Lot Content

Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
NANDALAL BOSE (1882-1966)
Untitled (Caitanya and Haridas)
bearing personal seal of the artist (upper left)
watercolor on paper
9¾ x 6¾ in. (24.8 x 17.1 cm.)
Executed circa early 1940s
Formerly from the collection of the artist
Thence by descent
W. Kazuo, 'Study of the Bengal Renaissance: Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose', Sansai, Tokyo, 1971, p. 15 (illustrated)
S. R. Quintanilla, ed., Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose, exhibition catalogue, Singapore, 2008, p. 171 (illustrated)
San Diego and Philadelphia, San Diego Museum of Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose, 2008

Lot Essay

Beyond the Bengal School: Nationalism and Cultural Regeneration in the Art of Nandalal Bose
Sonya Rhie Quintanilla

Nandalal Bose once wrote in passing that he considered himself to be nationalist artist, but the remainder of his writings and a study of his life and work reveal that such concerns were by no means the most salient aspect of his career. Even his work that was most clearly made within the context of a nationalist agenda- posters for the 1938 Indian National Congress convention at Haripura he created more out of personal affection and aspect for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, at whose behest they were made, and genuine admiration for the quotidian lives of local villagers. Nevertheless, most recent scholars have focused on Nandalal as a nationalist artist associated with the early Swadeshi (lit. 'Own Country' or Self Rule) movement in Bengal. While leaders of India's struggle for independence did effectively use his work to convey their ideals, Nandalal himself successfully brought about a cultural regeneration in Indian art that laid the foundation for a new visual culture in the postcolonial era.
Nandalal belonged to a circle of intellectuals and artists who worked to formulate a new Indian art in self-conscious contradistinction to the British academic realist oil paintings that had become popular as a result of more than half a century of colonial rule. Early wash paintings of dreamy introspective figures drawn from India's treasury of ancient mythology are Nandalal's most famous works; they were made primarily between 1905 and 1913, a period when he was mostly a student at the Government school of Art in Calcutta. He painted them in an urban environment, where art societies, exhibition spaces and publication outlets sponsored the dissemination of works by artists of the so-called Bengal School, led by Nandalal's teacher, Abanindranath Tagore. Nandalal is often considered to have been the most talented among this group, and his 1907 painting Sati won him a gold medal in an exhibition sponsored by the Indian Society of Oriental Art, 500 rupees and recognition in international and nationalist publications.

The romantic wash paintings of the Bengal School are characterized by the artists' self-conscious choice to use locally acquired watercolors on paper, rather than imported oil paints, in a technique inspired by Nihonga (lit. 'Japanese-style painting') works from Japan. Contour lines are de-emphasized, and the meeting of transparent planes of color is used to describe form and convey mood. The artists who trained under Abanindranath were expected to infuse their works with an air of brooding, spiritual emotionalism- a quality which he and his circle found lacking in melodramatic tableaux of mythological subjects painted in the British academic mode. The artists of the Bengal School were closely linked to the Hindu spiritual revivalist movement of the Ramakrishna Mission led by Swami Vivekananda, and they advocated the resurgence of devotional qualities in Indian art.

The work of the Bengal School can be considered to have begun in earnest in 1905, a remarkable year in which several seemingly disparate events would profoundly affect the cultural identity of these artists. Japan's defeat of the Western power Russia in the Russo-Japanese War bolstered the confidence of Asian countries. Okakura Kakuzo, the Japanese ideologue and advocate of Pan- Asianism- the belief that all Asia could be united politically and culturally because of the common values and histories of its people- had recently visited Calcutta. Together with Nihonga artists from his Nippon Bijutsuin (Japan Academy of Fine Arts), Okakura brought new ideas and artistic styles, which he shared with Abanindranath and his uncle, the poet and later Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, among others. The Japanese wash techniques were new and completely different from European oil painting. That same year, E. B. Havell, the principal of the Government School of Art and a radical advocate of Indian traditional arts and crafts, hired Abanindranath as vice-principal to teach like a traditional Indian guru without the strictures of British-style education, and Nandalal Bose enrolled as a student under him. Meanwhile, the British Viceroy forced the partition of Bengal, which created a Muslim territory that is now Bangladesh and the predominantly Hindu West Bengal Viewed by many citizens as unjust , the partition fuelled sectarian violence and the Swadeshi movement, and nationalist sentiments began to run at a feverish level. Under these conditions, the young artists in Calcutta were thus keen to rediscover Indian traditions and spirituality in the context of a nationalist and Pan- Asian agenda. The works they created were used as emblems for the ideals of the Swadeshi movement. However, Nandalal himself was not deeply engaged in the Swadeshi movement, and when it took on violent and communal strains, he actually distanced himself from it.

Less well understood is the trajectory that Nandalal's career took after 1910. During a three-month sojourn at the Buddhist cave-temple site of Ajanta, he copied the 5th century wall paintings, and for the first time became intimately familiar with the use of a strong but fluid contour line to describe figures, a non-linear visual narrative, Buddhist themes, and the pigments and techniques of classical Indian mural painting. Although the paintings he made between 1910 and 1915 were still in the wash technique, he rendered his figures with more distinct outlines, incorporated cubistic elements and used a color palette akin to that seen in the Ajanta murals. The trip to Ajanta proved to be a turning point in Nandalal's creative life, where he moved away from the shadow Abanindranath towards what would become a lifelong engagement on various levels with India's artistic past.

After the publication of a series of his wash paintings in Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita in 1915, Nandalal rarely produced any more mythological subjects in the wash technique. That same year, Rabindranath Tagore, who had recently discovered the beneficial and transformative effects of closeness to nature in his writing, brought Nandalal to his family estate at Shelidah in the rural hinterlands of what is now Bangladesh, so that the artist might find similar inspiration there. Nandalal began to turn his attention to nature as a subject, practicing continuous sketching on postcards of what he observed around. In these cards and his larger finished paintings, he sought to find the divine in nature rather than in images of divinities or passages from religious literature. A profound spirituality underlies these works, for he adhered to the advaita Vedantic tenet that one god through playful creative activity (lila) generated the world in all its multiplicity, and that there is a divine life rhythm (pranachhanda) pervading and unifying all of creation. He later wrote in Silpakatha in 1944, the year he published the ideas he had been developing over the previous three decades:

'The Universe has come out of Ananda [supernal delight],' says the Upanishad. This delight includes and transcends all joys and sorrows. All artists work out of this creative delights; this decides whether any work is creative or not. The purpose of [true] art is to capture that rhythm of delight inherent in all creation, within their movement and measure. In this Art has some similarities with the spiritual quest (yoga). The spiritual quest drives towards the recognition of the essential unity at the center of the diversity of creation, of the One by which you know all. Art too moves towards the vision of this great One. A Chinese artist has said, 'In the eyes of a real artist the image of a blade of grass and that of god are equivalent; each can evoke the same aesthetic experience.' This should demonstrate how an artist gets at his 'One'. No disrespect is meant here for the image of god; what is stressed is that blade of grass deserves the same respect.

Thus, in his studies of nature, Nandalal effected the spiritual revival of Indian art in a less overt way than the works of the Bengal School. The concept of nature (prakriti) as embodying the multiplicity of the creation of the divine unity is also behind the staggering variation in styles within his oeuvre. He saw different artistic styles to be dialects of the same language, Art. In this way, too, Nandalal absorbed and adapted into his works elements of the Nihonga and Rimpa Schools, monochrome splashed ink (J. haboku) and Edo epic narrative scrolls from Japan; literati landscapes from China; batik from Java; Gupta, mediaeval, Rajput and Mughal period painting from India; and the folk art of Orissa and Bengal. Even Persian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, and European realist works served as an inspiration. Such agility in navigating a variety of styles form various geographical areas and historical periods and genres, without changing the function or purpose of his art, is not unlike the reception of foreign elements by pre-modern Indian artists working into the first half of the 19th century. Similarly, even as Nandalal incorporated a distinctly Hindu devotional element into his art practice, the subject-matter of his works cut across sectarian lines, for he produced paintings of Buddhist, Vaishnava, Shaiva and Christian themes, just as ancient Indian artists in workshop guilds would have done for a variety of religious communities. Thus, Nandalal not only subtly resurrected the essential devotional element of Indian art in an authentic way through his practice, but he also, perhaps intuitively, revived the modus operandi of traditional artists in pre-modern India.

In 1919, Nandalal joined the Visva - Bharati University at Santiniketan as the first director of the art school Kala Bhavan, and took up permanent residence there in 1920. Rabindranath founded Visva-Bharati, whose origins go back as early as 1901, as his great experiment in education. He saw it as a modern revival of the traditional forest ashrams, where students would learn from masters through living, working and associating with them.

Rabindranath considered Nandalal to be ideal as the founding director of Kala Bhavan, not only because he thought the artist to be most gifted among those in the Calcutta circles, but also because of his experience with Abanindranath, who had taught him in the traditional Indian mode; his favorable response to nature; his zeal for and knowledge of India's artistic heritage, and his Pan-Asian outlook.

Rabindranath was a close associate of Gandhi, and it is through him that Gandhi and Nandalal initially became acquainted. Gandhi was probably drawn to Nandalal's work because of its unique combination of an underlying spiritual element, together with the celebration of village life and the use of local materials and indigenous techniques. All of these attributes - and especially Nandalal's understated tributes to the dignity of villagers, who included tribals, women, fisherman, and untouchables - were in line with Gandhi's ideals for social justice and equality. Between 1935 and 1938, Gandhi convinced Nandalal to produce the architectural and artistic environments, and to curate and design exhibitions of local village crafts for the Indian National Congress convention sessions at Lucknow, Faizpur and Haripura, the loci of organization for the freedom movement. Nandalal and his associates produced around 400 posters for the Congress convention at Haripura, held in February 1938. These posters were all produced on handmade paper with pigments ground from local earth and stones, and mounted on straw boards; none were printed or mass-produced. They depict genre scenes within arched niches, and these were incorporated into the temporary architectural structures so as to appear like windows on Indian village life. Gandhi and the country at large were enchanted by the honesty, spontaneity and simplicity of their imagery. After his orchestration of these exhibitions, Nandalal became more than an internationally recognized artist of the Bengal School - he was regarded as a national icon. Gandhi never patronized any other artist, and his enduring affection and regard for Nandalal persisted until his death in 1948. By then, India had achieved independence, and Nandalal was the obvious choice to illustrate the constitution and other public documents for the new government of India. He created images as herders for each section of the Constitution of India; each relates to a different epoch in India's history such that the essence of the new nation becomes irrevocably interlocked with its cultural heritage.

In the sphere of India's cultural regeneration, Nandalal's work and his role as an educator were critical. When he began his career as an artist in 1905, the traditional patronage systems for Indian art had dissolved and knowledge of centuries-old techniques had all but disappeared. Nandalal brought an authenticity and sincerity to modern art in India through his choice of materials and techniques, underlying devotional motivations, and by working as a guru in an ashram setting, thereby ensuring its quality as non-derivative from Western models. He did not show or sell his paintings in commercial galleries where art functions non-traditionally as commodities. The paintings were neither framed nor hung, but were given as gifts, or stored in a room of his home and then brought out on special occasions for the sake of viewing and discussion with friends and family. These gatherings, held in the bucolic surroundings of Santiniketan, are reminiscent of those held in the Rajput palaces or Mughal courts by connoisseurs of the past or by Chinese literati.

Beyond his contributions to the early Swadeshi movement between 1905-1910 as a leading light of the Bengal School, Nandalal Bose saw to the cultural regeneration of Indian art in terms of rediscovering India's past, incorporating a much wider variety of Pan-Asian elements including calligraphic line, monochromatic ink painting, Daoist concepts of the pervasive life force (Ch. qi) and the harmonious relationship between man and nature. He produced his works with a constant thought to a divine underpinning - the joyousness of the creative play of God pervaded all of his works, especially the thousands of drawings on postcard.

During his public life as an artist and a teacher between 1919 and 1951, Nandalal's oeuvre was characterized by extraordinary diversity and experimentation. However, at the end of his life, he settled into one single mode of production, that of sumi-e (ink painting). He created intensely personal, largely monochromatic paintings in Japanese ink. As though in the fourth of the traditional Indian stages of life, when one renounces public life in order to devote one's time to God, Nandalal created his sumi-e with the intention that God be the audience. 'After having traversed the boundaries of a professional artist, Nandalal's art became his prayer, each brushstroke counting the beads of a rosary' (A. Ramachandran, 'Reinventing Nandalal: The Master Artist', in Quintanilla, p. 56).

"Two famous holy men sit together under the Siddha Bakula tree in Puri, the coastal city of Orissa where the Jagganath Temple dedicated to Krishna is located. It was under the Siddha tree that Haridas (d. 1534) performed his famed devotional recitations of the name of Krishna. Although Haridas was born a Muslim and hence considered an untouchable, Caitanya, the mystic devotee of Krishna, accepted him as a disciple. Haridas is here shown dark and bearded and sits in a posture of reverence towards his teacher.

The relationship between Caitanya and Haridas exemplifies the ideals of acceptance and equality that Gandhi propounded and that Nandalal admired and supported: all people, regardless of religion or caste, are to be treated equally with dignity and respect." (Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose, exhibition catalogue, Singapore, 2008, p. 171)

More from The Art of Nandalal Bose, Abanindranath Tagore and Rabindranath Tagore: The Supratik Bose Collection

View All
View All