The art of Nandalal Bose and the quest for true Swadeshi

The depiction of village life in the ‘Haripur panels’ has the immediacy of a socially engaged vision

 ‘Haripura panels’ by Nandalal Bose
‘Haripura panels’ by Nandalal Bose

Jyoti Sahi

The first-ever comprehensive showcase of paintings commissioned by Mahatma Gandhi for what turned out to be a significant session of the Congress at Haripura, Gujarat, in 1938, is now on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru.

Considered a national treasure, the ‘Haripura panels’ are the work of painter and teacher Nandalal Bose (1882–1966). Seeing them, I was struck anew by the political impact of the freedom struggle on the imagination of artists. The exhibition explores the nationalism of Nandalal Bose, as well as the fact that he represents the source of a uniquely Indian modernism.

Was the underlying impulse of Bose’s genius simply a return to the past, inspired by his youthful participation in the ‘Swadeshi’ movement? (Bose was in his early 20s in 1905 when the movement began.) Or was his art something quite new in the Indian tradition, and in that sense a sign of a modern vision in Indian culture?

The relationship between art and nationalism raises larger questions concerning the roots of modern Indian art. The driving impulse behind the effort to break free of colonial dependency was the desire to rediscover an authentic self-image.

The self-sufficiency implied by Swadeshi acknowledged that every community receives what is needed for life from its natural and cultural environment. In a way, this is a geographically determined concept of culture. Every authentic culture evolves out of a relationship between the individual and the community, and with the physical body of the land that provides a nurturing environment for what we call a nation.

However, ‘self-sufficiency’ is not simply about a national identity. Creative art addresses the relationship between a culture and its natural environment. Culture cannot grow through self-dependence alone. Growth arises from the interplay between different, though complementary, forces.

The image of a tree represents the link between sky and earth. It symbolises the coming together of what is above, and what is below; what is seen, and what remains hidden. A seed, in order to sprout, needs both earth and water. A living plant grows naturally towards the light and warmth that comes from above the soil.

Organic growth is the consequence of inner and outer energies working together. In that sense, nothing is sufficient unto itself, as every living process implies moving outwards, reaching towards what is the ‘other’. In the same way, any living culture responds to external influences that enhance the potentiality within the local.

The tree reminds us of the inter-connectedness of every branch of life. The flowers and fruits of a tree represent the vitality that involves many other creatures beyond the individual tree.

Influenced by his teacher Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951), Nandalal Bose was deeply affected by the study of the Ajanta frescoes. These murals incorporate scenes from everyday life, executed in the second century before our common era, scenes that have shaped the imagination of many artists through millennia.

While Indian art is profoundly indebted to this vision of life, it is not possible (nor even desirable) for artists today to repeat the art that comes to us from some 22 centuries ago. Though Bose encouraged his students to explore the everyday life in the countryside around Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan for their imaginative growth, he never insisted that students copy- paste artistic styles.

His own artistic approach to natural materials owes much to exchanges with contemporaries from China and Japan, who were drawn to the universal vision of Tagore’s experiment.

Bose’s use of natural art materials is evident in the ‘Haripura panels’. The themes of everyday village life, painted with a simple directness and spontaneous brush strokes, are unique in that they derive their strength from the synthesis of Indian and Far-Eastern art traditions.

The attempt of the Bengal School of Art style to return to the past achievements of Indian art reminds one of the spirit that infused the pre-Raphaelite revivalist art movement in England, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. John Ruskin (1819–1900) along with Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) and William Morris (1834–1896), developed a decorative approach to aesthetics, which they believed expressed the essence of Gothic art.

The problem with this romantic effort to go back in time to recover a lost pre-industrial culture in harmony with nature was that it lacked a real engagement with the present and future of British culture. The Bengal School, while preparing the ground for an ‘Indian’ style, seems to lack the vigour and energy that can be seen in the art of Nandalal Bose.

Like his contemporary Jamini Roy (also a student of Abanindranath Tagore), Nandalal broke away from an imitation of the past, trying instead to find Indian identity in contemporary folk art.

The depiction of village life in the ‘Haripur panels’ is reminiscent of the art of Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) who broke from the historical themes of the Parisian academic art of his day to paint his native rural culture. Millet’s celebration of everyday peasant life deeply influenced Van Gogh.

The democratisation of art, drawing from the realities of those who live in direct contact with the cycles of nature, represents a modern outlook on folk culture. Such art, by being more accessible, has the immediacy of socially engaged and politically concerned vision.

It is in this sense that one can see in the art of Nandalal Bose what Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947) called ‘true Swadeshi’, as opposed to the ‘false Swadeshi’ that draws from an imagined past. This is the significance of Nandalal Bose in today’s social, cultural and political environment. The exhibition, which is on till April 2024, raises important questions on ideas of swadeshi, nationalism and the role of cultural diversity in rediscovering our roots.

(Jyoti Sahi is an artist and teacher, who runs an ‘Art Ashram’ in Silvepura, Bengaluru. Courtesy: The Billion Press)

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