Masterclass from a Modernist

The NGMA’s Nandalal Bose retrospective

The artist as an old man, all masterful and slightly pathetic, is a damp squib on most occasions. One expects confabulations and airy reworkings. But you come upon the last section of the giant Nandalal Bose retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) and find yourself staring anew. The previous galleries did not prepare you for these sights of the aged Nandalal da unbuttoning himself in full abandon, scooping out landscapes from the surrounding air, conjuring a volume — a mountain, a sea, a cow — with just a few startled black strokes. You pause at his seriousness and consider a revisit to the younger man’s works.

In a long career spanning six decades, Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) influenced many other illustrious artists like Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij and Satyajit Ray. The NGMA in New Delhi has now put Bose to the viewing test by inaugurating a new exhibition wing with a show honouring the modernist painter’s work. Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose culls almost 85 works from the museum’s permanent collection.

Bose came of age as the prize student of Abanindranath Tagore, who, leading the new Bengal School, wanted to move away from Western realistic models towards local Indian ones. As a young man Bose’s major crisis was the European denial of an indigenous Indian artistry. He followed Tagore’s example of blending the Japanese Nihonga traditions with Mughal miniature figurativeness for an atmospheric ‘wash’ colouring — swadeshi demi-mode.

A second movement occurred in 1909 when Bose spent three months reproducing the murals at Ajanta and, under their influence, gave up the wash technique for more classical draftsmanship. Thereafter, he became intent on reimagining the rhythm of his subjects through line drawing.

Bose was modern in that he hunted for a crisis and then drew his responses. Usually he discovered a response by constant sketching. He kept postcard sheets on him wherever he went and sustained a long habit of drawing on them, everywhere and all the time. There is a droll postcard of his student and associate, Benode Behari Mukherjee, drawn swiftly at a railway platform as they waited for a late train. Mukherjee is seen squatting and hugging a heavy shawl, blind in one eye, with an Iago’s mischievous face safely behind thick spectacles.

Abanindranath’s uncle, the already white-bearded Rabindranath Tagore, invited Bose in 1922 to be the first director of the art school at his Visva-Bharati at Santiniketan. Bose accepted and, ever the perseverer, stayed for 32 years. During his tenure Bose championed indigenous materials, rural themes, local crafts, and tribal and historical traditions. With these he also kept up a running interest in East Asian traditions such as spontaneous ‘touch work’ colouring, Japanese haboku and Chinese monochromatic ink painting, and sumi-e ink drawing.

Bose was always serious about his vocation. He was one of the few Indian painters who, like the best modernists, managed to be both an internationalist and a native traditionalist. He assimilated new influences in order to conserve existing ones. (This is also why all successful modernists are actually conservatives.) It required him to be a thinking man, with curiosity and the lifelong stamina to sustain his curiosity.

The other major crisis in Bose’s time was the nationalist movement. Gandhi’s personal patronage in the 1930s and 1940s brought him eminence and, judging from the Indian National Congress murals in the exhibition, produced his weakest, most slapdash work. His best political work, and there is some of it, lay not in political commissions but in his private retorts to public emergencies, such as exaggerating Gandhi’s muscular calves on his medicinal frame in the famous Dandi March linocut (1930), or the terrifying, rice-less skeleton Shiva in Annapurna (1943).

HE KENNED to the modernist faith of keeping it personal. Radha’s Viraha (1936) has the lady under a sheer, camisole sheet as a maid silently combs her hair with long fingers, with the entire bed in the centre precariously tilted at an uneasy mood. The mural series of The Slaying of Abhimanyu (1946) obtains the epic heroes with impossibly curvy shapes; in the last frieze it seems like Gandhari’s blindfold has liberated her hips. Students like Benodebehari and Satyajit Ray learnt from Bose how being attentive is essential to any feeling.

It helped to have a hardknotted resolve and a browbeating work ethic. Bose would quote the Japanese printmaker: “Hokusai used to say, ‘How can a man run who cannot walk! How can a man dance, who cannot run?’ In painting, drawing is like walking, technical skill like running, and successful painting — rhythmic expressions of form and feeling with a total beauty — dancing.” Such a belief in a hierarchical evolution might surprise us today, when arch-modernists briskly tackle subjects greater than their facility.

Bose’s thousands of drawings in various linear styles form the foundation of his art. His constant life sketching continued a relationship with nature and made him a fluent observer. He described how “a certain kind of movement or rhythm finds expression in the body of an animal following each emotional impulse, and this becomes for us its characteristic gesture…These body rhythms are based on the structure of the backbone, and this is seen most clearly from the side.” He considered drawing to be a form of seeing that could recreate this ‘life rhythm.’

In the world’s growing din, a major artistic challenge for modernists was to clear a space in our addled brains for apt articulation. Head to the new NGMA galleries for the thrilling example of a master who did this, acutely and merely.

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