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From Swadeshi to the Constitution: Nandalal Bose and the Nationalist Project-Siva Kumar


Updated: Aug 17, 2021

This talk was delivered as part of the 5th annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of the Indian Constitution in July 2019.

It’s really intimidating to have to speak at the end of a day full of brilliant, academically packed and charged presentations. I’m completely ill-informed of all the issues that have been discussed with such charm and erudition. What I will speak of has not added anything substantive to the Constitution. It is certainly not part of its legal-political structure, yet it is a distinctive feature, and that is: the Indian Constitution, unlike any other, was illuminated. Insignificant as it might be from every constitutional perspective, it is an acknowledgement of the contribution of our artists to the freedom movement. Especially of Nandalal Bose who was entrusted with the job. Nandalal was selected, I presume, owing to his long association with the movement and his substantial contribution to the shaping of a visual culture for the nation both as an artist and a teacher.[1] Therefore, before we look at Nandalal’s contribution to the Constitution it may be in place to look at the nature of his association with the national movement.

Nandalal began his artistic career in 1905 as student under Abanindranath who is seen as the father figure of the first or nationalist phase of modern Indian art. Although trained under western artists, influenced by the Swadeshi movement Abanindranath discarded western style realism that held sway until then and turned to Mughal art for inspiration. He also adopted elements from Japanese art and depicted events from Mughal history and Indian and Asian literature. Nandalal began by adopting the techniques his teacher and subject matter that appealed to the early nationalists.

Although such art was championed by nationalist art critics like E. B. Havell, Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy, Rabindranath Tagore developed a strong critique of it. He argued that while an awareness of one’s past can be curative in the colonial context, it became counterproductive when it made art historicist and the artists blind to the everyday social and environmental realities of the world they lived in. He urged artists to pay attention to the landscape and the people, especially of rural India, and to take part in nation building. Among the artists of his time Nandalal responded most positively to his ideas, and Tagore invited him to take charge of the art programme he initiated at Santiniketan.

After moving to Santiniketan in 1920 Nandalal discarded mythological and historical subject matter favoured by fellow artists and gravitated towards nature and everyday life. He also began, upon Rabindranath’s urging, to take art out of the studios into public spaces and community life through murals, and various kinds of design and communicational art works. He also used some of these mural projects to underscore the importance of certain contemporary events and iconize them by treating them in the way earlier painters treated mythological and historical subjects. Creating, as it were, a new form of history painting forthe nation. His 1928 mural memorializing the first Halakarshan or Ploughing festival that represents Rabindranath as a ploughman, and his simple yet striking linocut illustrations for Sahajpath, the Bengali primer authored by Rabindranath are outstanding examples of such work.

During the 1920s even as he was collaborating with Tagore in his project of nation building through education and community regeneration, Nandalal was also keenly witnessing of the emergence of Gandhi in politics. Tagore was unwilling to sacrifice his educational programme at the altar of activism and wanted to keep his institution away from nationalist politics. But he did not stop his colleagues from taking part in the Gandhian movement if they so wished. Although he openly differed with Gandhi on the issue of non-cooperation he wrote to Suren Kar in 1921 that he does ‘not wish to speak for or against non-cooperation. But if some of you care for it there is no problem at all—the only point is our Santiniketan stays out of politics.’[2]

Again in 1930, another important moment in the freedom struggle, reiterating his position, he wrote: ‘If any member of our ashram participates in the present national struggle out of a sense of responsibility I would have no objection. But politics should not touch Santiniketan ashram.The ideals of our Ashrama is far greater than nationalism.’[3] By 1930 Nandalal certainly was drawn to Gandhi, the tipping point for him was the Dandi March. Despite their publically articulated difference he saw Tagore and Gandhi as complementary figures. Just as C. F. Andrews strengthened the bond of friendship between them, Nandalal opened up a space for aesthetic contact between them.

ccccA close observer and a nationalist sympathiser, Nandalal recognized the Dandi March as a remarkable moment in Gandhian non-violent direct action and as the culmination of his efforts of the previous 15 years. It brought to the fore Gandhi’s ability to capture the imagination of ordinary Indians at large, and transform them into a moral force. Well planned, simple, imaginative, emphatic, and a highly symbolic political gesture, it immediately drew international attention and sympathy. Nandalal who was already exploring art as a tool for historico-cultural emblematizing and visual communication immediately grasped the significance of this gesture and captured it in several images.

He did at least three painted versions which showed Gandhi as a towering marcher against a backdrop of small marching figures in several registers—turning him into the visible face of a mass movement as it were. However, as an astute designer and an artist-contributor to the freedom movement he realized that one needed a poster-like image that is simple yet striking, iconic and memorable as the act itself to represent and communicate its spirit. To achieve this he produced a linocut of Gandhi walking, resolute and yet thoughtful and calm; an image that not only iconized the moment immediately but has also remained, despite an abundance of photographs and documentary footage, the most memorable image of Gandhi.

The emblematic and communicative power of the image was immediately recognized and widely circulated just as Abanindranath’s Bharatmata was adopted during the Swadeshi movement. Gandhi himself took note of Nandalal and the Santiniketan art school soon afterwards. He should have been already aware of Nandalal from his visits to Santiniketan and Calcutta to meet Tagore, where Nandalal always played a role in the organization of cultural events. But we have his first reference to Nandalal in a letter of 1933 in which he discusses the possibility of sending a young man to Santiniketan to study art.

In 1933 we also find him speaking of art, especially crafts, on several occasions. During this period he also began an extensive programme to promote khadhi and village industries through museums and exhibitions. This also drew him closer to Santiniketan and its artistic and cultural projects. In response to Tagore’s suggestion that the museums should not be limited to showcasing village industries and that the poor needed and created art as much as anyone else, Gandhi told an interviewer in 1935: ‘Every message coming from Dr. Tagore must receive respectful attention from me. I quite believe that we shall not neglect the arts. He would not let us neglect, even if we forget our duties. He has lent the assistance of Sjt. Surendranath Kar who has already paid a preliminary visit and I have discussed the whole thing with Deenabandhu C. F. Andrews who will in turn discuss with Gurudev.[4]

Gandhi’s institutional collaboration with Santiniketan expanded in the following years. The next year he invited Nandalal to organise an exhibition at the Lucknow Congress. Nandalal accepted the invitation and organized and showcased not only a cross section of traditional Indian art and crafts but also the works of modern artists like Jamini Roy who was not part of Santiniketan but made a significant contribution to connecting the modern with the rural and the traditional.While inaugurating this exhibition Gandhi said: ‘This exhibition, to my mind, brings out concretely for the first time the conception of a true rural exhibition I have nursed in my breast for several years [. . . .]You will not expect me to describe all or even one of the numerous sections of the exhibition.It is impossible for me to do so. Let me tell you that you will have an inkling of the inside even from where you are sitting. For in front of you are no triumphal arches but there are simply but exquisitely decorated walls done by Sjt. Nandalal Bose, the eminent artist from Santiniketan,and his co-workers who have tried to represent all the villagers’ crafts in simple artistic symbols. And when you go inside the art gallery on which Babu Nandalal Bose has lavished his labours for weeks, you will feel, as I did, like spending there hours together. But even the other sections will attract you. You may not find in the exhibition anything to amuse you like music or cinema shows but I assure you will find much to learn.’[5]

In September the same year, Gandhi wrote again to Nandalal inviting him to design an exhibition of village crafts at Faizpur:‘You gave much at Lucknow, I want now more for Faizpur[. . . .]For the first time in the history of the congress, it is to be held in a village pure and... the exhibition will be the[. . .]attraction for the numerous villagers who are expected to flock to Faizpur. It must provide solid education for them. And the whole show must be on the village setting. How is that to be? We have to forget the city scale of bigness and great expenditure. Your art has to come to the rescue. I have asked Shankerlal Banker not to spend more than Rs 5000 on the exhibition.’ And he continued: ‘I know that it can be done for that amount and yet be made attractive. The village Sarangi provides all the music that the most expensive piano has ever provided. But it takes a musician to yield the music the little instrument holds. Will you be the architect for the Faizpur exhibition?’[6]

The idea was vintage Gandhi, he was never tired of telling his followers: pursue beauty by all means, but ‘simplicity should not be sacrificed for the sake of art.’[7] And such a view was not new to Nandalal. In Santiniketan too beauty and frugality went hand in hand, both due to the pecuniary constraints under which the institution functioned and also due to the minimalist aesthetic its artists had absorbed from Japanese art. Nandalal gave a supreme demonstration of how the ethics and aesthetics of the minimal—the Gandhian and the Tagorean positions, if you will—could be combined at the Haripura session of the Congress which he was once again called to decorate.

At Haripura Nandalal not only repeated the experiment he had begun at Lucknow and Faizpurbut also stepped it up in scale and complexity. Here Nandalal and his team built structures using local materials and decorated it with posters he had designed in the folk style.[8]Called the Haripura posters this collection of over 90 paintings represented rural performers and craftsmen at work, peasants engaged in daily chores, and animals they were familiar with. Done is a style that invoked the simplicity of folk art and yet infused with the refined sensibilities of an individual master they were the work of a modern artist responding to and harmonizing his sensibilities with that of village India, and, therefore, accessible at once to the informed art connoisseurs and the common man. To Nandalal Haripura was also an exercise in total designing that brought art, architecture and crafts—as well as the personal and the collective—together in a single continuum.

If Nandalal was by then the artist who embodied the ideals of Tagore and Gandhi in his work most effectively, they too saw him as the artist who came closest to their ideals. Tagore expressed his admiration openly in a poem he wrote to welcome the 32-year-old artist during his first visit to Santiniketan in 1914. The poem, which in retrospect appears to be more a celebration in intimation of the artist’s future achievements than an acknowledgement of what he has already achieved, in part read:

Your paintbrush colors India’s heart,

And fills Bengal’s treasury with new riches.

The dispenser of destiny

Has whispered blessings in your ears.

In indelible colours you write the name of our country

On the canvas of the world.

Your brush, O Nanda,

Delights the heart of this poet.[9]

Gandhi, who was concerned with the political more than the aesthetic and, therefore, whose understanding of art differed from Tagore’s, too acknowledged Nandalal as a true artist but he was more circumspect in his praise. In a written reply to Devi Prasad Gupta an old student of Santiniketan who was then associated with the Nai Talim movement he wrote: ‘I have already told you who is a true artist. Nanda Babu comes very close to my ideal, though perhaps he is not the perfect ideal. However, he is so big a man that it would be highly improper for me to say anything in criticism of him.’[10]

No other artist came close to both Gandhi and Tagore as Nandalal did and, perhaps, no other artist participated in their divergent approaches to nation building as Nandalal did. Certainly there were many who participated in the national movements led by them, and paid homage to them in their works, but few embodied their vision in their work as much as Nandalal did. However, two of Nandalal’s students and close associates at Santiniketan, Ramkinkar Baij and Benodebehari Mukherjee imbibed some of their concerns without being proclaimed participants in the nationalist projects. On the heels of Nandalal’s Haripura posters, Ramkinkar created the first sculptures in which the most marginalized of our people, to whom Tagore and Gandhi drew the attention of their countrymen, were given the presence and grace which was so far reserved for the politically and socially mighty. And as with the Haripura Posters both the Santal tribals and the cultivated elites of Santiniketan recognized this sculpture (called the Santal Family) as marking a social shift by the sheer body-presence of its figures.

Later in response to Gandhi’s assassination Ramkinkar would do his own iconic image of Gandhi. Not the Gandhi of the Dandi March but that of Noakhali, the lone crusader of non-violence trudging across the killing fields. Benodebehari did not take part in the national movement or produce iconic images of Tagore or Gandhi like Nandalal and Ramkinkar, but he too invoked Gandhian and Tagorean visions of a future India in a mural he painted when India was at the cusp of independence. Ostensibly his theme was the medieval saints of India. He painted them—Ramanuja, Kabir, Tulsi, Sur and Guru Gobind—emerging from and punctuating a vast stream of quotidian life and offering intellectual, moral and spiritual directions to this vast flow of humanity. The mural looks backward, as it were, and finds a model for future India in the vision of the heterogeneous and deeply humane saints of the Bhakti movement just as Gandhi had done in his own way. Benodebehari does not refer to Gandhi in his paintings or writings but the values he puts forward in this mural were the same as that Gandhi was practising while fighting communal fire in Calcutta and Noakhali even as the mural was being painted. Modest and self-effacing as he was, Benodebehari made no claims on behalf of his mural, but the thinking artist that he was it is difficult to think that he was not aware of their convergence of thoughts at this significant moment in Indian history.

It is in the context of the association that Nandalal and his associates had with the freedom movement and Gandhi that the illumination of the Indian Constitution should be looked at. The Constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949.

It was signed by the members of Constituent Assembly on 24 January 1950 and came into force on 26 January 1950 with India becoming a republic. Nandalal was approached to do the illuminations sometime in October 1949 well before the final session of the Constituent Assembly, also well before Prembehari Narain Raizada was selected as the Constitution’s calligrapher.[11] In keeping with the tradition of collaborative work he practiced as a teacher while undertaking projects of public art Nandalal decided to work with a team of collaborators. This time however as many as five of them were also close family members, the rest were colleagues, and old and senior students.[12]Nandalal decided on the paper, the size, the choice of decorative scrolls for the borders, the narrative scheme and subjects and supervised the work of others besides contributing five images himself. The work began not before December 1949 and seems to have continued for a while, with the calligraphic rendering on the text and decoration happening simultaneously and some amount of back and forth transportation of pages between the calligrapher and the artists.[13]

The Constitution was written on pages with tinted duotone gold sprinkled broad borders with concentric coloured lines forming a three-tiered inner frame.The first and last pages of the 22 parts of the constitution were more elaborately decorated with floral or semi geometric scrolls sandwiched between two sets of coloured lines with a broad gold sprinkled single-colour border around it. The borders, both the simple and more ornate ones, were modelled after Mughal examples and resembled them. Besides this the front and back cover, the spine, the frontispiece, and the preamble were richly decorated. But the most important part of the decorative programme that Nandalal devised was the representational images on the first page of each part. The general colour scheme was subdued, and most of the representational images were done in lines and in monochrome. Only three of the images had a dash of colour. This was primarily, I suppose, to harmonize with and not to overwhelm the calligraphed text.

The most important aspect of the decorative programme was the representational pictures on the first page of each part. It begins with an image of the humped-bull seal from Mohenjo-daro.

ccccThat is followed by a scene from life in a Vedic ashram, followed by episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and a scene each from the life of the Buddha and Mahavira.

These are followed by an image of the spread of Buddhism under Asoka, a figure from Ajanta in colour, a scene from Vikramaditya’s court, an image of the Buddhist University of Nalanda, a drawing of the horse sculpture from Konark, a drawing of Chola Nataraja bronze, a drawing of the descent of Ganges loosely based on the relief sculpture at Mahabalipuram and a court scene with Akbar and his architects in that order.

These are followed by two sets of portraits of historical figures beginning with Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh on one page, followed by those of Lakshmi Bai and Tipu Sultan. They are followed by images of Gandhi during the Dandi March, of Gandhi at Noakhali and of Subash Chandra Bose, and finally by images of the Himalayas, the desert and that of the ocean.

The illumination raises three questions. One, considering their placement at the beginning of each part, is there a relation between the images and the content of the part in which it appears? Two, who decided on the subjects and the sequence? Three, what is the significance of the narrative scheme?

The short answer to the first question is ‘none’. Imaginative viewers, however, may wish to discover some relationship between ‘Fundamental Rights’ and the recovery of Sita by Rama, or between the ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’ and the image of Krishna propounding the Gita to Arjuna, or even between ‘Finance, Property, Contracts and Suits’ and the image of Nataraja, or between ‘Trade, Commerce and Intercourse within the Territory of India’ and Bagiratha’s penance and the descend of the Ganges. But even they should find it difficult to connect the Indus seal of the Bull with ‘Union and its Territories, or the Vedic gurukul with ‘Citizenship’, and even more hard-pressed to connect an image of Mahavira done in the manner of Jain miniature with with ‘States in Part A of the First Schedule’, or a figure from Ajanta murals to ‘States in Part C of the first Schedule. Or for that matter the image of Gandhi’s Dandi March with what the Constitution says in the Part on ‘Official Language’. Clearly, we will have to look for the rationale of the narrative programme elsewhere.

The short answer to the second question is: Nandalal. Considering that there is a long tradition of artists being advised on major artistic projects by patrons if not actually dictated to, there is scope to think that Nandalal was at least advised about the scope and the subjects to be painted. But rough notes on a typed sheet of the “Draft Scheme for historical illustration in the MSS Constitution of India” by the artist that has survived suggests otherwise.[14] That the list was typed indicates that it was made after a preliminary plan was in place, and possibly for some kind of official intimation if not approval, but it also shows that certain deletions and additions were carried out after it was typed. The page contains an initial list of 20 subjects in type, of these number seven which reads, ‘Scene from Alexander’s invasion’ was crossed out and three others representing nature were added in pen at the end.

When we compare this list with the final images we notice further changes. 1. The typed list says ‘Mohenjo-daro seals’ and a rough sheet of scribbles that has survived shows a three part oblong image with the Mohenjo-Daro statuette of the Priest/King flanked by the bull and unicorn seals. However, only a single seal with a left facing bull was finally used. 2. A note written in pencil on the typed page reveals that the Elephant and Horse sculptures from Konark were considered and finally the horse was selected. 3. Initially an image with ‘Portraits of Akbar and Shahjahan with Mughal architecture’ was planned but finally it was replaced with an image of Akbar with his architects. 4. Portraits of  Rana Pratap, Shivaji and Guru Gobind were to appear together on a page but finally only those of the latter two were included. 5. Similarly the portrait of Ranjit Singh finds mention along with that of Lakshmi Bai and Tippu Sultan in the typed page but was finally discarded. 5. The sheet with rough scribbles in pencil referred to above also suggests that portraits of national leaders like Nehru and Patel were also thought about, but were eventually left out. 6. The images of the mountains, desert and ocean were not part of the initial plan which is clearly referred to as ‘historical illustration’ on the typed list.

The typed sheet also carries the names of the artists in pencil to whom the individual images were assigned. This taken together with the changes indicated in pen and pencil on this sheet and those made later while executing the images on the pages of the Constitution suggest that Nandalal was in charge of the programme and it evolved contingentially as the work progressed. Some of the changes like the omissions from the two pages of portraits might have been primarily matters of design. Given that the space allotted for the illumination was fixed Nandalal could have felt accommodating three portraits within the given space too chock-full. However, who was left out and who was retained raises issues of Nandalal’s preference, and his vision of history. Similarly the initial plan to include portraits of national leaders like Nehru and Patel and to omit them later indicates a personal choice and decision making. The inclusion of the three landscape motifs at the end, almost like an afterthought, too can only be seen as personal intervention.

This brings us to the third question, what was the logic behind the choice of historical subjects and what was its significance in Nandalal’s eyes. In the ‘List of Illustrations’ appended to the Constitution the images are grouped under twelve headings, namely Mohenjo-Daro Period, Vedic Period, Mahajanpada and Nanda Period, Mauryan Period, Gupta Period, Medieval Period, Muslim Period, British Period, India’s Freedom Movement, Revolutionary movement for freedom, and Natural Features.Whereas the periods are arranged chronologically the images representing them are not always drawn fromthe art of the same period.Thus, while the Mohenjo-Daro period is represented by a seal from that period, the Vedic period is represented by the image of aVedic asram composed of motifs drawn from Sanchi and possibly other Buddhist reliefs. Similarly, the Mahajanapada and Nanda period is represented by two images that are chronologically incongruous. The first has an image of the Buddha based on early iconic sculptural representations of the Buddha (and the notes suggests Nandalal had several images of the mrigadava in mind)but the mendicants around him remind us of the fakirs in Mughal painting. The second shows an image of Mahavira based on a Jain miniature of the 14th or 15th century.The Medieval period,likewise, is represented by drawings based on the 12th century sculpture from Konark, the 10th century Chola bronze, and the 7th century Pallava relief in that order. Thus there is a crucial stylistic and chronological asymmetry between the periods and their pictorial evocations. Further, while he uses individual examples of ancient art or motifs drawn from them on several occasions, such as the images that represent the Epic period, he composes fresh images, or as in the case of the Dandi March reuses one of his older works.

The images then construct a history of India using elements drawn predominantly from Indian art but the images do not represent the chronological progress of Indian art. While the periodization is merely adopted,the images give expression to Nandalal’s eclectic sensibilities, his preferences, perceptions and biases.The periodization is the armature borrowed from nationalist historians but the images flesh it out in a personal, more encompassing, pliable and fluid way.Through the illuminations Nandalal points out that the Constitution is not only as a charter of great historical significance but also the latest turning point in the long history of the Indian people. Coming at the end of an anti-colonial struggle it was a precious document crafted by Indians and adopted by them to inaugurate a new era, as the preamble to the Constitution puts it, of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. Through the illuminations Nandalal constructs a pedestal on which this precious creation of the Indian people may be placed, a pedestal that gives it both a delightful visuality and a long historical perspective.

As an artist Nandalal borrowed a part of his historical perspective from professional historians but he had a more personal take on the more recent past of which he was an artist participant. This is reflected in the last three sections—Indian Freedom Movement, Revolutionary movement for freedom and Natural Features.The Indian Freedom Movement in its two forms is represented by the images of Gandhi and Subash Chandra Bose, incidentally, also the two prominent nationalist leaders whose signatures do not appear in the Constitution. An artist associate and an admirer of Gandhi, Nandalal makes him is the central figure in the representation of this period. Gandhi is represented twice, first with a miniaturized copy of his iconic representation of the Dandi March and then with an image of Gandhi as the peace maker at Noakhali. The first presents him as a grand galvaniser of the Indian people into a nonviolent moral force, the second shows him bravely struggling to sooth the communal fault lines of India, a double image as it were of our potential strength and inherent weakness as a nation. Netaji ostensibly represents the revolutionaries among the freedom fighters, but by quoting a part of his radio broadcast of 6 July from 1944 wherein he addressed Gandhi as ‘Father of the Nation’ and sought his blessings within his image Nandalal once again underscores Gandhi’s preeminent presence in our recent history and his emblematic position within the newly formed Indian state.

Considering that Nandalal participated in equal measure in the Gandhian and Tagorean projects of freedom struggle and nation building Tagore’s absence from the illuminations is conspicuous. However, he is invoked, I believe, in the three landscape images appearing at the end of Constitution. Even though he was a critic of aggressive nationalism and of the territorially defined nation state, Tagore invoked and celebrated an intimate relationship between man and the land. His poem, a part of which was adopted as the national anthem of India along with the Constitution, is an invocation of this relation between the Indian people and land of India. The mountains, the desert and the ocean may be its natural boundaries but they do not render the people insular, as Nandalal’s images with its caravans and ships suggest they are also gateways for commerce with the outer world.[15]The last page has two representations of the ocean, one at the top and the other at the bottom of the page. The one at the top is taken from an seal found at Mohenjo-Daro, the one at the bottom from a 9th century relief from Borobudur, and together they represent India’s long history of engagement with the world. Nandalal closes his contribution to the Indian constitution with this fitting Tagorean motif combining man’s closeness to nature and openness to the wider world around.

Nandalal’s pictorial illuminations were both embellishment and supplementary visual texts that added another layer to the hand-written manuscript of the Constitution. Personally as an artist who was committed to the nationalist cause in several ways it was also the culmination of a journey that began with the Swadeshi movement and ended with Indian independence and the Constitution. Being called to illuminate the Constitution should have been a gratifying experience for him.

Question and Answer Session

Achyut Chetan. I have been working on the history of the Constitution. One explanation for the lack of relations between the text of the Constitution and the embellishments is that the text was still not final. The last time the Constituent Assembly debated each of the articles was between May and October 1949. Some of the articles were still not final even then. Due to this, only some articles were sent to be inscribed by the calligraphers, and thus only some of the pages initially went to Nandalal to create the borders. The calligraphers were also preparing the text without keeping the embellishments and illuminations in mind. So there was a lack of coordination between the different makers. Maybe Nandalal had some specific ideas for specific pages but the calligraphers decided to insert another set of articles on those pages. One significant fact regarding all this is that the Constituent Assembly worked for almost three years. In those very turbulent three years, a lot of things kept changing, including some important decisions. One example is the question on the reservation for Muslims in legislature.

I would also like to know your thoughts on the calligraphy, because I don’t know what position calligraphy, Roman calligraphy especially, occupies in the history of Indian art.

Siva Kumar. We do not have a long history of calligraphy in the Roman script. Regarding your first point, while what you say is true, I don’t think that is the main reason behind the lack of coordination between the text and the illuminations. Nandalal conceived the illuminations as an entirely independent project. Even if he was unaware of the textual content of each part it did not matter, he was constructing a parallel visual text based on his reading of the history of India using art, ancient and his own. His choices were personal and deliberate. He did have some clue regarding the number of chapters or parts—because if you look at his list, you see that he finally arrives at 22 images, which is same as the parts of the Constitution. Even though the Constitution was a charter for a new India, this new India he believed should not be completely isolated from the old India—his project was different from that of the writers of the Constitution.

It is difficult to say how long the illuminations took and if it was all completed before the signing. Although in the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly Dr Rajendra Prasad announces the English version is complete illuminations and all, in several instance the signatures breach the space allotted for them and the borders skirt them suggesting that they were done later. The photographic records of the event are also not conclusive on this. And one of the drawings in Nandalal’s scrapbook is dated 12-11-'51.

Krishna Kumar. You mentioned that a young man came to Gandhi, perhaps in Sevagram, and Gandhi advised him to go to Santiniketan. Was the name of this young man Devi Prasad?

Siva Kumar. No. The person Gandhi sent to Santiniketanwas the son of Vrajlal Gandhi, who is referred to as Dhiru and Dhirendra in his letters. He was interested in the music and the arts, and Gandhi sent him to Santiniketan to learn under Nandalal, in 1933. Devi Prasad was a student in Santiniketan during the late thirties, he moved to Sevagram after completing his studies. His written interaction with Gandhi took place in 1945.

Krishna Kumar. So Devi Prasad first came to Santiniketan and then moved to Seva Gram?

Siva Kumar. Yes, as a teacher.

Valerian Rodrigues. Gandhi had a very ambivalent relationship with the Constitution, but Nandalal seems to be quite firm in his views. And he was also involved with the village, Nai Talim. But Nandalal does not depict this troubled relationship that the Gandhian project had with the constitutional project—the house was much divided on these issues. My second point is regarding the manner in which the Islamic tradition is represented in the Constitution. It is interesting that besides figures like Akbar and later Tipu Sultan, there are not a lot of depictions of Islamic architecture, while you have several such representations and not merely heroes and icons, from ancient India and from the non-Islamic traditions. There seems to be a process of exclusion that is already taking place quite centrally.

Siva Kumar. Nandalal’s ‘Gandhi’ was essentially Gandhi of the nationalist movement and for him the hero of pre-independent India was certainly Gandhi. His personal preferences find reflection in his work. He is certainly centralizing Gandhi by presenting him twice, once through an image of the Dandi March and then through his work in Noakhali. They are to him the most important images of modern India. We may or may not agree with him, but that is Nandalal’s view.

Regarding Islamic/Mughal architecture it is a little more complex;the image he uses to represent the ‘Muslim Period’ shows Akbar interacting with architects and artists. He had also initially thought of including Shah Jahan but then decided to leave him out. Also the borders he uses are clearly inspired by those in Mughal painting. This said, compared to Abanindranath his guru, he certainly was less interested in Mughal art. He was much more interested in Ajanta murals and other less realistic styles while Abanindranath had little interest in them.

There were several reasons for this. One, it represented his personal aesthetic choice. Two, as a nationalist artist he saw Ajanta as representing a home grown Indian classical art. This was important to him because it helped him to counter the colonial view that unlike Europe India did not have a classical tradition of its own. Three, Mughal art was court art, highly refined and meant for elites. Nandalal should have found Ajanta more egalitarian. Four, Nandalal, again unlike Abanindranath, was deeply interested in Indian sculptural traditions and the Ajanta paintings had much in common with the sculptural traditions.

Nandalal’s preferences are certainly reflected in the kind of choices he makes, but to read them as constituting a systematic exclusion of the Islamic tradition may not be entirely true.As I have pointed out he had planned to include Ranjit Singh along with Tipu and Lakshmi Bai and finally it is Ranjit Singh who got dropped from that triad.

Tina Servaia. You’ve explained why Nandalal was chosen. But can you explain why they decided to illuminate the Constitution in the first place?

Siva Kumar. Good question, especially because ours is the only Constitution that is illuminated but I can only speculate. I have not come across any document that tells how the decision to illuminate a Constitution was arrived at. The only answer I can provide is that during the freedom struggle cultural and political nationalisms converged. Artists like Nandalal were seen as contributors to that movement. In such cases in the immediate aftermath of independence or victory the state often acknowledges them through commissions. In Mexico pro-revolution artists were called to paint murals on important public buildings after the revolution, and in Russia even the most avant-garde artists were treated as fellow comrades for a while. But this doesn’t last long. The decision to have the Constitution illuminated was perhaps such a gesture.

Malay. What are the reasons behind the lack of tribal/folk art in the Constitution? And if we look at the text through a feminist lens, was Nandalal trying to put across the idea that history has excluded women by depicting so few women in the Constitution?

Siva Kumar. There are a few images of women, Lakshmibai, Sita, Sangamitra, the actress playing the role of Sankuntala and two or three incidental figures, but certainly the number of iconic male figures are larger. History writing at that point was certainly patriarchal and as a man of his times Nandalal reflects that bias to an extent. However, while we are on the participation of women it should also be noted that at least half of Nandalal’s assistants on this project were women.

Now regarding your question about the exclusion of tribal and folk art from these illuminations. Nandalal was interested in folk and tribal art. The two exhibitions he helped organize at Patna and Faizpur on Gandhi’s invitation focused on folk and tribal arts. The work he did at Haripura as I have pointed out was inspired by Folk painting. As a teacher too he worked towards easing the distinction between high art and low art. Before him the art schools taught art and craft as separate subjects, but in Santiniketan he adopted a different pedagogical approach. His students became not only painters and sculptors but also toy makers, potters, film makers, weavers, and designers although they were all enrolled in the same course. There was no specialized training for various disciplines as we have today but the system was open-ended enough to nurture different kinds of talent. I don’t, therefore, think that he neglected folk or tribal art. Even in the Constitution there is a certain marriage of decoration and narration or what one might call the lower and the higher arts. However, like any good designer he knew that you can’t put everything together in a work without the risk of destroying its cohesiveness.


R. Siva Kumar is an Indian contemporary art historian, art critic and curator. R. Siva Kumar’s major research has been in the area of early Indian modernism with special focus on the Santiniketan School. He has written several important books, lectured widely on modern Indian art and contributed articles to prestigious international projects such as the Art Journal, Grove Art Online or the Dictionary of Art, OUP.

He was awarded the Kesari Puraskaram for art writing by the Lalit Kala Akademi, Kerala in 2010. He has also curated major exhibitions like Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, and The Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore and retrospectives of important Indian artists, such as Rabindranath Tagore, Benode Behari Mukherjee (co-curated with Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh), K. G. Subramanyan. He has also co-curated an exhibition titled Tryst with Destiny for the Singapore Art Museum to mark 50 years of Indian Independence and served as a curatorial adviser for Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose curated by Sonia Rhie Quintanilla for the San Diego Museum of Art.

[1]Besides this there could have been an economic reason too. A note from Jugal Kishore Khanna to Dr. Rajendra Prasad has the following: ‘It will be remembered that some of the artists had quoted fabulous sums for this work and in our supplementary demand we had also provided a sum of about Rs. 50,000 for the work. According to the present estimate the whole work including the calligraphy will cost not more than Rs. 5,000/.’ See Valmiki Choudhury Ed., Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents vol.11, New Delhi, Allied Publishers, 1988, pp.362-363. A note found among Nandalal’s papers suggest that the artists who painted the historical scenes were paid Rs. 25 for each page. It is not known if the artists who painted the borders were paid anything. The calligraphist Prembehari Narain Raizada did not charge anything for his efforts. Nandalal’s daughter Gouri Bhanja has suggested that Nandalal was entrusted with this work by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. See, Gouri Bhanja, ‘Amar Ita O Guru Nandalal,’ Sushoban Adhikari Ed. Mastermoshai Nandalal Basu, Kolkata, Lalmati, 2016, p.108

[2]Visva Bharati Patrika, Vol. 1, No.5, Agrahayan 1349, page 303.

[3] Ibid, p.304.

[4] Interview with Bombay Chronicle about the All India Village Industries Association, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,  vol.61, New Delhi, The Publications Division, 1975, p.87.

[5] Speech at the Khadi and Village Industries Exhibition on March 28 1936, Lucknow, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 62, New Delhi, The Publications Division, 1975, pp. 297-300.

[6] Letter to Nandalal dated 23-9-1936, Segoan, Wardha.

[7] Letter to PremabehnKantak dated May 1, 1933, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 62, New Delhi, The Publications Division, 1973, p.80.

[8] The Haripura Session was held from 19 to 22 February 1938. The posters to decorate was done in Santiniketan in late 1937 before Nandalal and his team left for Haripura.

[9] For the original poem in Bengali see, Panchanan Mandal, BharatsilpiNandalal vol. 1, Bolpur, Rarh Gaveshsana Parishad, 1982, p.381.

[10] Letter to Deviprasad Gupta dated March 1, 1945, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 79, New Delhi, The Publications Division, 1980, pp.193-194.

[11] Seenote dated 7 November 1949 from Dr Rajendra Prasad to the Secretary, Constituent Assembly of India, Valmiki Choudhury Ed., Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents vol.11, New Delhi, Allied Publishers, 1988, pp.355-357.

[12] Besides Nandalal’s son Biswarup Bose, his daughters Gauri Bhanja and Jamuna Sen, daughter-in-law Nivedita Bose, and granddaughter Bani Bhanja (later Bani Patel) the other prominent members of the team who worked on the illuminations were A. Perumal and Direndrakrishna Deb Burman. The national emblem was done by Dinanath Bhargava, the preamble was decorated by Rammanohar Singha, and artists who did the decorative borders included Kripal Singh Shekhawat, V.S. Masoji, Rammanohar Singha, Rajniti Singh, etc. In all about 16 artists can be identified through signatures on the margins and other records.

[13] According to a note dated 16 December 1949 submitted by Shri Jugal Kishore Khanna to Dr Rajendra Prasad, president of the Constituent Assembly, after a visit to Santiniketan, the following were settled. 1. After considering various papers including handmade paper from Vardha and Nepalese handmade paper, Nandalal settled for Millbourne handmade paper as most appropriate for the work. 2. A hundred sheets of these with borders were to be delivered to delivered to the calligrapher by 23rd December 1949. 3. Calligraphed pages without border will in turn be sent to Santiniketan for completion [probably for the borders to be tinted and speckled with gold leaf]. 4. One fourth space of the page on which each chapter begins would be left for illumination and ‘this work, namely the designing of sketches, will be taken up the artists after 26th January 1950, when the members’ signatures are obtained on the 24th and 25th January 1950.’ See, Valmiki Choudhury Ed., Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents vol.11, New Delhi, Allied Publishers, 1988, pp.362-363.

However, Dr Rajendra Prasad makes this announcement before he invites the members to sign the copies of Constitution: ‘The only thing that now remains is the signing of the copy of the Constitution by the Members. There are three copies ready. One is in English completely hand-written and illuminated by artists. The second copy is in print in English. The third copy is also hand-written in Hindi.’ See Constitutional Assembly Debates (Proceedings), (9th December, 1946 to 24th January, 1950), Vol. VII (Tuesday 24 January 1950) at,[3/15/2012 4:35:23 PM]

This suggests that the English version was illuminated first and the Hindi version might have followed. It is difficult to ascertain if even the English version was complete in all respects before the signing. Complicating the matter further, the layout for one the images included in the Constitution bears the date 12-11-51.

[14] This and the scrapbook and a sheet of scribbles referred to below are part of the Nandalal archives that was recently auctioned by Pundoles on 11 April 2019.

[15] In his notes we know that Nandalal planned to include pilgrims in the mountain scene, but probably left them out because the mountains had to be presented from a distance to be shown in their full grandeur and that made it difficult to include such details. But there is something that looks like a hut or tent at the top of the mountain peaks to the left.

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