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Part 10: Sister Nivedita and Indian Art: The Story of Her Knowledge and Inspiration

Now the question is whether her vast knowledge and perceptiveness in art had its root in what Nivedita had learnt before she came to India—the answer to this is both yes and no. Yes—as we know about her admirable ability in drawing and designing—instances are many to prove this claim. No—for her ability as an artist hardly justifies what she did through her talks, writings and speeches for more than half a decade while steering and inspiring the new art movement in India. When we look at those great personalities who admitted Nivedita’s role in this regard, we cannot but feel amazed.

(Figure 1: Credit: The Heritage Lab – A sketch by Nandalal Bose)

Nandalal Bose had the fortune of meeting the Sister on many occasions and earned her affection and guidance; his ability as a great artist added an edge to his observations during those meetings. In a letter to an admirer on 25 August 1954, he wrote: “The ideals of what Sister Nivedita discussed in matters of art had without doubt its root in her lessons from Swamiji. Moreover, she also inherited all the ideals and aesthetics of Sri Ramakrishna through Swamiji. But Swamiji had a mannish bold ideal of his own, which too was transmitted to Nivedita. When the Sister spoke, it felt as though we were hearing the fearless heroic words of Swamiji. ”Nandalal Bose has cited instances from four books about how Swamiji had taught and inspired her; the first two are “The Master as I Saw Him”, and “Notes of Some Wanderings with Swami Vivekananda”—both written by the Sister; the other two are Romain Rolland’s “The Life of Ramakrishna”, and “The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel.”

In his above letter, Nandalal has added more which too asks for our attention: “It is beyond my intellect to offer any opinion about Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on art and literature. But I think that as Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, etc., had allowed the language of daily life to become the medium of literature, which made their contemporary literature strong, and accessible to the general people—Swamiji also steered the Bengali language in the same way. He made the Bengali language easy, lively and sparkling. In forceful words, he confronted the long prevailing intricacies of mannerism in art. Sticking to his teachings, the art of future years would gain simplicity, strength, and energy. To the artists, the ideal of Swamiji shall act as the backbone of art, without which it would be dull and lifeless.”

Readers eager to know what Vivekananda thought about art and its future course may look into his long conversation with Ranada Prasad Gupta, a promising artist of his time. It is interesting to note that even when people were under the spell of Ravi Varma, as we earlier have seen in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Ramananda Chatterjee, the Swami could offer opinion like this: “By imitating the Europeans we at the utmost can only produce one or two Ravi Varmas among us! But far better than such artists are our Patuas (indigenous painters) who do the Chalchitras [arch-shaped frames over the images of deities, with Pauranika or mythological images] of our goddesses, in Bengal. In their work they at least display a boldness in the brilliancy of their colours.”

For long, the contributions of Sister Nivedita in shaping and inspiring Indian art and the young talented artists remained largely unknown, though indisputable recognitions are there by many of her time. But things are changing; modern art historians are exploring the past more critically. To know about such a change in evaluation, we shall look into the book Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850–1922, which has gained wide attention. In judging this book, historian Dane Kennedy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, now Emeritus Faculty at George Washington University, wrote: “…To state that this book is a path-breaking study of Indian art under the British Raj is in no sense hyperbolic. It addresses a wider range of hitherto neglected topics and introduces some important new avenues of inquiry.”

Partha Mitter, the author of the book, first remembered the three path-makers of the time when India, though under British subjugation, began to emerge as a nation: “To convey a clear picture of this late nineteenth-century milieu, I have chosen three of its leading cultural figures—Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Rabindranath’s nephew Balendranath. Their thinking reveals both the naturalistic foundations of colonial art and their ambivalence towards it.  The powerful impress of mimesis is particularly evident in Vivekananda.”

(Figure 2: Credit: Wikipedia – Ananda Coomaraswamy by Alvin Langdon Coburn and Balendranath Tagore)

Then Mitter shifts his focus to the three protagonists who had initiated the historical change: “Art gained … directly from three champions of Indian art who appeared from the West: Ernest Binfield Havell, Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy. … They gave a sharp edge to swadeshi ideology, elaborating the spirituality of Indian art as the antithesis of Renaissance naturalism. The doctrine took shape between c.1896–1910, though the final versions appeared later. Havell plunged into artistic reform soon after his arrival in Calcutta in 1896. Nivedita joined in discussions on art. Coomaraswamy did not however make his mark until the Bengal School of painting was well established. The three ideologues—Havell, Nivedita and Coomaraswamy—seemed to speak with one voice. Only later did the intellectual differences become evident. Havell furnished the aesthetic, Nivedita the moral and Coomaraswamy the metaphysical content of the swadeshi doctrine. Nivedita was the most fiery, Coomaraswamy the most persuasive, but Havell was the most systematic critic of naturalism. His years of experience as an art teacher were brought to bear on the practical aspects of the swadeshi doctrine.”

A little later, the same author emphasised the distinct role played by Sister Nivedita: “In Nivedita’s heartfelt comments we learn what mattered to her in art. Even more than Havell, she made practical suggestions for creating a national art which moved Abanindranath and his pupils. She spoke on two technical aspects in particular: light was as important in painting as colour contrasts. … Her second lesson was the power of suggestion, which idea Abanindranath probably owed to her. Nivedita exhorted students to seek out picturesque scenes to paint, the beggars, the boatmen of the Ganges, the bashful young Bengali bride, without which ‘the mere technical excellence of which you learn to prate in English schools are bone without flesh; they are worse than valueless’.”

In another book, Partha Mitter has also stressed the unique role of Sister Nivedita, which reads: “In 1902–4 E. B. Havell, head of the art school in Calcutta, who put forward the idea of decorating Indian homes with murals in the manner of Gothic Revivalists, first planted the idea of nationalist murals. In order to equip his students with indigenous fresco techniques, Havell brought in traditional muralists from Rajasthan. His efforts were unfortunately confined to a few experimental fresco buono slabs in the Jaipur method produced by his young collaborator, Abanindranath. A master of delicate miniatures, Abanindranath did not have much luck with large-scale works.  During the Swadeshi unrest of 1905, Nivedita, the Irish disciple of Vivekananda and a mentor of the nationalist artists of Bengal, proposed that public buildings be decorated with epic murals to serve as modern temples to the nation. The ancient Buddhist frescoes at Ajanta, rediscovered in the nineteenth century, were promptly adopted by the nationalists as a model for emulation. In 1909–11, Christiana Herringham, a moving force in the English mural movement … visited India in order to copy the Ajanta frescoes. Nivedita arranged for Abanindranath’s pupils to assist her so that they might gain first-hand experience of these ancient achievements.”

But it was not Indian art alone that consumed all the attention and energy of Sister Nivedita. There were numerous other avenues through which she strived to revive the long-lost glory of India—her adopted motherland. Apart from spiritual wealth, Vivekananda had bequeathed upon her a life-denying love for India that inspired her intense energy and passion to regain India’s splendid past through science, education, art and culture, and literature. Her efforts on those channels have doubtless elements of attractive stories—God permitting, we may come up with some of them in time.


References and Notes

  1. Barendranath Niyogi, Shilpa-Jigyasay Shilpi-Dipankar Nandalal (Calcutta, Bharatbani Prokashani, 1368 [Beng.]), pages 24, and 27-28.
  2. See Conversations and Dialogues, Part XVI, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 7 (Kolkata Advaita Ashrama, 1989), pp. 200-205.
  3. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 5 (Kolkata Advaita Ashrama, 1989), p. 476. 
  4. Dane Kennedy, Reviewed Work: Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations by Partha Mitter, Journal of Asian History, Vol. 30, No. 2 (1996), pp. 194-195:> accessed December 3, 2023.
  5. Partha Mitter, Art And Nationalism in Colonial India 1850–1922: Occidental Orientations (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994), pages 228 and 256.
  6. Partha Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism: India’s artists and the avant-grade 1922-1947 (London, Reaktion Books, 2007), p. 180.

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