Born in Bhagalpur, Bihar on December 1882, Nandlal Bose rose to become one of modern India’s most important artists. A product of GCAC, Bose was mentored by Havell and Abanindranath. His integrity and intent idealism were reflected as well as widened with his nationalistic consciousness, his commitment for classical and folk art, along with its underlying spirituality and symbolism, and a responsibility towards shaping the self-consciousness, choices and moral virtues of the people. The early philosophical inspirations came from Havell, Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita, while his interactions with the Japanese painters in Calcutta influenced him to realize the significance of the artistic heritage.
The Indian renaissance formed the full vision of the magnificent yet ruined past in Abanindranath Tagore. Though it was pervaded with western realism, its nostalgic milieu asserted more of the national and Pan-Asian culture than the topical issues. After this advent, therefore, an intense need was felt for identifying indigenous sources of inspiration, and evolving a new artistic language, which would wed art to life. The key role here belongs to Nandalal Bose (1882-1966).
At fifteen, Nandalal went to Calcutta to continue his education. There he studied at the Central Collegiate School for his Entrance Examination and then joined the General Assembly College to study for the F. A. examination. But his passion remained art. All his time was spent collecting books and magazines to study the works of great painters. Even the money meant for his school fees went into art. He failed in the F. A. examination, then joined the Metropolitan College where again he did not pass the examination. Nothing persuaded him away from art.
Nandalal incessantly kept learning to paint, picking up model-drawings, still-life, etc. from his cousin Atul Mitra, copying the works of European masters (like Raphael’s Madonna) and the style of Raja Ravi Verma’s (as seen in Mahashveta). When he was yet feeling his way, Bose was elated when he suddenly recognized his future Guru, Abanindranath Tagore, from his paintings like ‘Buddha’ ‘Sujata’ and ‘Bajra-Mukut’
Too shy to ask Abanindranath to accept him as a disciple, Bose took his classmate Satyen to speak to the Guru on his behalf. Bose went with some paintings. Not only Abanindranath Tagore, but Havell and Lala Iswari Prasad examined them and appreciated the maturity of lines and experimentation in his works. Some were copies of European paintings but among the originals ‘Mahasveta’ won Havell’s admiration while ‘Ganesh’ won over Lala Iswari Prasad.
Abanindranath had met his future disciple. What Swami Vivekananda was to Ramakrishna, Nandalal Bose became to Abanindranath Tagore, who saw in him his artistic heir.
Abanindranath’s Art School was not just a teaching institution, but a locus for extending and deepening the appreciation and enjoyment of both classical and folk art through a variety of activities like recitations and discussions. In the beginning Harinarayan Basu and Iswari Prasad guided Nandlal in the school, but later Abanindranath himself guided his growth. During this time, Bose was his only student, though later many more joined him.
While his disciple for over five years, Bose picked up a lot from Abanindranath. His method of teaching, simple and engaging as it was, enlivened the classroom atmosphere and inspired rapt attention from his disciples. Stories from the history of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha were woven into his classes. Buddha’s stories, Goddess Kali, Krishna, Shiva’s Thandava Dance narrated in the classes fired Bose’s imagination. There were others inspired by ‘Bethala Panchavimshathi’ stories. ‘Sati’ was one of his works of this period, which won much praise.
Bose’s original style was recognized by famous artists and art critics like Gaganendranath Tagore, Anand Coomaraswamy and 0. C.Ganguli. He was also greatly encouraged by Sister Nivedita who became a great friend of the artist.
Along with being a great painter, Nandalal Bose played a leading role in the renaissance of art in India along with Asit Kumar Halder, Surendranath Ganguli, Samarendra Gupta, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Surendranath Kar, K. Venkatappa, Hakim Mohammed Khan, Shailendranath Dey, Durga Simha etc, who were all inspired by Abanindranath Tagore.
Bose drew rich inspiration also from Rabindranath Tagore. When he founded the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan Rabindranath invited Nandlal Bose to have a free hand with the institution. He said ” rarely did one come across in one person such a union of intelligence, sympathy, skill, experience and insight “. The Tagores left it to Bose to work out a cogent agenda in the field of art and try them out in practice. Without going into the argumentation of modernism or post-modernism, Bose approached the situation in a home-spun way. His focus was on the awakening of the creative potentials of each individual.
Bose declined the offer to join the staff of the Government Art School and instead helped Abanindranath prepare a catalogue of the works of art in his house. While compiling this rare collection of various styles of paintings, statues of stone and metals, ivory carvings, dolls, and costumes and also works from Nepal and Tibet, Bose even made copies of some of the oldest works.
His oeuvre spanning almost six decades appears at times as if it were a string of versatile choices in the use of diverse art-historical preferences. They also permeate one another, sometimes containing the possibility of an enduring style. Observed apart, the zenith of every variation shows a complex but radiant consistence of character. As an artist though, his keenness to communicate with the spectator would sometimes surpass unrestrained self-expression.
Bose’s experimentation and versatility enfolded numerous influences and traits. Ancient and folk traditions co-existed with the naturalism and Modernist persuations. Tested conventions of art did not counter his involvement with actual life-people and impetus. Artistic subtleties and ethereal tones were frequently flavoured with vigor and energy. His mellow, restrained washes allied with the rythmic, yet strong line dictating his compositions.
The historic artistic tradition of India coupled with several contemporary inspirations gave birth to an overlapping of styles in Nandlal’s creativity. His school project of copying the Ajanta murals lent tranlusence and a classical linearity to his style. Similarly, the emphasis on a unity between art and natural rusticity during the Kala Bhavan experience afforded the flat spaces of Mughal and Rajasthani traditions to his work, while the Sino-Japanese influences imparted complexity to his soulful washes. The Sabari cycle of temperas, with their thick opaque pigments, exhibit a post-impressionist inheritance, at the same time giving an expressionistic impact with coarse, belligerent strokes and jagged areas. A transition from figuration to a dominance of landscapes was also spotted in his works in the 1930’s. Bose’s versatile experimentation blended all such inspirations beautifully in his series on the ‘Chaitanya’, while the rural Bengali ‘pata’ influenced his vibrant depiction of village life in the ‘Haripura-Posters’. His skillful combination of stylization with the realistic pinnacled in the ‘Natir-Puja Murals’ and the free and sparse preparatory drawings.
Internally restless, Nandlal Bose always carried with him a stack of blank cards, a slab of ink and brush. Ever sensitive to the stimuli surrounding him, he used to give in to his impulses to record these, recall old images and invent new ones, through small spontaneous sketches in monochrome. Nandalal Bose always kept the habit of realistic sketching on the spot and doing finished drawings of sceneries, people, animals and vegetation. Fundamental directness, seasoned detail, a convincing overall finish and emotion marked his expression.
Bose was relegated at times as a partisan idol, a prominent leader of the nationalist backlash against colonialism. Yet despite his nationalistic bent, Bose was not a defensive antagonist. He aimed to nourish the source streams of India’s creative genius, so as to make its stand with the world healthy and fruitful.
In addition to the impact of his articulate creativity on the art of India for all time to come, Nandalal Bose’s impression on his students was immense and through them it suffused all over the country.
He died on April, the 16th 1966, in Calcutta.