The Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata Has Lost its Mystique

Kolkata: In any other metropolis of the world, an Academy of Fine Arts located in the heart of the city, on the fringe of its green public space, accessible by public transport, with six free-flowing exhibition galleries providing 6,300 square feet, an auditorium, a conference centre and a unique collection of paintings, textiles, carpets, manuscripts and engravings, would be a destination to die for.

In Kolkata, the marvellous “Academy”, as it is fondly called by the old and the young, is not a neglected or crumbling institution. It has simply lost its mystique.

The location of the Academy is stunning. It sits in a serene, low-lying and now low-profile and undoubtedly inviting building, between the soaring St Paul’s Cathedral on the one side and the sprawling Rabindra Sadan-Nandan-Sisir Mancha-Bangla Academy hub on the other. The entrance to the Academy faces the eastern façade of the Victoria Memorial. Behind it there are ponds and other buildings that neither overshadow its lawns, nor intrude in any sense.

Its decline from the pinnacle it once occupied, when the exquisitely elegant and formidably competent Lady Ranu Mookerjee presided over its destiny in the 1960s up until the 1990s, is a tragedy. The value of its many parts, especially the extraordinary art collection, should have been enough to forestall its dispossession. In any other city, the Academy would be the obvious choice for prestigious exhibitions.

Once upon a time, the Academy in Kolkata, the Jehangir Art Gallery and the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society were coveted destinations. These institutions, set up between 1938 when AIFACS arrived in Delhi, 1952 when Jehangir Art Gallery was built in then Bombay and now Mumbai, and the Academy which was set up in 1933, but acquired its own building and galleries in 1961, were established for the new age of artists and theatre and performances that defined the modern, post-Independence, post Partition explosion of creativity and the emergence of new forms, styles, even genres.

In Kolkata, the Academy from the 1960s played a leading role in creating the space and the audiences for “public art culture”, says Tapati Guha Thakurta, distinguished scholar of the history of art in India, particularly the Bengal School and its evolution. The institution made the productions of culture, and Kolkata’s bold and brave new explorations, accessible to the public, she adds. It was the “nerve centre” through the last four decades of the old century, Guha Thakurta points out.

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It has been edged out, but it is far from extinguished. In Guha Thakurta’s assessment, “it somehow exists today”. Its durability is one reason to ask why it has gone downhill. Its currently devalued status begs the further question, why did the successor Boards of Trustees, after the doyenne of Kolkata’s arts and culture during her lifetime Lady Ranu Mookerjee passed away, allow this to happen.

Ascribing its fading to decades of trustees, who lacked the charisma, resourcefulness and amazing organising powers of the matchless Lady Ranu, as she was called by the cognoscenti of Kolkata, is easy. Figuring out the Academy’s waning in the context of the inevitable changes to the city is more complicated.

Stalls crowd the plaza outside the Academy. Photo: Gargi Gupta

Pranab Ranjan Ray, scholar, practising artist and a prominent figure in the art scene in Kolkata says the Academy was nudged out of the centre and pushed to the periphery by the opening up of new galleries that catered to the new generation of public, including most significantly buyers. The Academy did not keep up with the “changes to the art scape”, says Guha Thakurta.

Tracking the metamorphosis that has transformed the art scene in India, Guha Thakurta speaks of the emergence of a more organised market for art, curators and gallery owners who were more professional, and the ambience of the new galleries that caters to the new generation of buyers. She does note that unlike the Academy that was accessible and welcoming and served multiple audiences, newer galleries like the Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA) cater only to the arts and serve a wealthier and more global clientele.

What the newer generation of galleries do not have is a priceless collection of Bengal School art, gifted by Lady Ranu. The collection is a mix of art works, Baluchari and Jamdani textiles, oriental carpets, engravings, Rabindranath’s Bhanusingher Padabali manuscript and other rarities. The collection includes Rabindranath, Abanindranath, Gagendranath, Sunayani Devi, Atul Bose, Nandalal Bose, Lalit Mohan Sen, Benod Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, very early Jamini Roy, Nirode Majumdar, Mira Mukherjee and early Jogen Choudhury.

Keeping it locked up is almost sinful. It deprives visitors and it diminishes the aura of the Academy. The collection is also a history of private art collecting and the collector, Guha Thakurta says. It was a place that generations of visitors interested in modern art and the works of the Tagores, early Jamini Roy and the modern painters who lived and worked in West Bengal could go to see and appreciate the works. The closure of the collection from public access has impoverished the city.

The Academy is also an institution that shows how the wealthy contributed to creating a very specific Kolkata public culture. The institution established in 1933 began life as a society only for art, funded and founded by the landed gentry and Kolkata’s fabulously wealthy industrial magnates, from the Tagores to Sir Rajen Mookerjee, who founded the Indian Iron and Steel Company. It actively promoted the arts and showcased for the world the “modern” in Indian art.

In Ray’s recollections, the Academy inducted Lady Ranu soon after it was founded. By the early 1940s, she had begun to manage the affairs of the fledgling institution. Before it acquired its own building, Lady Ranu succeeded in persuading the Indian Museum to lend its famous corridors to the Academy to hold its annual exhibitions.

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Building the Academy as multiple venues for public art and culture was entirely Lady Ranu’s imagination. The Academy even had its own art school that was once run by Rathin Maitra. One of the joint secretaries, Ray recalls, was the water colourist Gopal Ghosh, who spawned generations of water colourists in Kolkata.

After 1961, the Academy transformed from a society for the arts into an institution that was more of a nerve centre. Kolkata’s contribution to the group theatre movement grew alongside the Academy. Pranab Ranjan Ray recalls that the iconic Shambhu Mitra’s Bohurupee had top priority for the scheduling of the theatre. The others were not simply others; Nandikar and Nandimukh, which continues to host the annual international theatre festival at the venue, Utpal Dutt, Soumitra Chatterjee, Shaoli Mitra, Manoj Mitra and a host of theatre people have staged productions at the Academy.

A neglected Ramkinkar Baij sculpture in the Academy lawns. Photo: Gargi Gupta

The location and the aura of the theatre makes it a popular venue even now. Chairman of the Board, Prasun Mukherjee confirmed that the revenues from rentals, of the theatre and the galleries, was keeping the desperately cash strapped Academy open.

Addressing the issue of the institution’s future is urgent. In 2033, the Academy will be a 100 years old. The Academy is irreplaceable, even now, in all its faded glory. Current chairman of the board Mukherjee, a former police commissioner of the city, said, “My vision for the Academy in its 100th year is to see, may be from the rings, a vibrant organisation, resplendent and modern, a must-go-to destination again attracting the art lovers of the city of different types; theatre lovers, antique lovers, painting lovers, sculpture lovers, young and old.” He admits that the platinum jubilee of the institution “passed off quietly in 2008. May be because it had nothing to show for it. But it deserved better.”

Mukherjee is all too aware of the decline. The galleries of the Academy are now spaces for artists, both professional and amateur, who would find it difficult to get space at the new galleries. Recalls Guha Thakurta, “I went to an exhibition recently because the artist who was an amateur had invited me. It was personal.”

There are rumours, unconfirmed, that parts of the collection have “disappeared”. Ugly as these rumours are, the Board of Trustees has to face up to the challenge of reopening the collection, having it verified and authenticated, and arrange to exhibit it, properly curated.

The buzz is the trustees have not been able to raise funds for all the repairs to the infrastructure, the redesign and renovation of the galleries and the collections. The Academy, Mukherjee admits, earns barely enough to pay its existing staff. He acknowledges that the Academy needs infusion of large funds to overhaul the institution. The going has been tough.

This is in stark contrast to when the Academy was originally founded by “people of rank and nobility”. The patrons of the past supported art and culture in Kolkata, by funding and founding several important institutions; the Birla Academy in 1971 was one such remarkable addition to the vibrant art scape in Kolkata.

With the centenary ten years away, the people heading the Academy have to face up to the challenge. Chairman Mukherjee says it is not time as yet to write the epitaph of the Academy. If it were, then it could read: “But it deserved better.”

Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.

Featured image: The Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata. Photo: Gargi Gupta

This article was first published on The Wire.