Quinquennial Report of the Government School of Art,1927-1932: An introduction

— Satyasri Ukil

Photo: Mukul Dey ArchivesThe Quinquennial Report of the Government School of Art, Calcutta for the years 1927-1932, is a twenty-one page document created by Mukul Dey during his tenure as the first Indian Principal of that institution. The Report was printed at the Bengal Government Press in 1933.

The Report is important for various reasons. Firstly, at the very outset, it gives a brief history of the institution, which helps to set a perspective and context before the reader. It recalls the contribution by such eminent personalities as Rajendra Lal Mitra, Jotindra Mohan Tagore and Justice Pratt in forming the Industrial Art Society, which was instrumental in establishing the School of Industrial Art in Calcutta way back in 1854, as a private enterprise.

The privately run School of Industrial Art was the predecessor of Government School of Art, Calcutta. 

Secondly, it was during the period under review that graphic art and printmaking received a thorough encouragement at this school for the first time. True, prior to Mukul Dey’s tenure as its Principal, wood-engraving and lithography were part of the School curriculum, but printmaking by the artists themselves as an integral part and pre-requisite of practicing graphic art was a notable contribution of Mukul Dey.

In this regard it may not be out of place to mention that Dey had been doing his own printmaking since 1916 in the USA when he was elected a member of Chicago Society of Etchers by Berttha E. Jaques and her etcher friends. Dey was instrumental in introducing this art at the Bichitra Studio at the house of the Jorasanko Tagores, a year later in 1917.

Report of the annual art exhibition, 1932. These yearly exhibitions were introduced by Mukul Dey
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Mukul Dey was introduced to the art of printmaking at the studio of American artists Bertha E. Jaques and James Blanding Sloane at Chicago in 1916. Subsequently, he had introduced the art of printmaking to Rabindranath Tagore as well. Some of Tagore’s own etching prints were  included in his largest contemporary one-man exhibition in India, sponsored by Mukul Dey, in February-March 1932 at the Government Art School, Calcutta.

This historic show apart, Dey could  successfully inculcate in his pupils a very fine sense of printmaking, which is amply proven by some exemplary original prints by Art School students such as Samar Ghose, Zainul Abedin, Abdul Moin, Suhas Dey, Basudev Roy, Upendra Maharathi and Purnendu Bose. 

During this period the students were encouraged hold annual art shows at the Art School premises, which were favourably noticed by the contemporary press. Mukul Dey Archives considers itself fortunate and honoured to house some of these prints in its collection.

Thirdly, the Quinquennial report documents the effort exercised by the then Principal and his staff in organizing various exhibitions in the School premises so that the students may get a first-hand opportunity to study the works by master artists. At least two such exhibitions proved to be quite historic, to say the least. The first one was by Jamini Roy in September 1929 and the other by Rabindranath Tagore in February 1932.

Women’s section, Government School of Art, Calcutta, early 1940s
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives

Fourthly, the report records initiative taken by the then management in trying to introduce a women’s section at the Government Art School, Calcutta. Though it took its own time to take a shape during the later years of Mukul Dey’s tenure, yet it is important to note that this effort towards the right direction was started in early 1930s. In this regard, it is pertinent to record that  Karuna Saha, who later on married noted photographer Sambhu Saha, was one of the very first students to join the women’s section at the Art School. Not that alone, the Principal had encouraged his own wife Bina to join the women’s section as well.

The last but not the least, the report provides some candid insight into the contemporary student unrest and the internal politicking that the institution had to suffer right after Dey joined the institution. IIt seems, the problem was brewing in the background for quite a while.

Student’s strike at Art School, Calcutta, 1928
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Artist Jamini Prakash Gangooly, a relative of the Jorasanko Tagores, was officiating as the acting Principal of the Government School of Art since last Principal Percy Brown’s retirement. It was anticipated by many influential Calcutta men that Gangooly will ultimately get the positive nod from the Government. Unfortunately that never happened. Some of the more influential men of London thought otherwise, and ultimately decided the appointment in Mukul Dey’s favour.

Mukul Dey, the new Principal, was facing severe animosity right from his joining the institution. To complicate the matters further, a certain section of the students at this time started an agitation against  Dey. Interestingly, these students were found to be rather lax in their relationship with the female models those were brought to the School for the purpose of the life class.

Mukul Dey inscribed the back of the above photograph: “students gheraoed and threatened to stab”, July 1928
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
These models, sex-workers mostly, were regularly taken to the Government Art School hostels by the students. The Principal protested, the students organized agitations, the Government hostel was abolished and the figure-study class, using a female model was abolished as well with it.

The Principal1 had to rusticate a few students, artist Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal being one of them, who later established himself in Lahore, and much later in life, narrated his impression about this incident in his reminiscences2.

  1. 1. Amar Katha, reminiscences of Mukul Dey in Bengali, Visva-Bharati, 1995
  2. 2. The Vertical Woman: Reminiscences of B. C. Sanyal, Volume I, 1998, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
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