Unravelling The Aesthetic Layers Of The Indian National Movement: An Artistic Study



India’s struggle for independence has often been reduced to political conflicts and movements, with people waging the battle in other fields often being given short shrift. The paper argues that the national movement had an aesthetic dimension, with a polemical discourse on art, sculpture and painting shaping the sensibilities of a nation on the cusp of independence. The differences between Graeco-Roman and Indian art were emphasised, and a variety of historicist as well as textual evidence cited to back up the same. In the course of the early twentieth century, portions of the Kamasutra and Vishnupurana were re-interpreted to suit the needs of the anti-colonial movement. The paper carefully dissects an important aesthetic treatise titled ‘Sadanga’ composed by the doyen of the revivalist art school Abanindranath Tagore. The iconography of Bharat Mata is also discussed to highlight the role ‘feminine virtues’ played in the evolution of this aesthetic. Finally, it also evaluates the way this revolution in Indian art sustained beyond the 1920s through the timeless examples of the Indian flag and the illustrations of the Constitution.


Art is oftentimes considered to characterize the fundamental motivations of a society. The study of colonial India has been established as a period of deindustrialization, wherein Britain reaped material benefits at the behest of India. There was however an unmistakable cultural tangent to this subordination involving a wholesale appropriation of religion, language, art and all those parameters that characterize a civilisation. Aesthetic subordination is often ignored and if conceded, is often confined to recognition of the transformation in town planning and architecture. When any group of people is culturally oppressed, reactions are bound to surface and it is fascinating to revisit an aesthetic response to colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This response came in the form of articles, poems, artwork, designs and music. This paper shall confine itself to studying the artistic revival movement of Bengal, where a quest for an ‘Indian’ art as opposed to Western (or Graeco-Roman) art could be witnessed. While this movement reached its peak in the first decade of the 20th century, its influence remained potent right until the country attained independence.

It must be noted that this paper does not envision studying works of art with a scrutinizing eye. Rather, it aims to study the ‘artists’ behind the images or paintings. Most of the works on modern Indian art examine the Bengal School of Art as an overly nationalist school that sought to chauvinistically uphold the ‘Hindu’ tradition. But this argument can easily fall flat if we are to consider the pan-Asian aesthetic evolved in this phase or indeed the overwhelming emphasis on spiritual unity. Understanding the thoughts of the artists themselves helps us reflect upon the aesthetic sensibilities during that critical phase in India’s struggle for independence. What did these artist-philosophers wish to attain through their works? What was their conception of the ‘right’ painting? How did they characterize the very art of painting? Was this new art tradition reactionary in nature, or can we infer a continuity? These are the kinds of themes that shall be explored in this paper, after a reasonably comprehensive survey of the primary literature.

The method that shall be adopted for studying this fascinatingly dynamic age of Indian aesthetics is that of triangulation. Observations of contemporary writers like Partha Mitter and Tapati Guha Thakurta shall be juxtaposed with interpretations from primary texts composed by the artists themselves. Further, I will try to arrive at a cohesive interpretation for some major works of art associated with that phase. The argument that I seek to run through this paper is that the aesthetic sensibilities of early 20th century Bengal (and in turn, India) were rooted in an understanding of colonialism that was deeply spiritual in nature.

A quest for unity

‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow’– Gopal Krishna Gokhale

Thought is a compelling force that underlies all human action. Early twentieth century Bengal was a furnace for political activity, with passions having inflamed after the Curzon-induced Partition of Bengal in 1905. The response to this draconian move was to promote indigenous or Swadeshi goods, and boycott everything foreign. The artist community too joined this agitation, and rather subtly influenced the tide of political opinion.

The very practice of art is meant for public display and absorption, and this in itself is conducive for the ‘shaping of political ideas’ (Negash, 2004, p. 187). In India, there wasn’t any divide between traditional and modern art until the arrival of the British. The 19th century in particular was decisive, as the relations between western and eastern art came to acquire a hegemonic character, with the former privileging itself over the latter.[1]

Until the late 19th century, academic realism[2] was the most popular school of art in India, as was the case in Europe at the time. Oil painting had gained traction, and Raja Ravi Varma had emerged as its most stellar exponent. All across the country, including Bengal, Ravi Varma was hailed as an artistic behemoth.

The shift in aesthetic sensibilities, towards the turn of the nineteenth century was by no means sharp. In fact, Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings remained an elite preoccupation, as local crafts remained omnipotent. His paintings too had a tinge of cultural character, particularly evident in one of them titled ‘Arjun and Subhadra’. By this time, three major schools of art had evolved across the country, located in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. But it was the Company School that dictated terms, and writers like George Birdwood and Vincent Smith charged Indians for lacking any artistic heritage. They gave vent to the idea that ancient Indian art owed its splendour to the Hellenic tradition.

A group of artists and scholars based in Bengal responded to such assertions. The reason this movement became Bengal-centric largely owed to the anti-partition agitation that only crystallised Oriental thoughts further.

This response needs to be understood as an offshoot of a specific interpretation of colonialism, for which it becomes important to get acquainted with the key figures who straddled the artistic paradigm in this period.

Coomaraswamy and material regeneration:

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy[3] in his most authoritative work, ‘Essays in National Idealism’ devoted sufficient space to Indian art. Coomaraswamy wrote- ‘No one can govern a nation if they don’t make themselves one with the religion and the people’. The Indian idea of religion, was diametrically opposed to the western view (more on this later), and that explained how the British had miserably failed in governing the country. Thus, he concluded that India’s freedom movement was indeed for ‘England’s sake’. Coomaraswamy boldly claimed that art could hold the key to a ‘material regeneration of India.’

A true artist for Coomaraswamy was not someone who simply ‘composed a picture’ but who could ‘see’ it. He states that there is an underlying unity in all forms of art. He accused the Western artist of imitation, and considered ‘imagination’ as the ‘first essential of true art’ (Coomaraswamy, 1909). This argument flows from an indictment of academic naturalism that was accused of promoting mimicry rather than going into the deeper essence of reality. This is perfectly captured in the discourse involving two heritage sites: Gandhara and Ajanta.

Gandhara and Ajanta: Aesthetic battle:

The Buddhist sculptures at Gandhara have traditionally been associated with the Indo-Greeks, and this was leveraged upon by colonial historian like Vincent Smith who called them ‘the best specimens of plastic art known to exist in India’. In fact, the very projection of Indian art as ‘grotesque’ was based on its comparison with marvellous sculptures found in Gandhara. The revivalist movement had to respond to such colonial chauvinism, and here we can broadly locate two strands of opinion. Ernest Binfield Havell reversed the colonial argument to project Buddhist sculpture in pre-Kushana times to be vastly superior to those found in Gandhara. The Ashokan edicts and monuments of Mathura – of greater antiquity – were considered to highlight the genuinely ‘Indian’ variety of sculpture’. However, a second line of argument made by Sister Nivedita sought to highlight the ‘Indian’ influence in Gandharan sculptures. Thakurta rightly points out that ‘a systematic inversion of the Gandhara bias became one of the central premises on which Indian art staked its claim to a superior aesthetics and its own firmly independent history of evolution.’ (Thakurta, 1992, p.176)

Likewise, the growing fascination in Oriental circles of London around the Ajanta caves eventually led to the Bengal School using it to bolster their claims. Young painters Asit Kumar Haldar and Nandalal Bose accompanied Lady CJ Herringham on tours to Ajanta, sponsored by the India Society, London. These tours were accorded the status of a ‘pilgrimage’ by their mentor Abanindranath Tagore, and it did have a tremendous impact on their artistic sensibilities. Asit Haldar in particular published a lot of articles in Oriental journals like Prabhasi and Bharati. He underlined the real greatness of Ajanta lying in the superior faculty of dhyana, best embodying Indian idealism. He went to the extent of claiming that painters from Bengal were responsible for the murals in Ajanta, given the affinity he noticed between the indigenous traditions of Bengal (pata) and those in Ajanta. Prominent art critic OC Gangoly considered Ajanta to be a sacred tool for removing the ‘pollution of foreign ideas’.

Havell and the philosophical basis of idealism:

Ernst Havell played a role in defining the contours of ‘Indian’ aesthetics’ through his works ‘Ideals of Indian Art’ and ‘Indian sculpture and painting’. He was a pioneering art critic, administrator and in his capacity as the Principal of the Government Art School, Calcutta was a frontrunner in lifting Bengal school of art to prominence. He extolled the Indian artist for ‘identifying with nature in all its moods’ (Havell, 1920). Nature for the artist was surcharged with spiritual value, and the Greek or Roman in his view could not represent it holistically. It was Indian ‘idealism’ that made it stand apart.

If we try and dissect the ‘idealism’- that in this heyday of nationalism became the standard for analysing any work of art – its close links with Vedanta can clearly be recognized. One must note that these polemics coincided with philosophical challenges being posed to the west as well. Sister Nivedita was a product of this very churn, having been mentored by Swami Vivekananda. The likes of Aurobindo Ghosh too overtime took to spirituality, and the root of all their discourses was Vedanta. The ‘ideal’ art, as propagated by these scholars, lay hidden behind the illusion (maya) of the apparent world, and the artist’s aim was to move past this maya and attain the Absolute (Brahman). This also, as we shall see, influenced the religious tenor of many arguments made. All claims to ‘idealism’ ultimately emphasized unity; here we notice how a political goal was being envisioned on the artist’s palette.

The pan-Asian aesthetic:

I argue that classifying the Bengal school of art as ‘nationalist’ would be oversimplistic. The artwork can rather be classified as ‘Oriental’ given its emphasis on the ideals of the ‘East’. Eastern cultures like those of the Chinese and Japanese were crucially invoked in this polemical discourse against the West. Here, it is relevant to look at the contributions of Sister Nivedita in this movement for aesthetic regeneration. She worked closely with Coomaraswamy and Havell, but also ably assisted a Japanese artist-philosopher named Kakuzo Okakura in his travels across the country. His book, ‘Ideals of the East’ has an introduction written by Nivedita. In the context of freedom, she makes the following assertion – ‘Art can only be developed by nations that are in a state of freedom’. (Okakura, 2007, p.3)

Okakura’s book is focused on Japan’s unique artistic developments, but he locates Japanese art in an Asiatic context. For him, ‘the history of Japanese art was the history of Asiatic ideals’,[4] and this very thought shaped his liaison with Nivedita.

While in India, Okakura stayed at the home of Surendranath Tagore, cousin of the great painter Abanindranath Tagore. He was instrumental in introducing the ‘wash’ technique prevalent in Japanese paintings. This technique ‘revolved around a naturalistic and atmospheric blend of colours, in which the contours of forms, blurred and hazy, would waft to the surface in delicate lines’.[5]

Once he returned to Japan in 1903, Okakura sent two of his students back to the Tagore household – Yokayoma Taikan and Hishida Shunso. A majority of Tagore’s paintings ever since were composed using this technique, as he soon identified its capacity to evoke the primacy of emotion. The Taj Trilogy (painted in 1901-02) is illustrative. The most important painting in this style though was the Bharat Mata painting that will be discussed in a later section.

At one level, the unity harked back to Vedantic ideals. The artist was accorded a spiritual power of thinking beyond the world with its apparent contradictions, and rather seeks the Ultimate or the Absolute. At another level, the unity was geographical – and there was an attempt especially on the part of Sister Nivedita to further the propagation of a pan-Asian aesthetic.

‘Priest and poet’:

The most emphatic of all claims made by this group of philosophers was in the religious sphere, wherein Graeco-Roman art was castigated for being too ‘secularised’ and focusing extensively on ‘human forms’. Coomaraswamy, whose views in this regard are instructive, claimed that Indian art was undeniably religious in nature, given the presence of numerous deities and no rigid distinction between the sacred and profane. To the extent that Havell claimed that the ‘Indian artist is both priest and poet.’ (Havell, 1908, p.10)

It must be noted that religion, philosophy, art and aesthetics all converged on the one overarching theme of unity. Here’s a pontification on the origin of Indian art that encapsulates these linkages:

‘Indian art was conceived when that wonderful intuition flashed upon the Indian mind that the soul is eternal and one with the Supreme Soul, the Lord and Cause of all things.’[6] (Havell, 1972)

This connection drawn between a ‘priest’ and ‘poet’ was reiterated by Annie Besant to aver that the artist was a ‘priest of the beautiful’. The idea of beauty was associated with the Divine, and an artist’s task was to represent the beauty inherent in God’s activity on the earth. In discussing the Absolute Self, Besant introduces the aesthetic concept of ‘Rasa’ and claims that both ‘Self’ and ‘Rasa’ are one and the same. Thus, one needn’t search for beauty in the chaotic external reality, but only required to look within oneself. Besant’s definition of art is itself revealing of this perspective. For her art is ‘an attempt to bring down within the vision of ordinary mortals some of the divine beauty of which the Artist catches glimpses.’[7] In this definition, one doesn’t find any serious criticism of Greek painting, and this particular text can be taken together as an analysis of Indian painting on its own footing. (Besant, 1925)

‘Bharat Mata’:

The aesthetics of the times re-imagined Hindu mythology and chief deities. This was particularly evident in the treatment of the feminine. The ‘Bharat Mata’ image and the discourse around it was the pinnacle of this fusion of the feminine and national. While the painting had been rendered by Abanindranath Tagore at the height of the Swadeshi movement, it drew upon a legacy of discourse on the feminine in the Indian context. Unsurprisingly, the person most impressed by the painting was Sister Nivedita. After all, the painting upheld her own ideas on the notion of ‘mother’ in India. Nivedita, in her book ‘Kali the Mother’ (published in 1898), expounded on the iconography of women in the Indian context. The ideal of the goddess in India in her view had always been a harbinger of ‘sanctity and peace’, and she confidently extended her argument to claim that ‘In India, the thought of mother has been realized in completeness’. While Graeco-Roman art presented women as decked up, existing in servility to men; in the East, women were shown nude, with flowing hair and protruding tongue – as embodied by the Goddess Kali. The ideal of motherhood was powerful and elevated women in the Indian subcontinent.  While man was the essential soul of all things (purusha), women and motherhood comprised the energy that sustained this soul (prakriti). In sum, the feminine ideal was needed for the realization of the self. This exposition on gender too represents a formative stage in the elevation of ‘mother’ as symbolic of the ‘nation’. (Nivedita, 1990)

Abanindranath’s most popular painting was a natural by-product of his involvement with the Bengal school of Art. While the original concept of ‘Bharat Mata’ had been evolved by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Tagore gave it a visual dimension, that persists in collective imagination to date. The figure shows a saffron-clad Bharat Mata with four arms, carrying books (learning), sheaves of paddy (food), a white cloth (clothing) and garland (spiritual salvation) respectively in each of them. The painting seems intimate as divinity is cast in the mold of an ordinary woman. Later, Abanindranath also wrote that while painting this figure, he had the face of his daughter in mind. If looked at carefully, the woman represents daughter, mother and goddess all rolled in one[8]. It is precisely this conflation of humanity and divinity that lent visual power to this rendition. The painting struck a chord with the masses, and began featuring in rallies, Swadeshi fund promotion events and rakhibandhan festivals.

In fact, the effect was so electric that ‘Bharat Mata’ reached the shores of the Tamil land. Subramaniyam Bharati featured figures reminiscent of ‘Bharat Mata’ in the newsweekly he edited called ‘Intiya’. These appeared as ‘carto-graphed’ versions of the divine figure, giving a territorial adjunct to a symbol that initially had a greater spiritual relevance. Later, a spate of renditions added further thrust to this depiction, suggesting the degree of popular approval Abanindranath’s painting had received. (Ramaswamy, 2010)

Abanindranath was a veritable colossus of an artist, and was easily the most significant cog in the wheel of Swadeshi art. Nivedita and Coomaraswamy – better regarded as writers – were blown away by ‘Bharat Mata’ and other compositions of the luminary like ‘Kacha and Devyani’ and ‘Sita in captivity in Lanka’. Their arguments on the Indian-ness of painting rested mostly on such works that best represented Indian idealism.

Abanindranath Tagore and his aesthetics

Abanindranath Tagore also left an indelible legacy in his aesthetic conceptualizations. As Thakurta rightly points out, ‘Abanindranath’s pen proved as influential as his brush in setting up the case for Indian art’. His writings in Bharat-Shilpa and other publications leave an imprint of his thoughts on art and aesthetics. Studying his ideas – as well as the response to them from the artistic fraternity – gives us a very wholesome picture of the aesthetic sensibilities of the time.

Tagore’s aesthetics heavily borrowed from Indian spiritual traditions. In Bharat-Shilpa, he recognized dhyana as the distinctive attribute of Indian art, and made the case for considering the Dhyani-Buddha and the Sukranitisara to be authoritative canons in this regard. His notion of art had decidedly religious undertones. An artist in his view was akin to a yogi performing ‘sadhana’ so as to perfectly represent certain emotions and moods. He accorded the patuas and the Kalighat painters of Bengal a much higher position than those urban painters who modelled their style on the Europeans. Sukracharya’s treatise Sukranitisara also drew his attention, as he analysed the five categories of images and four types of postures (bhanga) mentioned in that text. In all his writings, there was a clear emphasis on ‘form’, so that it corresponded with the idealism that he sought to portray as ‘Indian’.  (Thakurta, 1992)

All these ideas seemed to have crystallised with the composition of ‘Shadanga or the Six limbs of painting’ in 1914. This article can easily be considered his most prolific contribution towards Indian aesthetics. The article was written borrowing a couplet from Yashodhara’s commentary on the Kamasutra.

The six canons of Indian painting, as per the article, are as follows:

  • Rupa-bheda
  • Pramanani
  • Bhava
  • Lavanya yojanam
  • Sadrishyam
  • Varnikabhangam

Rupa-bheda alludes to form and difference in paintings. In Tagore’s view, the variety that is evident to our eyes provides only a partial understanding of structure and form. For him, rupabheda is the analysis and synthesis of form as undertaken by the five senses, soul or mind. He cites the example of a woman taking up different roles and appearing to us in various forms. The differences can be mitigated if we allow the mind to ‘act on the form, change its appearance and impart to it the essential qualities of motherhood, sisterhood etc.’[9]Here he introduces the concept of ruchi, which is present in every rupa, as also in our mind – and literally means ‘lustre of loveliness’.  Beauty and ugliness arise depending on the degree of resonance between the ruchi of the mind and the object. Judgment is after all a feature of the mind, reality is constant. Thus, he privileges the ‘light giving and light absorbing powers of the mind’ over the powers of mere eyesight. Rupa-bheda can be considered as a method to mitigate all apparent diversity, with ruchi being the underlying reality (soul) present in every form.

Pramanani is all about ascertaining the ‘correctness’ of form. Here, Tagore illustrates his point by highlighting the limitations of painting the vast ocean on a piece of paper. In such a situation, an artist uses a special measuring faculty which can be called pramatrichaitanya. This is the capacity of the artist to measure the colour, sound, expanse and depth of objects so that they can be depicted on paper. This measurement can encompass limited as well as unlimited contexts. Its role is beyond measurement, as in Tagore’s view the ‘pramatrichaitanya’ measures the ‘outer and inner significance’ of forms seen and felt.

The third limb is bhava, and this particular term is important as it was central to a lot of nationalist writings that emphasized on a uniquely Indian style of art. Bhava is the emotional response to any work of art, and encapsulates the sentiments and ideas stimulated in the course of this experience. Our mind, says Tagore, is colourless if looked at in isolation. It is emotions that add a chromatic value to the mental space. Once again Tagore strikes a difference between perception through eyesight and through mind. While eyes can only help us ‘detect the various bhangi (forms) excited by the bhava’, it is our mind that can help us detect the suggestive value (byanga) of any work of art. He calls bhava a double-hooded snake, with its subtle form lying deep beyond the veil of the rupa. For Tagore, an artwork without a suggestive quality is decidedly inferior, and an artist must facilitate the action of ‘Byanga to reveal the mind and meaning concealed behind the veil of Rupa.’

The fourth limb, Lavanya yojanam adds the element of grace to the artwork, and essentially regulates the functioning of pramanani and bhava. Even an excess of Lavanya must, in Tagore’s view, be guarded against. This caution underlines Tagore’s concern for moderation, and reflects his aesthetics as being grounded on principles that avoid any extremities.

The fifth limb, sadrisyam refers to similitude or resemblance of forms and ideas. Here as well the Vedantic concept of ‘Caitanya’ is evident, as Tagore refers to any similarity being contingent on the ‘nature and spirit of things’.

Finally, Tagore introduces varnikabhanga as the ‘last and most difficult attainment of all’. Getting pen on paper, or getting the brush on a white sheet requires a degree of confidence and control, which he flags as a prerequisite. Later, the artist must be able to wield the brush in a manner that the colours ‘crystallise into joyousness or melt into tears’. Tagore exhorts artists to move beyond a mere understanding of colours and seek knowledge of the ‘real nature and meanings’ of colour and figures.

In an appended section titled ‘Philosophy of the Sadanga or Six Limbs of Indian painting’, he devotes some space to two more components – rasa and chhhanda. Here, he clearly aims to draw parallels between Indian and Chinese art, another subtle reinforcement of a Pan-Asiatic aesthetic. Tagore equates the Indian ideal of great taste (rasa) with the Japanese concept of Ki-in, having ‘elevation of sentiment’ as the unifying force. He does gently hint at the greater antiquity of the concept ‘rasa’, therein re-affirming the claims of India being a master in this regard. Chhanda[10] on the other hand, refers to rhythm that provides true joy and elation (ahlada). (Tagore, 1921)

Tagore’s colleague and semi-mentor E.B Havell too had something to say on this theory. He classified rupa-bheda as shruti or the revelation of divine beings, and the other five limbs as smriti or that which was remembered. He particularly distilled the rupa-bheda limb to strengthen his case for Indian idealism.

Tagore’s ideas on aesthetics were uniquely Hindu, as they borrowed concepts from a range of Silpa-sastras that had philosophical values steeped in Hindu heritage. Texts like the Kamasutra, Brihat-samhita, Natya Shastra and as shall be seen, Chitrasutras found mention in this article. Here, it must be added that the word ‘Hindu’ isn’t being used in its contemporary religious notion, but merely to underline the spiritual content in such ideas that was undeniably Hindu in character.

However, looking at this treatise and its philosophical grounding in isolation would be a grave error. The criticism to this theory, and in general to the Bengal school, is all the more fascinating and revealing of the period under study.

Criticism and impact of Sadanga:

This powerful article written by the doyen of Indian revivalist art was rather ironically received with trepidation by many in the Swadeshi circles. Ordhendo Kumar Gangoly in his foreword for an edition to ‘Sadanga’ published a few years later, was sanguine about the article filling a major gap in research on aesthetic doctrines enunciated in the Alankarashastras. However, it copped criticism from a variety of fronts, including prominent art critics like Akshay Kumar Maitreya, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Stella Kramsrich.

Maitreya was the most vociferous of critics, as he critiqued each and every section of the treatise, admonishing Tagore for neglecting many important ancient texts. He denied there being any connection between rupa and bheda and claimed that Tagore completely missed the 16 rupams mentioned in the Mahabharata. Likewise, for each of the six limbs, he charged Tagore with providing very loose definitions, giving too much room for the artist to experiment and innovate. For him, a true artist was one who strictly followed the canons of Indian painting. Maitreya had an archaeological background, and as Thakurta argues, such criticism serves to highlight the tensions between aesthetic and archaeological approaches to ancient Indian art. (Eaton, 2013)

It is worth taking a gentle digression at this juncture. Having touched upon the tensions between aesthetics and archaeology, an illustration can be sought in the reception to a painting (rendered in 1909) by Surendranath Gangoly titled, ‘Flight of Lakshman Sen’. Lakshman Sen is widely regarded to have been the last Hindu ruler of Bengal, who as legend has it, fled the region after the invasion of Bakthiyar Khilji. The painting, released in 1909 by the Indian Society for Oriental Art (ISOA) showed an old man with a stick searching for an opportune moment to escape, with a boat parked on the shores to carry him away. The date ascribed for his ‘flight’ was 1203, and this opened up a stormy debate, with Maitreya once again voicing his objection to the lack of historicity in the painting. The usual suspects, Nivedita and Coomaraswamy came to the defense of Sen, and the former’s statement is noteworthy to be reproduced over here:

Whatever we may think historically of the Flight of Lakshman Sen in 1203…and I for one do not accept a word of the current nonsense that would make him a coward! – this picture is nervous, strong, full of energy and vigour. The escape of the discrowned king speaks in every line…it is a moment of withdrawal rather than flight. In some remote fastness of his kingdom, Lakshman Sen will still live and reign. When the hour strikes he will return again.[11]

This statement as reproduced by Partha Mitter, in her own words is a ‘requiem’ to the end of the glorious Hindu empire. However, to claim that this was merely a remembrance of a lost heritage would be short-sighted. The recognition of Lakshman Sen as ‘living’ and ‘reigning’ represents the consciousness of continuity, and if we mine other works of this cohort of writers, this continuity was tied to a spiritual outlook of unity that has been explored earlier.

Returning to the aftermath of Tagore’s ‘Sadanga’, the most cogent intervention in this regard was made by noted art historian Stella Kramsrich, who used this text as a launch pad[12] to publish a commentary and translation of Part III of the Vishnudharmottara Purana. Vishnudharmottara is a supplement to the Vishnu Purana, and details the various branches, methods and ideals of Indian painting. It was compiled around the 7th century CE, and alongside the Chitralakshana of Nagnajit, can be considered to be the earliest and in fact the most elementary chitrasutra.

The commentary’s origin can be traced to a Sanskrit commentary on the Vishnudharmottara released by the Venkateshwara Press in 1912. Going into the heavy details of Kramsrich’s commentary would be unnecessary for the purposes of this paper, but a few ideas expressed may certainly be useful. Kramsrich claims that while theories were important, they were subservient to the practice of painting; the artist should ideally be left free to work, ‘according to his own intellect’. While her arguments seem to be principally in agreement with those of Tagore, she adds a caveat while referring to the nexus between colour and emotions:

‘The colour thus has partly descriptive and partly suggestive significance. The drshta and adrshta hold their sway; symbol and illustration are amalgamated into an expressive language, keenly alive to all those visual impressions that are on a small scale, obtrusively finite, and seem to carry their meaning expanded within their outlines, as local colour. But this ambiguity of the colour in its suggestive and descriptive faculty was clearly kept apart. Taken in a naturalistic and descriptive sense, the sky or the atmosphere has to be painted as almost without any special colour.’ (Kramsrich, 1928)

Thus, she problematised Tagore’s approach of associating bhava with colours by highlighting the ambiguity inherent in colour schemes. Kramsrich’s contribution was in keeping with the trend of the 1920s, with polemical discourse being replaced by deeper studies in symbolism, sculpture and Sanskrit texts.[13]

Ananda Coomaraswamy’s criticism of Tagore stemmed from the latter’s association with Japanese art techniques. In Coomaraswamy’s view, Japanese influence had rubbed off excessively on Tagore, making his paintings ‘muddy in the extreme, and the tones throughout so low as often to make the very subject of the picture hard to decipher.’ Make no mistake, the same Coomaraswamy also considered Tagore to be one of the two ‘gifted men’ to have made a national reawakening even a possibility (the other one being his guru EB Havell). He was, however critical of the influence of European and Japanese thought on the Bengal school of Art, which made Tagore’s works inferior to the Ajanta, Mughal and Rajput paintings. Tagore’s earlier works, he observed, were full of ‘movement and colour’ but they had lost their charm over time. (Coomaraswamy, 1912)

All-in-all, we notice a sea of opinions floating around in this eventful phase. Though the Sadanga theory, as we have seen, was criticized fervently by fellow nationalist scholars, it can be considered an authoritative treatise. It set in stone the aesthetic foundations for the profusion of paintings that came under the ambit of Bengal School of Art. As Coomaraswamy clarified, in the context of the times, the Bengal School marked a revolution in taste and a concern for Indian subject matter and sentiment that was unparalleled. However, one can sense some disillusionment in Coomaraswamy’s gripe on this nationalist school of art. In fact, this was the broader sentiment as the heyday of Bengal-based nationalism drew to a close.

Decline and continuity

The Bengal School of Art had a revolutionary beginning, and sustained its relevance right through the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. However, the movement soon lost its mobilizing power, and the group of artists who heralded it gradually charted separate paths. While artists like Asit Kumar Haldar and Nandalal Bose continued painting under the guidance of Abanindranath, the movement had visibly lost steam by the time Mahatma Gandhi returned to the Indian shores in 1915. The Tagore household itself began adopting measured stances, rejecting restrictive territorial nationalism. While Rabindranath Tagore’s shift in political views is evident through the publication of his novels and speeches, his nephew too withdrew himself from ‘nationalist’ activity by the 1920s. Though he didn’t entirely dissociate himself from the Bengal school, he stepped down from the post of Vice-Principal of Government School of Art, Calcutta in 1915. In a concept of his own creation, he retreated into his ‘antarmahal’ and didn’t engage in polemics for the rest of his career. His style attained immaculate versatility, as was evident in the series of ‘Arabian Nights’ paintings.

Some scholars have argued, thus, that the artistic reawakening of the Swadeshi era was merely reactionary and petered out with the onset of Gandhian non-cooperation. However, this view can easily be disputed if we consider two major innovations leading up to the formation of the Indian republic: The tricolour flag and the Constitution of India.

The tricolour: reinforcing the ideal

Sister Nivedita, who featured earlier as an artist, also played a pioneering role in designing a national flag in a girl’s school in Calcutta during the Swadeshi movement. A flag is often considered to have profound symbolic power, and Nivedita’s first attempt was noteworthy. It had a vajra or a thunderbolt at the centre, with the words Vande Mataram inscribed all over it in Bengali and 108 jyotis (oil lamps) adorning the border. With this flag, one sees the conflation of Hindu identity with national identity. The concept of a divine Mother, elaborated earlier, finds representation through the inscription of Vande Mataram. The choice of vajra once again indicates an attempt to provide a spiritual tinge to the nationalistic fervour of the times. Traces of the evolving aesthetic fabric of the Bengal School are evident here. Though this flag didn’t gain much currency, it did inspire Bhikaiji Cama to hoist a similar Indian flag in the Second International Socialist Congress held at Stuttgart in 1907. She made a fervent claim that the flag represented the spirit of one-fifths of humanity (India) to challenge and annihilate the colonial enemy.

Mahatma Gandhi renewed the debate for an Indian flag in the 1920s, and along with a young, passionate artist from Masulipatnam named Pingalli Venkayya arrived at the conclusion that a tricolour emblem with a spinning wheel at the centre was best suited to accommodate the diversity of the Indian subcontinent. At that time, red for him represented the stronger Hindu community, with green at the bottom embodying the weaker Muslim community placed at the bottom as it needed to be protected. The white colour coherently stood for all other communities. This interpretation may seem irrelevant to this study, but interestingly, Gandhi’s views in this regard sharply changed towards the end of that decade.

After a failed non-cooperation movement and a slew of communal riots – along with the demands of the Sikh community to get representation in the mooted tricolour flag – Gandhi’s new interpretation in 1929 had significant sacral content. He identified red with sacrifice, white with purity and green with hope. This universalization of symbols not only de-communalised his earlier position, but also made the flag an enduring, timeless emblem. The feminine notion of nationhood returned once again in this context, as Mahatma Gandhi often referred to the flag as a woman whose ‘honour’ needed to be protected. What is noteworthy for the purposes of this paper is that the Mahatma had to take recourse to ‘ideals’ in order to make his notion of a national flag more acceptable. A straitjacket association of colours with communities had clearly backfired. This once again harks back to the aesthetics of ‘idealism’ that had gained currency during the anti-partition agitations. Ultimately, this flag turned into a state symbol after Nehru’s resolution in 1947. Hereafter, the national flag became the property of the state with the people’s association with it being solely in their capacity as citizens. Jawaharlal Nehru argued that the flag was a symbol of freedom for ‘all humanity’ and played an instrumental role in replacing the charkha with the Ashoka chakra. Though this was partly due to the practical difficulty of printing charkhas on both sides of a flag, its historical value as depicting a centralized empire may have been politically more salient. In fact, after the resolution was unilaterally passed by Nehru, each and every member of the Assembly came forward to give a speech explaining what the flag meant to him/her.[14] (Roy, 2006)

Illustrating the Constitution: Nandalal Bose

Now, we move to another theme more closely tied to the Bengal school – the Indian constitution. The illustrator of the cover page for the constitution, Nandalal Bose, happened to be a protégé of Abanindranath Tagore, and his association with the Bengal school bears reflection through most of his career. He was part of the team that visited Ajanta in 1909 and 1910. His paintings in the early stage of his career reflect his concern for bhava, an aesthetic concept that had gained phenomenal traction in the Bengal school. These include the likes of paintings like Sati (1907) and Gandhari (1907). In 1922, Rabindranath Tagore appointed Bose as the Principal of the Kala Bhavan at Shanti Niketan.

In 1930, Bose composed a captivating portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on his salt march. This almost immortalized the figure of a lean Gandhi walking purposefully towards the coast of Dandi. Bose’s liaison with Gandhi blossomed only after 1935. He was in fact commissioned to prepare panels and portraits for the Haripura session of the Congress in 1937-38. Bose oversaw the construction of residential tents with local material like bamboo. The idea was to create an ‘elegant rural atmosphere’ that could widen the support base of the Congress.[15]Once again, this thrust on ‘local crafts’ clearly carried forward a tradition offset by his guru Abanindranath Tagore. The posters he made for that occasion covered a significant breadth of activity – carpenters, smiths, hunter and musicians, representing how the common, poor man was integrally involved in the agitation for independence.

Given his proven prowess in painting and his association with the Congress, Nandalal Bose was entrusted with the task of illustrating the Constitution of India. The enormity of this task can only be imagined, for it implied incorporating traditions from across the vast and diverse subcontinent. While the Constitutional tenets were heavily discussed and debated in the Assembly, a team of painters from Kala Bhavan, Shanti Niketan meticulously worked on this mammoth project.

The cover of the Constitution has an intricate border, with embossments of complex patterns on the edges. These are reminiscent of the murals found in Ajanta, reflecting that his experiences with the Bengal School were fresh in memory.[16] But, it is the illustrations within the manuscript that have gained a lot of acclaim. These twenty-two images are placed right in the beginning of each section of the constitution, and broadly attempt to trace India’s civilisational journey from Harappan times to the national movement for freedom. This can easily be struck off as a jocular attempt at narrating India’s vast and complex story through a few images, but a close observation will give great clarity on the intricate nature of this work. The themes themselves are revealing. For instance, the trio of Ram, Lakshman and Sita in exile, or the despondence of Arjuna on the battlefield features right in the beginning to indicate how the epics form an invaluable part of Indian heritage. Following the initial emphasis on Buddhism and mystical traditions, the paintings venture into heroic individuals who defined Indian history. While it is hard to identify which particular ancient kings are depicted, the historical figures of Akbar, Shivaji and Tipu Sultan can clearly be identified.

For the purposes of this paper, the design work that illuminated the borders of each page characterizes the diversity in Indian art traditions. The wall paintings of Ajanta, illustrations from Rajasthan, sculptures of Konark, Bharhut and Amravati; and the splendid architecture of temples in Mahabalipuram can all be gleaned through the written constitution.[17]

Alongside the immaculate calligraphy of Prem Behari Narayan Raizada, the illustrations give an aesthetically pleasing look to the Constitution of India. It must be noted that this wasn’t Nandalal Bose’s only major contribution in independent India, as he also went on to design prestigious awards like Bharat Ratna and Padma Shri. An individual cannot be isolated from his past, and right through his work, the influence of the Bengal school was evident.


This paper is a preliminary attempt at examining the artistic re-awakening that emerged through the artists and philosophers in early twentieth century Bengal. This ‘avant-garde’ was premised on a rigid differentiation between the art of the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. The East was projected as the hub of spiritual traditions, with an overwhelming idealism that sought unity between man and universe. The west, on the contrary, was associated with mimicry and a distorted realism. The polemics, though located in a political context of the anti-partition agitation, led to the creation of timeless imagery like the portrait of ‘Bharat Mata’ and the first ever Indian national flag. It was only in the year 1914, that this distinct aesthetic response was concretised in a treatise called the ‘Sadanga or the Six limbs of painting’. This became the pretext for a rift within the nationalist stream of thought. This study can clearly steer us to a perspective on the anti-colonial agitation that moves beyond the humdrum political movements or speeches. It allows us to think of India as a continuing civilisation, as can clearly be seen with a consciousness of the Silpa-Sastras, Vedanta and other Indian ideals.

The role of Japanese artist-scholars like Kakuzo Okakura has to be studied in further depth to understand the way syncretic political identities were forged through art and literature. The illustration of the constitutions and the conceptual framework for the national flag can also be looked at from purely scriptural standpoints, something that has been overlooked given the limitations of the topic under study. I sincerely hope this effort stimulates greater research on modern Indian aesthetics.



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Coomaraswamy, A.K (1909) Essays in National Idealism (Calcutta: Compden)

Coomaraswamy, A.K (1912) Art and Swadeshi (Madras: Ganesh & Co. Publishers)

Eaton, N. (2013), Colour, Art and Empire: Visual culture and nomadism of representation (London: IB Tauris & Co. Ltd)

Eaton, N. (2013). “Swadeshi” Color: Artistic Production and Indian Nationalism, ca. 1905–ca. 1947. The Art Bulletin, 95(4), 623-641.

Havell, E.B (1920), The Ideals of Indian Art, (London: John Murray)

Havell E.B (1908), Indian Sculpture and Painting (London: John Murray)

Havell E.B (1972) A handbook of Indian art (Varanasi: Indic Academy)

Inaga, S. (2004). Sister Nivedita and Her “Kali The Mother, The Web of Indian Life”, and Art Criticism: New Insights into Okakura Kakuzō’s Indian Writings and the Function of Art in the Shaping of Nationality. Japan Review, (16), 129-159.

Kramsrich, Stella (1928) The Vishnudharmottara (Part III): A treatise on Indian painting and image-making, 2nd edition (Calcutta: Calcutta University)

Lal, S. (1984). Rabindranāth Tagore’s Ideals of Aesthetic Education. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 18(2), 31-39.

Thakurta, Tapati Guha. (1992), The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, aesthetics and nationalism in Bengal, c.1850-1920, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Kumar, R. (1999). Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview. Art Journal, 58(3), 14-21.

Mitter, Partha (1994), Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922: Occidental orientations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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Nivedita, Sister (1990) Kali The Mother, (London: Swan Sonnenschein& Co. Ltd.)

Okakura, Kakuzo (2007), The Ideals of the East, (California: Stone Bridge Press)

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Tagore, Abanindranath. (1921), Sadanga or the Six limbs of Painting (Calcutta: Indian Society of Oriental Art)

[1]For a comprehensive elaboration of the colonial impact on art traditions, see R Siva Kumar, Modern Indian art: A brief overview

[2]Academic art traces its origins to the French Academy of Fine Arts created in 1816. Great emphasis is laid on rationality and intellectual stimulation offered by works of art. Academies taught this style by introducing naturalism, and encouraging copying ‘great’ works of art.

[3]Hailing from Ceylon, Coomaraswamy was a renowned philosopher, metaphysician and historian whose works largely revolve around ancient Indian art and architecture.

10]The word ‘chhanda’ traces its etymology to chit (soul) with Ananda (happiness)

[11]Nivedita, Works, p.37 (reproduced by Mitter in Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations, p. 358)

[12]The commentary, published first in 1924 was dedicated to Abanindranath Tagore

[13]For a detailed treatment of Citrasutras and the canons for painting contained in them, see Isabella Nardi, ‘The Theory of Citrasutras in Indian painting: A critical re-evaluation of their uses and interpretations’ (Routledge: 2006)

[14]For a detailed history of the national flag, see Arundhati Virmani, A National Flag for India (Permanent Black: 2008)

[15]See Heritage Lab, Nandalal Bose: The Man who illustrated the Constitution of India.

[16]See Prerna Malhotra, Celebrating Nandalal Bose, artist who rejected everything British and designed India’s constitution.

[17]For an opinion on the personality-driven nature of the illustrations, see Naman Ahuja, Can the historic art of our Constitution look to the future.

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