Word is that contemporary Indian art is the next sensation on the international market. So, now’s the time for the West 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.
A long 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 an 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. 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 saw things another way. Ernest Binfield Havell, a British teacher and art historian, recognized Indian art as the grand, ancient, still-vibrant phenomenon it was. And as director of the Government School of Art in Kolkata, 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 Kolkata. 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, Rabindranath Tagore, opened Santiniketan in West Bengal. 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 watercolour 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.
In 1909, he spent months copying fifth century Buddhist murals in the caves at Ajanta. Everywhere he travelled, he paid close attention to popular forms, urban and rural, Hindu and Muslim, from woodblock prints to palm-leaf manuscripts. He went to China and Japan to study ink-and-brush painting.
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 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 a timeline 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 Vadodara. These paintings of scenes from the Mahabharat 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’s children’s book teaching Bengali, and he made a print to commemorate Mahatma 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-coloured posters of Indian village life for three of the Indian National Congress’ annual sessions that led up to independence in 1947. After Gandhi’s death, Bose continued to teach at Santiniketan. In 1951, he retired but kept producing art, mostly Japanese-inspired, ink nature studies that moved towards abstraction.
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 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, through work by Bose’s fellow modernists in Kolkata and Mumbai, to pieces by contemporary artists such as Atul Dodiya. Dodiya, who has recently set auction records for new Indian art, is represented here by prints of scenes from Ramayan, inspired by Bose.
If Bose was ahead of his times, he was also very much of them. 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 watercolour “goddesses” of uncertain gender are more like it.
But as an example of a polymath artist and teacher who, through 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 immerses us, wonderfully, in both that life and that time. And it reminds us that every museum of modern art in the US 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) is on view through 1 September, and Multiple Modernities: India, 1905-2005 is on view through 7 December at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show is scheduled to come to India.
©2008/The New York Times
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