Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Aug 17

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.