Nandalal Bose

WITH THE RECENT EXPLOSION of Indian art onto the global stage, sweeping survey exhibitions of work from modern and contemporary South Asia are regularly appearing throughout the world—only to provide reductive histories of this region. By contrast, “Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose (1882–1966)” presents a detailed, elegant meditation on just one artist’s life and career. Yet this consideration of Bose—the first comprehensive retrospective in North America on the “father” of modern Indian art—gives audiences a great sense of how the shifting character of India’s art during the twentieth century mirrored the country’s momentous path to independence, which it achieved in 1947. Indeed, as organized by the San Diego Museum of Art’s Sonya Rhie Quintanilla and reinstalled by the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Darielle Mason, this chronicle of Bose’s wide-ranging stylistic experimentations and poetic integrations of tradition and modernity foregrounds trends and issues still engaged by the country’s artists today.

The show, divided into six roughly chronological sections, begins in 1905, at the start of the anticolonialist Swadeshi (“of the land”) movement. Intellectuals in Calcutta were at the time proposing to unify India through self-reliance and indigenism; art became a political tool for the nationalist campaign, with Swadeshi artists like Bose (along with visionary teacher Abanindranath Tagore and Bose’s classmate Asit Kumar Haldar) seeking to regenerate the country’s art by embracing motifs for a new national identity. These artists thus turned away from oil painting and European realism, instead reviving highlights from India’s traditional art history, especially Mughal miniature paintings and the ancient Ajanta murals, rediscovered in the nineteenth century and considered the apogee of Indic culture. One of Bose’s most famous works, Sati, 1907/1943, implemented the wash technique favored by the movement: The painting depicts the self-immolation of Sati, wife of the Hindu god Shiva, with a spiritual sensibility then praised as authentically Indian. While the piece was rooted in religion, its secular representation and embodiment of individualism also had a modern appeal.

The most compelling section of “Rhythms of India,” however, considers Bose’s close relationship with Mahatma Gandhi. The canonical black-and-white linocut print Dandi March (Bapuji), 1930, depicts the leader’s 240-mile journey to defy a British tax on salt—one of the iconic actions of the freedom movement. Bose was the only artist ever patronized by Gandhi—who often claimed that he had no time for art—and this fact is especially poignant because Bose’s work was never overtly political. Instead, his practice embodied Gandhian ideals through harmonious evocations of nature and village life, the exploration of artisan traditions, and the integration of folk arts with modern ideas. While Bose’s early renown had been largely contained within Bengal’s elite intellectual community, this section illustrates how Gandhi’s sponsorship in the 1930s catapulted Bose to national fame, and, one should also note, through prohibitive class divisions.

As his prolific sixty-year career progressed—there are nearly seven thousand extant paintings by the artist—Bose would ultimately borrow from traditional, historical, and modern sources, both Indian and foreign (especially East Asian). If his earliest works reflected a conscious turn away from Western influence, he later sought “Easternness” in Sino-Japanese techniques, for instance, which could suggest a movement in Indian identity toward pan-Asianism. Bose’s dexterity with these modes is evident particularly in such midcentury endeavors as Dolan Champa, 1952, with its red ink seal and script that mimics Chinese characters, and An Elephant, 1959, executed in the Japanese monochromatic ink technique called sumi-e. By emphasizing his pieces that show a shifting relativity in the categories of “Indianness” and “foreignness,” “Rhythms of India” helps locate the inherently hybrid and heterodox character of modernity practiced in twentieth-century India.

Bose similarly worked in a variety of media that included painting, drawing, printmaking, design, and even a rare attempt at sculpture. By the ’30s, the scope of his practice extended from Gandhi-commissioned tempera posters for the 1938 Indian National Congress convention to his monumental mural project at the Kirti Mandir mausoleum, depicting scenes from the epic Mahabharata among other imagery from Indian literature. The intensity and simultaneity of his experiments are especially significant when considering India’s artistic conservatism—an almost unilateral preference for oil painting—for much of the second half of the twentieth century. (In fact, Bose’s fluidity of medium and his collaborations—he often illustrated books of poetry by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath’s uncle—have been turned to only recently by the current generation of Indian artists, such as Atul Dodiya, who cites Bose as a model for his intermedia projects.) Unfortunately, it is at this point that the exhibition stumbles: While the show admirably situates Bose’s achievements in his own era, a final section, on the artist’s legacy, is somewhat attenuated. The selection of works by contemporary artists (including Yuriko Lochan, A. Ramachandran, and K. G. Subramanyan) and Bose’s colleagues and fellow students at Kala Bhavan appears slapdash, particularly in comparison with the rigor of what precedes it. With a sense of context lacking, justification of the inclusion for specific endeavors seems weak and limited.

What resounds most in “Rhythms of India,” therefore, is the sense of an artist who challenged and transcended the categories and identities that existed in early-twentieth-century India. And perhaps this is enough. As Indian artists struggle anew with representing their “Indianness” in an increasingly international, urban art world, and at a time when Indian art is at risk of superficial reduction owing to the predominance of easy exhibitions that privilege “Indian” over “art,” it is the quiet courage of Bose’s persona and the multifarious qualities of his work that render him invaluable.

Beth Citron is a Mumbai- and New York–based critic and art historian.