A pedagogue and one of the first Indian Modern artists, Nandalal Bose is known for his contributions to the visual identity of the Indian nationalist movement and newly-independent India. As the first principal of the pioneering art school Kala Bhavana in Shantiniketan, he was among the earliest and most influential art educators in India. Working in watercolour and tempera, he is also considered one of the earliest practitioners of linocuts in India, a number of which he printed on postcards that later came to acquire significant value as collectibles. His works demonstrate a range of styles and influences, including the Revivalism and cultural nationalism of the Bengal School, as well as the ideas of scholars such as EB Havell and Sister Nivedita. His later, more individualistic work was informed by his direct and indirect associations with influential figures such as Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, AK Coomaraswamy and Okakura Kakuzo, along with his documentary study of the Ajanta murals.
Born to a middle-class Bengali family at Haveli Kharagpur, in the Munger district of Bihar, Bose was introduced to art at a young age. Influenced by his mother, Kshetramoni Devi, who would fashion innovative toys and dolls to keep him entertained, Bose proved especially adept at clay modelling, and used his skills in decorating the pandals, or floats, for the annual celebration of Durga Puja. He moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1897 to study at the Central Collegiate School and later pursued commerce at his family’s insistence at the Presidency College in 1905. He eventually managed to convince them to let him attend the Government School of Art (now the Government College of Art and Craft), Calcutta, where he practised under the tutelage of EB Havell and Abanindranath Tagore, along with his peer Surendranath Ganguly.
His first exposure to the works of Raja Ravi Varma and Abanindranath Tagore was through the monthly Bengali magazine Probashi (or Prabasi), started in 1906. Abanindranath Tagore’s paintings from this time made a particularly strong impression on the young Bose, reflected in his own work, such as the exemplary Mahasweta. His other early watercolour paintings, such as Sati (1907) — later reproduced by Bose as an aquatint in 1943 — internalised the nationalist politics of the time, and brought him recognition even while he was a student. In 1907, he obtained a travel scholarship from the then-newly established Indian Society of Oriental Art, for which he accompanied the scholar OC Gangoly on a study tour of the temple art of South India.
About a decade later, Bose’s artistic outlook and aesthetic sensibilities underwent a change after two related events — a personal encounter with Japanese art through the works of Arai Kempo in 1916, and his first visit to China and Japan in 1924. By the time Bose took the reins of the newly established Kala Bhavana in 1922, he had already gained eminence under the ideological guidance of the Bengal School and grown dissatisfied with the limits placed upon art by the Swadeshi movement. His engagement with Rabindranath Tagore deepened his distrust of the prevailing nationalist doctrines and opened his mind to the possibility of an original, modern Indian art that could also be universal. His subsequent experiences of teaching and practising at Shantiniketan brought him closer to his immediate environment. His work moved away from mythological subjects and embraced art as an extension of life. During this period, he focused on a number of projects closely tied with daily life at Shantiniketan — he organised art fairs, worked on murals, set design, posters and costumes, and illustrated children’s literature. Thus, in his most productive phase in the 1930s and 1940s, Bose brought his wide range of styles and influences to bear not just on his art, but also in his contributions to the community at Kala Bhavana. In his role of principal and teacher there he influenced students who later became eminent artists, including Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee. Bose also published his own books on art: Drishti o Srishti and Shilpa Charcha (1956).
In 1930, when Gandhi launched the Dandi March, Bose commemorated the event with a linocut image of him with his walking stick, which has become an archetypical image since. On Gandhi’s request, he also made a number of posters for the Haripura Session of the Indian National Congress in 1938, drawing on the art traditions, celebrations and everyday scenes of rural India. He also illustrated Rabindranath Tagore’s book collection Sahaj Path (first published in 1937) with linocut prints. Bose also produced a number of paintings in his distinctive idiom, among which was the celebrated work, Sabari in Her Youth (1941–42), depicting a scene from the Ramayana in which a young girl, possibly of indigenous background, is perched upon the branches of a tree waiting for Rama to redeem her.
Inspired to revive the mural painting tradition of India, he produced important works such as the landscape Bagadar Road (Hazaribagh) (1943) — rendered in tempera, like the frescoes at the Ajanta Caves, which it sought to pay tribute to — and Abhimanyu Vadh (1946–47), a narrative scene from the Mahabharata that portrays the entrapment and killing of the mythological hero, Abhimanyu. In 1946, he also created wall murals for the Kirti Mandir, a memorial for Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi in Baroda.
Among the many testaments to his commitment to building a visual and cultural national identity was the original manuscript of the Constitution of India (enacted in 1950), which he, along with his students, hand-illustrated. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously requested Bose to design the emblems of the Government’s highest civilian awards — the Padma Shri and the Bharat Ratna — underlining Bose’s status as an artist at the forefront of a newly independent India.
Most of his paintings are held today by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, and in private collections in India and abroad. Bose’s public participation in nationalist discourses, his pedagogic contributions and the wide visibility of his art positioned him among the most influential new Indian Modernists. A recipient of the Padma Vibhushan in 1954, Bose was also awarded a Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1956, an honorary DLitt from the University of Calcutta in 1957 and the Tagore Birth Centenary Medal by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1965. In 1993, the Government of India issued a postage stamp of Bose’s painting Pratiksha to commemorate his birth centenary.
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