The Venice Biennale will open the doors of its 58th edition on May 11, and India has much to be proud about. This year, the ministry of culture has hand-picked the work of seven artists to be showcased at the Indian pavilion. The group exhibition titled ‘Our Time for a Future Caring’, based on Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophies, will feature works by Rummana Hussain, Atul Dodiya, G R Iranna, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Jitish Kallat, Ashim Purkayastha, and Nandalal Bose. Among these names, the Gandhian association is the strongest with Nandalal Bose, a star of the Bengal School of Art. It was his woodcut print (1930) that became the most recognisable symbol of the Mahatma, and the first of many milestones on Bose’s artistic journey.
The Tagore connection
Born in 1882 in Bihar, Bose moved to Calcutta for his art education. There, he found himself among Bengal’s fiery writers, poets and artists, who were fomenting nationalist ideals. The famous Tagore family would have the deepest impact on him. Abanindranath Tagore would offer him personal tutelage at the Calcutta School of Art, while Rabindranath would ask him to lead Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan from 1922 onwards. Bose would serve here as principal for almost 30 years, becoming part of the sub-movement now known as ‘Contextual Modernism’.
Art historian R Siva Kumar argued that to Santiniketan artists, modernism was neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position.
‘Unique historical position’
Bose’s unique historical position was on account of two reasons. The first being the genius of his art, and second, his addition to the nation’s political narrative.
The first won him numerous national and international exhibitions and awards, including a Padma Vibhushan, and a place in the Archaeological Survey of India’s list of nine masters whose works are considered national art treasures. The second was a result of several ‘political assignments’ that followed his Gandhi woodcut fame. The Mahatma himself requested him to create art for momentous political events such as the Haripura Congress session of 1938. The charged-up crowds gathered there would have noticed some patterned thatched gates and panels of paintings depicting the rural life of Bengal. These posters depicting everyday scenes with hunters, musicians, bull handlers, spinners and farmers would come to represent Gandhi’s vision of a graceful and self-sufficient rural India. It is, in fact, these prized Haripura panels that will be displayed at the Venice Biennale.
Another important landmark of Bose’s ‘nationalistic art’ was his illustration of the original Indian Constitution. Commissioned by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Bose and his students embellished the manuscript with motifs from Indian history and culture. Pandit Nehru also sought Bose’s talent to create emblems for national awards such as the Bharat Ratna and Padma Shri.
Now, as the country stands polarised in the thick of general elections, is an interesting time to reflect upon Bose’s association with India’s political stalwarts. Today, artists who make their political inclinations known draw major attention. When artists pose for selfies with leaders, or write loaded tweets, or interview politicians, it raises pertinent questions. Does popular art affect popular opinion? Is an artist responsible for proclaiming or rejecting certain ideals?
Making a statement
Back in Bose’s day, when the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ were more easily identifiable, those answers were less elusive. He was perhaps the natural choice for projects of national importance, because his art embodied a truthful essence of the Indian tradition while being equally honest to modernism — the right mix of Gandhian and Nehruvian ideals.
In terms of themes, Bose’s artistic focus on Indian mythology, country life and historical art was deceptively simple. In his Sabari series, he depicted the eponymous Ramayana character — an old forest woman who offered Lord Rama fruit she had first tasted — in three stages of her life as a Santhal woman of rural Bengal. Although these paintings have been criticised as playing into a nationalist bid to ‘Hinduise’ the Santhals, it is possible that like most of his modernist Indian peers, Bose was trying to make art more accessible using contexts we understand best — our epics.
(Urmi Chanda-Vaz, a psychologist by training, dabbles in Indian history and culture)
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