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The Swadeshi movement in Bengal in the year 1905, saw major changes happening. Indigenisation was fast catching up and its impact was visible in all walks of life. In fact, it even saw the beginning of the spinning of handloom. From industries to literature there was widespread boycott of everything that was Western. Art and paintings too weren’t spared. Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), infused this spirit of swadeshi in his paintings. He was the principal artist and creator of the ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ and the first major exponent of Swadeshi values in Indian art. It created a new awakening and heralded a revival of Indian art.

However, a striking aspect was that, in total contrast to the contemporary times, he did not restrict himself to any hard and fast binaries of “Eastern” and “Western” styles. His paintings reflected a medley of the influences of the Japanese ‘wash’ style and Chinese ink painting; English pre-Raphaelite and Art-Nouveau trends, and also Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings. He modernized the Mughal and Rajput styles in order to counter the influence of the Western Models of Art under the British regime.

These stylistic influences took shape of what came to be known as the Bengal School of Art, which was marked by a certain “Indian-ness”. What stood out in his paintings was the romantic and spiritual aesthetics embodied in them. More than the realistic simulations and skilful workmanship, invocation of mood, feelings and emotions or ‘bhava’ in the paintings were crucial features, and they are best manifested in the “Mughal Art Series” (1902-05).

His works were primarily based on literary and historical iconographies. A classic example is found in his painting of "Bharat-Mata" (1905), originally conceived by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as “Banga Mata”. It depicts the nationalist icon of the stature of the Goddess, yet it is distinct from any known deity of the Hindu pantheon. The image resonates with a sacred and spiritual aura that is unique to the idea of the nation and the notion of artistic creation. One of his first ‘wash’ paintings, showcased the spirit of the motherland. It was a reflection of the Swadeshi movement.

In the post-Swadeshi movement phase and during the 1920s-40s, his work evolved into a privatized domain of art. He deviated from the dominant and contemporary new modernisms in art, which were marked by non-figurative abstractions/ psychic forms. His most spectacular form of art in the 1920s largely included a body of portrait-masks - a series of bodiless faces inspired by the dance dramas of Rabindranath Tagore. Around 1919-1920, Tagore produced his first genre of theatre pictures, “The Open Air-Play Series” based on amateur dramatic performances/stage performances. His artwork during this phase was inspired by legends, fables, historical and literary themes.

Even though in his later years Abanindranath retreated to his aristocratic lifestyle, in his leisure time he continued to paint. However, his early work - which was done during the Nationalist phase of his career, had already carved a niche for itself amongst the existing colonial counterparts, as an autonomous and exclusive social space for modern art.