Can the historic art of our Constitution look to the future?
Reading the Indian Constitution through the lens of its art can create a productive tension for our present
The Constitution is a handwritten, illustrated document that bears a series of signatures at the end. As such, it is an artefact that belongs to a long historical tradition where the most precious manuscripts, farmaans and orders of any kingdom were written by hand and endorsed by the signatures of its ruler. Embedded within are the signatures of the calligrapher and the artist. The Constitution carries the signatures of 284 members of the constituent assembly, the recurring name of the calligrapher “Prem", the signatures of the chief artist, Nandalal Bose, and those who worked under his guidance at his atelier: Santiniketan. The calligraphy in the book was done by Prem Behari Narain Raizada and several students of Santiniketan worked on the borders that frame each page.
The calligraphy was done on pages that were given to be framed in the hashi’a (borders) in the traditional way, as used to be the case with Mughal and Sultanate manuscripts. There are two types of borders that have been used throughout the manuscript. While all pages have a simple, gold-speckled border, some at the opening of a Schedule, and the page where every Schedule ends, have a second, inner border of gold ornament.
There are two original illustrated copies of the Constitution. The principal one was handwritten in English, the second copy was handwritten in Hindi, and they were illuminated by different groups of artists. Both the original copies are kept sealed in a helium-filled case in Parliament House in Delhi. The team of artists who worked on them was led by Nandalal Bose, the principal of Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavana.
The facsimile of the Constitution has been reprinted with depreciating quality over the years by the Survey of India. My own copy is an awful edition from 2000 that was prepared at the behest of the Union ministry of culture by the Survey of India through a Delhi-based printer. Three years ago, it was agreed that the Constitution would be an important historical document to display at a major international exhibition I was co-curating, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, and the National Museum, Delhi, called India And The World. And since it was not disregard for the Constitution I wished to showcase, I had to find an earlier imprint from the 1950s, when greater respect was shown by the Survey of India in its work.
In various articles and blogs over the past few years, Bose’s illustrations have posed a problem for modern viewers. Bose harnessed a variety of Indian art traditions and built a narrative in which characters and stories from myth are punctuated with those from actual history; the last three pictures are concerned only with the landscape of India. Taken together, the illustrations of the land of forest, desert, sea and mountain start with the seal of a Harappan bull, replete with power and dignity, heralded by the markings of an unknown language of yore. The illustrations reveal that civilizations have come and gone, and as we move between chapters, some are located in palaces, while others are set in nature.
The forested hermitages of the rishis begin the part of the Constitution on citizenship, belonging. Part III on fundamental rights is proclaimed by Ram, Sita and Lakshman. The great dilemma of what is righteous action is typified by the lowered head of Arjun unable to take the lead while an impassive Krishna stands behind at the start of Part IV: directive principles of state policy. The great moment from the life of Ashok, that of the second (historical) division of the relics of the Buddha, and the sending of his remains to every part of South Asia, opens Part VII: This tells us the role of each state’s authority in the Union. Each illustration is drawn from a different epoch of Indian art, most of it rendered in gold—all in the narrow horizontal format of traditional Indian manuscripts, or pothis. And in each case an effort has been made to find a narrative that behoves the content—yet this is tacit, never explicit, and one about which readers are required to think.
The paintings draw on the careful absorption of many styles of Indian art: the wall paintings of Ajanta, Bagh and the book illustrations of Rajasthan, the Mughal, Deccani and Pahari traditions, the sculptures of Konark, Bharhut, Amaravati, Mahabalipuram and the Chola south. Santiniketan’s curriculum had, for over three decades by this stage, actively encouraged its teachers and students to learn from the art traditions of diverse parts of the world, all the while remaining actively located in India, and this required students to embody the spirit of a rich inheritance of Indian art. It was the years of working on these ideas that lent their influence onto the linear illustrations on the frontispiece of each part of the Constitution.
The Kala Bhavana ethos comes through in the collaborative nature of the chelas working with their Master Moshai, as Bose was known to his students. It is usually said that Bose intended to tell the history of India chronologically through his choice of illustrations. Yet as every editor and curator knows, selecting one episode over another must be guided by some rationale.
What do Bose’s choices reveal? Further, a question also arises on what determined the selection of the specific narratives chosen to epitomize each period. Other questions too emerge.The entire choice seems to be centred on a selection of heroes (and only one female heroine, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi), rather than a history of the people. Is this a bolshy self-assertion intended to impart national pride? This personality-centric vision of the past is typical of the heroism implicit in modernism, and art historians today have often critiqued the absence of women in the way artists thought at the time. And thus, in many ways the Constitution is a modernist project. As much as the words are to shape our future, the illustrations present a vision of the Indian past; a very particular idea of the past, as championed in the Indian national movement.
However, not even Bose and the other nationalists of the 1940s could have quite predicted how their heroes would take on overgrown proportions 50 years later. On 1 January 1993, Justice Harinath Tilhari delivered a judgement that the illustrations contained in the Constitution explained the concept of secularism and cultural heritage as one in which there was no negation of religion. Further, the arguments put forth by the Vishwa Hindu Adhivakta Sangh to the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court, to constitutionally seek “darshan"of Ram, included one that the characters rendered in illustrations in the Constitution were “Constitutional Personalities" validated by their presence in the book, and that included Akbar, Ram and others.
The pictures are based on a history of Indian art from the Harappan civilization up to independence in 1947. Each interprets a specific style from a historical epoch linking the nation with its artistic history. The nomenclature of these different historical epochs, however, is itself something that changes constantly. We no longer use phrases listed in the Constitution, such as “Mohenjodaro period" or “Epic period", and we try hard to not continue with the colonial method of periodizing Indian history into “Muslim period", “Vedic period" and “British period", which Bose and his team were raised on. This artefact then, like all artefacts, has to be looked at in the context of the time when it was painted, and the compulsions or imperatives that guided its painting and iconography.
If the invocation of history is merely to inspire national pride in great men who built a culture, then we will never realize a better future, for what was better was in the past. Why would we even need to change? Can one argue therefore that if Bose had paid a little heed to illustrating the atrocities our culture has perpetuated or found hard to shake off, we would have been forced to remember why indeed we need this Constitution? In a time when battles are being fought all around us to define a future while we want to hold on to a perceived identity informed by our past, the tension presented by interpreting the spirit of the illustrations seems to mirror our present condition. Is this tension to be our fate? Calibrating the upholding of tradition while looking to modernity forces us to take a position on history and decide what it is that qualifies as tradition.
Recognizing that tension, or that anxiety itself, then, is the productive lens through which we today can revitalize and find a way to salve our dashed hope in the nation: one which makes peace with the values of the past. Read then in the illustration not the hero Arjun, but allow his lowered head to indicate his quandary. Read past the image of the hero Ashok, into the action of the division of the relics instead, and why the atrocities of war led him to realize a need to spread the ashes of the paragon of ahimsa. It was the crises, the tensions or anxieties these characters found a way through, that should be the titles or the message of the paintings rather than an identification of the style, or the name of the character itself. The role their anxiety played is enabling, it can keep us going. These, then, truly can emerge as paintings of a triumphant modernism, indicating the disturbances and failures that they gave direction to.
It is in the reading of the vulnerabilities of the circumstances and plots in which these heroes emerged that we today may find succour and hope.
Naman P. Ahuja is a curator and professor of Indian art history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
FIRST PUBLISHED25.01.2020 | 12:50 PM IST
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