereas a Durga would attract a lot more attention and interest.

The magnum opus (seven feet + in height) of an important early modernist, an important sculpture in Indian modernism, of the same vintage as the Padamsee and Gaitonde cover lots, possibly more important, and certainly far more rare than either a Padamsee or Gaitonde, gets misclassified and therefore unsold in auction!

Indrajit Chatterjee

References

Dhanraj Bhagat - Grey Art Gallery At New York University

Newspaper Clippings


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