What did Gandhi and Tagore find in his work?
Mahatma Gandhi (Bapuji) on the Dandi March, 1930, by Nandalal Bose
NOT HAVING BEEN EXPOSED TO ART IN THE way I imagine more sophisticated viewers were from their childhood—John Berger and Susan Sontag’s art-viewing life are part of a mythology in my head, for instance—I came to it quite late. No art hung from the walls of our house, nothing except glossy-paged wall calendars that had some kind of artwork on them. That is all my parents could afford—by which I mean that they could not afford art at all, unless it came for free, as it did on the calendar. My father, a loyal employee of his nationalised bank in socialist India, would sometimes allow himself to complain against his bank—they printed those dull calendars without any images. My mother waited for the year to pass, after which she would cut out the images she liked and saved them in her notebook—for what we still don’t know.
What I did not realise was that the art reproductions that she cut out of stale calendars year after year were by her favourite artist. She had occasionally mentioned his name in conversations, but, because he was from Santiniketan, her hometown, I took the name to be that of a relative or acquaintance that I would never have to meet. If only I had bothered to look closely at the unreadable print below the paintings on the calendars, I’d have seen his name. But such is the nature of introductions. I discovered Nandalal Bose fairly late, well past the time by which I imagine tastes in art, literature and music are formed.
What I did not know, however, was that I had actually met Nandalal in the first book I had read in school—in Sahaj Path, the Bangla primer with which most Bengali children begin their reading life. The linocuts that accompanied Rabindranath Tagore’s rhymes—usually rhyming couplets—about each letter of the Bangla alphabet were by Nandalal, but, such are the limitations of our education, that his name was never mentioned in class or even later; only the poet’s was. When I think of it now, that was my first introduction to art. The reproduced images of my mother’s calendar cuttings were, in that sense, a continuation of my initiation into a way of looking that I would come to take as natural.
Every generation of Bangla-learning school children in the last one hundred years has been educated by both these sounds and images, so that they have entered the community’s subconscious. I mention this only to emphasise that, like Nandalal’s work reproduced on wall calendars, his art in this book, as on the many covers of books and magazines, became so tied to our lives, to the eyes of our lives, that one took it as much for granted as one did the arrival of cauliflowers in the early Bengali winter, or Durga puja, or the character of light in autumn. It was just there, part of our visual inheritance. By the time I started going to school in Bengal, the ‘scenery’ that we had to draw in class had become an anachronism. We drew thatched roof huts and streams with ducks on them, grass on fields and v-winged birds without really having seen any of these around us—they belonged to a time and place that was no longer available to us. They had permeated our consciousness from being repeatedly invoked in our teachers’ poems and drawings, but also—I can only speculate—from the life in Sahaj Path and Nandalal’s paintings in calendars and on matchboxes and advertisements. All of this is to say that Nandalal had become a sensibility—it wasn’t a particular work of his that took on the status of a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel did for Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo respectively. Yes, there are well-circulated Nandalal Bose paintings—of trees and rivers, women and men, walking and living; I do not mention their names in English because they feel out of tone—in the world of art and conversation around it, but the people’s Nandalal is less a work of art as it is a manner of looking at the world.
I say ‘looking’ not in the sense of ‘seeing’ alone, but also the political range of emotion that it brings. Two of the Indian nation’s most-discussed political thinkers turned to Nandalal at two different moments in history. The first of these was Mohandas Gandhi, who asked him to design the pavilion at the Haripura Congress in 1938. My edition of Nandalaler Bapuji— Nandalal’s Bapuji, one of the names by which Gandhi was addressed—edited by Sushovan Adhikari has a line drawing of the Father of the Indian nation by the artist on the cover.
It might be the first time I have seen this, but the architecture of these lines and their seeming simplicity and ability in conjuring the figure of a sitting Gandhi has been with me—perhaps inside me—ever since I can remember. It is how my brother and I, and some of our classmates, felt clever on October 2 every year. On Gandhi Jayanti, many would bring their paintings of him, in the way they would paint a piece of paper with saffron and green to turn it into the Indian national flag on Independence Day. We felt clever because of the economy of lines that could create Gandhi, his walking stick and his round glasses and slightly bent spine. Looking at Nandalal’s Gandhi on the cover of the book before me, I can see where it had come from. I’m not surprised to discover therefore, even so late in my life, that Ramkinkar Baij based his sculpture of Gandhi on Nandalal’s linocut.
The ethical impulse that drove Nandalal remained unchanged between Haripura and Sahaj Path, even as he moved from the space of the book to public art. Between these moments, and, of course, even later, would come the extraordinary murals on the walls of Visva-Bharati’s Kala Bhavan, on which he worked with students and colleagues. They are, in spite of digressions in form and genre, related by one common aim—to capture the rhythm and impulse of the movements of life. What is life, how does it move, through whom does it move? It was perhaps this curiosity—and the democracy of vision—that did not let him distinguish between statesman and crow or an ancient king and a fallen flower by the roadside.
In the Haripura Congress pavilion are artworks that show a woman pulling and cutting thread, the rhythm of her body invoking the sculpture of the temples that Nandalal had visited, her task relating her to Gandhi on the charkha. This annotation of an older form by smuggling the present moment into it marks all his art—the cobbler at work, the background of the painting as if belonging to a time-loved fresco; the seemingly whimsical lines of grains being threshed; the ‘tribal’ women, the lines in the frame crowded, so as to compel greater attention on their bearing; Mirabehn, milking a goat for Gandhi; the musicians and dancers, with their different instruments, the flute, the dholak and the dafli, the tailor, and the woman cooking, all of them given to us in the likeness of frames from the country’s miniaturist tradition; the styles as various as the people at work and people on walks (my favourite from the Haripura session is the drawing of Gandhi on his evening walk on Tithal beach). People at work—what ‘still life’ has been for a tradition of art and looking, working and living, being caught in the middle as it were, was for Nandalal.
WHAT HAD ENDEARED THE LINOCUTS TO ME in Sahaj Path—the bawling infant, the woman stirring a pot of rice, the palm trees beside a pond, a patient boatman on a river, an exhausted farmer dragging his cow home, the otherworldly drummer playing the dhak, a mother putting a child to sleep, a bullock cart moving away from our sight, and fish and forests and umbrellas, men and women returning from work, their sweat and the colour of evening visible even in these lines without colour—was the world that was ferried to our eye and to our consciousness. It came from a belief that everyone—and everything—was worthy of our attention and that this life, of the people, of the living, of their living, was a world of enchantment. What I felt most strongly, particularly as a child, was the impress of community. In a small town with only my parents and brother as family, my parents having decided to move to a town from my father’s village just so that they could send their children to better schools than those my father had studied in, I missed them unconsciously, without knowing who or what I missed—people, their sounds, unpredictable and various, different from the language of my parents and teachers. It was Nandalal, I can see now, that made my friendships possible— in this neighbourhood of people from lower income groups, most of them being what in Bangla is called ‘din aana din khawa’, daily-wage earners, my brother and I were the only children who studied in an English medium school. School dropouts, their lives as interesting and imaginative as the people in Nandalal’s Sahaj Path, became our friends. They, quite naturally, found my brother’s world and mine tame and boring— theirs was just the opposite, of catching fish from overflowing drains, running after kites, permanently scratched knees, an ad hoc living dependent more on natural cycles of time than routine. Before I got to know them, I had met them in these linocuts. Though the world had changed between the time of Nandalal’s drawings and my going to school, one thing had certainly remained unchanged: it was the ability of life to enchant, of the magic of our surroundings that we were being tutored to ignore for the spectacular, and it was the arousal of a sense of community, of a life beyond and outside ourselves, a ceaseless gesture towards a ‘We’.
What had endeared me to the linocuts in Nandalal Bose’s Sahaj Path—the bawling infant, the woman stirring a pot of rice—was the world that was ferried to our eye and to our consciousness. It came from a belief that everyone—and everything—was worthy of our attention and that this life, of the people, of the living, of their living, was a world of enchantment
It was in the name of the primer: Sahaj, simple. That would have been Rabindranath Tagore’s choice (his investment in the ‘sahaj’ is evident not only in his writing—‘Sahaj katha boltey amaye bawlo je/ Sahaj katha jaaye na bawla shawhojey, You ask me to say it in simple words/It’s not simple, speaking in simple words’— but also apparent when one becomes conscious of the Bangla language before and after Tagore), but it is how I understood Nandalal’s philosophy of art. In the family he created for those meeting Bangla for the first time, in Sahaj Path, meeting them as one meets strangers without appointments, in the middle of the day, in the middle of their lives, we were gradually weaned away from an understanding of the province of art and literature as being only on those in the spotlight. This, I think, was how modernism was introduced early to lives like mine. When I would go on to study literature, I would discover that some of the British modernists, Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence for instance, in their very different ways, were doing the same thing in their writing at around the same time—that Mrs Dalloway, whoever she was, as anonymous as most of us, was deserving of attention, as worthy of the title of a book as the infant learning to talk is on the first page of Sahaj Path.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, was the other person who turned to Nandalal Bose. The artist, with his team in Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavan—and Beohar Rammanohar Sinha in Jabalpur—was responsible for the art in the Preamble section of the Indian Constitution. For these paintings that form the margins and header of some of these pages, Nandalal and Sinha turned to the Indian subcontinent’s ancient past, both geographical and historical, even mythic: to the Himalayas, episodes from the Mahabharata, charioteering scenes, swayamvar and sati, the Buddha, and others fighting for freedom. The margins of these pages are as lively as those in the Jatakamala and other Buddhist manuscripts, but also a homage to the folk tradition of the alpana.
Just as he had been transformed by his visits to the Ajanta and Ellora caves, as it gave him possibilities outside the ‘European’ style that was taught to apprentices in Calcutta’s Government Art College at that time, to fashion a style that was robust and nourished by an ancient tradition as it was responsive to the moment he was inhabiting in history, he used the opportunity to draw attention to people and places from India’s past. It seemed to be his way of suggesting this to a very young nation, so that they did not become forgetful of this ‘discovery of India’. In these paintings too, in spite of their obvious invocation of the great people of history, there is something that makes them relatives both to the communities created in Sahaj Path and the Haripura Pavilion and ours, that we were related in a way it is difficult for commoners like us to see ourselves as related to god or king.
The first words of the Indian constitution are ‘We the people …’ The phrase has an interesting historical lineage—one that goes back to political movements in the mid-19th century Bengal as much as to the American Constitution, which, too, begins with the same words—but it has often seemed to me that the people in Nandalal’s art, coming as they did to us, publicly, outside galleries and the art world, in school primers, political meetings, the pages of the Indian constitution, all of these then reproduced, most often without credit, in objects of daily use, had channelled itself into the overwhelming political and emotional energy of that line, of a document that gives us dignity—We the people.