India is a nation that is both sixty years old, if you date it to its 1947 independence from Britain, and millennia old. Both ancient and modern, with both a Western-influenced and indigenous culture, India truly seems foreign to American audiences unfamiliar with its art. Thanks to a partnership between the San Diego Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, the exhibition Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose, currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, brings Nandalal’s unique fusion of modern and ancient art in the context of modern India’s political struggles to an American audience, providing a unique educational opportunity to delve deeply not only into this individual artist’s life and work but also into the life of India itself in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. When Mohandas Gandhi set out on the Dandi Salt March in 1930 to protest the British ban on making salt, Nandalal created the definitive image of Gandhi on the march in his Dandi March (Bapuji) (above). The simplicity of Nandalal’s linocut matched perfectly the simplicity of Gandhi’s call to a simpler life for all Indians as they cast off the oppressive rule of the British. Gandhi soon chose Nandalal as the prime artist of his non-violent revolution, uniting Nandalal’s art with the very birth of modern India.
When the Indian National Congress set to meet in 1938, Gandhi asked Nandalal to paint eighty-four paintings of daily Indian village life to serve as the backdrop to their efforts towards reclamation of India itself, one of which was Flute and Drum Players (Shanaiwala) (above). Nandalal had long been part of the Bengali Renaissance led by author and artist Rabindranath Tagore. Indian artists and authors strove to rediscover the ancient Indian culture that years of British rule had almost erased in their imposing of Western culture and Western values. Among the lost treasures were the mural paintings of the Ajanta Caves, which Nandalal copied for three months as a young man. In the paintings for the Indian National Congress, Nandalal emulated the Ajanta murals, creating images on large canvases to be stretched across walls and as a backdrop as if they were also murals. The quotidian subject matter and nativism of the imagery was in line with Gandhi’s and Nandalal’s shared belief that Indians must favor local crafts and products over foreign imports. After years of flaccid, derivative art that pandered to the taste of the British occupiers, Nandalal’s art fed the Gandhi-inspired hunger for a national visual culture both respectful of the past while vibrantly addressing the present and future.
Nandalal’s reputation inside India flourishes even today, yet beyond those borders he remains largely unknown. The idea of his art as modern seems, for lack of a better word, foreign to Western audiences accustomed to the theatricality of modern Western artists such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Nandalal’s humility seems strangely distancing to the Western mind tuned in to ideas of individuality and distinctive signatures. Nandalal seems almost signature-less, working on the different frequency of Near East and Far East values of personality-free art in accordance with Eastern spirituality. When British stockpiling of Indian grain for the British people during World War II threatened Eastern India with famine, Nandalal responded with the painting Annapurna (above). Annapurna, the goddess of the harvest, sits as Siva, the god of destruction, dances before her and extends a begging bowl made from a human skull. In this image of “destruction, death, and hunger in the land of abundance,” Nandalal presents the modern predicament by alluding to the mythical past all while leaving his own presence out of the equation. When you look at a protest painting such as Picasso’s Guernica you see the artist as much as the outrage. In Annapurna, pure outrage in coded form comes through with no “filter” of the artist himself. “To dive into the ocean of form without beginning or end,” Abanindranath Tagore once wrote, “This is the origin of Indian art.” Nandalal continually swims in that vast ocean of form, always one with the currents.
Darjeeling and Fog, 1945. Tempera on paper, 24 1/2 x 13 5/8 inches. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
In addition to Nandalal’s many politically charged images, he painted many beautiful studies of nature in which his debt to Chinese and Japanese art is clear. In Darjeeling and Fog (above), Nandalal renders the tiny houses of the village in the foothills of the Himalayas in quick gestures that mimic the calligraphy of Chinese artists. Throughout his life, Nandalal carried small cards with him upon which he would sketch quick impressions of the natural world around him. The section of the catalogue devoted to these sketches shows the never-failing inquisitiveness of the artist, who captures everything from vast mountain ranges to tiny grasshoppers with equal devotion to the great spirit in all of creation. Although Nandalal loved the art of China and Japan, and even sent his son to study art in Tokyo, he saw distinct differences between their approaches to art and nature. “The Chinese artist considers himself a part of nature and tries to lose himself within it,” Nandalal once wrote, “and the Indian artist, knowing that both he and nature are moved by the same life rhythm, takes nature for another expression or image of his own being.” To return to Abanindrath Tagore’s idea of Indian art’s “ocean of form without beginning or end,” Nandalal and Indian art looks to ride the wave in harmony rather than follow the Chinese artist submerged beneath the surface.
Floating a Canoe, 1947. Watercolor on paper, 13 3/8 x 32 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
For the last fifteen years of his life, Nandalal painted almost exclusively monochromatic black ink paintings styled after the Japanese sumi-e, which the Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo introduced to Nandalal as a young artist. In an early example, Floating a Canoe (above), Nandalal depicts Nulia fishermen working with, rather than against, the tide in launching their boat. Nandalal visually unites the bodies of the fishermen with the waves, keeping them separate yet inextricably linked. Gandhi worked for the rights of the Nulia, who were considered “untouchables” in the Hindu caste system, preferring to call them “Harijans” or “Children of God.” Nandalal’s painting truly presents them as children of God, beings working in tandem with creation itself. Working through this section of images in the catalogue and exhibition, you see Nandalal’s calligraphic style become more and more spare and abstract, using fewer and fewer marks to render natural wonders, as if he himself were slowly disappearing as death approached. As he reached his eighties and his heart failed, Nandalal could barely walk and painted nature entirely from memory, drawing the essence captured in his imagination shorn of the unnecessary peripherals.
The essays in the catalogue to Rhythms of India beautifully integrate the many elements that went into Nandalal’s art and provide a concise history of the Bengali Renaissance and Indian independence at no extra charge. I found the placement of a map of India across from a timeline of Nandalal’s life very apt considering the inseparable bond between man and country. A glossary of Indian people, events, mythological figures, and cultural landmarks makes unfamiliar terms to Western audiences as accessible as Nandalal’s art. While many American museums continue to churn out exhibitions of familiar Impressionists guaranteed to rake in profits, exhibitions such as Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose truly fulfill the educational function of the modern museum and open the eyes of Western audiences to entirely new ways of seeing and thinking.
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with a review copy of Sonya Rhie Quintanilla’s Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose and for the images from the exhibition.]