The image of a Parsi lady feeding chillies to a parrot, ‘Shakuntala’ reclining with her friends, and fishing boats at a port all have two things in common – the city of Bombay and the Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Mumbai. These paintings were created by graduates from the school and are important milestones in the evolution of art in modern India.
Paintings have many stories to tell; time flows through them even though they are frozen in time. They tell us about people, their lives and times; the world they lived in and how they lived; their ideals and their aspirations.
Sir JJ School of Art is one of the most noted art schools in India. Established in 1857, it shaped the Indian art world for decades. Its artists give us a glimpse into the evolution of the school as well as the shape art was taking in a colonised India, and the way the Indian and the Western were being redefined and coming together to form a unique aesthetic at the school.
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations (Crystal Palace Exhibition) held in London in 1851 was a celebration of industrial technology and design which caught the world’s fancy. The India pavilion was one of the most popular ones, and among other things, it showcased the finest examples of Indian craftsmanship.
Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy, the renowned 19th-century trader and philanthropist from Mumbai, felt that Indians could attain superlative proficiency in painting and sculpture if they received proper training. This inspired him to establish a school of art. He approached the British government and donated one lakh rupees towards the setting up of the ‘School of Art and Industry’ in 1857, which was posthumously renamed after him.
Initially, the syllabus of the school was adopted from the School of Industrial Arts of South Kensington, London and the primary objective was to impart techniques of European academic art to Indians. The formative years of the school were influenced by three English instructors – Mr Terry, Mr Crowe and Mr Payton. In 1878, the school shifted to its present premises and went on to become the cradle of the Bombay School of Art.
An earlier exhibition held at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya in 2019 traced the school through four important phases, from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.
The first phase in the Sir JJ School of Art’s evolution was training artists in naturalistic drawing, painting and sculpting. During this period, painting a portrait from a live model was assigned high value. This period, from 1885 to 1900, saw a number of JJ graduates carrying out this academic tradition. Some went on to be engaged in the courts of princely states like Kolhapur, Hyderabad and Aundh. They even received encouragement from the Bombay Art Society, which organised exhibitions to highlight their work and award the best among them.
This portrait of a young child by Antonio Xavier Trindade is especially appealing for its exceptional depiction of childlike innocence.
Landscapes became the next genre the students mastered when noted watercolor landscape artist Cecil Burns became the principal of the school from 1896 till 1918. Burns instilled an interest in watercolor landscape in the students, which became the identity of the school despite not being in the syllabus!
The artists’ graduating during this period abandoned the clichéd illusionistic style that was prevalent and started depicting the natural environment and architecture. In the 1940s, landscape art was revived and inspired by the Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists.
William Ewart Gladstone Solomon was one of the most influential principals of the institute. He was its principal from 1918 to 1936 and was also the curator of the CSMVS from 1921 to 1937. During this period, to promote the talent at the Sir JJ School of Art, he acquired artworks from the School for the CSMVS, thus helping the museum build a seminal collection of 19th – 20th century Indian art.
Solomon equipped students with the scientific use of live models and also encouraged them to imbibe the legacy of Indian traditions like miniature and mural art. He took students to the world-famous Ajanta caves in Aurangabad to study the murals there. He also freed the school from the syllabus of the South Kensington School of Art. Mural art became a large part of the syllabus, partly because Solomon wanted to win the commission of mural decoration of the Secretariat building in New Delhi for the school.
Art from this phase shows the influence of traditional Indian art form in its subjects and aesthetics as can be seen in the image of ‘Shakuntala’ by R D Dhopeshwarkar or the fishermen couple called ‘Sweethearts’ by Y K Shukla.
The Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) was established by some of the most well-known artists across the country like F N Souza, S K Bakre, S H Raza, K H Ara and M F Hussain, on the eve of India’s independence. Their intent was to protest the academic realism of the Bombay School and the revivalism of the Bengal School; they wanted to root themselves in modernism while reinventing it in order to create their own expression.
Of these artists, Souza, Bakre and Raza were students of the Sir JJ School of Art. The group only had two exhibitions, in Baroda and Bombay in 1949, before disintegrating. Although short-lived, the group and its activities were very impactful as all the artists from the group were prolific in their work and shaped Indian art for decades.
With Bombay art, what is particularly fascinating is the way individuals shaped the evolution of the artists’ works and the ways artists were confirmative as well as rebellious.
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