Nandalal Bose and his Place in Indian Art
R. Siva Kumar
Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) occupies a place in the history of Modern Indian art that combines those of Raphael and Durer in the history of the Renaissance. Like Raphael Nandalal was a great synthesizer, his originality lay in his ability to marshal discrete ideas drawn from Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore, E. B. Havell, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Okakura Kakuzo and Mahatma Gandhi into a unique and unified programme for the creation of a new art movement in India. And like Durer he combined a passion bordering on devotion with an irrepressible analytical mind that compelled him to prise open different art traditions and unravel their syntactic logic, and make them accessible to a new generation of Indian artists. But he did this so quietly and without self-assertive fanfare that the significance of his work is yet to be fully grasped even in India.
From Abanindranath, his guru, he learned to look at art as a vocation rather than as a profession, and of the importance of freedom for all creative work, even if one were an artist striving to retrieve the lost sense of cultural identity within a colonial context. Rabindranath, who invited him to shape and shepherd the art programme at his University at Santiniketan, impressed upon him that responsiveness to the environment in which an artist lives and shares with others around him is more efficacious than historicism in fostering a sense of cultural identity. It makes one, he argued, both contemporary and locally rooted. He also put before him the challenge of devising an art programme that responded to the needs of the society and refined the minds and sensibilities of the community. Gandhi who often called on him to organize exhibitions of art and craft at venues where the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress were held or to construct and decorate the temporary townships required for these massive congregations, also compelled him to work frugally and with local materials. These experiences taught Nandalal to appreciate and adopt the Gandhian ethics of self-reliance in his own work and develop a version of nationalist art practice that relied on the use of local materials and indigenous resources rather than the depiction of nationalist subject matter.
Nandalal was widely seen as the most gifted of Abanindranath's pupils and his successor. Rabindranath found him most responsive to his ideas and so did Gandhi; and both saw him as a collaborator. If Abanindranath, Rabindranath and Gandhi contributed to the issues he addressed as an artist, Havell, Coomarasawamy and Okakura contributed to his methodology and practice. Unlike his contemporaries he readily saw the importance of Havell's ideas, especially his stress on keeping traditional artisanal skills alive and of using civic art to nurture the cultural identity of India. Similarly from Coomaraswamy he learned to see traditional crafts and arts as constituting a single spectrum fashioned by different social needs and linked by a shared visual language that gains in complexity as it moves from the functional to the expressive. And from Okakura he adopted the precept that art practice needs to be shaped in equal measure by tradition, nature, and the artist's individuality and that the predominance of any one aspect would make an artist's work idiosyncratic or imitative or repetitive.
Although he drew heavily on the ideas of his contemporaries he displayed remarkable individuality in marshalling them into a unified programme. This weaving of selective affinities into a singular vision was driven by an innate disposition and not merely by external circumstances. Even as a student he realized that while, like his teacher, he too was for an art that articulated the cultural aspirations of an emergent nationalism his sensibilities were different and therefore his path too has to be different. Unlike Abanindranath whose engagements were more intellectual and who was more at home in the hyper-realities of the mind, Nandalal was a more down to earth and hands-on experimentalist with thought and realized with his hands and eyes. While for Abanindranath Indian art meant primarily the refined and naturalist art of the Mughal court for Nandalal it included the relatively non-realist legacy of the folk painters, the vast tradition of mainatures and the more classical, but equally non-realist tradition, of Ajanta and a wide spectrum of traditional relief sculptures. With his boyhood experience of rural life he was also more responsive to nature.
These innate preferences and the lessons he had learned from Coomaraswamy and Okakura became handy when he was called upon by Rabindranath to develop an art programme that would not only train professional artists who were responsive to their immediate environment but also devise activities that would build up into a new visual culture. And over the years Nandalal became Rabindranaath's perfect collaborator in his efforts to lay the foundations for a community with new culture at Satiniketan. While Rabindranath conceived secular festivals and wrote songs that drew the attention of the students of his school and members of the small community that grew around it to the changing aspects of nature and to the finer emotions of life, and wrote plays that scrutinized social issues from a broadly human and rational perspective, Nandalal and his associates added a distinct visual aesthetics to his efforts. They did alponas or floor murals with simple white lines that glimmered against the brown earth and transformed the familiar locations where the events were held into enchanting spaces, they designed all the accoutrements needed for the festivals and the plays using local and natural materials relying entirely on the evocative and transformative power of design. They also designed functional objects including buildings, furniture and ceramic pottery, textiles for wearing and furnishing using different methods of weaving and printing adapted from different parts of the world.
Nandalal himself took part in all these activities and emerged as an extremely versatile artist. His work as an artist and teacher were two overlapping aspects of his career and were mutually enriching. While he did not write a syllabus he kept his teaching programme wide and open. For instance he introduced print making and various aspects of graphic designing into his teaching programme, and personally teamed up with Rabindranath to produce a very imaginative primer in which children were introduced to literary and visual pleasures together with the rudiments of language. At another level he used mural painting both as a teaching devise that encouraged masters and students to work side by side and exchange skills and knowledge informally, and as a social programme for making art public, a means for enriching the immediate environment and inculcating an aesthetic sensibility in the community. Both in his practice and teaching he also used drawing as a means for exploring the phenomenal world through on-location sketching, and for internalising and making the world personal through drawing from recollection. And he built up a small museum collection of traditional crafts and arts from India, the Far East and South East Asia and a larger archive of photographic images to introduce his students to diverse traditions. He also got traditional craftsmen to demonstrate their techniques, and wrote a source book in which they were collected along with notes in which their underlying aesthetics and representational felicities were compared.
All this made Nandalal much more than a towering representative of the nationalist movement in India art, which is usually mapped through iconographic considerations of the subject matter and their nationalist underpinnings. Although his early works contribute to such a reading of nationalist art, his more enduring contribution lies in making the visual language of traditional art practices accessible to a new generation Indian artists who did not wish to revive the past but to design for present social needs. And here again Nandalal differed from his teacher. Unlike Abanindranath who believed that a teacher's role was to help the student find the artist in him Nandalal believed that it also included passing on to students an analytical insight into the syntactic structure and expressive possibilities of traditional practices. Coming at a time when under colonial intervention traditional practices were passing into oblivion among Indians this was of seminal importance. And his method of study being comparative it led to the exploration of affinities and differences not merely between varied practices within Indian art but in the entire region. Even as this was in keeping with and aided by the prevailing sway of Pan-Asianism, in Nandalal Pan-Asianism acquired the widest possible geographical amplitude stretching from Persia to South and South East Asia and the Far East.
In the arts of India, scrutinized from a cognitive and linguistic perspective, he saw two discrete approaches. One of these was concerned with volumetric apprehension of forms and was monumental in concept and expression, even if not always large in scale. And this encompassed both sculptural reliefs and murals of Ajanta and Bagh. The other approach was more decorative in orientation, and combined flat colours and graphic rendering of forms. This he thought found expression in different stylistic idioms and had a greater Pan-Asian compass. The purely calligraphic painting of the Far East formed a third approach. While in its pure form it was monochromatic and essentially Far Eastern, in less pure forms it could be seen in conjunction with the decorative traditions of the entire region. Keeping this in mind he also explored where and how these distinct approaches could meet in his own practice especially after he took charge of the art institution at Santiniketan.
Leaving behind the historicist tendencies of the first fifteen years of his work Nandalal began to move towards an exploration of visual conventions at the beginning of the nineteen-twenties. His Veena Player (1922) can be described as an application of the style of Ajanta-which he had begun to use from around 1910 after a visit to Ajanta-to a more secular subject matter. The Spirit of the Rains (1921) falls into the same category, but there is less modelling and more flattening and decorativeness in it. This can be read as an attempt to find a middle ground between the modelled and monumental traditions on the one hand and the flat and decorative traditions of representation on the other. In contrast to this in Pwe Dancer (1924) the figure is rendered in flat colours and animated through figure/ground interplay. In his portrait of Abanindranath titled My Guru (1926) the interplay of flat shapes is stabled by the addition of a few graphic details. And his portrait of C. F. Andrews (mid-1920s) by contrast is modelled in a more Western manner. But his Starting of the Bride Groom (1928) is in the idiom of traditional folk painters who combine bright flat colours with bold cursory brush strokes. And motifs taken from Egyptian, Ajanta and Persian paintings can be seen juxtaposed in his 1928 murals on the first floor old library building at Santiniketan. True these were practices pieces not original works, but the choice of motifs and juxtaposition of styles point to the linguistic turn in his interest. That they were not done using the techniques in which they were originally painted but employing the Fresco technique used by traditional artists of Rajasthan further underscores this point.
During the thirties his engagement with Ajanta and the related sculptural traditions begins to recede and two trajectories one related to the decorative and the other to the calligraphic traditions come to the fore. Paintings like Radha in the Grove (1939), the Shapamochan mural at Santiniketan (1933), Radha's Viraha (1936), and The Golden Pitcher (1936) belong to the first group. Each of these images has a different source but as a group they are clearly guided by a convergent purpose; he was not merely trying to see how the individual conventions worked but also where they overlapped. Radha in the Grove though small in size reminds us of Japanese decorative paintings. Radha's Viraha draws on the compositional features of Rajasthani miniatures though it is considerably larger in size. The Golden Pitcher also known as Swarna-Kumbha although a single figure panel painting is a retake on the conventions of Egyptian painting. Running through these is the search for a personal decorative style in which the various antecedents would find resonances without incongruence.
His first effort at calligraphic work was a series of tree and landscape motifs he did in 1913. These were exercises in the Far Eastern calligraphic tradition. But during the late twenties and thirties his effort became more integrative once again and he began to explore how the decorative Asian traditions could be combined with Far Eastern calligraphic tradition. Uma's Grief (1921) was one of his first efforts at integrating colour with calligraphy. One could call it a tinted calligraphic painting. Following this in the late twenties he discarded pure calligraphy and developed what he called 'touch-work' during the thirties. These were broadly paintings in tempera with bold brushwork; they can be seen as occupying an interspace between Eastern calligraphic art and Western style colour-sketch. Explored through paintings like Krishnachura Flowers (1928), Summer, Spring, Evening and Night (all from 1931), Ashram, Road to Bolpur (both from 1934), Alkananda (on the Way to Mayavati, 1942) etc., as the titles suggest, it also coincided with a growing engagement with the phenomenal world around. These works demonstrate beyond doubt that Nandalal's purpose in studying Asian antecedents was not the imitation or revival of ancient styles but drawing upon them to develop a personal idiom of considerable amplitude. And we find one of its finest manifestations in his Haripura Posters, in which the resonances of older styles also add to the resonances of meaning.
Deceptively simple in appearance and invoking folk paintings the Haripura Posters combines the decorative and the calligraphic in a very ingenious and personal manner. They are usually displayed as independent works of art in museum exhibitions but they were originally done to decorate a temporary township built for the annual session of the Indian National Congress in the remote village of Haripura in early1938. The township was built of local materials and in harmony with the rural surroundings. The decorations were conceived, both in style and idiom, following the same aesthetics and were designed to complement the temporary structures. And they have to be imagined in their original context as part of a total design to be fully appreciated. Viewed in this manner their nuanced sophistication, which is characteristic of Nandalal, comes to the fore.
Haripura was the crowning glory of Nandalal's association with Gandhi, and of his experimentations with Gandhian ethics in creativity, which had begun at the Lucknow session of the Congress in 1936 and taken a definitive shape at Fizpur in 1937. In this context Gandhi's assessment of Nandalal's achievements made while inaugurating the exhibition at Faizpur is worth quoting. Gandhi said: 'Credit for the arrangements here belongs to the architect Sjt. Mhatre and the artist Sjt. Nandalal Bose. When Nanda Babu responded to my invitation a couple of months ago I explained to him what I wanted, and left it to him to give concrete shape to the conception. For he is a creative artist and I am none. God has given me the sense of art but not the organs to give it concrete shape. He has blessed Sjt. Nandalal Bose with both. I am thankful that he agreed to take upon himself the whole burden of organising the artistic side the Exhibition and he came and settled down here some weeks ago to see to everything himself. The result is that the whole Tilaknagar is an exhibition in itself, and so it begins not where I am going to open it but at the main gateway which is a fine piece of village art. Of course our thanks are due also to Sjt. Mhatre who has spared no pains in bringing the entire plan to completion. Please remember that Nanda Babu has depended entirely on local material and labour to bring all the structures here into being.' (Quoted from, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, digital edition, Vol. 70. Page 212.)
In responding to the challenges posed by Rabindranath and Gandhi, Nandalal transformed himself into a total artist, or an artist who could produce design solutions to various communicational and functional needs as well as give expression to his personality. In other words he was an artist, designer, craftsperson, educator and curator all rolled into one. This led him to develop a personal language which functioned at many levels rather than an individual style that perhaps made an artist unique but also restricted his expressive and communicational range. And rather than impose his personality upon mediums he took advantage of the materials and their innate possibilities to communicate his vision. In a non traditional society he wanted each artist to acquire something of the adeptness and amplitude of traditions. He also encouraged his students to become versatile communicators rather than individualists trapped within a personal style. At another level even as art historians like Havell, Coomaraswamy and Stella Kramrisch were unravelling the iconography, symbolisms and philosophical underpinnings of Indian art and making it accessible, Nandalal was almost single-handedly analysing the inherent linguistic rationale and communicational efficacy of its different strands and making them available to his students and future artists. This was of at most important for the growth of modern Indian art, especially within the colonial context.
Gradually his nationalism moved away even further from historicist engagement and assumed the form of a discernible sensitivity towards the nation's needs and an involvement with the people and nature around him. This sometimes led him to look back on his early career with nostalgia and make newer versions of his early paintings which were still loved by his admirers even as India was moving towards independence and away from the historical circumstances that produced them. But his new work of the forties and fifties were primarily based on nature and less narrative than ever. And most of these were done in ink on paper, in a monochrome version of 'touch-work'. These would include Mayavati Ashram 1942, Hazaribagh Road (1943), Floating the Canoe (1947), and Lal Bandh at Night (1948), Buildings in the Rains (1955) etc. While they are often classified as Sumi-e paintings they do not wholly follow the syntactic principles of Japanese or Chinese ink wash paintings; they stand somewhere between Far Eastern calligraphic painting and the ink drawings of a Western master like Rembrandt. It is the suggestive richness of touch-indicating light, shapes, space and tactility with the slightest nuances of tone and stroke- and the sensibility rather than the codes and conventions governing them that interested late Nandalal. And it allowed him to be ever more open to cultures and yet individualistic in his idiom.
In his ink drawings from the final years of his career (1959-62), made from memory after he became home bound due to illness, initially the motifs were visualized as if they were perceived directly. Then gradually the suggestions of atmosphere evaporated and the forms were painted as if they were known by running his hands over them, and finally the forms themselves dissolved into suggestive marks and became pure touch, and the world itself became universal. For an artist who began as a historicist and then went on to produce an art with a sense of place this was a new freedom. However, his journey towards it was long and undertaken through the shifting landscape of his times. And this made a large part his career exemplary for other artists.
"Humanity, as depicted in the vast body of the drawings and sketches is palpably animate life -- muscle and movement, stance and structure portraying a presence. The line positively and precisely projects the physique: and it also embodies the spirit, and the essential image. The dignity of the person seems to be his explicit theme. By identifying the two aspects of vision, the physical and the mental, Nandalal was able to identify what is most elusive in life, the eternal. The best of his works has a timeless quality. Made at the height of the Swadeshi movement, a period charged with political and national aspirations, Nandalal's work has a serenity, an out-of-this world quality which is essentially timeless." (R. Bartholomew, Nandalal Bose Centenary Volume, New Delhi, 1983, p. 5)
In the 1930s, Gandhi's vision for a higher moral prupose of art brought him and Nandalal Bose together. Gandhi began to believe in the late 1920s that art could be utilized to build the nation's moral character. Bose was particularly inspired by Gandhi's belief in human dignity and equality regardless of religion or caste and considered Gandhi his spiritual teacher. The Haripura posters were the crowning achievement of their relstionship, which began at the Lucknow session of the Indian National Congress, 1936 and Fizpur, 1937.
"Nandalal's posters (wall panels) for the Haripura Congress, produced at Gandhi's behest, gave him the greatest personal satisfaction and brought him nationwide attention. This time Gandhi set him the task of organizing the exhibition displays in such a way that the local villagers could gaze at them as they went about their daily business. Gandhi's encouragement to artists to reach the ordinary villagers became a Congress ideal from now on. As preperation for the Haripura Congress, Nandalal made pen-and-ink and brush studies of the local villagers to lend the posters a touch of authenticity. The same idea of creating a village ambience was behind the treatment of these posters, done in thick tempera in a bold cursory style and broad brushstroke reminiscent of the patuas or scroll painters. [...] The folk styles of these panels appropriate for representing rural life and labour - cobblers, carpenters, drummers, barbers and nursing mothers. Indo-Islamic scalloped arches framing the figures underlined the shared Hindu-Muslim heritage to counter communal tensions. The strong sense of formal design in these panels suggests his apprenticeship at Ajanta rather than the amorphous wash technique of oriental art. [...] Gandhi exhorted the delegates at Haripura to study the exhibition carefully to learn about the moral purpose of art with a warm acknowledgement of Nandalal's contribution." (P. Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism, London, 2007, p. 82)
The Haripura posters reflect Bose's acute sensitivity to the landscape and village folk around him, and they appear today as full of life and vitality as they did when they were first executed. In the Bull Fighter, the vigor and tenacity of the man and bull are shown through strong, gestural lines and swaths of bright, bold colors. Bull Fighter was prominently displayed at the conference grounds at Haripura and a rare photograph of Gandhi admiring this work is illustrated here