E B Havell, as principal of Calcutta Art School (1896-1906), introduced certain curricular reforms, revising, to put it in his words, 'the whole course of instruction, making Indian art the basis of teaching'.1 And for the rest of his life wrote a series of books on Indian art history from what he considered the Indian point of view, inspiring an art movement which took Indian artists back to their own old tradition. Though the art movement, which dominated Indian art for the first third of the twentieth century, enjoyed the generous patronage of the Empire, its progenitor, Havell, was lauded as 'the English prophet of Indian nationalism',2 an apparent contradiction to which we shall return.

However, the movement did not go unchallenged. Controversies raged intermittently in Indian art circles on a range of issues.3 Three decades after Havell introduced his reforms, when the movement was at the peak of its success, spreading out from Calcutta to other parts of India (with the exception of Bombay), Rabindranath Tagore, who had once supported Havell's reforms, addressed an audience at Dhaka University. His tone was urgent: 'I strongly urge our artists vehemently to deny their obligation to produce something that can be labelled as Indian art, according to some old world mannerism.'4

It was a powerful intervention seeking to liberate Indian artists from the claustral confines of a fossilised tradition, but it remained a one-off fusillade delivered from what was then a provincial town, and there is little evidence that it reached very far. Despite its importance in the trajectory of Tagore's own development as an artist, the Tagore 'industry' has shown little interest in this historically important address.

  • 1. The Studio, vol 44, 1908, p 111.
  • 2. Cited in Preface by Pramode Chandra to E B Havell, The Art Heritage of India, comprising Indian Sculpture and Painting and Ideals of Indian Art, revised edition [1927], Bombay, 1964, p vi.
  • 3. Tapati Guha-Thakurta, The Making of a New Indian Art: art, artists and aesthetics in Bengal 1850-1920, Cambridge, 1992, chap 6.
  • 4. Rabindranath Tagore, On Art and Aesthetics, Orient Longman, India, 1961.