The history behind the Young Artists' Union (1931) by Gobardhan Ash

[The present article by the veteran artist Gobardhan Ash, stands testament to two of the pioneering ventures, in recent years, at creating a cumulative creative space for young artists of this country ━ both of which he had been a part of. Mr. Ash was subsequently involved with the Calcutta Group as well.]

The Young Artists’ Union was founded in 1931, by Abani Sen, Gobardhan Ash, Annada Dey, and Digin Bhattacharya. Later collaborators who eventually made their way into the group include Kalikinkar Ghoshdastidar, Suren Dey, Sachin Das, Pankaj Basu, and others. The inaugural exhibition for the Union was held at the Town Hall on December 25, 1931, during the Rabindra Jayanti Mela, commemorating Rabindranath Tagores 70th birth anniversary. However, there is a fairly protracted history behind the formation of this group, which I will attempt to relate briefly:

In 1930, during the students’ agitation at the Government Art School, Renu Roy defected to the Principal Mukul Roy and his clique, and collaborated in sabotaging the movement. He went on to demolish some plaster-cast models with the intent of framing the students, and testified before the D.P.I. Stapleton and the Governing Body that it had been the handiwork of the protesting students. Based on his statement, several students listed as part of a “criminal conspiracy” were expelled. Consequently, the protests escalated, and Roy’s misdeeds were exposed. Unnerved by the sudden turn of events, Renu Roy rode over to school on his new motorcycle, a fact unknown to his parents. He owned up to his actions and apologised to the other students.

Anxious and fidgeting, Renu snatched away someone’s tiffin, to everyone else’s shock. He was to travel overseas in six months’ time (at his father’s expense, of course), and his newly earned infamy induced an unbearable guilt within. After strutting about uneasily for a while, he excused himself before evening, saying he would go meet the then Education Minister. He sped off on his bike. The very next day, we were to learn that Renu Roy had been speeding at 70 mph down Bhawanipore, and had met with an accident with a lorry at the Upper Circular Road-Fariapukur crossing. He had been admitted to the Medical College seriously injured.

Apparently, the motorcycle handle had pierced his abdomen. Having somehow managed to wrench it out, he fell unconscious whilst trying to note down the number of the lorry that hit him. He bled severely. Finally, locals rushed him to the Emergency Ward at the Medical College, where he was admitted immediately.His family got to know the news and soon reached the hospital, where they spent the night in anxiety. The doctors informed them that Renu’s kidney had burst.

The patient’s condition was uncertain, and he had been put on oxygen supply. A medical board had been set up, and they concluded that it would be a major and complicated operation. He was unlikely to survive. Having briefly regained consciousness, Renu had told the surgeons, “Don’t be afraid, Doctor. Go on [with the] operation.” The doctors had exclaimed, “It is a record in [the] Medical Journal!” He passed away that night.

The cadaver was sent to the morgue for post-mortem. Renu’s brother and we rallied to get the body out, and could only succeed after much hassle. He seemed like a normal, healthy person as he lay in the morgue. Renu’s corpse was then dressed in the pyjamas his brother had brought, and we carried it to the Art School’s lawn to hold a memorial service. Just then, the Principal screamed from upstairs: “You can’t have a funeral here!” As we tried to enforce our will anyway, we were summarily shooed out.

Grieving, we accompanied Renu’s brother on a funeral procession to the Nimtala Ghat Cemetery to cremate the body. We called for the cremation worker, prepared a pyre and laid Renu’s corpse on it. His brother proceeded to light it. It burnt away brightly, till all was reduced to cinders. As the fire died down, we, the students, pledged to create a space for learning and practising art in Renu’s memory, where we would continue with our artistic efforts.

Following a tedious search, we finally located a house in Ultadanga, which we rented to set up our base. The four of us ━ Abani Sen, Gobardhan Ash, Annada Dey, and Digin Bhattacharya ━ moved in at the place. The others commuted from their own homes. To make up for space, we decided that 7-8 people were to pursue indoor study, while an equal number would pursue outdoor study, according to the ongoing programme.The Indoor Study involved routine work in life study, still life and composition with models. The Outdoor consisted of sketching, animal drawing, figures, landscapes, and occasional visits to the Zoo.

Six months passed by thus, until lack of funds forced us to let go of the rented place. Practice now hinged on individual enterprise. We would occasionally meet up for outdoor gatherings and ponder over the situation. Our disarrayed efforts afforded us no clear vision for the future. 

Around that time, in 1931, our teacher Mr. Atul Bose had just returned to Calcutta following his second trip abroad. Some 30-32 in number, we thronged his Bondel Road residence one day, and sought his counsel as to our modus operandi. To boost our forlorn spirits, he suggested that we put up an exhibition. The suggestion was met with unanimous assent. Mr.Bose then christened our venture ‘Young Artists’ Union’.

The Rabindra Jayanti Mela, commemorating Rabindranath Tagore’s 70th birth anniversary, held at the Town Hall, was upon us the following December. It was decided that we would rent a stall there for hosting our purpose. Oddly, most of those present were awkwardly silent. No sooner had we walked outside than they began clamouring in dissent. An exhibition? What an insane suggestion! It was most certainly an egregious venture, they concluded, and each went their way.

The four of us ━ Abani Sen, Annada Dey, Digin Bhattacharya, and I ━ were in for a shock at this sudden apostasy. In shame and indignation, we pledged to go forward with our plans, with or without others’ assistance.

By evening, we had gathered that Jñananjan Niyogi was in-charge of renting out stalls, and approached him forthwith. We young artists must have a stall to ourselves. The standard rent being sixty rupees, we requested a concession. Mr. Niyogi readily agreed, and settled it at thirty rupees.

Finally, informing us of our stall number, he booked it under Young Artists’ Union. We scrambled up the amount soon, paying the dues and collecting the receipt. The date of inauguration was also made known to us then. Concluding the business at the Town Hall, we made for Bowbazar. Filling out the details of the event, and mentioning Abani’s name, I submitted it at Dainik Basumati’s office. The following day, it was widely advertised in the newspaper. The recent apostates of the plan were, needless to say, thoroughly shocked. Their attempts to desist us had been futile after all.

But headstrong as we were we had ignored the biggest impediment to our progress: the funds! How were we to account for the expenditure to follow? At this point, I firmly elected to gather the funds. Seeking donations from family, friends, and relatives, I finally collected enough to run our operation. We further decided to move in together. Annada Dey and I were roommates. Abani Sen lived on R.G. Kar Road , and Digin Bhattacharya lived near Baithakkhana. Given how difficult it would be to operate remotely, we moved in at Bowbazar.

Our programme ━ washing up and stuffing breakfast in morning; bundling brushes, paint, paper, boards, pen and ink, pencils and other stationery, and spend the day sketching and painting in fields, at Maidan, the Zoo, and on the streets; returning in the evening to munch on something, and leaving one of our number to cook up whatever inedibles he could, the other three scouted out the artists that had dropped out previously. 

They were surprised, and quite ashamed of leaving us in the lurch. However, all we asked of them were a couple of paintings and the contribution of a rupee each. This they willingly did, leaving the rest of the trouble to us.

In the time leading up to the Exhibition, we would visit the artists each evening, after the day’s work of painting had ended. Following their eviction from the Art School Hostel during the student agitation days, many had taken up residence at a mess at 3, Wellington Street. 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.” Purna Chakraborty and the others, whose paintings were sold, duly received the proceeds from the sale.

A pencil sketch of Renu Roy had been put on display at the Exhibition. One evening, I noticed a lady gazing intently at the sketch. I suspected her to be Renu’s mother. Renu’s brother, who was standing beside her, confirmed that she was their mother. Upon being addressed ‘mother’ by us, she swooned and fainted. We immediately carried her over to an empty stall, arranged for water, and fanned her till she gradually regained consciousness.

Addressing her as her children, she spoke, “He’s gone. He was fated to go. But you are like my own sons. You must visit our home at Dumdum. Please come by after the Exhibition is over.” Renu’s father was called Surendranath Roy. He was a zamindar in Dumdum. As promised, we stopped by Dumdum one day. Renu’s parents greeted us, and treated us most kindly and lovingly.

They spoke much of their deceased son, and shed tears for his sake. Finally, Mr. Roy addressed us, “You are like my own sons. I have a lot of fallow and arable land in Dumdum. Why don’t you all settle down on some land, put it to cultivation, and rear cattle for milk? You will receive my whole-hearted help. Once all is settled, you can draw and paint contentedly. Unfortunately, we failed to make proper use of his beneficence.

Being used to ‘ready-made’ life, we could not possibly have borne this plan to fruition. Who knows where the swirling eddies of time have washed us up.

Any questions?