‘Master Moshai’ Nandalal Bose

The remarkably talented artist played a seminal role in propelling Indian art towards modernism

BN Goswamy

Your brush inundates the hearts of Indians with colour
And keeps bringing ever-new riches to Bengal’s Lakshmi.
God has blessed you with auspicious talent;
In imperishable ink you write the name of our country
On the canvas of the world.
Your brush, O Nanda,
Enchants the heart of this Poet …

— Translation of some lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s letter to Nandalal Bose. April, 1914

Whether he was able to ‘write the name of our country/on the canvas of the world’ — Tagore’s words — is something that some, especially those immersed in modern and contemporary art, might have something to say about, but without any doubt, Nandalal Bose — ‘Nando Babu’, ‘Master Moshai’, to his peers and countless students — had become something of a legend in his lifetime. An ‘icon’, if one so likes. The long journey of this artist (he died in 1966) and the things he did in his life and career can tell us how this came to be.

Briefly: Nandalal was born in 1882 at Kharagpur in Bihar; in 1898 he went to Calcutta; in 1905, he joined as a student the Government School of Art where the Vice Principal was someone whom he adored as his ‘Guru’ as long as he lived: Abanindranath Tagore; three years later, while still a student, he won a Gold Medal for his work, Sati, at the Indian Society of Oriental Art. He travelled to Ajanta and was there for three months, in 1909; in 1911, he contributed some illustrations to one of Ananda Coomaraswamy’s early books; in 1914, he was invited by Rabindranath Tagore, who also wrote the above-cited poem, to visit Shantiniketan in 1914; two years later, at Shantiniketan, he learnt Japanese ink painting from a visiting Japanese artist; in 1921, Nandalal was invited by the Gwalior state to make copies of the 1500 years old frescoes in the Bagh caves; in 1922, he became the Principal of the Kala Bhawan at Shantiniketan. So much else began to follow: in 1924 he accompanied Rabindranath Tagore to Burma, China and Japan; six years later, in 1930, he created the iconic image of Gandhi setting forth on his famous Dandi March, the ‘Salt Satyagraha’; keeping close to Gandhi, he visited him in 1937 at Tithal, and at his asking created the now celebrated ‘Haripura Posters’ to be displayed all over the pandals of the Indian National Congress which was holding its annual meeting there. In 1939, Nandalal began executing frescoes in the Kirti Mandir in Baroda, something that was to take six years for him to complete. In 1945, Gandhi visited Shantiniketan for the last time, and Nandalal painted him at Prayer. By this time, his fame, already legendary, had spread everywhere and in 1948, Jawaharlal Nehru requested him to design the National Awards, from Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan to Bharat Ratna; two years later, as the Constitution of India was being worked upon, Nandalal was asked to design the cover of the Constitution and provide illustrations to several pages of it, which he did. By this time, age had begun to catch up with Nandalal and he slowed down a bit, but honour upon honour kept piling: the Padma Vibhushan, the title of ‘Deshikottama’ from the Vishwa-Bharati, honorary doctorate from the Calcutta University; Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi. In 1966, at the age of 84, Nandalal died, covered with adulation and honours. 

  I am sure this is beginning to sound like a conventional bio-data, as if in need of approval by someone. The point of it all simply is to recall how much Nandalal’s life and work was intertwined with what was going on in the world around him: the stirrings of a renewed pride in the past of India, an awareness of its national identity, the freedom movement which was then gathering momentum, the Gandhian aesthetics of simplicity, a desperate desire to reach out to the commonest of people. The artist Dinkar Kowshik, distinguished student of Nandalal, whose own talent was nurtured at Shantiniketan and who eventually served there, put it well as he went over the many aspects of his guru’s beliefs and ideals. “Khadi to him (Nandalal)”, he wrote, “was not a mere coarse cloth made out of hand-spun yarn. For him it … was an aesthetic equivalent of our will to work and our homage to the hands.”Again: “He had noticed the jarring notes of discord imported in our cities due to the confusion (caused by the coming in of the ideals of the west). Tin cans, bill boards, film posters, neon signs and the badly designed glare of advertisements had invaded the visual sanity of our civilised life. He clearly saw that only serious art, which harnessed the vitality of folk art and rural simplicity, could stand against the general rot.”

Nandalal’s output as an artist bordered on the prodigious. There is no clear count of it, but one can form some idea of it from the fact that the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi alone houses 6,800 works of his; currently a collection of his works — early sketches, designs for murals at Shantiniketan and Baroda, the Haripura posters, the Ajanta sketchbook, sumi-e paintings made under Japanese influence, collages, postcards, photographs, apart from his correspondence including that with the Tagores — numbering close to 6,000 is about to be auctioned, having remained devotedly preserved by a grandson of his over the years. There would, one imagines, be a great deal of interest in the sale, for the old tag of ‘traditionalist’ or ‘revivalist’ attaching to Nandalal’s work has now been discarded. The breadth of his vision, the innovations, the experimentations, the refusal to abide by a canon, the free and loose-brushwork, are there for everyone to see. He — ‘one of the brightest stars of the Bengal School’ as he was described so often — is now being seen, together with Rabindranath Tagore, as ‘having played a seminal role in steering Indian art away from the historicist trajectory pursued by the Bengal School and propelling it towards a modernism based on a (different) sense of location’, as the art historian R. Siva Kumar wrote recently.

Things change and, with them, perceptions.

RELATED A mammoth effort