close logo

Part 5: Sister Nivedita and Indian Art: A Relentless Campaign

Notwithstanding her persistent efforts to draw the Indians to their glorious heritage in art and sculpture, Nivedita never thought of keeping them away from the best of the West. She procured replicas of famous Western paintings for both the Prabasi and Modern Review. In a letter to Miss Josephine MacLeod on 9 August 1906, Nivedita writes: “Now I want you to do something for me. America is full of cheap reprints of good pictures. I want some of these. Could you get them for me? But I don’t want fancy things—that might strike us personally. I want known pictures. The reason is, that I have a chance of reproducing them, with critical notes, in a Bengali Magazine, and in this way I could disseminate a true idea of high Western Art—which is at present unknown here.” In this letter what she adds next has unmistakable proof of how her passion had a profound familiarity with things she discussed: “In all these cases I want religious pictures, never classical. I should be glad besides of a photograph if possible of the OakenVirgin of Nuenbery [Nuremberg] in Chicago, and of the Nike. I think that all these things can be got in America in prints, for 5 to 10 cents. I want these prints, reproduced for schools, not good photograph which are always expensive. … Ste. Genevieve watching over Paris is in any case to be reproduced. How beautiful she is!”

The Prabasi published all these pictures with Nivedita’s English notes and their Bengali translations in the Bengali years of 1313 (during the months of Kartik and Agrahayan [1906]) and 1314 (Jaistha and Asarh [1907]). In the Chaitra 1313 number, she narrated her plans: “It seems wise, in our reproduction of notable European pictures, to go on for a series of months giving only modern works. In this way, we hope to create a broad impression in the mind of the reader as to the subjects and methods of the European art of the present age, and then go back to an earlier period, and to try to illustrate the way in which this power was gained by reproducing a few masterpieces.”

(Figure 1: Credit: MeisterDrucke – The Virgin and Child painting by Sandro Botticelli)

Nivedita’s preference for reproducing the paintings from the modern to classical age reveals her impressive knowledge of art history as well as the master-class teacher in her, she writes: “One reason for choosing this order of procedure, lies perhaps in the fact that if our readers saw first a Virgin and Child by Botticelli, the Avenue of Trees at Middelharnis by Hobberma, a few Madonnas by Raphael, and the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, they might not care for the much slighter work of the moderns. Men were much more serious over their painting in the old days, and consequently they gave birth to conceptions which carry with them an air of eternity. They painted in the grand style. Modern work is slighter. More personal; it seeks intimate and elusive moments. And by the same rule, while it is often exquisite, it is almost fugitive, in the impression it makes on the beholder.”

(Figure 2: Credit: Wikimedia – The Avenue of Trees at Middelharnis by Hobberma)

Nivedita’s reviews of paintings by Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose are unquestionably masterworks. In the Prabasi of Bhadra 1313 (Aug-Sep 1906), she writes this in her Note on Abanindranath’s ‘Bharat-Mata’: “We have here a picture which bids fair to probe the beginning of a new age in Indian art. Using all the added means of expression which the modern period has bestowed upon him, the artist has here given expression nevertheless to a purely Indian idea in Indian form. … This is the first masterpiece, in which an Indian artist has actually succeeded in disengaging, as it were, the spirit of the motherland …”

Some firm words in this Note resemble prophecies. For example, Nivedita felt that this picture “…bids fair to probe the beginning of a new age in Indian art.” She admits that the artist has used all the “means of expression which the modern period has bestowed upon him,” to give expression “to a purely Indian idea in Indian form.” And then she gave her verdict—that the picture was the “first masterpiece, in which an Indian artist has actually succeeded in disengaging, as it were, the spirit of the motherland.”

In her critique of Abanindranath’s painting ‘Shah Jahan Dreaming of the Taj’ in the Modern Review of January 1910 and later in the Prabasi of March-April 1910, Nivedita’s poetic excellence is unmistakable: “The last reflection of the sunset has not yet died out of the eastern sky. The young moon is high behind the clouds. And the Emperor rides alone by the river-side to pray. Weeks, perhaps months, have gone by, since that terrible moments of severance, when the two who were as one, were divided for a time. The heart still quivers, under the freshness of the wound; and yet serenity is at its dawn; within the soul we behold the meeting-place of pain and peace. …”

(Figure 3: Credit: Wikimedia – Sita in Captivity in Lanka)

Nivedita also wrote on Abanindranath’s “Sita” and “The Passing of Shah Jahan”. She contributed eight Notes on Nandalal Bose’s paintings for the Modern Review; two of them later appeared in the Prabashi—which are on “Sati” and “The Dance of Shiva.” In one of her Notes, Nivedita narrated the theme of the painting titled “The Death-Bed of Dasaratha”: “The simple pathos of this picture will be best appreciated by those who have seen the original. Through the open window-space, we see the night, with its stars. It is the hour of darkness, relieved only by the lamp behind the bed, suspended by what looks like a fine gold thread. Dasaratha lies dying, in the room of Kausalya. The pain and yearning in his face, and the gesture of thought so suggestive of listening for a returning footstep, tell their own tale. …”After some more words about the painting, Nivedita expressed her feelings of joy: “This sketch is the work of a student, one of the students of the Calcutta Art School. Mr. Abanindra Nath Tagore can no longer be said to represent his own school of painting by himself. He has succeeded in creating a following. The pupils of the Art School have begun to produce original work of true value. It may be said that Modern Indian Art—at once genuinely Indian and genuinely Modern-—is born at last …” Touching the areas of excellence in the painting, she then added this definitive note: “Those who care for the birth of a great new art in India, worthy of her past, and fit to become one of the springs of her future, may pray, with trembling joy, for the work now being done, and the beginnings now being shown, in the Calcutta Art School, under Mr. A. N. Tagore. Nor must we forget that to Mr. E. B. Havell is due the credit of having foreseen these possibilities, and having laboured to make the appointments that have proved so fruitful.”

(Figure 4: Credit: Wikimedia – EB Havell)

This brings us to Ernest Binfield Havell and, more so, what he did to earn such an accolade. The fact is, no amount of gratitude is sufficient to repay what Havell did to serve the cause of Indian art. And unless we know this man—an area of Nivedita’s contribution will remain unexplored. But since the saga needs a separate space, we may now attend to that.

(Read for more in Part 6 – EB Havell: The Man and a Mission of Historical Dimension)

References and Notes

  1. Letters of Sister Nivedita, ed. Sankari Prasad Basu, in 2 volumes (Kolkata, Advaita Ashrama, 2017), 2.107-108.
  2. Prabasi Itihaser Dhara: Miscellaneous Topics and A Compilation, vol. 2, p.321, (see Notes on Pictures by Sister Nivedita, Chaitra, 1313).
  3. , 2.326-27 (see Sainte Genevieve watching over Paris, by Sister Nivedita, Kartik, 1313).
  4. Ibid, 2.323 (see Bharat-Mata, Abanindranath Tagore, A Review by Sister Nivedita, Bhadra 1313).
  5. Sankari Prasad Basu, Nivedita Lokmata,vol. 4 (Kolkata, Ananda Publisher, Beng. Year 1401), p. 111.
  6. Ramananda Chattopadhyay, Prabasi Itihaser Dhara: Miscellaneous Topics and A Compilation (Kolkata, Ratnabali, 1990), volume 2, 338 (see Shah Jahan Dreaming of the Taj, Abanindranath Tagore, A Review by Sister Nivedita, Chaitra 1316).
  7. The Modern Review, October 1907, 391-392 (see Notes: The Death-Bed of Dasaratha, by N [Nivedita]).

Sister Nivedita Series

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.