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Working with Benode Bihari Mukherjee


Organising an exhibition in Delhi
KG Subramanyan Artist
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A few months after joining Kala Bhavan, one of my friends who had the enthusiasm to exhibit works of these people in UP in one of the exhibitions, thought that he should get them to agree to exhibit in Delhi. They hadn’t had an exhibit in Delhi. So he said that he, and he had an uncle almost his own sort of age, and he planned the whole thing and persuaded them that they would lend their works. Then he talked to me, since you can talk in English a little better than I, why don't you come with me? So I went with him to Delhi with his exhibition, and in planning the whole exhibition, getting together all the works, I came a little closer to them, and I saw their works much more than most other people saw. Of course our experience in Delhi was also very educative. In 1945 there wasn’t much of an art activity in Delhi. In Delhi at that time the Old Delhi and New Delhi, you have to reach by horse carts, tongas, this sort of thing, and it seemed quite far. And then the culture of New Delhi and Old Delhi were also different, very official, very... and then the main art exhibition in those days was the art exhibitions that the different societies had, which was mostly academic work. The other people who had Sudhir Khastagir at that time was Sharada Ukil, who had an Ukil School of Art, and Amrita Shergil. In fact, Amrita Shergil charmed Sarada Ukil’s brother, Baruda Ukil, to go along with her, and they used to have a few exhibitions together. So in her letters, she laughs at the kind of things he had to do to do that. Anyway, she was known and the other artist known at that time was a product of Kala Bhavan but who used to be in the Doon School as an art teacher. That is, Sudhir Khastgir. These are the people who were familiar at that time. So, when Benode Bihari and Ramkinar’s work went there, Benode Bihari had said that time you see, I don’t know many people anywhere but I know Nirad Chaudhuri, and you can go and meet him. So we went and met Nirad Chaudhuri. He was then the script writer in the All India Radio, especially news and other items and things of that kind. We went and met him, we said, ‘Look, we are going to have this exhibition, Benode Bihari apparently knows you, will you be helpful to us?’ He was very forthcoming. He said, ‘I will write a small note for your leaflet’. Then he even took us to dinner, to his house, in Kashmiri Gate, then showed us his library of art books and things of that kind. Well, he had not become the man he became later as a sort of all-knowing sort, but he was very nice.

Is that before he wrote The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian?

That’s right, that’s much before, yeah. So then he said this kind of work, you can’t just show like that here. No exhibition sort of attracts people unless it is opened by somebody. So we were wondering who would do that. Then he himself suggested Zakir Hussain, who at that time was the vice chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia. He is sort of a man with a lot of knowledge about the world, and also interested in art, so why don’t you go and ask him? So we tried to contact Zakir Hussain, and Zakir Hussain said, ‘I ought to see the paintings, I will be very happy, I have heard about artists but I haven’t seen any of their work’. So we had to go in a tanga all the way, so many kilometres to his place to show him, and in the meanwhile, we had to find a place where to show them. The only two sort of not gallery spaces there were was one owned by the All India Fine Arts and Craft Society, and then there was a smaller placed called Freemasons Hall at that time. But in the All India Fine Arts and Craft Society, they didn’t approve of the work. They said that we can’t show that work. So we were quite...

So there was no Lalit Kala?

No, no Lalit Kala, nothing. This was in ’45. Lalit Kala came into being about 7 or 8 years later. So, while walking along, we saw the YMCA which had a big hall, and I went in and then it was the administrator of the whole thing was a man from Kerala. So I talked to him and said that this is the thing, is there any space where we can...? So he said we have a kind of hall, but nobody exhibits works here, but I can give you on a certain date, yes, you can fix the date, but then you cannot put any nails on the wall, and it had too many windows. So I said look, we will have to put some kind of batons and nails at the end and have jute canvas so that it looks like a proper exhibition. He agreed to that. So the dates were fixed. So we went and told Zakir Hussain can he come and open. He saw that paintings and he was quite favourably impressed and he said, ‘I would very much like to do it, but I am not there on that day, I am going to Germany’. So then I said, ‘If you are going away, does he have any suggestions of who?’ He said I don’t know who is interested in art these days and things of that kind, and especially if you can, then he suddenly said, ‘There is a person called, I think Edward Benthall, I think Edward Benthall’, who then was the member secretary of the Railway Board . He said, ‘He may not know anything about art, but he is a perfect gentleman, and he is well thought of by everyone in Delhi, so why don’t you call him’. So we went to Edward Benthall. He was very nice. He was a tall Englishman, very proper, and he said, ‘I will agree, I know nothing about art, but all the same, I am sure that when you have come all the way to show these works, these works should be of some importance’. Then there was the opening and because Edward Benthall opened them, well, a lot of people came to see it, and especially the people from the then Delhi Art School, which was not an art school at that time. It was a Delhi polytechnic where it had an art department. And then The Statesman sent its critic over, that was Charles Fabri was the critic, and it had a kind of a good reception. Now, this is how I came close to them, through these things. Of course those days, I mean we just made money we spent on it by selling two paintings each and that was bought of the art department of the yay [sic], otherwise, there was nothing else.

 The art department of the yay [sic]?


 The art department of the yay [sic], you said.

The art department of the Delhi Polytechnic. In fact, what is now called Delhi College of Art, was at that time the art department of Delhi Polytechnic.

KG Subramanyan (1924-2016) was an Indian artist. A graduate of the renowned art college of Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, Subramanyan was both a theoretician and an art historian whose writings formed the basis for the study of contemporary Indian art. His own work, which broke down the barrier between artist and artisan, was executed in a wide range of media and drew upon myth and tradition for its inspiration.

Listeners: Timothy Hyman

Timothy Hyman is a graduate of Slade School of Fine Art, London, in which he has also taught. In 1980 and 1982, he was Visiting Professor in Baroda, India. Timothy Hyman has curated many significant art exhibitions and has published articles and monographs on both European and Indian artists.

Duration: 9 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: 2008

Date story went live: 10 September 2010