Constitution was the first canvas of modern masters
What do a piece of Blue Pottery from Jaipur, a mural of the 2nd century BC Ajanta Caves, and a fresco on the wall of the Martyr’s Memorial Auditorium in the sleepy town of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh have in common with the Preamble of the Indian Constitution?
The fine arts faculty of an art school in West Bengal.
In December 1946, as a newly-formed Constituent Assembly began its task of deliberating over the shape the Constitution must take, in West Bengal’s famous Viswa Bharati school at Santiniketan, a group of artists led by Nandalal Bose and which included his protégé, Rammanohar Sinha as well as Kripal Singh Shekhawat , was giving shape to another kind of vision.
Within a few years, their artistic vision would find its way into the Indian Constitution, turning the legal document into an artifact of immense historic and artistic value. Under his tutelage, Bose’s students went on to illuminate the pages of the Constitution with scenes from the country’s history dating back to the Harappan civilisation; Sinha,who is credited for making the rich border around the Preamble, went on to create frescoes in a memorial in his birthplace.
And Shekhawat, who also contributed to the art in the Constitution, went on to revive Blue Pottery in Jaipur. Look closely and the blossoming twines that surround the text of the Preamble can be seen making their way up the slender neck of many pottery pieces sold in the city even today.
What did the students of Kala Bhavan, set up by Bose in Viswa Bharati, help make?
Each of the 22 chapters of the Constitution is headed by an illustration, and some of the pages are encapsulated by ornate borders. These include the famous Harappa-Mohenjodaro seal of a bull, a scene from a gurukul (students sit cross-legged as around them, birds and animals sit in equal repose, and in the foreground, a teacher performs a prayer around a fire), a peacock holding a flower in its beak for a meditating Buddha; Emperor Asoka; Emperor Akbar; Portraits of Rani Laxmibai and Tipu Sultan; Mahatma Gandhi brokering peace in the communally sensitive Noakhali; and a proud-looking Subhas Chandra Bose and members of the Indian National Army.
What explains such a catholic collection of images?
To understand the art in the Constitution is to understand an important slice of both modern Indian art and modern India’s histories.
The year 1922 was an eventful one. The Non-Cooperation movement launched by MK Gandhi had come to an abrupt end after a group of men set fire to a police station in Chauri Chaura in what is now Uttar Pradesh. For Gandhi, the Khilafat movement, that began in 1919 and a non-violent Non Cooperation movement, which he called a year later, were both significant; both signalled a rise in the political consciousness of Indians. Nandalal Bose, then a 40-year old artist, was invited to set up Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. Already deeply influenced by Abanindranath Tagore, Bose came to be associated with the Bengal School.