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The Gandhi connection: the Mahatma secured India's independence some 60 years ago with the assistance of Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore.

THE INNOVATIVE philosophy of Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) concerning art and art education was influenced to a large extent by the ideas of two of his distinguished contemporaries, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Gandhi, known in India today as the father of the nation, managed almost singlehandedly to awaken the aspirations of the Indian people on a wide scale, and he went on to organize his followers into a formidable political force.


Gandhi had been well known even before he entered India's political scene through his successful use of satyagraha (literally, "holding on to truth," referring to his methods of nonviolent political activism) in South Africa to secure for its colonized people some measure of social justice from the country's white rulers. This strategy of nonviolent protest was so unprecedented that it became the talk of the entire world. After spending more than 20 years in South Africa, Gandhi moved back to India in 1915 and, over the course of the next three decades, used the same agitational techniques to help emancipate the country from colonial rule. Bose was an involved witness to this process, and soon became one of Gandhi's admirers; his respect for the Mahatma increased when his action program broadened its purview to include the economic independence of India and the strengthening of its widespread artisan traditions to achieve this.


The focus on India's artisan traditions had a special appeal for Bose. In his childhood years, the artisans' workshops in his hometown of Kharagpur in the northeastern state of Bihar held a great attraction for him, and he often visited them to watch with wide-eyed wonder as potters, woodworkers, metalsmiths, scrollpainters, and others plied their trades with seemingly effortless skill. This fascination, in fact, fed his desire to become an artist. During his years as a student at the Government School of Art in Calcutta, Bose came to realize that this exposure to art and craft skills had special value, enriching artists' experiences and broadening their horizons. Even after he became a renowned artist and educator, he continued to see art and artisan practice as a connected panorama that ensured aesthetic creativity in a modem environment.

While Gandhi's primary concern was the country's political and economic independence, Tagore's focus was the cultural regeneration of India. According to him, a culturally alive, self-assured, and educated youth was the best promise the country had for its independence. He felt, like many others, that the colonial educational system introduced by the British had some beneficial aspects, but these were outweighed by the consequence that Indian youth who were trained in the system became distanced from their cultural antecedents and artistic heritage. Tagore and other likeminded individuals believed that the younger generations in India needed to reestablish contact with these antecedents and understand their sources--by thus grounding themselves in their own history and traditions, they would be equipped to meet the demands of the changing times and work to shape the future of a strong nation. From this position of cultural self-definition and maturity, Indians would be in a position to influence and partake in the broader artistic and cultural traditions of the rest of the world. Tagore felt strongly that India had just as much to contribute culturally as it was receiving, and he recognized the importance of establishing suitable platforms where such balanced exchanges could be effected.


To set an example of a model locus for balanced cultural exchange, he founded the now well-known Visva-Bharati (World University) in Santiniketan in West Bengal in 1901. Its Sanskrit invocation describes it as a place "where the whole world can meet as in one nest." It obviously was an ambitious venture, but Tagore, a literary figure with a worldwide reputation who had traveled widely in the East and West while gathering a large circle of distinguished friends and admirers, was confident that this project would be a success.

Pervasive plans

Tagore's intentions were larger and more pervasive than simply the establishment of an institution of higher learning. In a world fractured by dissensions of various kinds, he wanted Visva-Bharati to grow into a haven of peace--as the name of the place (Santiniketan) indicated--where various cultures and thought systems could interact and individuals could discover their fundamental similarities. He strove at the university to give pride of place to the cultivation of visual and performing arts while simultaneously encouraging a supportive environment where each person's creative potential could find fulfillment. To facilitate this goal, he developed a rich calendar of diverse activities and events that combined purposefulness with pleasure. He also sought to emphasize the interdependence of man and nature as well as the interconnectedness of all humankind, as evidenced in his institution of the Spring Festival and the Ploughing Festival.

Tagore, a Nobel laureate quickly made Bose his trusted accomplice in this multifaceted effort at Visva-Bharati, asking him to be the director of its art school, Kala Bhavan, in 1919, the year of its founding. Among the artists he had known through the years, he believed that Bose alone had the talent and versatility necessary to implement the school's innovative programs, and Bose was happy to join him. He was thrilled by the prospect of rethinking art education, and he envisaged an art program that broke out of the four walls of the studio and instead participated in various avenues of life itself. Bose imagined an art practice that was not just drawing and painting, modeling and carving; it also was decorating the walls and floors and embellishing the environment, dressing people for plays and pageants and designing sets and choreography, fabricating functional objects, and planning the entire scenario of their usage. In an indirect way, this innovative pedagogical method instilled a kind of refinement in the students' social behavior.

Bose's perspectives on art practice and art education were influenced in different ways by the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore (with whom he came to have long-standing associations). However, there were many other individuals whose ideas also influenced his thinking during his formative years. One such person was art historian and intellectual Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), whose book, Medieval Sinhalese Art, was published in 1907. Even during his years in England, Coomaraswamy was a prominent participant in the Arts and Crafts Movement, an international initiative that sought, among other goals, to ensure the survival of hand skills in a rapidly industrializing world. In his penetrating writings, he demonstrated the virtues of traditional art and craft practices and how their absence impoverished the modem scene. Bose and Coomaraswamy became close in 1909-10 when both men gathered with the Tagore brothers, including Abanindranath, Samarendranath, and Gaganendranath, at their household at Jorasanko in Calcutta. Bose later sketched a scene depicting himself as he sat with Coomaraswamy while the Tagore brothers lounge in the background.

Another person whose ideas strongly impacted Bose was a friend of the Tagores, Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913), a learned Japanese art connoisseur and theorist whose books Ideals of the East (1883) and The Book of Tea (1906) were read widely at one time. In addition to engaging Bose in discussions about Far Eastern art concepts, Kakuzo introduced him to Japanese artists who enjoyed the hospitality of the Tagores. Bose also was influenced by Ernest B. Havell, who was principal of the Government School of Art in Calcutta when Bose enrolled in 1905. (Havell returned to England in 1906.) Havell was a confirmed admirer of Indian arts and artisanry and acted as a spirited advocate of their patronage in the contemporary world. The writings of Coomaraswamy (collected in Art and Swadeshi, 1911) and Havell (Basis for the Artistic and Industrial Revival in India, 1912)covered much of the same ground with slight differences in emphasis: their central theme was the cultural regeneration of India and the continuance of its art and craft traditions.

Sharing a vision

Bose, Gandhi, and Tagore shared a common desire to support and nurture the country's artisan traditions, encourage the cultivation of hand skills, and keep alive the basic sources of their cultural heritage. However, their intentions and attitudes varied to some extent. For Bose, the importance of continuing the artisan traditions was related to the need for an artist to familiarize himself with various dialects of creative expression--the artist thereby could gain a greater depth of vision and technical resourcefulness. Gandhi believed that the main purpose for encouraging artisanal production was to develop a low-investment, labor-intensive manufacturing system that promised localized self-sufficiency and economic stability. He did come to realize that such an intimate producer-consumer interaction in fact refined the sensibilities of both parties and gave the goods produced a quality that extended beyond their utilitarian parameters. For Tagore, a culture that created and displayed a variety of artistic expressions was richer than one with fewer--the interaction of more complex levels with simpler ones benefited both, helping the former to avoid preciosity and the latter to gain greater depth and refinement. Under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Tagore and his artist nephews also made a serious effort to encourage craft practice amidst nonprofessional community groups, namely among people who did not intend to market their work.

Although Gandhi and Tagore worked in their own individual ways to ensure an independent India its fightful place in the world community while upholding the high humanistic ideals the country was famous for, the two men did not see eye to eye on many matters. Despite some disagreements, they remained close friends, each holding the other in high esteem and offering support at critical moments. For example, when Gandhi decided to move to India with the inhabitants of his Phoenix Settlement in South Africa, Tagore offered them hospitality in Santiniketan, and the group availed themselves of his generosity for a short while before they moved west to Ahmedabad and settled on the banks of the Sabarmati.

In 1932, when Gandhi began a fast while in the Yerawada jail to protest against the imposition of separate electorates (which he feared would fragment the country), he sought Tagore's blessing by letter--but Tagore's telegraphic support already had preceded it. When Gandhi broke his fast after four days with the signing of the Pune Pact, Tagore was there by his bedside. In 1940, when Tagore was in poor health, Gandhi visited him in Santiniketan. Suspecting that this might be their last meeting, Tagore requested in a touching handwritten note that Gandhi safeguard the institution after his death. Nearly five years later, Gandhi returned to Santiniketan to lay the cornerstone of a hospital for which he had raised money in memory of C.E Andrews--an English priest who was very active in India's quest for independence-and to see how the institution was faring in Tagore's absence. The school was in dire financial straits, and its administrators sought Gandhi's help. (When India gained independence in 1947, the new national government stepped in, and Visva-Bharati became a university financed by the central government; Gandhi, however, had advised the school's leaders to emulate their founder and avoid taking governmental assistance if they could, as accepting such funding might curtail their independent initiatives.)

The relationship between Gandhi and Bose was different. Bose was a devoted supporter of Gandhi. In an article written in 1940, he records his admiration for Gandhi and the various transformations he had brought about on the Indian political scene. He also wrote that, like many others, he was overwhelmed by Gandhi's personal qualities--his simplicity, truthfulness, transparency in speech and action, and sense of compassion and fearlessness in the face of a crisis--qualities he had observed only from a distance, "through the ears and not the eyes," as he wrote in his article. Bose did not come to know Gandhi personally until 1935 when Gandhi requested that he design and organize an art and craft exhibition during the Indian National Congress session in Lucknow.

Although Gandhi retired from the Congress in 1934, his shadow hovered over all of its discussions and decisions until his assassination. His departure was motivated, in part, by his desire to devote more time to nation-building activities, especially those related to economic independence. One such program was the All India Village Industries Association, which operated under the auspices of the Congress. The group had an elaborate agenda that covered every aspect of village development, and its leaders sought advice from distinguished people in a variety of fields. In a letter dated November 1934, Gandhi invited Tagore to lend his name to the advisory body of the All India Village Industries Association, presumably to counsel on matters relating to art, education, and culture, and it is conceivable that Tagore in turn suggested that Bose be added to the advisory group as well.

The first art and craft exhibition to be organized in conjunction with a convention of the Indian National Congress took place at Indore in 1934. Gandhi recognized the importance of such exhibitions and believed that they should be featured at all subsequent Congress sessions. To make them as aesthetically pleasing and professionally designed as possible, he sought Bose's help to install the exhibition planned for the 1935 session in Lucknow. Although he was apprehensive initially, Bose accepted the responsibility--he was happy to have the privilege of working closely with Gandhi. His pleasure only increased when he found that Gandhi had, as the artist wrote, "the eye of a connoisseur." The austere aesthetics of the show pleased Gandhi greatly: he appreciated the simple bamboo, reed, and timber structures that housed the exhibits, as well as the straightforward mode of display, and he spent a period of time every day examining each exhibit with care. Although there is perhaps a general impression that Gandhi had no interest in art, Bose in fact found him highly sensitive and observant. In his article "Bapuji," he recalls that Gandhi, while admiring the overall setup during a preview, had pointed out an inappropriate detail that had been overlooked in the confusion of installation.

Bose's talent for making an aesthetic statement with the simplest materials inspired Gandhi. He had discovered an artist who could make even a poverty-stricken environment beautiful, and he hoped to put Bose's ability to the test in Faizpur where the next Indian National Congress session was to be held at the end of 1936. For the Faizpur meeting, which was intended to be kept as free from urban influences as possible, Gandhi envisioned 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. Gandhi insisted that Bose be in charge of this ambitious project.

Bose, who was intimidated by this many-sided assignment, tried to evade it by pleading his ignorance about architecture and pointing to the limitations of his talent, but Gandhi would not accept refusal: Bose was just the person he wanted. 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." Ultimately, Gandhi broke down Bose's resistance. He was provided the assistance of an architect named Mr. Mhatre, and he also received help from a group of young people who accompanied him from Santiniketan. The resulting exhibition and built environment exceeded all expectations, and Bose's resourceful use of simple materials became a model for young designers in the years to come.

At the opening of the Congress session, Gandhi declared, "God has given me a sense of art, but not the organs to give it shape. He has blessed Nanda Babu with both. The result is that the whole of Tilak Nagar is an exhibition in itself. It begins not where I am going to open it, but at the main gateway, which is a fine piece of village art." Gandhi repeated his praise every day. Before the Faizpur session, Bose's reputation as an artist had been confined primarily to the elite artistic community in Bengal (and elsewhere), but Gandhi's unstinting praise of his work brought him national fame: in essence, he became the artist laureate of nationalist India.

Gandhi again invited Bose to participate in the Congress session taking place in Haripura in 1938, which resulted in the artist's creation of the famous Haripura posters. Bose reportedly painted nearly 84 posters himself, and his student and teacher associates then made close copies of them, multiplying their number to close to 400. Gandhi wanted the posters to catch the attention of passersby, so they were displayed at the meeting compound's main gate and on the exterior of the pavilions. Some were hung on the walls of the volunteer camps, as well as in the rooms occupied by Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose, the president of the Indian National Congress.

Gandhi's open-hearted appreciation of the works conceived by Bose reveals that he was a man of remarkable taste and sensibility--in spite of his pretensions to the contrary. All the same, art did not figure prominently on Gandhi's list of national priorities. His main objectives were to strengthen the self-assurance of the Indian people and motivate them to fight for their independence--his methods of nonviolent action called for enormous physical and mental courage. Gandhi considered it vital to educate the people about the basic values necessary to make a free India a land of peace-loving and compassionate human beings, with equal rights and opportunities allowing each individual to live creatively and to his or her full potential. In the face of the dire poverty in which large numbers of Indian people existed and, considering the various socioeconomic disabilities that impaired their progress, talking about art seemed to him a kind of sacrilege.

For these reasons, when people asked Gandhi about his interest in art, he often evaded the question or said he did not have the time to give it attention. For example, he traveled to the temple city of Belur in Karnataka in southern India to receive a donation of 500 rupees personally and, before his departure, he was asked whether he would go see the temple's exquisite statuary. He replied humbly: "Who will not be drawn to this wonderful temple of Indian art?--but a representative of daridra narayan like me may not indulge in the feast of the eyes." Answering a young interviewer--G. Ramachandran, a student at Visva-Bharati and an admirer of Gandhi and Tagore, who in 1924 questioned him about his much-publicized disinterest in art and beauty--he replied, "Orissa haunts me in my waking hours and my dreams. Whatever is useful to these starving millions is beauty to my mind." (He was referring to the scenes of abject poverty he had seen in certain parts of Orissa, a state in eastern India.) Then he added in seemingly biblical language, "Let us give today the vital things of life and all the graces and ornaments of life will follow." During a lengthy interview session that was more in-depth than may previous, Gandhi's answers revealed that he did not believe in art for art's sake, and he emphasized the importance of truth and moral values.

The traditional artisan

After 1934, Gandhi began to take a special interest in promoting artisan traditions, and he was less reticent about his views on art, admitting that he did respond to works of art in his own personal way. Upon the opening of the Lucknow exhibition in 1935, he announced: "This exhibition I am going to declare open is the first of its kind." Village artisans from ",ill over India were gathered, from Kashmir to South India, from Sindh to Assam. Gandhi told the assembly that Nandalal Bose and his associates had labored for several weeks to set it up. "Do you know Orissa and its skeletons? Well, from that hunger-stricken, impoverished land of skeletons have come craftsmen who have wrought miracles in bone, horn, and silver. Go and see how the soul of man in an impoverished body can breathe life into lifeless bone and material."

Returning to India from the Round Table Conference in London in 1931, Gandhi stopped in Rome and spent more than an hour in the art galleries of the Vatican. He described the experience to a friend--how the visit was too short, how he should have spent at least three months there to understand truly what he saw, how a painting of the crucifixion greatly impressed him. He added: "You see, I enjoy art, but I have given up or have had to give up many such pleasures." Talking to journalists after the visit, he reiterated that he had a taste for art but not the time for it. If he had not been obliged to become a political activist, he told them, he would have liked to be a musician.

It is difficult really to know how broad or deep Gandhi's interest in art was. Although Bose credits him with taste and sensitivity, and his statements indicate that he examined art objects with care, there is no available proof about whether he had occasion to see a large cross-section of Indian art--and, if he had, whether he would have approved of its widespread sensuousness and sometimes frank eroticism. It is difficult to gauge the reaction to such art by a man like Gandhi, who encouraged abstinence and asceticism. He even expressed great reservations about the well-known works of some of the established masters of Sanskrit literature, such as Kalidasa. From a distance, however, he did appear to recognize the sanctity of this centuries-old art tradition, regardless of his personal preferences.

When Bose once mentioned to him with consternation the proposal of some of Gandhi's enthusiastic followers to hide the erotic sculptures at the magnificent medieval-period temples at Konarak and Khajuraho from the public eye, Gandhi promised him it would not happen.


The relationship between Bose and Gandhi served to link the programs and goals of Tagore and Gandhi to bring about cultural renewal and freedom in India during the decades of the 1920s to 1940s. Graduates of Santiniketan often volunteered to work with Gandhian institutions and, if Gandhi felt that his workers needed a cultural education, he sent them to Santiniketan to work under Bose's guidance. These three now-legendary figures--Bose as artist and teacher, Tagore as poet and visionary founder of Visva-Bharati, and Gandhi as idealistic political activist--inspired each other and shared a mutual respect for their various talents. Each worked in his own distinctive way and with different motivations to arrive at a shared vision for an independent India that celebrates its indigenous traditions and venerable cultural heritage.

"Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose" is on view through May 18 at the San Diego (Calif.)Museum of Art.

K.G. Subramanyan is an artist and professor emeritus at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India, where he studied from 1944-48 under Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee, and Ramkinkar Baij. In addition to his work as a painter, sculptor, ceramicist, and muralist, he has" written extensively on art history, theory, and the study of Indian art.
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Title Annotation:The World Yesterday
Author:Subramanyan, K.G.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2008
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