A celebrated painter of modern India. A genius who was admired in many countries. His was an attractive personality, which combined boundless learning and a unique genius with unaffected modesty and gentle humor.
Mahatma Gandhi used to call Rabindranath Tagore ‘Gurudev’. To Tagore, Gandhiji was ‘Bapu’.
They were great friends and they respected each other. Once their conversation got heated and it disturbed the peaceful atmosphere of Visvabharati, an institution that Tagore had nourished.
Some were on Tagore’s side, some were on the side of Bapu.
At that time one of the devotees of Gandhiji tried to provoke the painter Nandalal Bose. When he was repeatedly asked, ‘On whose side are you?’ Nandalal Bose replied I am an artist; if you ask me which color I like most, what can I say? I like all the colors. I like both Gandhiji and Tagore.
They are like the two eyes of our country. There is no question of choosing between them.” Nandalal Bose who grew up in the lap of nature loved all the colors. The dawn and the evening, river and mountain, bird and animal all filled him with wonder. Growing up as a member of a big family he learned to love all the notes of the music of life. He developed a human approach so that he could share in the joys and sorrows of others.
Loveliness All Round
Nandalal’s ancestors came from Banupur, which is ten miles from Calcutta on the western bank of the river Hooghly. During his great grandfather Krishna Mohan’s time the family was very rich and then its fortune declined.
Nandalal’s father, Purnachandra Bose, was the manager of the Kharagpur Tahsil of the Raja of Darbhanga. On 3rd December 1883, Nandalal Bose was born in Kharagpur, in Monghyr District of Bihar Province. His mother Kshetramani Devi died when he was eight years old. But her influence on him was strong.
Kharagpur was a small village. The beauty of nature in Kharagpur made a profound impression on the young mind of Nandalal. The river that divides the village, the blue mountain range to the south, and all around, the paddy fields that changed colors every season; river, lake, forest, birds, and animals – with this background naturally Nandalal was attracted to art.
The Influence of Parents
Purnachandra Bose’s family was a large one. It was an undivided family of a hundred members.
His mother Kshetramani Devi was an orthodox woman. She had great faith in the worship of God and the rituals on the days of religious festivals. She loved village crafts. Nandalal Bose used to watch her with great wonder, drawing figures with ‘rangoli’ (colored earth), embroidering, making molds in sugar and making dolls.
Nandalal used to be thrilled as he watched beauty-taking shape before his eyes. He learned Bengali and the language of line drawing from his mother.
He also inherited the virtues of his parents.
His father Purnachandra Bose was a disciplined man and used to work hard. The diary he wrote regularly bears witness to his systematic work.
Kshetramani Devi was a simple woman, but she was a woman of refinement and sympathy.
Nandalal Bose tended to take more interest in artistic creations than in reading and writing.
While he was in the class his eyes would wander, beyond the windows and look for the paddy fields, the sky, the mountain range, and the birds.
He loved animals and took great interest in -his pets.
The Boy Artist
Nandalal Bose never felt tired of watching the making of dolls. He made friends with doll-makers and tried to make Dolls, and when he succeeded he was thrilled.
There was a mad man who used to draw pictures on the walls. He would draw if he were paid.
Once Nandalal Bose gave him three paise and asked him to draw. The mad man drew only two lines and stopped. “Why?” asked Nandalal and the mad man said, “That’s all you get for three paise.” Every time Nandalal paid three-paise, the drawing progressed. When the picture was complete Nandalal’s happiness was unbounded.
The figure the mad man drew was that of Nandalal Bose. The material he used was charcoal and water. His brush was a piece of rag. Later on, Nandalal used this technique for the famous fresco ‘Natir Puja’ in the Cheena Bhavana of Santiniketan. (Fresco is one way of drawing on walls.) Though Kharagpur was a village it was well known. The nearest railway station was Bariorpur at a distance of twelve miles. Kharagpur was on the way to the railway station. Many people passed through the village. Some used to ride horses. There were also carts drawn by men.
Merchants and laborers used to pass through Kharagpur. To Nandalal Bose, these scenes of everyday life looked like pictures drawn in colors.
Nandalal as A Student
Nandalal was fond of colored pictures. He used to look for them in old books and magazines. Making copies of them was the beginning of his apprenticeship in the drawing. When he went to school, instead of taking notes he was busy sketching. When he was taught Wordsworth’s poems, he drew in his notebook sketches of the poet. He remembered Hithopadesha’s stories because of the colored pictures he had drawn.
The lessons at school seemed dull to Nandalal. The question was not whether he liked or disliked a particular subject. He liked mostly what appealed to the eyes. Though he disliked mathematics, later on, when he studied in Calcutta, he did not miss a single class because of the teacher who taught him, Gowrishankar Dey; his personality attracted him. Mr. Dey was trim and tidy. He dressed well. His hair was Grey. He buttoned up his jacket up to his neck. His snow-white dhoti came an inch or two below his knee.
He was an image of dignity. It was not a mathematics teacher, but the teacher that attracted Nandalal.
His mother tongue was Bengali but his medium of instruction was Hindi. Since he had learned Hindi while quite young, it had become a part of his personality. When he was very happy or very sad he tended to express himself in Hindi and not in Bengali. It was in Hindi that he conversed with his old friends and told stories to his grandchildren.
Unimportant differences never mattered to Nandalal. Teacher and student, high and low, such considerations never occurred to him.
He was a great artist and the Director of an Art Gallery, but he did not ignore his old friends. He treated everyone equally and never felt superior to others. He felt one among his village friends.
Once a friend of his childhood went from the village to see him. Nandalal spent the whole day happily in his company. Between the two of them, there was no barrier to culture or education. He was so human that he could be a child among children. This was a mark of his greatness.
At fifteen, Nandalal went to Calcutta to continue his education. There he studied at the Central Collegiate School for his Entrance Examination. Then he joined the General Assembly College to study for the F. A. examination. His heart was in art. He spent all his time collecting books and magazines to be able to study the works of great painters. He spent even the money meant for his school fees on art. Besides, in his house in Hatibagan he reared a number of pets. After he failed in the F. A. examination he joined the Metropolitan College. Even there he did not pass the examination. But his repeated failures did not lessen his interest in art.
To escape from the noises of the city he would often go to Banupur. At that time Banupur was undergoing a change and Nandalal noticed it.
The new jute factory had ruined the beauty of the surroundings. Another factor that disturbed him was the condition of the laborers. He used to visit them where they lived and he felt sad. In addition to the exploitation of the poor, there was British rule and the evils of casteism.
Under such circumstances, naturally, he turned a revolutionary. At this time Devavrata Bose, who was his friend, relative and also Aurobindo’s follower, had a great influence on Nandalal.
He was married in his 20th year when he was still a student. His wife Sudhira Devi was the beautiful daughter of Prakashchandra Pal. Pal was a rich man; he lived on one bank of the river, Nandalal on the other bank. After his marriage, his father-in-law took an interest in his studies. Nandalal joined Presidency College. Even here he could not concentrate on his studies because he was passionately interested in drawing and painting.
Nandalal tried unceasingly to learn to paint.
From his cousin Atul Mitra he learned model-drawings, still-life, and sauce painting. He copied the paintings of European masters. One such painting was Raphael’s ‘Madonna’. At this time Nandalal was also enthusiastic about Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. One of Nandalal’s original paintings, ‘Mahasveta’, shows the influence of Ravi Varma. When he was yet feeling his way, Abanindranath’s paintings like ‘Buddha’ and ‘Sujata’ and ‘Bajra-Mukut’ suddenly lit up his path. Nandalal was overjoyed, and he recognized his Guru (the Master) in Abanindranath.
Abanindranath was the brother of the poet, Rabindranath Tagore. He had devoted his life to painting and he was the Guru to a number of artists. He was the Vice-Principal of the Government Art School and was working under E. B. Havell.
Havell had earned a good name as the Principal of Government Art School in Madras. He had shown great interest in the handloom industry and had helped in its revival. After he came to Calcutta he replaced the European paintings on the school walls with Mogul and Rajput paintings. He started a department of fine arts and invited artists from all over India. He made stencil cutting and origami (the art of folding paper) compulsory for all students. He invited well-known artists and made it possible for the students to meet them.
Havell freed Abanindranath from European influences. He drew his attention to Moghul and Rajput styles. The influence of these styles can be seen in his later work. Later on, Abanindranath learned about Japanese art from Okakura.
Okakura was a great Japanese artist and art-critic who had come to India with Swami Vivekananda. Okakura declared that the spirit of a nation expresses itself in its art. He also said that from the point of view of art, all Asia is one.
After he returned to Japan, Okakura sent to India two other Japanese artists, Taikoan and Hilsida.
Abanindranath studied Japanese art under their guidance.
Abanindranath, who had a large number of students, has a high place in the renaissance of Indian painting. What Swami Vivekananda was to Ramakrishna, Nandalal Bose was to Abanindranath Tagore.
Meeting the Guru
Nandalal Bose had heard that Abanindranath was a kind man. He wanted to ask him to accept him as a disciple. He was shy to go alone. His classmate Satyen agreed to go with him. Satyen spoke to the Guru on Bose’s behalf: “Please accept him as your disciple.” Tagore looked at Bose. Bose was twenty-one. He had thin curly hair, an attractive face, and bright eyes.
Abanindranath at once made up his mind but asked him mischievously, “Have you played truant? Did you not go to school today?’ Bose replied in a quivering voice, “Excuse me, sir. I am a college student.” “Show me your certificate,” said Abanindranath. Later, Bose went to Abanindranath with his certificates and some paintings. Not only Abanindranath Tagore but Havell and Lala Iswari Prasad scrutinized them. Some of them were copies of European paintings.
Among the original paintings ‘Mahasveta’ won Havell’s admiration. Lala Iswari Prasad appreciated the picture called ‘Ganesh’. He said, “Look at his lines. They are almost mature.” Abanindranath was happy to see his future disciple. Bose’s experiments attracted him.
‘I’ll Take Care Of Him’
Nandalal had one worry. Would his elders approve the path he had chosen? His father-in-law went to Abanindranath. He was worried whether an’ artist could earn enough to support his wife and children. “Don’t worry about Nandalal. I’ll take care of him” assured Abanindranath.
One opinion Abanindranath used to express often: The disciple does not become an artist because of the teacher; the disciple has to shape himself into an artist. But the Guru takes care of the disciple just as the gardener takes care of the sapling.
Flowering Of the Genius Under such a Guru, Bose grew into a fine artist. Abanindranath was not just a teacher, he was a devoted artist. He was a learner with the students. Bose absorbed this quality from Abanindranath.
The teacher showed a keen interest in Bose’s studies. In the early stages, Harinarayan Basu and Iswari Prasad guided him. Later on, Abanindranath himself supervised his studies. At that time, Bose was his only student. Later on he had many students. Among them was K. Venkatappa from Karnataka, who earned much fame.
Bose spent five years as a disciple. He was given a monthly scholarship of Rs. 12. Abanindranath’s method of teaching was simple and delightful. His disciple used to listen to him with rapt attention. There was no dull classroom-atmosphere.
The history of India, mythological stories, the Ramayana (written by Valmiki) and the Mahabharatha (written by Veda Vyas) had a special place in his teaching. Buddha’s stories provided themes for the artists; Siddhartha tending the wounded swan, the sorrow of Dasharatha, Goddess Kali (incarnation of Parvati), Sathyabhama, Krishna, Shiva’s Thandava Dance, Bhishma’s Oath, Gandhari, Dhritarashtra, Sanjaya – these pictures were shaped by Nandalal’s imagination. There were others inspired by ‘Bethala Panchavimshathi’ stories. His ‘Sati’ was a work, which won much praise.
Havell had great faith in Bose’s genius. When Abanindranath suggested to Bose that he should make a few changes in his picture ‘Siddhartha’, Havell said, “No, let it be as it is” and justified Bose’s conception.
On account of his illness, Havell had to return to England. Percy Brown who succeeded him was a disciplinarian. He not only ordered that everyone should come in time but also got the doors closed when it was time. On the very first day, Bose had to stay out. Abanindranath had to get special permission to enable Bose to come in.
Nandalal Bose was excellent not only with his brush but also with his pen. When Sister Nivedita died, his words competed with his colors: “There was a rare kindness in her face. There was the radiance of purity and strength. Anyone who saw that face once could never forget it.
All that I can say about her encouragement to me will be too little. In her death, I have lost my guardian angel. I was introduced to Ramakrishna and Vivekananda by her.” Nandalal Bose was not only a great painter; he played a leading role in the renaissance of art. He was one of our renaissance figures along with Asit Kumar Halder, Surendranath Ganguli, Samarendra Gupta, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Surendranath Kar, K. Venkatappa, Hakim Mohammed Khan, Shailendranath Dey, and Durga Simha. Abanindranath Tagore was the source of inspiration for all these.
Bose’s genius and his original style were recognized by famous artists and art critics like Gaganendranath Tagore, Anand Coomaraswamy, and O.C. Ganguli. These lovers of art felt that objective criticism was necessary for the development of painting and founded the Indian Society of Oriental Art. Nandalal Bose was awarded a prize of RS. 500 at the first art exhibition organized by this Society.
Bose used this money for a tour of the country, with another artist, Priyanatha Sinha (who was also a friend of Swami Vivekananda). Bose visited Gaya, Benares, Agra, Delhi, Mathura, and Brindavan. Later on he went to the south with Ganguli to see the holy places and temples. For him, this meant the study of both life and art.
He recorded his experiences on this tour in his diary and sketchbook.
Abanindranath’s companion Bose was invited to join the staff of the Government Art School, but he did not. He helped Abanindranath to prepare a catalog of works of art in his house. This rare collection had artworks of various styles, statues of stone and metals, ivory carvings, dolls from different parts of India and costumes and works of art brought from Nepal and Tibet. Bose made copies of some of the oldest works.
Abanindranath’s Art School was not just a school but a center of various activities. In addition to the study of classical art and folk art, there were recitations and discussions. Its object was to extend and deepen the enjoyment of the arts and to find out their values.
An event, which is important in the history of Indian art, took place in 1907. As a result of the efforts of Havell, Sir John Woodroffe, Sister Nivedita, Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, and others, the Indian Society of Oriental Art came into being. Nandalal Bose had close contact with this organization. This Society had several objects. Some of these were to create interest in fine arts in the general public, to organize art exhibitions for this purpose and to help artists.
Many-Sided Development of the Artist’s Life
Nandalal Bose’s life as an artist developed many facets. He made no distinction between the big and the small. The goat of this earth and the horse of heaven were of equal interest to him. When he sketched the ‘Goat’, which was dear to Gandhiji, ‘Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem about it. He said in the poem, “0 Shepherd, this is not a goat which you tend, this is a new creation.”
Art for the people’s sake – which was his principle. He wanted the common people to have paintings in their homes. Once when he went to Banupur he drew a number of pictures and sold them at four annas (25 paise) a picture. When Abanindranath heard of this eccentricity he went to Banupur and bought the whole lot.
Rabindranath Tagore was very fond of Nandalal Bose. He used to ask again and again,
“Nanda, when are you coming?” When Nandalal Bose took charge of the Art Department at Santiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore was extremely happy. Tagore honored Nandalal Bose with a welcome song.
Bose’s students always addressed him as ‘Master Maashay’. Bose treated them with great affection. He encouraged his students to follow their imagination and taste. His pure life, his devotion to art, his gentle speech, his tenderness, and delightful humor made him dear to his students.
When Abanindranath saw Nandalal Bose’s ‘Swayamvara of Damayanthi’ he said, “I can smell the sweet scent wafted from the marriage mantapa.” (A mantapa is a special structure for an auspicious occasion). The Japanese artist Okakura commented on Bose’s painting ‘Agni’ (Fire): “It has everything, but the only thing it lacked was fire.”
Nandalal Bose painted tirelessly. Once he spent a month in winter in Rabindranath Tagore’s estate. The river Padma was frozen. Bose went on painting the beautiful scenery. Finally, he had no material left.
Sister Nivedita persuaded him to make copies of the Ajantha Frescoes. (Ajantha is a village in Maharashtra. In the caves near this village, there are great paintings on the walls and ceilings.) Venkatappa, Halder and Samarendra Gupta went with him to assist him. Then he made copies of the frescoes of the Bagh caves in Gwalior. The frescoes in Saranath were very dear to him. Since he was not a Buddhist, he was not given permission to make copies. This made him sad. In the Basu Vijnana Mandira and Cheena Bhavana Nandalal Bose painted murals. The Maharaja of Baroda invited him to do the fresco work.
Nandalal Bose illustrated many of Rabindranath Tagore’s works. ‘Chayanika’, ‘Crescent Moon’, ‘Gitanjali’ and ‘The Fruit Gathering’ are some of these works. Tagore wrote a poem about a painting called ‘Diksha’. Nandalal used to prepare the stage setting for Tagore’s plays.
In 1924 Bose traveled with Rabindranath Tagore in China, Japan, Malaya, and Burma.
Ten years later they visited Ceylon (Sri Lanka) together.
Nandalal was a great scholar. “His company itself is an education,” said a friend of his. Nandalal Bose had keen powers of observation. During his travels, he recognized elements common to Indian music and painting, and Chinese music and painting.
Gandhiji and Nandalal Bose were great friends.
To this day there is a painting drawn by Nandalal Bose on a wall in Gandhiji’s Ashram in Sevagram.
The painting shows Buddha carrying a lamb, which was chosen to be sacrificed at Bimbasara’s yajna, and which he saved.
Once Gandhiji asked Bose to draw the portrait of Saint Tukaram. Bose did the portrait and it pleased Gandhiji very much. Nandalal painted a number of scenes connected with Gandhiji’s life. He painted one about the historic Dandi March. (In 1931 Gandhiji walked for 21 days to a place called Dandi to break British law by making salt from seawater.) When Gandhiji visited Santiniketan, he painted his famous pictures, ‘Gandhiji at the Prayer meeting’, ‘and Christ Carrying the Cross’ and ‘Sree Durga’.
One day Gandhiji went with Bose for a walk on the Tital beach. Something interesting happened then.
Nandalal had left his shoes on the beach.
Gandhiji stood nearby keeping watch. When Nandalal came out of the water he felt embarrassed and decided to give up wearing shoes.
Another incident. Once Nandalal did not have colors to paint. And they could not be got any-where nearby. Then Gandhiji said, “Use the earth here.” Nandalal used earth of different colors and painted a number of postcards.
Gandhiji invited Bose to decorate the special structures put up for the Congress sessions at Faizpur, Lucknow, and Haripur.
For the Haripur session, Nandalal and his friends drew 83 pictures depicting the life of the people. In preparation for this, he visited villages nearby to acquaint himself with the life of the people.
Nandalal used a variety of subjects and materials for his paintings. His imagination could deal with material drawn from the Ramayana, the Mahabharatha, Sanskrit poems, the Puranas, from the lives of Buddha, Christ, and Gandhiji and from Nature, and human life. He used different kinds of paper, cotton and silk canvasses.
He used a variety of colors. Sometimes instead of a brush, he used rags. His paintings were of various sizes.
The Gratitude of the People
Nandalal Bose was given all the honors, which an artist can get. At the Allahabad Paintings Exhibition, he was awarded a silver medal, and later, at Lucknow, gold medal. The Lalit Kala Akademi of India honored Bose by electing him as one of its fellows.
Several universities conferred honorary Doctorates on him. Visvabharati University honored him by conferring on him the title of ‘Veshikottama’.
The Government of India confers awards like ‘Padmashri’, ‘Padmabhushana’ and ‘Bharatha Ratna’ on those who have rendered meritorious services to the country. Jawaharlal Nehru asked Nandalal Bose to prepare the emblems for these awards. In 1954 Bose himself was given the award of ‘Padmavibhushana’.
Bose wrote an important work on a painting called ‘Shilpa-Charcha’.
The Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta honored Nandalal with the Silver Jubilee Medal. The Tagore Birth Centenary Medal was awarded to Nandalal Bose in 1965 by the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
Nandalal Bose liked laughter. He did not want laughter that hurts. Once he asked one of his students, “Why is the first of April called April Fools’ Day?’ Poor fellow, he did not know. Then Bose said, “I too’ do not know. So both of us are fools.” On another occasion, Mukul Dey and Rabindranath Tagore became the objects of his friendly joke. Those were the days when people were very fond of articles made in foreign countries.
Bose gave a bottle of ink to Mukul Dey and said it had been made in Japan. Mukul Dey gave it to Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore used it to write a poem welcoming Bose. No mark appeared on the paper! Mukul Dey imagined that the ink would become visible after some time. He revealed that it was only carbon, and it was given to pull his leg. The situation became all the funnier because Tagore had used Chinese paper (and hand made, at that!) with golden edges and pictures on the borders.
When he came to know what had happened, Bose felt embarrassed.
A Great Personality
Nandalal Bose retained his simplicity and gentleness until the end. He attended the daily prayer at Visvabharati. But he was always in the last row.
Nandalal Bose created a world of his own in his forty years of painting. It is as vast and deep as his personality. How much water can we drink from a lake? How many flowers can we pluck in a garden?
How many twinkling stars can we count? Nandalal Bose’s personality and works are beyond measurement and comprehension. Bose was like the Kamadhenu of Indian legends. (Kamadhenu was a cow, which granted whatever one desired.) If anyone asked him for a painting, he gave it away. His works have spread far and wide like his fame. Some of them have been lost. Once a ship bound for London carrying a number of Bengali paintings sank and all the paintings were lost.
Among them were some who were very dear to Bose. This loss made him very sad.
His ‘Sati’ was printed in Japan and became very famous. Nandalal Bose loved the early hours of the morning. One bit of advice he often gave his pupils was: “there is no time like the early morning to draw your pictures.” Nandalal Bose used to get up at 3 in the morning. He would read works like the Geetha. And then with a bag in hand, he would go for the morning walk. All through the walk, his eyes would be busy. “Ah! How wonderful is this pebble! How wonderful is this bead!” He would put them in his bag. He used to collect lovely little things, like a small boy. He had named the bag ‘the one-lakh-rupee-bag’.
If he saw pieces of glass or nail on the ground he would throw them away lest they should hurt little children. How could people not love such a tender man?
Nandalal Bose died on April 16, 1966, at the age of 83. As the melody lingers in the ear even after the song is over, the fragrance of Nandalal Bose’s personality survives though he has become a part of history. He has become immortal by the vast treasure of art he created.