India’s art and art history emerge as a very powerful field for invoking the Indian nation. This process predates Independence and the coming of age of the nation-state. For nearly four decades before 1947, if not more, Indian art history was being shaped as a powerfully nationalised modern discipline. It was through the framework of this modern discipline that the ancient and medieval schools of Indian architecture, sculpture and painting were incorporated into a narrative of nationhood, mapping the time and space, the history and territory, of a new India. The nation in the making found some of its strongest cultural proponents as much in the community of India’s art historians as in the community of modern artists.
The practice of modern Indian art had been taking on a fairly important national stance since the early 20th century. The most important movement that consciously broke with western academic art conventions and aspired to evolve an alternative idiom of oriental-style painting was spearheaded by Abanindranath Tagore and his students in Calcutta in the 1900s. What came to be called the Bengal School of painting took centrestage in this evolving story of art and nationalism. Arguably, the threads of this story could be drawn further back to the last decades of the 19th century, to the founding figure of Raja Ravi Varma of Travancore, who deployed the powers of oil painting and the idioms of European neo-classical painting to fashion a new national art for modern India. It was in the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma that the nation’s past came to be visualised and dramatised through the figures and episodes of ancient legends, myths and classical literature.
The first Bharat Mata, created by Abanindranath Tagore
Thereafter, modern Indian art went through various phases. The idea of having to build something both modern and national—something that reflected both the inheritance of the past, and the new aspirations and identities of being “Indian”—remained an important preoccupation of modern art practice through the 1920s and ’30s. And it was reflected in the works of all the important artists and art movements of the time. But there is also a parallel way in which art history as a discipline, as a modern form of scholarship, underwent a process of nationalisation. This turn in the discipline involved a valiant attempt by scholars such as E.B. Havell, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sister Nivedita, Abanindranath Tagore and Ordhendra Coomar Gangoly to break out of the barriers of European misinterpretation and miscognition, and give Indian art its own unique history and aesthetics, its own conventions and criteria of appreciation. That is how the study of ancient Indian art came into its own as a nationalised sphere of thought.
The nationalised identity of modern Indian artists found its powerful counterpart during the 1930s and ’40s in the burgeoning discipline of art history, and in the making of significant museum collections of ancient and medieval art objects. A growing network of imperial, provincial and site museums, even as they emerged out of the colonial archaeological establishment, became the prime sites for the production of a national art history.
Art history and museum collections began to play a critical role in shaping the canon of pre-modern Indian art, in giving it its key religious denominations, its periodisation through antiquity into the medieval period, its great ages and main dynastic regimes of patronage and production, and its detailed classification into many regional schools and genres. Through the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the prestige of Indian art was carried abroad by figures like Coomaraswamy, who in the 1920s formed the first and most important collection of Indian art in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And both the ancient and modern art of India emerged as strong bastions of nationalist claims and ideologies.
In this scenario, the 1930s present a landmark moment in a new form of mobilisation of modern art in the political agenda of nationalism. The coming together of Mahatma Gandhi and Nandalal Bose, a modern artist of Santiniketan, heralds this moment. Nandalal was first drawn towards Gandhi during the civil disobedience movement of 1930, and produced his iconic linocut of Gandhi on his Dandi march. And Gandhi, who otherwise showed little interest in artistic matters, discovered in him a model of a “people’s artist”.
At Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavan, under Nandalal’s leadership, modern art had broken away from the confines of the studio and entered the open public spaces of the university and the ashram. In the same process, modern art had also forged a vibrant new connection with nature, village life and culture. Art in nature, art in village life, art in public space—Santiniketan under Nandalal had shown the way. For Gandhi, the place offered a model of a new people’s art and of a new democratic vocation of the artist, who would work not for rich patrons and middle-class connoisseurs, but for ‘the people’. And it offered him a unique opportunity to bring what he saw as a new people’s art onto the political platform of the Indian National Congress. Nandalal was assigned the task of designing the pavilions of the Congress sessions in Lucknow (1936), Faizpur (1937) and Haripura (1938).
For the Lucknow Congress, Nandalal worked on a major exhibition displaying photographs of Indian art from the ancient to the modern period. At Faizpur, the first rural venue of the Congress, he designed a purely rural pavilion with straw, hay and ropes. And the Haripura Congress pavilion marked the pinnacle of his artistic achievement in this series. Initially, the artwork was meant to have been done by the Patachitra painters of Odisha. But eventually a modern artist like Nandalal intercepted the style and persona of the folk artist through a series of panels where he used cheap paper, strawboard, flat-brush and paint, to produce a panorama of the nation’s village life, culture and humble occupations. The village drummer, juggler, cobbler, carpenter, barber and ear-cleaner—all found their place in this colourful and jovial pageant devoted to the common men and women of village India. From incorporating the influence of the Ajanta murals and Mughal miniatures, the nation’s modern art had now boldly moved to accommodate and integrate folk art as the most important symbol of the nation and its people.
The Haripura Congress pavilion culminated in a way in 1950, when Jawaharlal Nehru called Nandalal and a group of Kala Bhavan artists to illustrate the Constitution of India. Nandalal again played the lead role, steering a collective teamwork of many of his students. In this other landmark moment of a national assignment, the artists of Santiniketan move from village and folk art to the art of calligraphy and manuscript painting, taking up the vocation of the old miniature painters and their techniques of colouring and ornamentation. This stands as one of the earliest instances of a political document—the constitution of a newly founded democratic republic—being illustrated by a modern artist, using the country’s past cultural resources of mythology, history and religion, where illustrations drawn from Buddhist legend and the Ramayana lead into images from contemporary nationalist history to visually annotate the different sections of the Constitution. It marks a full circle in the way all the visual genres of painting, book illustration, photography and public mural art were mobilised to visualise this moment of the forming of the nation. Nandalal was later also asked to illustrate the symbols of the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan, both of which he goes on to win himself.
The exact conjuncture of India’s Independence leads us back to another foundational moment for the role of art in the forming of nationhood. In a one-of-a-kind exhibition called the ‘Masterpieces of Indian Art’, mounted in Delhi in December 1948, a rare and spectacular assemblage of objects from all the main schools and periods of ancient and medieval Indian art came together to tell the story of 5,000 years of the nation’s art history. The exhibition, which included materials from Indus valley and other old schools such as the Mauryan, Kushana, Gandhara, Sarnath, Mathura and Gupta period, alongside paintings from the Rajput, Mughal and Pahari courts, had first travelled to the Burlington House of the Royal Academy of Art, London, in the winter of 1947, where it remained on display for a large part of 1948, proclaiming the climactic end of empire.
When the exhibition objects returned from England, and came to be divided between the new dominions of India and Pakistan (with India obviously holding on to the most significant lion’s share), the Indian State decided it needed to hold on the exhibits and place them on view in the ceremonial precincts of the capital’s presidential palace. The governor-general of India, C. Rajagopalachari, placed the state rooms of the Government House at the disposal of the exhibition committee. And the director general and superintendent of archeology, N.P. Chakravarty and K.N. Puri, both of whom had been associated with the planning of the Burlington House show, were called on to set up the rooms in these presidential precincts. The making of a state event, however, meant padding out the central core of archaeological and art-historical expertise with a large governmental and bureaucratic representation from the ministries of education and information and broadcasting in an exhibition committee presided over by the education minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.
Not only was this the first time the new Indian State was directly involved in the hosting of an exhibition, it was also the only time the most important official site, Government House, now decolonised and renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan, was chosen as the ceremonial venue for an art exhibition. In his exhibition catalogue, the curator, eminent museum professional and scholar Vasudev Sharan Agarwal, wrote, “There’s no argument that carries greater persuasion with it for a country’s ideals and way of life than its art. And Indian art, richly documenting the caste culture of India, [has] a unique position in this respect, [revealing] the mind of the Indian people”.
Art, it was fervently believed, could play a role in the new democratic life. Today, one could well question how far it could fulfill that promise, that need. But there was a genuine pedagogic attempt at that juncture to educate the citizens of a new republic in the artistic heritage of the nation, to inculcate in them a sense of belonging and ancestry vis-à-vis these exhibited works of art. And it was out of that orchestrated belief in the central role of art in nation-building that the temporary exhibition in the Government House gave way to the idea of a permanent new museum that was to be formed out of the core collection of these exhibits. So was born the INStitution of the National Museum, which was inaugurated in the premises of the newly named Rashtrapati Bhavan, exactly two years after Independence, on August 15, 1949.
Raja Ravi Varma dramatised India’s past through figures of myth, legend and classical literature
The National Museum was formally founded within the Government House, with the understanding that the collection that had been amassed would not be returned to the museums in different parts of the country that had loaned them for the display, but would largely remain in the capital as the rightful inheritance of the new art museum of the new Republic of India. The Sarnath Buddha, which still stands at the centre of the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Durbar Hall today, had come from the Indian Museum of Calcutta and was never returned, much like the Asokan Bull Capital from Rampurva in Bihar, which was also one of the prized objects loaned by the Indian Museum. Some prized items of sculpture, like the Didarganj Yakshi or the Bhutesvara Yakshis of Mathura, were returned to their original museums, while others stayed on despite the claims of their regional homes.
What the National Museum reflected was the strength of India’s museum establishments. Although India already had a large network of museums spread across its geography, with Independence came the insistent need for the national capital to have its own art museum—for New Delhi to have a privileged and greater claim on the country’s art and archaeological treasures over and above all the other existing repositories of these objects. Imperial Delhi already had an archeological museum at the Red Fort, and the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities, which was housed in the building that now houses the National Archives, and which was later entirely assimilated within the National Museum.
The National Museum moved into its own building in 1960 at its equally strategic and symbolic location at the crossing of the old Kingway and Queensway, which were appositely renamed Rajpath and Janpath. Over time, the collection was greatly expanded and developed as the museum took on a career of its own. What people don’t remember now is that from 1949 to 1960, in the first 11 years of its existence, the National Museum operated from within the prestigious venue of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and reached out to the public from within these monumental premises.
Some key art objects never left the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the new building of the National Museum. One of them is the 5th-century Buddha of Sarnath of the famed “golden age of the Guptas”. Standing silent and serene in the Durbar Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, this ancient stone denizen of the modern nation has stood witness to every important ceremony in the Durbar Hall. The swearing in of every new president, prime minister and government has taken place under the watchful eyes of the ancient Buddha, who presides over every important move of nation-formation.
The presence of the Buddha there is rather provocative. Why was the Buddha chosen to remain in that select venue, and why not a Hindu deity? In a country that was communally divided, rather than choosing an overtly Hindu symbol, a symbol of an ancient, avowedly egalitarian and, more importantly, minor religion was a safer and more effective choice. An emblem of the spiritual sublimity of the nation’s ancient art, the Sarnath Buddha, could be rendered into a sacred symbol of a secular nation—in the same way as the Mauryan Lion Capital of Sarnath could be held up an ancient regalia of a modern India. The political and cultural resonances of these ancient archaeological artefacts in the making of the nation have never waned, even though their aura and symbolism are today seldom reflected upon. They stand as an eloquent testimony to the steering role that was once assigned to India’s ancient art in the assiduous modern task of nation-building.
As told to Arshia Dhar
Tapati Guha Thakurta Professor of history at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta