By Marie Fowler
Independence Day is at hand, and next month, India, too, will celebrate throwing off British rule. Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through the end of August, is a splendid retrospective of the work of the “Father of Modern Indian Art.”Bose (1882-1966) headed the art school at a university founded by Nobel laureate and poet Rabindranath Tagore, where he participated in Tagore’s mission to revive traditional Indian arts. British cultural standards then in vogue among the elite viewed European realist oil painting as superior to anything produced during India’s own rich
As a young man, Bose was enlisted to copy the fifth century Buddhist murals that had recently been uncovered in Ajanta. The modeling and tones of that art found its way into his work.
Bose was central to India’s drive to independence. He was the only artist enlisted by Mahatma Gandhi because both believed that India’s soul was revealed in her villages and among her common folk. Adamant about using local pigments and materials, Bose treats fisherman with the same dignity and thought as the greatest of the gods. A spirituality underlies his work – whether the subject matter is Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian.
During a Pan-Asian movement, Bose incorporated Japanese painting techniques into his oeuvre.He sketched and painted on everything from postcards to walls. Ethereal, otherworldly watercolors of Siva contrast with simple black-and-white linocuts for a children’s reader. A life-size ink-and-tempera on silk of the great hero Arjuna captivates with its sensuous line. Annapurna and the Slaying of the Buffalo Demon are incredibly intricate, rhythmic works. The Sun Temple at Konarak vibrates in an almost cubist style. Bamboo and lotuses are brushed with all the sensibility of the most accomplished Japanese aesthetic, complete with vermil-lion chop and a Bengali signature rendered vertically like Chinese calligraphy.
Regardless of technique, the sights and sounds and the life rhythms of nature in his beloved India are always at the heart of Bose’s art.
Supratik Bose, the artist’s grandson and Harvard urban planner, arrived for the Philadelphia opening, as Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art Curator Darielle Mason pointed out, “with something under his arm.” In memory of the late Museum Director Anne d’Harnoncourt and her devotion to seeing these Indian national treasures shown in Philadelphia, Bose presented the museum with a sumi-e painting of a cuckoo in banana trees, done by his grandfather in 1959. It was Supratik Bose, with the help of scholars and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (a former student of Bose herself), who had the foresight to place Bose’s work in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
The late, legendary PMA Curator Kramrisch, a native of Moravia, also taught at Tagore’s university. Kramrisch, who did so much to shape the museum’s collection into the premier status it enjoys today, spent the first three months of her stay living in Nandalal Bose’s house.
Upstairs, in the museum’s William Wood Gallery, Multiple Modernities, a selection of Indian art from 1905 until 2005, puts Bose’s influence further into context. The museum’s most recent acquisition, a lithograph of Sabari with Her Birds by Atul Dodiya (b. 1959), is directly influenced by Bose’s renderings of the same subject in the current exhibition.