Nandal Bose: A Humanist & Modernist

With special reference to Haripura Posters

Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) was born to Purnachandra Bose and Kshetramani Devi in the obscure town of Haveli Kharagpur in Monghyr district of Bihar Province. Nandalal was fortunate to inherit some of the painting virtues from his parents. While he attained the discipline and a hardworking nature from his father, his mother’s interests for drawing and craftsmanship helped him move ahead. Thus, Nandalal gained interest in modeling images since childhood and created images of Durga, Ganesh, elephants, and bulls that were exhibited in fairs and festivals.

Nandalal Bose had a kind of obvious interest in taking care for the décor, and aesthetical arrangements for the performances, rituals and rituals held in territory of Shantiniketan. He was the pioneer figure who very actively fostered the ideas of collective and community involvement by incorporating his co-mates and pupils in various activities. Well! Its true to say that the eminent personalities of his time had contributed a great hand to uplift the art-education and awareness on a mass level along with Nandalal Bose; and when discussing them, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and Kabi guru Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) will hold the prior Chairs. While Tagore’s eminent contributions were pioneering the cultural renaissance in the country; on the other hand Gandhi’s concern was more towards the political and economic independence of the country. With the adoration of these two personas and his own wide vision, Nandlal settled the exposure of Indian art and heritage on a mass global context. A man rooted to the ground, always paid the tribute to the villagers, potters and artisans and fashioned them in his later ideas as well.

Historically speaking the time was ripe for campaign on behalf of indigenous art and craftsmanship and its evediented in the pages of history how E.B. Havel and A.K. Coomaraswami played a great role in the Swadeshi movement. Nandalal Bose had walked down the villages and was very successful to run the nativity and love for common people in his veins. Perhaps, it can be said that this interest was lying in his attitude from the childhood and this was the only reason reasons behind his meetings with the woodworkers, metal smiths, scroll painters etc. Nandalal keenly followed their methods and picked up certain technical nuances like a faithful disciple. He had observed that rural areas of India were adventurous in the use of colour on person, in textiles, in toys and in paintings.  For all this artistic explorations, it goes without saying that Nandalal’s love for common people was the nub of his creativity.

Nandalal Bose and Mahatma Gandhi:

Art and artistic creation have always given a reflection of the social, economic and intellectual environment of a society.  The period of the Indian freedom struggle was full of patriotism when everybody worked together under the leadership of great men.

It is a well known fact that the Indian National Movement had a tremendous impact on public life.  The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century’s introduced it to a more organized and extreme phase which influenced the contemporary artists also.  Hence they chose the freedom struggle as a subject for their paintings.  These artists felt that it was a kind of service to “Swadeshi” and national movement.  On the other hand, some of the national leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, also took help from traditional Indian art as an expression of patriotism.  To some extent, these national leaders also understood the growing popularity and sincerity of these artists.  Not only Indian artists by also some international artists worked in this respect and conveyed their faithfulness to and regard for the Indian National Movement.

To Gandhi the discovery of Nandalal and art both were delightful and even by the faithful percepts of the Gandhi Nandalal vision was enriched. Gandhi’s love for the country people and the welfare of the nation was a common share between Nandalal and Gandhi. Gandhi’s call for Indian artisan was the major call for Nandalal and which was well focused. The famous lino-cut he did in the wake of Gandhi’s historic Dandi march in March 1930 gave strong evidence about Nandalal’s admiration on Gandhi. His war against the Salt-law that charged the entire nation was symbolized in a black-white lino-cut of modest size depicting Mahatma stepping out with his walking stick, evoking a sense of strong will to overcome all obstacles, which later on was fashioned as the most iconic style of the Gandhi. History says that Nandalal was never known to Gandhi personally until 1935, it was in 1935 when Gandhi personally approached Nandalal Bose to arrange the exhibition in Luknow Congress Session. Gandhi believed that the introduction of Art and Craft in the exhibition will bring the common people more closely to the party, so he thought of placing the same concept in subsequent sessions. Though Nandalal was initially apprehensive, he took it on his tread and despite harsh scantiness of finances got Benodebehari Mukherjee, Prabhat Mohan Bandopadhyay, Vinayak Masoji and Asit Kumar Haldar to assist him in this task. With his team from Santiniketan he decorated the entire exhibition hall in a very simple manner with the help of reed, bamboo and timber.  In his speech at the exhibition ground (28 March 1936) Gandhi said: “This exhibition to my mind brings out concretely for the first time the conception of a true rural exhibition…. It is the purpose of this exhibition to show that even things which we town dwellers do not like may be used both to the villagers’ and our advantage.”[i] After the mesmerizing presence of austerity Bose’ was called by Gandhi gain for the decoration of Faizpur Congress Session, 1936. Gandhi wanted Nandalal to take the charge of entire exhibition, replying which Nandalal wrote that he is just a painter; where as the entire set-up was architectural. . But Gandhi would not accept refusal. The artist later recalled that Gandhi wrote to encourage him with this cryptic message: “I do not want an expert pianist; I want a devoted fiddler. [ii] Gandhi imagined an entire township (Tilak Nagar in Central India) built with local materials – wood, bamboo, and hay – and wanted the exhibits primarily to be the handiwork of the local village artisans. The resulting exhibition and built environment go beyond all expectations, and Nandalal’s resourceful use of simple local down-to-earth materials became a model for young designers in the years to come. In the main space where the exhibition was arranged, Nandalal had the ingenious idea of sprouting wheat seedlings around the central pole. When the exhibition was thrown open to the public, visitors saw a round oasis of live greenery in the middle of a graveled floor space. This new way of adornment by pressing nature into a wonderful service received impetuous admiration from all stations.

Haripura Posters

The year of 1938 adorned one more responsibility of decorating the congress session at Haripura, Gujrat. Once again Gandhi made Nandalal Bose in charge of evry liabilities. The idea of creating the unique environment infused with local art and craft. And once again Nandalal pleaded his inability, partly because he was not keeping well and partly he was demoralized to hear that some local artists gave public expression to their parochial feelings as they were unhappy to have somebody from outside Gujarat. Nandalal proceeded to Haripura and studied the site and surveyed the availability of local materials and craftsmanship. At Haripura, Nandalal turned the rambling area into a wonderful example of environmental art. Gates, pillars, exhibition, cluster of stalls, thatched shelters, landscape garden, meeting areas and residential tents were all decorated with local material of bamboo, thatch and khadi of different hues. Earthen pots and vessels were adorned with designs; tassels of paddy grass hung in rows, baskets and cane work – made by the hands of local craftspeople – were all used to lend the session an elegant rural atmosphere. As a significant component of this huge public art Nandalal planned separate paintings which were later to become famous as Haripura posters depicting Indian life in all its variety. This all efforts were calculated as the pre-buzz of the sessions and was immense successful even.

Its reported that Nandalal painted nearly eighty posters himself about the size of 2 feet by 2 feet and his co-operators and students made close replicas of them, the total number of posters was close to 400 copies. The posters were executed on handmade papers and stretched on strawboard. The earthen pigments on the posters were applied by the indigenous brushes like bamboo and thatches. Gandhi wanted the posters to be placed on the cozy sites where the attempt was to catch the attention of every passerby. The whole panorama visualized by Gandhi , Nandalal and his team had turned in to a public art event into a unseen scale.

Significant Values of Haripura Posters

Posters and advertisement collaterals always holds a prior place in the minds of the viewers as it makes the subject very exclusive. Haripura posters celebrated the Indian rural life in a very different manner, the compositions merged with pata-chitra style and loaded with the earthy pigments made it more akin to the indigenous human life. In simple swipes of the brushes the posters raveled the subjects related to the human life and daily activities, professions and trades as well. The culled observations turning in to rapid sketches were drawn to constellate the moments of daily life. It’s true that the kind of emotion bestowed in the forms of Haripura posters requires a level of attachment for which Nandalal travelled through the village and experienced the rural life. The swift, spontaneous strokes contouring the forms and figures encourage an equally effortless viewing reminiscent of the character and temperament of Kalighat Pata and various other folk paintings that eschew any labored or affected idiom.

About Haripura posters once Binodebehari Mukhopadhyaya, “In these Haripura panels painted for the session, there is an ineluctable harmony of tradition and study based on observation. Each poster is different from the next in form as well as in colour and yet there runs all through a strong undercurrent of emotional unity, lending a familial stamp. The artist has not looked towards any ideals either traditional or modem, but keeping an eye on the contemporary situation, has worked out his own goal. The stream of form and colour which flows over the subject, subordinating it, brings these posters into kinship with mural art.” [iii]

Contents depicting subjects like Hunters, Musicians, Bull Handlers, Carpenter, Smiths, Spinner, Husking women and modest scenes of rural life including animal rearing, child-nursing and cooking were well depicted with charm, joy and linguistic figures in the Haripura Posters. More over the delightful subjects were depicted with a center stage feeling by putting the pony-cusped frame on subject, the frame reflects a niche which was added to procure the depth. The vigorous dynamic forms of certain figures of course cut across the frame thus saving the images from monotony.

Harpura Posters brought out a new vive in the field of popular culture and mass nationalism, with a great vision towards community involvement. The stylistic development in the technique and forms of the posters evolved a new genealogy and language. The basic idea of “art for human” was well sensed in the Haripura posters.

[i] Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereafter referred to as CWMG), (New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India, 1976), Vol. 62, pp. 298-99.
Vivan Sundaram and others, Addressing Gandhi: 125 Years of Mahatma Gandhi, pp.127.
   Dinkar Kowshik, , ‘Nandalal Bose, the doyen of Indian art’  (National Book Trust, India, 1985), p.50

  • Nandalal Bose, “The True Artist,” Gandhiji: His Life and Work (Bombay: Karnatak Publishing House, 1944).
  • K. G. Subramanyan, ‘The Nandalal Gandhi Rabindranath Connection’, Rhythms of India, The Art of Nandalal Bose, (San Diego Museum of Art, California, 2008) Nandalal Bose, Vision and Creation, (Visva Bharati, 1999.

Debabrata Das
Delhi based curator and writer

Doodles of Rabindranath Tagore: A vision from the subconcious

Doodles of Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was the youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, which was a new religious sect in nineteenth-century Bengal and which attempted a revival of the ultimate monistic basis of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads. He was educated at home; and although at seventeen he was sent to England for formal schooling, he did not finish his studies there.

In his mature years, in addition to his many-sided literary activities, he managed the family estates, a project which brought him into close touch with common humanity and increased his interest in social reforms. He also started an experimental school at Shantiniketan where he tried his Upanishadic ideals of education. From time to time he participated in the Indian nationalist movement, though in his own non-sentimental and visionary way; and Gandhi, the political father of modern India, was his devoted friend. Tagore was knighted by the ruling British Government in 1915, but within a few years he resigned the honour as a protest against British policies in India.Tagore had early success as a writer in his native Bengal. With his translations of some of his poems he became rapidly known in the West. In fact his fame attained a luminous height, taking him across continents on lecture tours and tours of friendship. For the world he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for Bengal, he became a great living institution.Ra-Tha: Tagore came to art via primitivistic form-making, making grotesque zoomorphic patterns in black and white. In the context of our investigation, it is important to note that he entered art through the corridor of black and white form-making. He must have studied a lot of artifacts, masks and other ritual-cum-decorative objects from tribal cultures, in life and in reproduction. These gave him some of the ideas for his famous MS doodling, out of which his art emerged. The Kala Bhavana library still holds a richly illustrated book called The Art of Old Peru (1924), which could have well accompanied him on his voyage on the Andes that year, when he started the doodlings in the famous ‘Purabi manuscript’. Not knowing Bengali, Ratan Parimoo had imagined that Tagore had not mentioned primitive art in any of his writings. But actually Tagore was aware of the theoretical importance of returning to primitive art; he talks about it in his journal Paschim-yatrir Diary in an entry (14 February 1925) written on the last leg of his journey home from South America. Parimoo was also unsure if Tagore had expressed any interest in the art of the South American cultures. But the picture of this part of Tagore’s life is much clearer since the publication of researches on his Argentine adventure. Tagore did wish to explore the art of the Amerindians and was vexed at not being able to go to Peru and Mexico. In Argentina he saw books about the Incas, expressed his interest in their art and his sadness at the destruction of their artifacts, and also examined a rich collection of Quechua images and textiles. Artefacts continued to inspire him even when he had made good progress in art and had started working in colour. In Ronger Rabindranath we have demonstrated resemblances between his works and a wide range of artefacts, of a truly global provenance: African, Malanggan, Chinese (bronzes), Peruvian, Haida, Tlingit. The resemblance between his famous signature-seal designed by himself, made out of his initials in Bengali, and the salmon-trout head motif of Haida folk art is revealing. This was one of the most marvellous resemblances which trace the incline of the Tagore towards his subconscious mind.

Tagore’s colour vision deficiency almost certainly inhibited and delayed his development as a visual artist. He never had the confidence to take formal lessons in art, though he encouraged his nephews, Abanindranath and Gaganendranth, to do so. He did not try to learn European-style naturalistic painting, though his own poetry of the 1890’s and the writings of his nephew Balendranath Tagore from the same period, which were closely supervised and monitored by him, clearly show the influence of the female nude of classical Western art. But the transfiguration of the forms on primitive measures visualizes the creative aspect of the artist and which sourced from the subconscious mind and reveals his surreal background.

Contributed by: Debabrota Das