Bose, Nandalal (1882-1966)
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Bose, Nandalal (1882-1966)
August 20, 2008
Indian Modernism via an Eclectic and Elusive Artist
By HOLLAND COTTER, The New York Timesn
Art, modern Indian
PHILADELPHIA — Word is that contemporary Indian art is the next sensation on the international market. So now’s the time to learn something about where it came from, which the nuanced, storytelling show called “Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose (1882-1966)” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art helps us to do. Along with detailed information about one artist’s life and times, the show delivers a significant piece of news, or what is still probably news to many people: that modernism wasn’t a purely Western product sent out like so many CARE packages to a hungry and waiting world. It was a phenomenon that unfolded everywhere, in different forms, at different speeds, for different reasons, under different pressures, but always under pressure. As cool and above-it-all as modern may sound, it was a response to emergency.
In India the emergency was a bruising colonialism that had become as intolerable to artists as to everyone else. From the official British perspective, India had no living art. Its indigenous traditions were dead, the stuff of museums, and ethnological ones at that. Western classicism was the only classicism; European oil painting was the only worthy medium. Indian artists had to learn it if they wanted careers, but even then their options were limited.
Naturally some people, British and Indian alike, saw things another way. Ernest Binfield Havell, a British teacher and art historian, did. He recognized Indian art as the grand, ancient, still-vibrant phenomenon it was. And as director of the Government School of Art in Calcutta, he encouraged Indian students to bring their own past, transformed, into the present.
This mission really took fire, however, in a social circle gathered around the Tagore family in Calcutta. One of its members, the artist Abanindranath Tagore, taught at the Government School and developed a type of painting based on Indian rather than Western models. His uncle, the writer Rabindranath Tagore, opened an experimental university at Santiniketan in West Bengal. Devoted to the study, preservation and regeneration of native culture, it would be a modernist seedbed. Into this venturesome environment came a young painter named Nandalal Bose, first as one of Abanindranath’s prize students, later as a teacher and director of art at Rabindranath’s school. From the start Bose understood the concepts behind the school: the idea that an aesthetic was also an ethos, that art’s role was more than life-enhancing, it was world-shaping.
And he knew that shaping was hard work, the result of accumulating, examining and sorting a wide spectrum of data. He observed and closely emulated Abanindranath’s style, which was based on Mughal and Rajput miniatures, and made a success of it. Bose’s watercolor and tempura “Sati” (1907), an image of a goddess who set herself on fire to prove her devotion to her husband, Shiva, was quickly adopted as an emblem of a resurgent, self-sacrificial Indian nationalism. (The original version of the painting was lost during World War II; a 1943 copy by Bose is in the show.)
In 1909 he spent months copying fifth-century Buddhist murals in the Buddhist caves at Ajanta . Everywhere he traveled he paid close attention to popular forms, urban and rural, Hindu and Muslim, from woodblock prints to palm-leaf manuscripts, to ephemeral patterns drawn in rice powder directly on the ground. He went to China and Japan to study ink-and-brush painting, and he kept an assimilative eye on trends in the West. Steadily and quietly, from all of this he forged an art that was both cosmopolitan and distinctively Indian. It was also a body of work that conscientiously refused to settle on a recognizable style, which is why Bose continues to be an elusive presence in the history books and in the rare museum surveys of Indian modernism.
The Philadelphia show, organized by Sonya Rhie Quintanilla of the San Diego Museum of Art, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, retains the eclectic texture of Bose’s career while laying it out within something like a time-line format.
The first gallery includes early work influenced by Abanindranath’s moody, spiritualized miniaturism and by the monumental Ajanta figure type. Later Bose would cook up a highly ornamental version of the Ajanta style in murals done for a private mausoleum called the Kirti Mandir in Baroda. These paintings of scenes from “The Mahabharata” now survive primarily in Bose’s full-scale tempera-on-paper studies, which are in the show.
In 1930 he designed a series of linocut illustrations for Rabindranath Tagore’s children’s book teaching Bengali, and he made a print to commemorate Gandhi’s march to the sea that year protesting the British taxation on salt. The print, a portrait of Gandhi, was an instant hit. Cheap to reproduce, it became the most widely circulated image of the leader of the Indian freedom movement. The two men, who had met at Santiniketan, became friends, political collaborators and spiritual allies, with Bose creating hand-colored posters of Indian village life for three of the Indian National Congres’s annual sessions that led up to independence in 1947.
After Gandhi’s death Bose continued to teach at Santiniketan; Indira Gandhi and the filmmaker Satyajit Ray were two of his many pupils. In 1951 he retired but kept producing art, mostly Japanese-inspired, ink nature studies that moved toward abstraction, and postcard-size sketches — of friends and students, street scenes and coastal fishing communities, farm animals and flowers — of a kind he had been turning out by the thousands throughout his life.
He spoke of the sketches as a form of seeing. His long-nurtured habit of carrying paper and pens wherever he went suggests a form of yoga. With their formal deftness and avidity of detail, the drawings are his most engaging and personal body of work.
While the almost self-effacing scope of Bose’s art can make his career hard to grasp, its effect on 20th-century Indian art has been important, as demonstrated in a small satellite show called “Multiple Modernities: India, 1905-2005,” organized by the art historian Michael W. Meister and the museum’s curator of Indian art, Darielle Mason, to accompany the Bose survey.
It ranges from drawings by Rabindranath Tagore, through work by Bose’s fellow modernists in Calcutta and Bombay, to pieces by contemporary artists like Atul Dodiya. Mr. Dodiya, who has recently set auction records for new Indian art, is represented here by prints of scenes from the epic “Ramayana” inspired by Bose. If Bose was ahead of his day, he was also very much of it. Some of his work is now dated. His image of the self-immolating Sati as an ideal of Indian womanhood obviously doesn’t work today. Arpita Singh’s politically ambiguous 1993 oil painting of a pistol-wielding goddess Durga, or Bhupen Khakhar ’s watercolor “goddesses” of uncertain gender are more like it.
But as an example of a polymath artist and teacher who through consistent and diligent generosity put his talent to the service of the life of his time, he is worthy of prolonged and intensive notice. The Philadelphia show, which will travel to India, immerses us, wonderfully, in both that life and that time. And it reminds us that every Museum of Modern Art in the United States and Europe should be required, in the spirit of truth in advertising, to change its name to Museum of Western Modernism until it has earned the right to do otherwise.
“Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose (1882-1966)” remains through Sept. 1, and “Multiple Modernities: India, 1905-2005” is on view through Dec. 7 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street; (215) 763-8100, philamuseum.org.