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NANDALAL BOSE (1882-1966)
Untitled (Lost Child)
watercolor and tempera on paper laid on card
6¼ x 3 3/8 in. (15.9 x 8.6 cm.)
Executed before 1913
Formerly from the collection of the artist
Thence by descent
R. Tagore, The Crescent Moon, Calcutta, 1913, frontispiece (illustrated)
R. Parimoo, Art of Three Tagores, New Delhi, 2011, p. 211 (illustrated)

Lot Essay

Growing Up With Nandalal Bose
Supratik Bose

There was nothing remarkable about growing up as the only child in the household of my grandfather, Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) - or so I thought as a child: doesn't everyone have a grandfather like mine?
We lived in the small and bucolic Visva-Bharti University, at Santiniketan, a hundred miles north of Kolkata (Calcutta). The university is the creation of poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature from outside Europe (1913). At the poet's invitation, Nandalal came to Santiniketan and built Kala Bhavan, the art school at the university.
Then in 1970, as a student of Urban Design at Harvard University, I had a life-changing encounter when I met John M. Rosenfield, now Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of East Asian Art Emeritus, at the university, and one of the most influential scholars of Asian art in America. Then no one I knew in America had ever heard of him, but John had an astonishingly thorough knowledge of the context and history of Nandalal. He told me that Nandalal was one of the most important pan-Asian artists of the 20th century and that we should preserve and publicize his work. I took him seriously - in 1982, with the encouragement of Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India and a former student of Nandalal's, I was able to place our family collection of nearly 7,000 works in the National Gallery of Modernt Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. Now, another 26 years later, with the encouragement of the Honourable Somnath Chatterjee, Speaker of the Indian Parliament, the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) has been able to organize a travelling exhibition in the US. 'Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose' is on view at the SDMA until 18 May, and is scheduled to show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (28 June-31 August), The Art Institute of Chicago (31 May-31 August 2009), and the NGMA (autumn-winter 2010).
Over the years, friends, scholars, and art connoisseurs have urged me to write about my memories of my grandfather Nandalal, but I never have. Eventually Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, Curator of Asian Art at the SDMA, persuaded me to write what follows. It has taken me a lifetime to realize that my childhood with my grandfather was remarkable. Perhaps some of you will find these reminiscences compelling.
'My grandfather Nandalal once told me a remarkable story about the differences of opinion he had with Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), his first and most important teacher and benefactor. Nandalal believed that art should be as much for the masses as for the elite. Around 1910, he started selling his paintings for a fraction of a penny at a grocery store catering to jute factory workers in Calcutta. When Abanindranath found out, he drove to the grocer and bought the lot. However, Nandalal and Abanindranath never spoke to each other about the incident. Perhaps Nandalal's ideals of art for the people and of the people eventually bloomed, with Mahatma Gandhi's (Mohandas Karamchand, 1869-1948) inspiration, in painting the series of posters for the Indian National Congress convention at Haripura in 1938.
When Rabindranath Tagore wanted to bring Nandalal to build the art school at his new university in Santiniketan, his nephew Abanindranath objected, fearing that the demands of bureaucracy would destroy Nandalal as an artist. Apparently, Abanindranath only agreed to release his student in 1919, when Rabindranath wrote him a letter promising that Nandalal would be granted complete control of a budget to build and run the school. This allowed Nandalal the freedom to take unusual approaches in establishing a remarkable institution at Kala Bhavan. However, there were constant attempts to limit his freedom. A high official of the university once succeeded in convincing Rabindranath that Nandalal was squandering money on building a dormitory of the most questionable architecture. On the way to scold Nandalal, he stopped to see the new building under construction. He found the architecture so wonderful that he came to bless Nandalal. Kalo Bari, the 'Black House', was made of mud and tar, with a thatched roof and walls embellished with large-scale relief sculptures which were copies of art works from ancient India and the Near East, including an over five-foot tall version of a small steatite seal from Mohenjodaro, a city of the Indus Valley Civilization (in present-day Pakistan), dating to approximately 2000 BCE.
Rabindranath Tagore created four seasonal festivals at the Visva-Bharati University, which still take place today, and Nandalal helped with their choreography and costume design. After the ploughing festival (Halakarshan) during the monsoon season, I told my grandfather that it was painful to watch the bulls plough the ground that had been so beautifully decorated with colourful seeds by Gouri, my aunt and Nandalal's elder daughter. He said that the intention was to make the destruction beautiful, and not to insult beauty. I was puzzled: could destruction ever be beautiful?
To hold rotating art exhibitions, Nandalal designed a small brick-and-mud structure which held a glass-covered case called Chaiti (after the column-and-arch structure of an early Buddhist or Jain shrine) (Fig. 3) The Chaiti still stands today; as it is being repaired, I don't know if it will be used again. Located under a tree at the heart of the university, the Chaiti is at the main crossroads, surrounded by the library, the dining hall, the theatre and the playground. Sculptures, paintings, masks, puppets, pottery, textiles and crafts from all over India were displayed there. The idea, Nandalal said, came from the Japanese tokonoma, an alcove for beauty in a traditional home, where scrolls, ikebana or ceramics were displayed, one at a time, so that guests could focus on the object.
Just before a graduation ceremony - I believe it was in the mid-1930s - the printing press notified the university that they could not deliver the parchments for the degree certificates on time. Nandalal solved the problem by giving each graduate a leaf from a saptaparni tree at the ceremony and later mailing their certificates to them. At the very beginning there was only one tree on the entire campus, and that was a saptaparni. Its leaves grow in clusters of seven, symbolizing the seven ideals (Fig. 4). The giving of saptaparni leaves at graduation is still a tradition, and the alumini association uses the leaf as their logo.
One morning - it must have been in the mid-1950s, when I was about 15 - I was in my grandfather's studio grinding a stick of ink while he was printing a sumi-e (Japanese ink-brush painting; Fig. 5). He was telling me how important the placement of the red seal was as it provided the only colour in the painting. I speculated where he might place it. He took great care preparing the seal, making sure it picked up enough vermilion seal ink to transfer to the paper. Then, with no hesitation whatsoever, his hand moved, and there it was - the seal was placed, not in a bottom corner, but near the middle of the painting. Surprised, I asked: 'Why there?' He said: 'It wanted to go there - perhaps it is the sun rising.' Indeed, the seal was just above the horizon, and I was left with a distinct feeling that there was no explanation for 'Why there?'.
We vacationed where nature was spectacular, usually in the hills of the Himalayas, by the ocean in Orissa, or in the forests in Bihar. In the summer of 1947, when we were in the Himalayan town of Darjeeling, we went to visit Tiger Hill early one morning. It was still dark and we could only see the stars above. Suddenly, the sun lit up the snowy peaks, surrounding us with a magnificent ring of light and leaving the valley below and the sky above dark. The entire Kanchenjunga range was golden, looking like the profile of Shiva's sleeping face, with his bluish Adam's apple storing the mythical position of the world, just like the painting Nandalal was working on at the time. I wondered just for a moment: 'Who is imitating whom?'
In 1948, we spent a summer in Golapur, then a Nulia tribal village on the coast of Orissa. At the beach, we saw Nulia fisherman in their cone-shaped hats praying before they headed out to sea, fighting the breakers in their log canoes. They rowed out over the horizon just as the sun came up. Right after lunch, we were back again to see them popping over the horizon one after another, returning with their catch. They dumped the most gorgeous fishes on the beach - a treasure of gold, silver, red and blue.
There were many mornings, usually at the weekend - which was on Wednesdays at Santiniketan - when we would look at one or two of my grandfather's paintings. The experience was like listening to live music, when you do nothing but listen to the music. It was different from having paintings on the wall, which one notices only occasionally - in fact, we had very few paintings on our walls. Biswarup, my father and Nandalal's elder son, would place a painting where the light was good but not glaring, and Nandalal would sit in front of the work and tell stories. He did not talk about the composition, the colour, the brushstrokes or the paper - he talked about the context of the work. When we looked at the linocut of Bapuji (Mahatma Gandhi) marching to make salt at Dandi in protest against the unfair British salt tax, Nandalal expressed his admiration of how fast Bapuji could walk and for how long. He would jokingly say that it had something to do with Bapuji drinking goat's milk every day. In retrospect, the emphasis was neither on the painting nor was it on the discussion. The purpose of our looking at the paintings was to go beyond the painting itself. And that, perhaps, is the joy or the rhythm of life!'
Originally published in Orientations, March 2008, pp. 149-152, reproduced with permission from the author

Lost Child was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore's collection of poems for children, The Crescent Moon, 1913 and was published as the frontispiece of the book. The painting beautifully illustrates the poem 'On the Seashore'.

"On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances.
They build their homes with sand, and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.
They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl-fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.
The sea surges up with laughter, and pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach. Death-dealing waves sing meaningless ballads to the children, even like a mother while rocking her baby's cradle. The sea plays with children, and pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.
On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children." (R. Tagore, The Crescent Moon, London, 1913, pp. 3-4)

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