The Student Movement at the Government Art College by Gobardhan Ash

The Principal of the Government Art School, Mr. Percy Brown was scheduled to retire In 1928. Jamini Prakash Ganguly, the Vice-Principal was still two years away from retirement, and in fact, owed two years’ worth of leave. Mukul Dey, the artist was rumoured to be next in line for the office of Principal of the Art School. Sri T. A. Achary held the office of Head Master, while Nandalal Roy Chowdhury was Head Clerk and Superintendent of the Students’ Hostel on Corporation Street, where he was a resident too. Perhaps, one may as well have approached these very individuals to inquire as to the situation that had been brewing.

Although, the news would obviously trickle down to the students’ ears via the instructors at the Art School. Shortly before assuming the position of Principal, Mukul Dey had a solo exhibition at the Somabaya Mansion in Calcutta. The students of the Government Art School could somewhat develop a cursory understanding of his style by observing his artworks on display. These works stood in sharp contrast to the ones produced under Vice-Principal J. P. Ganguly’s mastership, during the tenure of the erstwhile Principal, Mr. Percy Brown. In fact, they seemed quite alien to the observers.

Soon, it appeared that Mr. Ganguly, the Vice-Principal, was to retire, despite the remainder of his tenure at work. He had flatly refused to work under Mukul Dey as Principal. That he would tender his resignation summarily was now beyond doubt. The students felt distraught.

If Ganguly were to resign, the academic training in Drawing and Painting in the Fine Art Department would fall in jeopardy. The question particularly affected the Life Class 1st year and Life Class 2nd year (i.e., the Final Year) students from the aforesaid department. As word spread, students from the 1st year through the 4th year panicked as the future of their studies at the Fine Art Department grew uncertain. Mr. Percy Brown and Jamini Prakash Ganguly were the greatest luminaries in the Department. The prospect of learning under Mr. Ganguly, an artist (of oil paintings) of national repute was the very reason that propelled prospective students and their guardians to aspire for getting into the Fine Art Department. It was a fact well-known to connoisseurs of art as well. The events at play were nothing short of catastrophic to the students of the Art School.

The Government Art School used to comprise the departments of Fine Art, Clay Modelling, Indian Painting, Commercial Art, Wood-Cut, Lithograph, Draughtsmanship, and Teachership. Fine Art was headed by J. P. Ganguly, Clay Modelling by Chintamani Manna, and Indian Painting by Ishwari Prasad Burman, and so on. The other names escape me presently. The Government Art College necessitated students to take an Elementary Course before getting to choose their specialisations. This entailed drawing with chalk on the blackboard from charts (Chart Drawing) and from memory (Memory Drawing) in the Blackboard Class in their First Year; drawing reduced versions of large charts and relief cast designs in the Copy Class in the Second Year; “From Nature” ━ Foliage, Flower Painting, Zoo Study, Animals and Birds, Perspective Drawing, Model Drawing with Light and Shade, etc. in their Third Year. Following the completion of the Elementary Course, students could get into the department of their choice.

Unlike these days, students were not awarded marks back then. Instead, they would be categorised into First Division, Second Division, Third Division, and Plucked. Classes were held five days a week, with weekends off, especially to allow students to pick outdoor subjects. The instructors for the Elementary Course were viz., Bolai Das in the First year, Rishin Mitra in the Second, and Santosh Das in the Third. In the Fine Art department, J. P. Ganguly was in charge of the Antique Class (4th year), Life Class 1st year (5th year), and Life Class 2nd year (6th year). Though an artist from the Fine Art Department, Prahlad Karmakar had to work in the Commercial Class as well. The Department of Commercial Art existed only in name at that point. Later, Kushal Mukherjee was instituted in the department after returning with an A.R.C.A. from Britain. That was the real inception of the department. However, he left shortly to join the Jaipur Art School as Principal. A gentleman by the name of Roy Some was associated with the department around this time. He had been an alumnus of the Government Art School but sadly passed away soon after. Later, Satishchandra Sinha joined the Department of Commercial Art as an instructor.

The students of the Fine Art department, especially those engaged in Naturalistic Art, felt an irreparable loss at the departure of Mr. Percy Brown, in whom they had found an adroit coordinator and warm, helpful personage. He was compassionate to the needs and well-being of his Indian pupils, despite being a foreigner. And now, he was to leave. His replacement, though Indian himself, was a stranger to them. Could they expect the same cooperation and goodwill from this newcomer?

And then, Jamini Prakash Ganguly, their only beacon of hope. Without him, they would be in utter darkness. These thoughts plagued the students’ minds. Those in the Indian Painting Class were not as bothered, though. They were not drawn to Naturalism, after all. However, all the departments were equally wary of the administrative changes and the effects they would spell. That the students got along well in those days was particularly evident from the celebrations they organised every Vishwakarma Puja, which would comprise plays, musicals, and fetes.

Following his retirement in 1928, Mr. Brown was appointed curator of the Victoria Memorial Hall. That is, he remained in Calcutta. On the other hand, Mukul Dey assumed office at the Art College under the patronage of Rabindranath Tagore.

Citing the leave due, Mr. Ganguly resigned from the position of Vice-Principal with immediate effect. Before the new Principal could quite settle in, the students were up in revolt. Mukul Dey had abruptly stopped the supply of easels, boards, and the like, and of models for the Life Study Class, which the institution had provided them all along. The results were disastrous. The classes had been rendered practically defunct. We were in our Third Year then. Once every week, we used to collect our gate passes batch by batch (as stipulated in the routine) from the Art School, and visit the Zoo to study the birds and animals there. I quite remember the first day of the movement, when anguished students poured down in front of the Principal’s office to protest the discontinuance of their rightful allowances. As our batch left for the Zoo that day, I missed out on the tumult that was to follow. We somehow happened to return earlier than usual. The unrest had hardly subsided by then.

The multitude of protestors was predominantly from the Department of Fine Art. Of them, Jatin Saha, Suren Mukherjee, Jñanbrata Ghosh, Amar Dasgupta, Pankaj Bose, Haridas Ganguly, Abani Sen, Haripada Das, Hemada Banerjee, Mani Ghosh, Mani Ghosh, Mani Roy, Sachin Dhar, Kalikinkar Ghoshdastidar, Devi Ghatak, Barin Nag, etc. were notable. Several others had joined in. In the general meeting that day, it was concluded that the movement would continue till the issues at hand would get resolved satisfactorily. Presently, a general boycott of classes was announced. No student was to attend their classes from the next day. We unanimously agreed upon the fact that Mukul Dey’s policies were directed specifically against the students and that he alone was to blame for the troubles we now faced. We spoke out against the callous nature of his administration and the imminent crisis it harboured for the Art School. The boycott was a partial success. Students would avoid classes and throng in front of the school, and decide upon the upcoming agenda of the movement. As a result, mayhem ensued.

Kaviguru Rabindranath called on in 1928 during the unrest and stayed on in Mukul Dey’s quarters for a few days. The students were asked to assemble in the Art School hall one day to listen to his address. Evidently, to rescue his dear pet, the seer went on to define the ideal disciple and prescribed how they should remain devoted to the guru. He went on to lay the entire blame on the students for their disruptive activities. In his poetic demeanour, he protested our “ill-conduct” and advised us to keep to our studies instead. Of course, refreshments had been arranged to commemorate Rabindranath’s presence. The programme ended in a bowl of snacks and sweets, and a temporary truce mediated by the Kaviguru. But the students had lost their patience. Far from dying down, the flames of agitation began to flicker now and then. The troubles carried on. The students demanded the re-institution of the supply of models for Life Study, and the recruitment of proper instructors in the required fields.

The students petitioned the administration to invite Atul Chandra Bose, an alumnus of the Royal Academy of Arts in Britain, and one of the greatest contemporary painters to instruct at the Art School. Being an undeniable authority in imparting systemic education in the arts, he would be the fittest choice for the job. In the wake of the academic crisis in the Government Art School, we hoped the authorities would take heed of our written plea. Unfortunately, the government now came to suspect that this, in fact, had been the handiwork of none other than Mr. Bose! It was he who must have incited the students to stir up a ruckus, to pressure the government into instituting him as an instructor at the Art School. This could be no further from the truth. In reality, the students of the Fine Arts department were frustrated with the dysfunctional situation therein. They wanted to break through to new horizons stylistically.

Upon discovering the sheer genius of Mr. Bose’s works, and learning about his imposing personality and outstanding conduct, they were keen to receive his tutelage. That alone propelled their petition to the government. Ultimately, the latter yielded to the request and invited Atul Chandra Bose to take office as an instructor at the Government Art College. He obliged and joined the institution before the year ended.

The rising tide of nationalism was upon us. The yoke of the alien rule was to be thrown off with all our might. All we yearned for was freedom. The air rang with cries of Vande Mataram, Hail Motherland!

It was the Renaissance in the hearts of a nation. The blood of inspiration coursed through the veins of partisans anew. Prose, poetry, and music echoed with the ring of changing times. And yet, the fountainhead of the painting ran dry. It was right then that Mr. Atul Chandra Bose joined the Government Art College. His style brimmed with calm confidence. He taught his pupils to bring paintings to life using bold strokes of the brush, using mass treatment in drawing and sketching (giving precedence to the larger picture as opposed to finer details), resulting in a lush consistency. Whether the medium is charcoal or an oil painting, he firmly believed that the artist could master the depths of its nature through their own understanding and ingenuity. He would impart such wisdom through practical demonstration and inspire them out of ruts and dilemmas.

Back then, only male models were provided for the Life Study classes. The authorities stuck to their refusal to let in any female models. The Fourth Year Antiquity Class, Life Class First Year (technically, Fifth year), and Life Class Second Year (the sixth, and Final Year) began to be conducted under the aegis of Mr. Atul Bose. The students heaved sighs of relief at this arrangement. I had the good fortune of studying under him in my Fourth Year Antiquity Class, in 1929. Under his able guidance, I gained invaluable insight into drawing, painting, and perspective. We stuck to painting in monochrome in that class, however.

Amidst these changed circumstances, we were to learn shortly that Mr. Bose had been commissioned to paint a Royal portrait at Buckingham Palace in London. He would travel shortly to Britain and take up the hospitality of his Royal patrons. Thus left Mr. Bose from Calcutta, and Mr. Lalkaka from Bombay towards the end of ‘29.

The students of the Fine Arts department landed in hot water yet again. We had somehow managed to find a direction and kept at it for all these days. Now that Bose was gone, would his replacement be any good in furthering our line of studies? If not, it might ignite a fresh row of hostilities by disgruntled students. At last, the replacement came in the person of Basanta Ganguly, an illustrious foreign-educated artist himself. While he was, no doubt, a skillful artist in his own right, his capabilities as an instructor turned out to be rather limited.

Atul Bose had a lively medium of instruction. His method of drawing and his masterclasses in painting stemmed from a scientific and realistic approach. He taught his students how to observe Nature and faithfully reproduce it in their works. This meticulous approach was conspicuously absent in Basanta Ganguly’s method. He ditched materialism in depictions of nature and was rather drawn to fashion drawings and kitschy paintings. It seemed absurd and fallacious to the students.

The growing dissatisfaction over Ganguly’s instruction, the problem regarding the lack of models, and miscellaneous complaints culminated in another student movement towards the end of 1929. The classes got disrupted yet again. The students would simply walk out of their classes and join the movement. The ones who happened to attend classes initially would soon grow frustrated with the peculiar atmosphere and join the gatherings instead. The simmering discontent in the students’ hearts made the movement far more spontaneous than before. And yet, it had to be put on hold in the wake of the exams.

1930 was as chaotic, with little work being carried out in the classes. And then came the circular for the examinations. They put up notices specifying the schedule and timetable for these. The exams were conducted accordingly in the various departments. The students worked hard and passed, and the new academic session commenced. My classmates and I got promoted to the Life Class First year (technically, Fifth year), and classes continued. This carried on for a while before the students erupted again over their disaffection with the instruction and other unresolved issues. Renu Roy was a consistent face in the movement from its inception.

In the Swadeshi era, there had always been students who were affiliated with the Swadeshi Movement, the Government Art School being no exception. A few of them resided in the Art School Hostel as well.

The Head Master T. A. Achary retired from work in 1930. Ramendranath Chakraborty, an artist from Santiniketan, replaced him. Being well known as a stooge of Mukul Dey wasn’t particularly popular among the students. Given the several problems that dogged the administration, the ongoing student movement, and repeated strikes, Principal Mukul Dey sought legal counsel with barristers.

Together, they ascertained that the students’ hostel on Corporation Street was most definitely the epicenter of the troubles. It was a prerequisite to run down that establishment if the student movement were to be thwarted. The students on their part had long suspected such a malicious conspiracy. However, they failed to anticipate such an early onslaught.

The eviction notice came right in the midst of the strikes. The boarders were to clear the hostel premises of their belongings within the date stipulated by the Government or remain liable to legal prosecution. Most of the boarders, in fact, hailed from East Bengal. This sudden decree certainly spelled catastrophe for them. It was cataclysmic.

A list of long-term residents at the hostel included the likes of Purna Chakraborty, Phanibhushan Gupta, Pratul Banerjee, Gopen Saha, Bolaibondhu Roy, Bimal Majumdar, Jatin Saha, Samar Dey, Amar Dasgupta, Binoy Sengupta, Parvati Bhattacharya, Mani Roy, Mani Ghosh, Subal Pal, Abani Ghosh, Satya Mukherjee, Digin Bhattacharya, Hemada Bandopadhyay, Sailen Dey, Rajen Biswas, Devi Ghatak, and Manoj Guha. This catapulted a unanimous resort to rebellion by all the departments. The students went on a hunger strike.

They proceeded to meet Subhash Chandra Bose at his Elgin Road residence and narrated an account of their ordeal. Pained at the news of their recent destitution, he telephoned Mukul Dey at once ━ “Do you presume that there’s not a man in Bengal who would stand up to this? It would be in the interest of your own well-being to intervene on the student’s behalf.” This unexpected upbraiding no doubt worried Dey.

But there was hope to be had. The Government was on his side, after all. The notice remained in force. The bulk of the boarders were forced to retreat to a nearby mess at 30, Wellington Street. Some boarded at the Pearl Hotel in Dharamtolla, while others sought refuge elsewhere. The movement continued unabated.

Fearing a spurt in retaliation on part of the disaffected students, Mukul Dey arranged for picketing by the police at the gate of the Art School. In the afternoon, a police van brought in another retinue of policemen accompanying an armed Sergeant.

The Intelligence Bureau had tasked Mukul Dey with identifying one Mani Roy, a student purportedly associated with the Swadeshi Movement. The latter had scarcely crossed the gate when he was confronted with arrest. He demanded at once to be shown the arrest warrant. That the police did and proceeded to arrest him. It seems he had been booked for his involvement in the Dalhousie Bomb Conspiracy case.

This incident prompted the students to defy the picketing and try to force their way through the gate. Devi Ghatak, who led the march, was struck on his head by the butt of the Sergeant’s pistol, cracking his skull. He bled profusely. Devi’s comrades rushed him to a Chemist’s, providing first aid and bandaging his wound. It was quite a nerve-wracking day. Meanwhile, the Principal won over Renu Roy, who deserted his comrades and conspired against them in secret. He shattered some plaster models at the Art School and later gave testament to the D.P.I. Stapleton and the Governing Body that it had been the handiwork of the recalcitrant students. This led to the expulsion of those students who had been targeted as being part of a “criminal conspiracy”. This led to a huge tumult, and Renu’s misgivings were exposed shortly thereafter. He was forced to apologise to all the students. It was quite an unfortunate turn of events for him, as he was scheduled to travel abroad soon.

Distraught, he excused himself on account of visiting the incumbent Education Minister and made a dash for it on his motorcycle. It was only the next day at school that we heard 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 seriously injured and was admitted to the Medical College. His family rushed to the hospital when the
news reached them, only to be told that his kidney had been crushed in the accident. He could not live through that night.

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