A Painter’s Worldview: The Vision of Nandalal Bose
Considered the father of modern Indian art, Nandalal Bose (1882–1966) combined a patriotic affection for the culture of Bengal and India with a broader sense of kinship with Asia, writes Harvard historian Sugata Bose. The San Diego Museum of Art has organized a comprehensive exhibition of Bose’s art.
(Left): New Clouds. Nandalal Bose, tempera on paper, 1937. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 4804. (Right): Radha’s Viraha. Nandalal Bose, tempera on silk, 1936. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 72.
Your paint-brush colors India’s heart,/And fills Bengal’s treasury with new riches.
— Rabindranath Tagore, 1914
With these lines the poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, welcomed the artist Nandalal Bose during his fleeting visit to the poet’s “Abode of Peace,” Santiniketan, in April 1914. Nandalal had played the poet-painter jugalbandi with Rabindranath since long before his eventual move to Santiniketan in 1919. In 1909 Nandalal contributed seven illustrations to Chayanika, a collection of Rabindranath’s poems, and the poet returned the compliment in 1910 by composing a song on “the God of a solitary heart,” inspired by Nandalal’s painting Deeksha (Sacrament).
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Nandalal’s debut as a painter in 1905 had coincided with the great Swadeshi (Own Country) movement that swept Bengal a little more than a hundred years ago. The immediate impetus for the Swadeshi movement was the decision by Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India, to partition Bengal into a Hindu-majority west and a Muslim-majority east. The politics of the antipartition agitation came to be suffused with a new flowering of Bengali literature, art, music, and culture, and painters vied with poets to express their devotion to the motherland. “You will cut the bond decreed by Providence, you are so powerful, are you!,” Rabindranath sang in a poetic challenge to the British pro-consul. In 1905 Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s nephew, created the iconic visual image of the nation as mother: robed in ascetic saffron, she carried the gifts of food, clothing, learning, and spiritual salvation in her four hands. Originally titled Bangamata (Mother Bengal), the painting was renamed Bharatmata (Mother India) as an example of Bengal’s generosity towards the cause of India as a whole.
In August 1905, 22-year-old Nandalal joined the Government School of Art in Kolkata as Abanindranath’s pupil, and he quickly became a key figure in the movement to fashion a new Indian art, a movement pioneered by his teacher. The Swadeshi cultural milieu, despite its interest in rejuvenating indigenous traditions, was not wholly inward-looking; its protagonists were curious about innovations in different parts of the globe and felt comfortable within ever-widening concentric circles of Bengali patriotism, Indian nationalism, and Asian universalism. Aspiring to reconcile a sense of nationality with a common humanity, they were not prepared to let colonial borders constrict their imaginations.
(Above): Sati. Nandalal Bose, gold, wash, and tempera on paper, 1943. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 4797
The spirit of Asian universalism was brought home to Abanindranath’s circle of artists by two turn-of-the-century ideologues — Okakura Kakuzo (1862–1913) and Sister Nivedita (1867–1911). Okakura had been deeply influenced in his early years by the Harvard scholar of Japanese art, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853–1908), whose collection of Japanese and Chinese paintings he later cataloged for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Okakura’s blend of Japanese nationalism and Asian universalism was appealing as a potential model for Indian artists of the Swadeshi era. Okakura first came to India in 1902 on the eve of the publication of his book The Ideals of the East, for which Sister Nivedita, the Irish-born disciple of the Hindu sage Swami Vivekananda, wrote an introduction. Once Sister Nivedita introduced Okakura to the Tagore clan, a formidable cultural bridge was established between East and South Asia, and Japanese artists Yokoyama Taikan and Shunso Hishida soon followed Okakura’s trail to Kolkata. By observing Taikan, Abanindranath learned the Japanese wash technique, of which his famous painting Bharatmata is a prominent example; the Japanese brush-and-ink style was more deeply imbibed by Abanindranath’s brother, Gaganendranath Tagore (1867–1938). In Nandalal’s early masterpiece Sati (1907), a quintessentially Indian theme of selfless womanhood emerged in the colors and contours of the Japanese wash. The soft delicacy of his colors, which were balanced by the bold rhythm of his lines, would become a distinguishing feature of Nandalal’s early work.
Decades later Nandalal recalled that his guru Abanindranath was occasionally worried about the “aggressiveness” he saw in his student’s technique. “This came out of my spirit of nationalism,” Nandalal explained. While he was eager to learn from the rest of Asia, he also wanted to demonstrate that Indians too were “adept in technique, and in no way inferior to the Japanese and Chinese.” The young Nandalal eagerly immersed himself in the creative ferment that animated the dakshiner baranda (veranda on the south) of the Tagores’ mansion in the Jorasanko neighborhood of Kolkata. He captured the veranda scene of 1909–10 in his pen-and-ink sketch The Artists’ Studio, Jorasanko in 1909–10. It was there that he first encountered Okakura, who, he recalled, “seemed like an ocean of wisdom, deep, endless.”
(Above, left): Annapurna. Nandalal Bose, wash and tempera on paper, 1943. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 4794.
(Above, right): Saraswati. Nandalal Bose, tempera on paper, 1941. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 4800.
Nandalal’s other inspiration, Sister Nivedita, opened another vista before his eyes when she advised him and fellow-artist Asit Kumar Haldar (1890–1964) to go with Lady Christiana Herringham in 1909 to study and copy the frescoes of Ajanta, a project sponsored by the India Society of London. Nandalal had once shown Nivedita a painting he had done of the mother goddess Kali. Nivedita liked it, but asked, “Why have you wrapped her up so much in clothes? Kali is naked, fearless, terrible.” Nandalal had briefly painted patas in the Kalighat style before he traveled to Ajanta, and once he saw the murals there he discerned a kinship between the Kalighat and Ajanta styles. He felt that the contemporary Kalighat style had a similar relationship to the classical Ajanta style as the art of the turn-of-the-century Tagore school did to Mughal and Persian painting. After seeing the Ajanta murals, he felt “a desire to tackle serious and thoughtful themes as in that [Ajanta] tradition.” Interestingly, neither Rabindranath nor Abanindranath was especially enamored of Ajanta paintings. Rabindranath lamented the absence of a gap anywhere in the Ajanta style; they were pictorially dense with every available space filled with imagery. For Nandalal, however, there were two kinds of space — the outer and the mental — and he maintained that the paintings of Ajanta exhibited “mental space, with a sense of peace and equipoise everywhere.” The unity of an Ajanta painting, he believed, was of a higher order than the compositional unity in a Van Gogh or a Persian painting and had “an epic quality.”
It was largely through the influence and encouragement of the Tagores that Nandalal was exposed to the art and ideals of East Asia. Rabindranath’s direct encounter with the power and scale of art in Japan during his 1916 visit to that country led him to urge Indian artists to look east in order to pioneer a fresh departure from the Swadeshi corpus of ideals. He asked his host, Taikan, to send one of his students to India, and artist Arai Kampo (1878–1945) traveled to Kolkata that year. His arrival triggered a fruitful collaboration with Nandalal: Arai taught Nandalal Japanese brush techniques while Nandalal explained the intricacies of the thirteenth-century eastern Indian sculptures of Konarak in Orissa to the Japanese visitor.
(Above, from top left): Floating on a Canoe. Nandalal Bose, watercolor on paper, 1947. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 4926; Dolan Champa. Nandalal Bose, tempera on paper, 1952. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 4812; and Village Huts. Nandalal Bose, watercolor and wash on paper, 1928. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 1893.
In 1917 Rabindranath was able to lure Nandalal to Santiniketan, and three years later he persuaded Nandalal to become principal of Visva-Bharati’s Kala Bhavan (Art House). While the university acquired a teacher of rare talent, Nandalal was able to perform this role without stifling his individual genius. Santiniketan liberated Nandalal from the conventions of fin-de-siècle new Indian art and enabled him to hone his own artistic skills and develop his own style. The quotidian delights of Indian social life now became as much a fount of his inspiration as the grandeur of Indian epics.
In 1924 Nandalal was afforded a unique opportunity to travel with Rabindranath to Burma, China, and Japan. The poet’s entourage on his travels typically included a small but formidable team of intellectuals and artists. Mukul Dey (1895–1989) was the artist who had accompanied Rabindranath to Japan in 1916; it would be Surendranath Kar (1892–1970) who traveled with him on a voyage to Southeast Asia in 1927. On the 1924 journey to East Asia, Rabindranath’s two companions from Santiniketan were Nandalal and Kshitimohan Sen (1880–1960), an erudite scholar of Sanskrit and comparative religion. On this trip Rabindranath preached the virtues of close interaction among Asian cultures. Stung by the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 (sometimes referred to as the Orientals Exclusion Act) in the United States, some of Rabindranath’s admirers even established an Asiatic Association in Shanghai to foster solidarity among all Asians. As the group traveled, Nandalal was somewhat disappointed to see that painting and the other higher arts in China had “become infected by the Western virus,” as he termed it. He also noticed “marvelous paintings” (even though the value of a work Rabindranath received as a gift from the titular emperor derived only from the “seal impressed on it”). Nandalal also collected a few beautiful old rubbings and picked up “prints, post cards, and books and also life stories of painters.” He himself did a number of sketches as picture postcards and documented the trip in photographs. In Japan Nandalal had the privilege of being hosted by Taikan, Rabindranath’s friend and the artist who had visited India, and he was introduced to masterpieces of Japanese art.
While still respectful of the traditions of Indian art, Nandalal’s work in the late 1920s and early 1930s reveals how far he had traveled from the predilections of the Swadeshi decade (1905–15). His artistic evolution is best exemplified in his experiments with the Madonna motif; these images were a radical break from the Bengal school’s early forms of venerating country and goddess as mother. At an exhibition in 1926–27, he displayed a small tempera panel featuring a human mother and child flanked on either side by three animal mothers with their cubs. The artistic equivalence of motherly love in the human and animal worlds was recognized by one important critic as a key innovation in the depiction of mother figures. Five years later Nandalal brilliantly portrayed a Bengali Madonna in his painting Birth of Caitanya, celebrating the birth of the great fifteenth-century Indian exponent of bhakti, or personal devotion to God. A certain resemblance was discernible, according to author Nirad C. Chaudhuri, between the facial contours of the Bengali Madonna and the mother in the 1926–27 tempera panel.
(Left): Darjeeling and Fog. Nandalal Bose, tempera on paper, 1945. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 4988. (Right): Dandi March (Bapuji). Nandalal Bose, linocut on paper, 1930. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Acc. no. 44893.
Even if Nandalal had moved artistically beyond the Swadeshi ideals of worshipping Bharatmata, patriotic sentiment still moved him. The civil disobedience movement stirred him sufficiently to create Dandi March (Bapuji), a 1930 linocut depicting Mahatma Gandhi on his salt march. He made another linocut of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, often known as the Frontier Gandhi, in 1936. However, his greatest contribution to the popular culture of mass nationalism was the Haripura posters, 84 by his own hand. These works embellished the public and private spaces of the annual session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura, Gujarat, in February 1938. “Following the pat[a] style,” he later wrote, “we did a large number of paintings and hung them everywhere — on the main entrance, inside the volunteers’ camps, even in the rooms meant for Bapuji [Mahatma Gandhi] and Subhasbabu [Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose], the president.” Many delegates at the Haripura session unfortunately had been afflicted with malaria. When Gandhi met Nandalal there, he smiled and asked, “Still alive?” Subhas Bose later visited Santiniketan in January 1939, where he met Rabindranath as well as Nandalal and his art students.
Nandalal remained alive as an artist for another two-and-a-half decades. Although the 1940s were a turbulent decade for Bengal, India, and indeed, the whole of Asia, Nandalal did not paint the horrors of famine and partition — that was left to his younger contemporaries, Somenath Hore (1921–2006) and Jainul Abedin (1914–1976). There is, however, a deep sense of irony in his painting Annapurna, which was created in 1943, the year of the great Bengal famine in which three million people died. More than three decades earlier, Nandalal had painted a serene picture titled Annapurna and Shiva. Now, in a combination of tempera and wash, he created the haunting Annapurna and Rudra (later simply titled Annapurna). Annapurna, who is seated on a lotus, holds a bowl of rice in her hands. Before her stands Shiva, reduced to a skeleton holding a begging bowl. Nandalal’s mood in the year of the great Bengal famine is captured in one of his letters: “I have realized the following in a dream,” he wrote. “Give up your attempts to find God; go on creating what you like; you are an artist, paint picture after picture.”
After independence was achieved in 1947, Nandalal began quietly and confidently to celebrate the Indian countryside in his art. Although one can certainly see a strong East Asian influence in some of his paintings, it would be an oversimplification to describe these late works as depictions of Indian landscape in a Japanese technique (see, for example, Landscape ). Through his restless experimentation with a range of artistic techniques — whether Persian, Chinese, or Japanese — Nandalal invariably found a way to give each work the stamp of his unique style and authority.
While it may be true to say that towards the end of his life he returned to his greatest forte as a linearist, it would be an injustice to Nandalal’s genius to dub him an “Oriental” artist by accepting uncritically Roger Fry’s early-twentieth-century dichotomy between the “linearism” of Eastern art and the “plasticity” of Western art. Nandalal, the master of lines, was equally adept at plasticity and tone. But more than that, Nandalal’s artistic imagination aspired to what historians and cultural critics have variously called a different universalism or a vernacular cosmopolitanism. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore won recognition as biswakabi (global poet), and Nandalal Bose deserves to be acknowledged as a biswashilpi (global artist). Rabindranath, who had recently started trying his hand at painting, did as much in a poem he composed on the occasion of Nandalal’s fiftieth birthday:
The poet has arisen in rapture today to play at your artistry
A new birth will take place in a new light.
His thought is drowned in language,
Open his eyes to show him the world’s beauty,
His heart yearns to run along your path.
This article was originally published in a catalogue accompanying the exhibit “Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose (1882–1966).” The exhibit was organized by the San Diego Museum of Art in collaboration with the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
The full-color, 244-page by Sonya Quintanilla included eight scholarly essays and reproductions of all works in the exhibition, including epic tableaus built for the maharajas of Baroda that were published for the first time.
Reprinted with permission. Special thanks to Golda Akhgarnia and the San Diego Museum of Art.