The Original Hand-Crafted Indian Constitution
Very few Indians probably know that the original Constitution of India that we adopted on 26th January 1950 was not a printed one, but a hand written one. Very few people also know that this exquisite original hand written edition was illustrated by the artists of Kala Bhavan in Shantinikentan – Acharya Nandalal Bose and his students. Probably even less people have seen images of this ambitious and exquisite work of calligraphy and art, which now is preserved in a special helium-filled case in the Library of the Parliament of India.
Shantiniketan and Ajanta:
Although I have never lived in Shantiniketan, my association with the place goes back to my early childhood. My paternal grandfather had built a small house there and my mother has been living there for many years now. It is a place that I visit every time I am in Kolkata and where we hope to settle down later in life.
Whenever I am in Shantiniketan (about 150km from Calcutta), I try to visit the Ashram Complex (the core area) and gaze at the outstanding murals at Kala Bhavan, Patha Bhavan and Cheena Bhavan. I also check out and marvel at the alpanas (the transient complex decorative patterns drawn on the floor) in and around the Kala Bhavan complex.
Interestingly, many years back when I once visited the Ajanta caves, while being completely mesmerized by the ancient murals, I had detected an uncanny connection between the ancient Ajanta murals and the more contemporary murals and the decorative alpana art in Shantiniketan. At that time, I did not know there was a formal connection between the two. I was to find that out much later.
Shantiniketan and the Vishwabharati University therein, were originally conceived by Rabindranath Tagore as a “vishwa-vidya-tirtha-prangan” – a consecrated place, a pilgrimage site for world learning where the best minds from all over the world could meet, exchange ideas, enrich each other and create a new understanding, a new culture and sensibility that would be based on the synthesis of the best of the West with that of the East.
In accordance with Tagore’s vision on Education, in its early days, Shantiniketan developed into an integrated and holistic system of education from the pre-primary stage to the university level, in which art played a central and humane role.
As an integral part of Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore set up Kala Bhavan, the centre for arts under the stewardship of Acharya Nandalal Bose. Bose, had earlier trained at the Government School of Art in Kolkata under Abanindranath Tagore (Rabindranath Tagore’s nephew and considered as the Father of modern Indian art) and E.B. Havell, the then principal of the Government School of Art in Kolkata.
In 1909-11, when Christine Herrington, a moving force in the English mural movement visited India in order to copy the rapidly deteriorating Ajanta murals, Nandalal Bose and other artists from Calcutta (students of Abanindranath Tagore) had gone along to assist her, gain first-hand experience of this ancient achievement and copy some of the murals. The impact of the Ajanta murals on Bose and other students was staggering. Later, Bose, Asit Haldar and Surendranath Kar were also sent to copy the murals of the ancient Bagh caves in Madhya Pradesh in Central India.
For Kala Bhavan, Rabindranath Tagore had left it to Bose to work out a cogent agenda, methodology and curriculum in the field of art and try this into practice. Bose, who was a nationalist (and in later days very close to Gandhi ji) approached his task in an organic home-spun way, without getting into the polemics of modernism and post modernism. At Shanitinketan, Bose cultivated a unique aesthetic sensibility and a curriculum of art education for Kala Bhavan that incorporated Tagore’s notions about creativity and experimentation.
In line with the nationalistic sentiments dominant at that time, Bose identified new and indigenous sources of inspiration, and evolved a new artistic language, which would wed art to life. Bose added to his own creative genius the grand artistic traditions of ancient India (particularly Ajanta and Bagh murals and Rajasthan and Mughal traditions) and that of Indian folk art. He had already imbibed influences of Sino-Japanese art under his teacher Abanindranath Tagore and was enriched further through his interactions with visiting Japanese artists at Shantiniketan.
Also, inspired by India’s rich and ancient tradition of mural and fresco art, at Kalabhavan in Shantiniketan, Nandalal Bose and his students initiated a program in fresco and murals. The art of modern Indian fresco and mural was thus born.
Shantiniketan and the original hand-crafted Constitution of India:
The original hand written and hand painted Constitution of India took around five years to produce and has the signatures of the framers of the constitution – members of the constituent assembly.
Exquisitely designed executed, the fine calligraphy in the book was done by Prem Behari Narain Raizda and the illustrations and artwork were done by Nandalal Bose and his students of Kalabhavan, Shantiniketan.
Prem Behari Narain Raizada did the calligraphy using a holder and nib, (303 no. nib). The Government of India had allotted him a room in Constitution House where he completed this prestigious work, for which he did not charge any fee. Shree G. Mavlankar (first Speaker of India) had written in a letter – “I must mention that he (Raizada) did the work merely for his love of art & his country, without any demand or expectation even of remuneration”
Along with his students, Nandalal Bose in Shantiniketan, took up the historic task of doing the art work for the original handwritten version Constitution of India. In addition to planning and providing the leadership for this ambitious work, Nandalal Bose himself painted the major images.
The “Preamble” page, arguably the most important one in the constitution, was done exclusively by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha and it bears his signature, Ram, in the Devnagari script. Beohar Rammanohar Sinha initially did not sign it, but his teacher, Nandalal Bose insisted that the former must sign the page so that future generations are able to recognize, remember and celebrate the artist who ornamented the face of the Constitution of India.
Numerous other pages were also beautified by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha who signed either as “Ram” or “Rammanohar”. He significantly contributed to the execution of line-drawings and gold-works that bear Nandalal Bose’s signature “Nand”.
Beohar Rammanohar Sinha, who was lauded for his outstanding contribution not only by his teacher, but also by other great artists and political figures of those times, was from Jabalpur (then spelt Jubbulpore) in the Central Provinces, now in Madhya Pradesh.
Many pages of the Constitution are embellished with highly stylized decorative borders, headers and backdrops. The complex decorative patterns in the borders and in front and back covers, embossed in gold on leather, are reminiscent of the Ajanta ceiling murals.
At the beginning of each part of the Constitution, Nandalal Bose has depicted a phase or scene from our national experience and history. The art work and illustrations (twenty two in all) rendered largely in the miniature style, represent vignettes from the different periods of history of the Indian subcontinent ranging from the prehistoric Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley, the Vedic Period, the Gupta and Mauriya Period and the Mughal Period to the national freedom movement. By doing so, Nandalal Bose has taken us through a veritable pictorial journey across four thousand years of rich history, tradition and culture.
The Vedic period is represented by a scene of gurukula (forest hermitage school) and the epic period by a visual of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana returning homeward and another of Krishna propounding the Gita to Arjuna on the battlefield. Then there are depictions of the lives of the Buddha and Mahavira, followed by scenes from the courts of Ashoka and Vikramaditya. There is a beautiful line drawing of the Nataraja, as depicted in the Chola Bronze tradition. Other important figures from India’s history include Akbar, Shivaji, Guru Gobind Singh, Tipu Sultan, and Lakshmibai. The freedom movement is depicted by Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march and his tour of Noakhali as the great peacemaker, and of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Scenes of the Himalayas, the desert and the Ocean are also included. These major works were done by Nandalal Bose.
Another Kalabhavan artist who is said to have contributed to the art work of the original handwritten constitution was Kripal Singh Shekhawat from Rajastan.
The images / illustrations and the decorative borders are quintessential of the Santiniketan (Kalabhavan) style, which in turn was greatly influenced by the cave paintings of Ajanta. In many ways, this original hand crafted Constitution of India represents one of the triumphs of Shantiniketan and Kala Bhavan.
With inputs from Dr. Anupam Sinha, UK