Calcutta Painters came into being as an act of revolt, against traditional and stereotyped thinking, lack of opportunities, and society''s apathy towards visual art and artists.
Kolkata in the early 1960s was living in the afterglow of the great Bengal renaissance that had given Indian art a welcome new direction. But new stirrings were beginning to be felt and new socio-political realities had emerged in the aftermath of India''s partition, calling for new perspectives, idioms, and expressions. Society was in turmoil. It was not enough to simply shun romantic nostalgia, the narrative style, the studio nude, or the pretty face. It was essential to experiment, innovate, create new realities by destroying the old, and go out in search of new beliefs.
The ground was thus perfect for the idea of Calcutta Painters to take root and grow over the years as one of the most abiding influences on contemporary Indian art. It filled a void left by the demise of the Calcutta Group a decade earlier and took off as the latter''s spiritual successor.
The group''s original movers (Nikhil Biswas, Gopal Sanyal, Bijan Chowdhury, Prokash Karmakar, Mohim Roodro, and Rabin Mondal) were men with a mission. In January 1964, putting their meagre savings together, they set out for Delhi to broadcast their ideas among a wider Indian audience, taking two others -- Bimal Banerjee, then a Delhi-based artist, and Mohim''s Swedish wife Gun Britt -- on board. The exhibition was a huge success in terms of both popularity and sales. Reviewers showered on it lavish praise for breaking new grounds in artistic expression and the print media hailed the "Calcutta painters" as pioneers of a new art tradition. The group went back with a second exhibition in December of the same year. A landmark exhibition in 1965, held at the Artistry House in Kolkata, formally launched the group.
In the first 25 years of its existence, the group had been unusually active, holding regular shows in major Indian cities. Over that period, many of its members emerged among the front ranks of contemporary Indian art, becoming major artists in their own rights. The untimely death of Nikhil Biswas was an early shock. But with many renowned painters and sculptors joining in, the group went on from one success to another. At one point, the number of members rose to 40 and, in line with the spirit of its manifesto, included even non-artists and noted art critics.
Even after the departure of some members at various times and the deaths of several others, including Gopal Sanyal''s not too long ago, the group still boasts a membership of 27. Some who had left earlier for various reasons returned subsequently. Others, many of them young, have come into its fold in recent years, adding to the dynamism of the group.
Thus, Calcutta Painters today presents a wonderfully diverse mix of styles, talent, and experience. But a common threat runs through its apparent diversity: innovation and experimentation. It is this passion to innovate and experiment that had impressed viewers in Delh in 1964. It is the same passion that sill marks its essential character and keeps it not only alive but also relevant to the times.