In 1940, a young art student took a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi on his last visit to Santiniketan—Rabindranath Tagore’s idyllic university in West Bengal. The picture shows Gandhi and Tagore sitting on diwans, flanked by scores of students. The fact that Tagore died soon after bestows a rare value to the photograph. It has been reproduced widely, with almost every devout Gandhian or Tagore-worshipping Bengali household owning a copy of it.
The image, however, is uncredited—a fact that Devi Prasad, who shot it and who is now almost 90 years old, recalls without bitterness when we meet at his Delhi home. Much of his work is unknown, but this image is particularly significant: The legendary figures in it are the raison d’etre of Prasad’s art.
Twin passions: (top) Ahuja with Prasad; the iconic photo taken by Prasad; and one of his teapots. Priyanka Parashar / Mint
Devi Prasad joined Sevagram, Gandhi’s ashram in Maharashtra, soon after he graduated from Santiniketan in 1944. Though he trained under masters of the Bengal School of Art such as Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij, he has rarely shown his paintings and pottery in public, nor has he exhibited the photographs he took over the years. While his fellow students—film-maker Satyajit Ray, dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai and artist K.G. Subramanian—made careers of their artistic pursuits, Prasad took to a life of activism. His art seems almost incidental—a by-product of a long life devoted to the cause of pacifism.
Despite this, art historians credit Prasad as one of India’s foremost studio potters. Many contemporary potters owe their skill to his guidance. To commemorate this, the Lalit Kala Akademi and Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi are hosting a large retrospective, The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman. The exhibition, which opens today, aims to bring together approximately 300 photographs, pottery work, drawings and paintings interspersed with panels of text drawn from his writings on art, education and politics. It spans 65 years, beginning with some of his earliest works—a selection of paintings made in Santiniketan—and ending with his 2004 pottery works, made when he last used his studio in Delhi.
The show’s curator, Naman Ahuja, is an associate professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and presently a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Ahuja, who worked as an apprentice to Prasad 15 years ago, explains that the importance of this exhibition lies not just in creating awareness of his teacher’s work, but in showing how his art practice went hand in hand with his work as a political activist.
Trained as a painter at Santiniketan, Prasad took to pottery when he found a copy of Bernard Leach’s influential text A Potter’s Book in Gandhi’s library at Sevagram. His art practice was based on the Gandhian philosophy that looked at the act of making as an ethical ideal. Gandhi asked his followers to build what they needed for themselves in order to instil the virtues of self-reliance and respect for labour. Coffee pots, milk jugs, bowls and dinner sets formed the bulk of Prasad’s early pottery. He even taught his students to make their own pottery wheels in a carpentry workshop that he set up.
Prasad’s political consciousness saw him participate in the Quit India movement in 1942, and in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement in 1951. It was during this period that he became a prolific photographer, processing his own prints in a darkroom he built at the ashram. His rare access to Gandhi made for several masterpieces. Photography was thriving in India at the time. Several international photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White, were documenting India. Prasad became a life member of the UK-based Royal Photographic Society and would send his prints to the “postal portfolio” programme, which collected photographs by post and exhibited them around the world.
After 18 years in Sevagram, Prasad went on to became the secretary general (later chairman) of the War Resisters’ International (WRI), the world’s oldest pacifist organization based in London. Prasad stayed away from pottery during this time. As a parting gift after two decades at WRI, Prasad’s colleagues drove up an office collection to buy him a wheel and a kiln.
It was a charming gesture, as Ahuja points out: “You have to remember that the life of an activist is hand to mouth.” With access to sophisticated raw materials in the UK, Prasad’s pottery grew more inventive. He started using high-fired stoneware and porcelain instead of the earthenware he had used in India. A look at the exhibition catalogue shows that it is in London that the quality of his “throwing” (a term used for pot making) achieved technical finesse. The works produced were exacting—thin walls, exotic cherry glazes, delicate floral patterns. Travel on activism-related work had introduced Prasad to West Asian, Chinese and Japanese styles. By the mid-1970s he had created his own hybrid style. Ahuja labels Prasad’s aesthetics as “contemporary classic”.
Studio pottery is an artistic movement of which very little is known in India. A studio potter is different from an artisan who practises the traditional craft of pot making; he or she is expected to expand the horizons of his craft. Prasad added to his home-bred skills by making the acquaintance of studio potters from across the world. He shared a remarkable rapport with the renowned Irish potter John Ffrench and made it a point to meet Leach, who famously taught him to make Japanese tea, alluding to Prasad’s marvellous Japanese teapots.
Prasad’s contribution to the field of pottery is even more remarkable given that all this time watercolours remained his major medium of artistic expression. He never lived off his art until his return to India in 1983. Perhaps the reason that an artist of his merit has remained in relative obscurity is because he functioned outside the gallery circuit; outside the economics of the contemporary art world.
All that might change now. Ahuja is releasing a book profiling the artist’s life later this month (Routledge) and the retrospective will return to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in October, to coincide with the Commonwealth Games.
Prasad’s art is important at a time when Indian contemporary art is rapidly losing its political bearings. While artists might produce a few political artworks in their lifetime, Prasad’s greatest artistic statement is his own life.
The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman: Devi Prasad will be on display until 21 May (except Sundays) at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi.