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Home» Feature» Places» Art heritage of bhavnagar

Art Heritage of Bhavnagar

Sandhya Bordewekar | July 14, 2012, 02:59 PM IST
art heritage of bhavnagar

Top: Paintings by Ravishankar Raval. Down Right: More paintings of Raval and his photo. Down Left: Paintings by Somalal Shah with his photo

Vadodara :

 

From the point of view of Contemporary Indian Art, though Vadodara is the most happening place in Gujarat, one cannot ignore the significant contribution of Bhavnagar in this scenario.

 

A number of artists, mostly painters, who emerged from this region in post-Independence India left distinct foot-prints in the art-historical sands of time. Why and how did this happen?

 

Unknown to many, the Gohil ruling family in Bhavnagar was benevolent, culture-supportive, a builder of public spaces and a promoter of education, women’s emancipation and monogamy. The city takes its name from Bhavsinhji Gohil who founded it in 1723 and developed it as an important state in the 300-odd principalities that made up Kathiawar.

 

The faded linear pre-historic paintings in Chamardi Caves in present-day Bhavnagar district could be taken as the first sign of a past that was supportive of the arts. Later, in the Vallabhi Maitrak period, paintings and carvings seem to have been made in around 60 caves of a mountain in Sana village in Bhavnagar district.

 

While all of these formed the cultural influences that structured the artistic idiom of contemporary artists of this region, the most significant influence came from Raja Ravi Varma, who is believed to have spent some six to eight months at Bhavnagar.

Much, much later, in 17th-18th centuries, wall paintings in Sihor Darbargadh in Kutchi Kamangari style and those in the Salati Shilawati style in Gopnath and Mahuva Darbargadhs classify the kind of art that inspired early artists of the mid-20th century from Bhavnagar. Wall paintings seem to have become a popular art form around 200 years back, because in addition to these Darbargadhs in the vicinity of Bhavnagar, numerous Hindu and Jain temples also sport these, telling stories of local battles and featuring scenes from the Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

 

As Bhavnagar was also an active port, there were influences from Europe and south-east Asia, typically China. A portrait of Raja Vijaysinhji made on glass by a Chinese artist, between 1825 and 1830, began a tradition of portraits of local rulers, sometimes on glass, often on walls and then with the coming of Raja Ravi Varma to Bhavnagar in 1888, with oil on canvas.

 

Parallel to such formal depictions of art, the folk art scene in and around Bhavnagar was equally vibrant. Simple decorations in white and red clay over cow-dung and mud plastered floors and walls as well as embroidered torans and chaklas was one of the chief ways of interior decoration and this embroidery was significantly different from that of Kachchh (Kutch), in terms of the stitches used and the depiction of birds, animals and flowers that was much more stylized than that of Kachchh.

 

While all of these formed the cultural influences that structured the artistic idiom of contemporary artists of this region, the most significant influence came from Raja Ravi Varma, who is believed to have spent some six to eight months at Bhavnagar.

 

Perhaps the earliest of these artists was Vasudev Dave or Dev Maharaj. Actually a kathakar at the Bhavnagar Palace, he visited Vadodara to study Kathakirtan at Sayajirao Gaekwad’s Harikirtan Shala and had watched Ravi Varma at his studio, picking up painting techniques of light, shade and perspective.

 

Tribhuvan Patel and Bhavjibhai Rathod were the other early painters. Born in Bhavnagar, the multi-talented Ravishankar Raval, Gujarat’s most well-respected artist, writer and teacher, studied art from Bhavjibhai at Bhavnagar and later went to JJ School in Mumbai where he trained under Cecil Burns. His mentor in Mumbai, Haji Mohammed Allahrakhiya, gave him his early assignments and set him firmly on the course of a prolific career in art.

 

His younger contemporary, Somalal Shah, studied at the JJ School and for a short while at Vadodara’s Kalavant Karkhana. On Raval’s advice, he joined Nanabhai Bhatt’s Dakshinamurti School in Bhavnagar, to expose young persons from Kathiawar to the fine arts. Here Somabhai’s students included Markand Bhatt, who later became first Dean of the new Faculty of Fine Arts in Vadodara, and Vinayak Pandya, one of the first three founding members of the Faculty.

 

In 1934-35, Dakshinamurti brought out a portfolio, “Rang Rekha” that featured 15 paintings by Somabhai. The then Maharaja and Maharani of Bhavnagar were great admirers of his work and put together a large collection at the palace.

 

When Dakshinamurti moved out of Bhavnagar in 1939, Somabhai did brief teaching stints at Kumarshala and Gharshala before the Maharaja got him to join Bhavnagar’s Alfred High School as art teacher in 1944. He continued here for the next two decades during which time his students included Khodidas Parmar, Vinay Trivedi, Kanu Mehta, Pradyumna Dave and Suresh Sheth.

 

In the meanwhile at Gharshala, Jagubhai Shah, who had trained at JJ School, Mumbai, started art classes where the students were Jyoti Bhatt, Himmat Shah, Narendra Patel, Damodar Balor, Kokila Bhargav and others. Khodidas Parmar also taught here. Somalal Shah was a huge presence in Kathiawar and amongst artists who made their mark there were many who were greatly influenced by his style though they may not have trained under him. These were Kumar Mangalsinhji, Bhaskarbhai Bhatt, Vanraj Mali and so on.

 

By 1950, the Faculty of Fine Arts had started in Vadodara, and many young persons from Bhavnagar joined as students. In 1962, some of the Bhavnagar artists got together with their Vadodara colleagues to found the revolutionary Group1890

By 1950, the Faculty of Fine Arts had started in Vadodara, and many young persons from Bhavnagar joined as students. In 1962, some of the Bhavnagar artists got together with their Vadodara colleagues to found the revolutionary Group1890 to counter what they felt were ‘vitiating influences which hinder the unfolding of authentic development in art’.

 

Group 1890 was quixotically named after the number of Jyoti Pandya’s house in Bhavnagar, who hosted the Group’s first meeting on August 25-26, 1962. Jyoti Pandya was sister of artist Vinayak Pandya (one of the founding members of the Faculty of Fine Arts as mentioned earlier), and a self-trained painter of a certain merit.

 

The Bhavnagar meeting was the outcome of prolonged discussions over two years between artists Jeram Patel, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Himmat Shah, Jyoti Bhatt, Raghav Kaneria, Ambadas, Balkrishna Patel, Rajesh Mehra, S G Nikam, Eric Bowen, Reddappa Naidu and with J. Swaminathan as its officiating Secretary.

 

Group 1890 had its first exhibition in New Delhi in 1963, inaugurated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and introduced by Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and thinker, then Mexico’s ambassador to India. Though the Group dismantled soon afterwards, it must be acknowledged as amongst the first serious efforts of contemporary Indian artists to question, understand and formulate their own theory to inform art creation.

 

As can be imagined, there were major differences in the approach to art and art practice by Bhavnagar artists who trained in Vadodara and those who trained at art schools in other places. While those with the questioning attitude of Vadodara went on to explore and develop visual languages that were non-conventional, those from the other schools continued to work with the tried and tested.

 

KP

 

Sandhya Bordewekar

Sandhya Bordewekar

 

(The author is a Bardoa-based senior freelance writer, art-curator, critic and teacher. She has been writing on the arts and culture for the past 30 years. In this column, she writes about Gujarat's rich cultural heritage and contemporary art and cultural scene.)
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