Constitution was the first canvas of modern masters

Updated on Nov 25, 2022 04:17 PM IST

Each of 22 chapters of the document is headed by an illustration painstakingly crafted by Nandalal Bose and his team of talented artists at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan.

Constitution was the first canvas of modern masters
Constitution was the first canvas of modern masters
Hindustan Times | ByDhamini Ratnam

What do a piece of Blue Pottery from Jaipur, a mural of the 2nd century BC Ajanta Caves, and a fresco on the wall of the Martyr’s Memorial Auditorium in the sleepy town of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh have in common with the Preamble of the Indian Constitution?

The fine arts faculty of an art school in West Bengal.

In December 1946, as a newly-formed Constituent Assembly began its task of deliberating over the shape the Constitution must take, in West Bengal’s famous Viswa Bharati school at Santiniketan, a group of artists led by Nandalal Bose and which included his protégé, Rammanohar Sinha as well as Kripal Singh Shekhawat , was giving shape to another kind of vision.

Within a few years, their artistic vision would find its way into the Indian Constitution, turning the legal document into an artifact of immense historic and artistic value. Under his tutelage, Bose’s students went on to illuminate the pages of the Constitution with scenes from the country’s history dating back to the Harappan civilisation; Sinha,who is credited for making the rich border around the Preamble, went on to create frescoes in a memorial in his birthplace.

And Shekhawat, who also contributed to the art in the Constitution, went on to revive Blue Pottery in Jaipur. Look closely and the blossoming twines that surround the text of the Preamble can be seen making their way up the slender neck of many pottery pieces sold in the city even today.

What did the students of Kala Bhavan, set up by Bose in Viswa Bharati, help make?

Each of the 22 chapters of the Constitution is headed by an illustration, and some of the pages are encapsulated by ornate borders. These include the famous Harappa-Mohenjodaro seal of a bull, a scene from a gurukul (students sit cross-legged as around them, birds and animals sit in equal repose, and in the foreground, a teacher performs a prayer around a fire), a peacock holding a flower in its beak for a meditating Buddha; Emperor Asoka; Emperor Akbar; Portraits of Rani Laxmibai and Tipu Sultan; Mahatma Gandhi brokering peace in the communally sensitive Noakhali; and a proud-looking Subhas Chandra Bose and members of the Indian National Army.

What explains such a catholic collection of images?

To understand the art in the Constitution is to understand an important slice of both modern Indian art and modern India’s histories.

The year 1922 was an eventful one. The Non-Cooperation movement launched by MK Gandhi had come to an abrupt end after a group of men set fire to a police station in Chauri Chaura in what is now Uttar Pradesh. For Gandhi, the Khilafat movement, that began in 1919 and a non-violent Non Cooperation movement, which he called a year later, were both significant; both signalled a rise in the political consciousness of Indians. Nandalal Bose, then a 40-year old artist, was invited to set up Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. Already deeply influenced by Abanindranath Tagore, Bose came to be associated with the Bengal School.

Simply put, the proponents of the school looked to ancient murals (such as those in Ajanta caves), temple sculptures, and Mughal miniatures to develop an artistic idiom, eschewing the dominant classical one, inflected with Western and European influences (think Raja Ravi Varma, or even Company Painters), prevalent at the time. However, it is important to remember that while this was clearly a response to the growing fervour of nationalism, the Bengal school cast its net far and wide to construct its own idiom, including for instance, the Japanese wash technique, which many, including Bose, became masters at. This was no narrow nationalist art, but an expansive, catholic range, which we see reflected in the Constitution’s art, too.

“The Kala Bhavan ethos comes through in the collaborative nature of the chelas (apprentices) working with their ustaad. Master Moshai, as Nandalal was known to his students, embodied and carried on very much with the tradition of the gurukul set up by Rabindranath Tagore. Nandalal joined Santiniketan where he was under the guidance of Abanindranath Tagore, and his exposure to a variety of art styles — Oriental (Japanese) as well as Western — developed to create one of the most extraordinary forces of an Indian aesthetic of modernism,” said Naman Ahuja, the dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and independent curator.

The Constitution was also hand-written. Calligrapher Prem Behari Narain Raizada (Saxena) wrote the text in both, Hindi and English reportedly, over six months. It is said that he did not take a single rupee for this work. All 284 members of the Constituent Assembly signed the Constitution two days before it was adopted on January 26, 1950.

The process of making this document was thus laborious: The pages which had illustrations were painted and then passed on to the calligrapher, Ahuja said. “The calligraphy was done on pages that were given to be framed in the hashia-style borders in the traditional way, as used to be the case with Mughal and Sultanate manuscripts. This division of work and its sequencing, going from calligrapher to framer, allowed ateliers to work independently and also ensured that if there was a mistake in the calligraphy, the entire illumination of the page would not have to be redone,” he added.

And while two original hand-written copies were made, 1000 photolithographed versions were printed in Survey of India’s Dehradun press in 1955. It is unknown how many of those still survive, but the originals are preserved by Parliament, while a replica sits encased in a helium-filled container in the library of the Parliament. It serves as a reminder of not just the work that went in to make this important historical document, but also how vital it is to preserve this piece of art.

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