Art: A 'modern' Indian

Nandalal Bose's vision was a new art for his new nation, and he succeeded.

By Edward Sozanski
Contributing Art Critic

Nandalal Bose, who died in 1966 at age 83, is remembered in India as the "father" of that country's "modern art." This encomium might seem puzzling to anyone who sees the exhibition devoted to his life and career at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.To someone familiar with the values and conventions of Western art history, Bose's output seems anything but "modern." It's certainly Indian, and in certain phases it appears to depart from traditions that go back centuries, but overall his oeuvre is difficult to square with our concept of "modern."
However, as one discovers the political and social context in which Bose worked, the notion of modernity begins to seem less incongruous. His art, which he created in a variety of styles and media, does indeed represent a modern India attempting to escape the paternalistic embrace of its colonizer, Britain.
Some of his paintings celebrated notions of Indian culture that appealed to the founders of modern India, especially longtime friend and patron Mahatma Gandhi. Yet it wouldn't be fair to call Bose a political propagandist. Rather, he was an artist who tried to give his country an indigenous "modern" art that didn't owe anything to European or American models. And in that he succeeded.
For the uninitiated, of whom I was one, Bose turns out to be a fascinating artist, and a prolific one as well. After he died, his family gave nearly 7,000 of his works to the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. It's from this trove that the approximately 100 paintings and works on paper in this exhibition, "Rhythms of India," have been selected.
The show is a collaboration among the New Delhi Museum, the Indian government, and the San Diego Museum of Art. It's the first survey of Bose's art in the United States, and a particularly good fit for the Art Museum, which owns a substantial body of Indian art from earlier periods.
Bose was also influential as a teacher, at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan in eastern India, north of Calcutta. The university was founded by celebrated Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who recruited Bose, a fellow Bengali, for the job. The late Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray was one of his more famous students.
Bose's art must be considered against the background of the movement to assert India's cultural and political independence from Britain, finally achieved in 1947. This is why Bose supposedly turned away from Western art practice, even including the use of oil paint. He wanted to revivify Indian tradition without slavishly copying it.
From the evidence of this exhibition, it's hard to determine whether Western influence didn't in fact creep into his work. There's nothing obvious, such as impressionism or the most radical innovations of modernism, but there are striking parallels.
For instance, several bold linocut prints, including a vivid white-on-black image of a striding Gandhi that refers to his famous 1930 "salt march," look suspiciously Western. There are a number of wonderful diminutive "postcard drawings" in ink and pencil, the more expressionist of which evoke van Gogh's intense linearity.
For me, the most delightful works are the colorful tempera posters that Bose painted for an Indian National Congress convention in early 1938. These depict people who represent various aspects of Indian village life - musicians, a hunter, a man wrestling with a bull, a mother feeding her child.
Bose drew these images with remarkable assurance and fluidity, as if they had been dashed off intuitively, without thinking. In that regard, they made me think immediately of Matisse. Likewise, Bose's colors are dense, vibrant washes of pigment that could be easily read at a distance.
Normally comparisons with European contemporaries would be odious, but in this case they serve to affirm that Bose had worked out his own version of "modern" without borrowing from his colonial overlords. He wasn't averse, though, to borrowing from other Asian cultures, especially that of Japan. Several of the sumi-e ink drawings made late in his career are redolent of Japanese vision and technique.
Such severe digressions from Indian tradition are naturally most noticeable within the full range of the show because they're not what one expects. Numerous other tempera paintings, some composed as multipanel murals, attest to Bose's devotion to India's past in his quest for spirituality.
In particular, he was inspired by the fifth-century Buddhist cave paintings at Ajanta in west-central India, which he had studied and reproduced during a three-month visit there in 1909.
The range of Bose's imagination and technical versatility is impressive, yet there is always the feeling that he was after something deeper than superficial visual effects. One recognizes this in works as varied as the tempera called Evening, the ethereal mixed-media painting of the goddess Sati, wife of Shiva, and the lively ink-and-watercolor Fishes in the Current.
There isn't any playing to the gallery here, or to the market, or to contemporary taste. Bose's art is perfectly internalized, as intellectually and emotionally authentic as one is likely to encounter in today's age of hype.
To carry the spirit of Bose's art into more contemporary times, the museum has mounted a small companion show from its own collection, "Multiple Modernities," in Gallery 227 on the second floor.
This consists of more than 25 drawings, prints and watercolors made both during Bose's time and after his death.
Seven are especially noteworthy; they're drawings by Rabindranath Tagore, remembered mainly as a poet, who took up visual art late in life. One of these, in color, is a portrait head of a woman who might be Stella Kramrisch, the internationally reputed expert on Indian art who was curator of the Art Museum's collection from 1954 until she died in 1993.
The works in "Multiple Modernities" run the gamut of modernist expression, including abstraction. Yet even here the voice of historical India that Bose tried to preserve remains distinct and recognizable.
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