Art News & Views

Nandalal Bose

by Dr. Sanjoy Kumar Mallik

For someone who has spent the formative years as a student of visual arts in Kala Bhavana, Nandalal Bose is a name that most certainly does not remain unfamiliar. Nor can one remain ignorant of the range of his oeuvre or the stylistic distinctiveness that identifies him. Yet, the fact that he is one of those artists whose works are covered under the National Treasures Act, had somehow never assumed centre-stage importance in my consciousness as being a primary index to his significance not even when I would notice the words “non-exportable item” against a photographic image of his painting in an auction catalogue. While this could be claimed to be a sign of individual ignorance, it may perhaps also be read as a testimony to the sheer 'obviousness' with which we accept and regard him as a phenomenon at Santiniketan.

However, for the moment, I have not set myself the task of entering into a critical debate on artists whose works bear the tag of National treasure; with Nandalal, I suppose I may not be competent enough either, because unlearning and distancing, and auto-critique are the most difficult achievements. Those who are fortunate to approach from the benefit of distance are blessed; I dwell in extreme proximity. And yet, I would like to begin from the conviction that it is possible to embark upon an appreciative comprehension of Nandalal's oeuvre by adopting routes other than the conventional eulogies on established iconic examples alone. I shall prefer not to venture into a biographical-chronological charting of his emergence to prominence as an artist, nor ponder on the merit of the murals he had painted at Santiniketan, nor delectably trace the much-extolled and well-known compositions that I suppose would be familiar to many; further, there are copious texts to that effect which the inquisitive may refer, should they need to.

For the present, my objective is extremely humble  to share my enthusiastic interest in a couple of images that have always fascinated me ever since I 'met' them, not because they happen to be 'masterpieces', but because I have been intrigued with what transpires within them, in terms of linguistic and/or content-related manifestations.

The 1983 Centenary Exhibition catalogue from the NGMA was my first revelation of the breadth of Nandalal's oeuvre. Habitually turning over the pages to proceed from one reproduction to the next, I had to linger on at the thirty-fourth image, 1943 tempera on paper identified by the title “Bagadar Road (Hazaribagh)” in the catalogue. Till date I haven't seen the original and am unaware of the palette; my sole reference is this monochrome reproduction. A prominently placed hut and a tree occupy a major segment of the pictorial space in the middle foreground. Spread out around these large forms is a softly undulating land, dotted with shrubs, amidst which sits a villager and his bullock cart. But once this initial familiarity of a Nandalal landscape had seeped in, it became imperative to notice a small unusual element the utterly lyrical and idyllic calm was being cut through by a fleet of armored tanks, moving in diagonally from the upper top corner of the pictorial space and passing behind the hut and the tree. Two of these appear in full view on the left, but the candid device of cutting the third at the right-hand limit of the painting effectively translates into the equivalent of a silent intrusive transition. As a painter, Nandalal possessed a strongly defined and distinctive conviction in the purpose of art; the concurrent emergence of a personal linguistic idiom had close links with it in being and becoming the perfect carrier of that world view and aesthetics. Armoured tanks certainly did not occupy a position of priority as objects of pictorial meditation within his scheme of things. And yet, at date like 1943, Nandalal failed to remain unresponsive to what was obviously a recurrent and immediate experiential reality. And as such, this image constitutes a direct response to the visible actualities in a historic circumstance. It is here that one needs to recall how in September of the very same year, the calamitous effect of the man-made famine found a symbolic-metaphoric statement in Nandalal's watercolour and tempera painting titled “Annapurna”. Here, more predictably in tune with his disposition, a four-armed skeletal Shiva dances in front of the goddess of abundance with an empty begging bowl in hand. Despite the incisive allegorical twist rendered to the divinities, the painting nevertheless remains a statement cloaked in the garb of the mythological, whereby the actualities of pain and suffering are elevated to the level of ecstatic emancipation.

But it is at the same time true that the painting is characterized by an overall harmony, where the linear and tonal treatment of the tanks do not project them into a commentary on the disruptive dislocation produced by the war-situation. Though distinctly identifiable in formal terms, linguistically the tanks blend into the rest of the pictorial arrangement, akin to their camouflaged surreptitious movement. Neither is this image a profound romanticist rejection of the urban-industrial incursions (I have in mind Constable's landscapes), nor is this an open political statement in protest (and in this case I am thinking of the left-oriented protest visuals of the forties in Bengal). The “Bagadar Road (Hazaribagh)” is an image that is closely similar to the villager painted within it the actualities of the day are clear, the thundering threat of the war distinctly close by, but life continues on its usual rhythm until it is violently dislocated by forces beyond its control.

More recently, another exquisite publication drew justified attention to Nandalal once again.  This is the catalogue to the exhibition “Rhythms of India/ the Art of Nandalal Bose” held at the San Diego Museum of Art (2008). Reproduction sixty, in this volume, is my second object of fascination. Titled “Kinkar's statue”, it is a 1944 watercolour on paper where much like the previous example an unexpected intrusion within an idyllic setting transforms the image potential of the painting; only in this case it is an aircraft flying in the skies. Ramkinkar's 1938 direct cement-concrete sculpture “Santal Family” is of monumental proportions; expanded in proportional scale these towering human figures loom large above human height. The rough textured surface and the massive solidity of the sculptural forms bring about a contrapuntal relationship between the identifiable familiarity of the physiognomic type and the iconic presence and enormity of the work-of-art. Ramkinkar appears to have been aware of this toiler-icon duality and is supposed to have recounted an episode where this simple-profound distinction was spelt out by a responsive villager who had paused to observe the sculpture. In Nandalal's watercolour the proportional enormity of the sculpture remains in scale, indicated by the difference in height of the villagers walking around and passing by the sculpture. Yet in linear rendering, there is hardly any distinction between the calligraphic twists and curves that define the contours of the human figures from their sculptural counterparts. This has a surprising effect, because with a stress on the resonance of similarity, the majestic monumentality is visibly softened down to an approachable proximity. Sculpture and actual human figures populate a common territory, sharing the same domain and expressing the same physicality. The sole distinction is the hue, lighter tones for the human bodies and a darker tint in the sculpture. But what disrupts this harmony of co-existence, and the statement of an art-life continuum, is the drone of the aircraft flying above, a not-so-quiet reminder of the political situation of a world at war as well as of the turbulence in the decade in which the painting was being executed. Once more, a pictorial form that is not part of the regular repertoire of the painter has been invoked for transformative impact.

In contrast, a perfect instance where Nandalal distinguishes his linear definition of form would be the two linocuts on paper prints “Dandi March (Bapuji)” and Abdul Gaffar Khan. Though separated by six years in their date of execution, the format indicates a kinship, as much as the kinship between Gandhi and the “Frontier Gandhi” in terms of their common agenda of non-violent protest. While the Mahatma's powerful stride and purposive strength of determination is translated into the crystalline sharp angularity of the defining strokes that delineate the form, the characteristic difference in the softer strength in Abdul Gaffar Khan is communicated through the thinner lines and their calligraphic swirls. Though both images are dependent on the dramatic contrast of white lines on black, the linear language sufficiently modulates in its effort to recreate personality distinction.

Coming to linocut prints, I am fascinated with the images that Nandalal devised for Rabindranath's Bengali primer, the “Sahaj Path”. Here the whites no longer adopt the identity of lines; rather the images are more ideally arrangements in white and black areas. R. Siva Kumar in his introductory note to these images wrote “Sometime Rabindranath would compose the verse after seeing Nandalal's image, and sometime Rabindranath's verse would inspire Nandalal's linocut” (“Rhythms of India/ the Art of Nandalal Bose”, p. 126) He also quotes Nandalal from the book “Vision and Creation” where the artist had obliquely referred to the distinctive character of the “Sahaj Path” thus: “In olden days, students broke their necks learning grammar, before they mastered poetics or poetry. That is to say, effort came first, enjoyment later. But we have arranged for the learning of poetry and grammar at the same time. Now it is enjoyment firs, effort later. The enjoyment will add force to the effort.” As a primer “Sahaj Path” is an exceptional text, because the alphabet-familiarity if often not achieved by means of literal examples where it occurs in a word. Rather, the stress is on the associative and on the faculty of imagination. The child is not coaxed into memorizing, but encouraged to imagine. Take for example, the beginning page with the first two alphabets in Bengali. The couplet narrates that a child utters the sounds “a” and “aa” for it hasn't learnt to speak yet. The picture that complements this couplet is an equally simple image of a crawling child. Neither the couplet nor the image attempt to impinge on to the mind of the young reader a direct correlation between the alphabet and a word where it is almost connected to one another in terms of the efficacy of use-value. Instead it is the resonance between the child's unformed utterances and the sounds of the first two alphabets in the language that have been merely hinted at leaving a wide berth for imagination to play around the idea, sound and image. And this process proceeds within varying limits through the successive pages; in some instances the literal similarities are closer, in others the liberation of the young minds to unlimited horizons of imagination are boundless. Therefore, while the third and fourth alphabets with their short and long sound of “e” and “ee” find equivalences in two words in the couplet, the accompanying image has nothing to do with the words, but are in effect visual transformations that play on the curves that constitute the two alphabets, imagined in the picture in the identifiable form of birds. The facing page with the fifth and sixth alphabets and their “u” sounds do have a hint in the barking sound of the dogs that form the pictorial image, but in this case no word-equivalent has been introduced on the page that consists of the long-form of “u”. The most surprising is perhaps the page consisting of the single alphabet on page 8 and the facing page showing the successive four consonants. For the left-hand page, the image boldly leaves out a literal translation of the couplet which speaks of someone cooking on the banks, whose eyes are affected from the smoke it is a lyrical-minimal picture of boats on the waters. On the facing page, while the couplet speaks of four characters carrying their load to the market, the picture is an even minimal rendering of a Bengal landscapes; neither human forms nor a market in sight. Does this detract from effective education of the child? Perhaps the contrary. The inherent message is clear, that imitative steamrolling is not the intention of this primer. It expects its young readers to soar freely into the open skies of imagination, let ideas take wings, allow resonances to bring home the message that learning by rote can never achieve. This is a primer for young minds where keeping the mind actively alive is of foremost concern rather than pining down information and data for a lifetime's achievement. And this is where a one may observe the most successful confluence between the ideas and conviction of Rabindranath and Nandalal. This is where images do not play a second fiddle to the textual so that it may be called 'proper' illustrations; both exist hand-in-hand in their own rights, complementing what the other tries to achieve, and thereby reach out to a more meaningful interaction between the pages of the book and the young mind that reads it.

Every selection is a partial reconstruction; this selection of a few images from the entire oeuvre of Nandalal too suffers from the fact that it is driven by a personal choice, a discretionary taste that is distinctly individual. Every selection is a simultaneous exercise of exclusion of the rest. Would it be in any way justified to expect that the examples cited above reveal Nandalal in a proper light?  Does this lead us on to perceive him a shade 'differently' than the obvious and expected?  Merely transgressing a canon hasn't been the sole intention of this exercise; rather it was the conviction in the creative possibilities in being selective that was the determining factor. The effort would be worth it if it urges us on to reconsider and review the Nandalal whom we think we know.

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