The Gandhi Connection: The Mahatma Secured India's Independence Some 60 Years Ago with the Assistance of Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore

By Subramanyan, K. G. | USA TODAY, May 2008 | Go to article overview

The Gandhi Connection: The Mahatma Secured India's Independence Some 60 Years Ago with the Assistance of Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore


Subramanyan, K. G., USA TODAY


THE INNOVATIVE philosophy of Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) concerning art and art education was influenced to a large extent by the ideas of two of his distinguished contemporaries, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Gandhi, known in India today as the father of the nation, managed almost singlehandedly to awaken the aspirations of the Indian people on a wide scale, and he went on to organize his followers into a formidable political force.

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Gandhi had been well known even before he entered India's political scene through his successful use of satyagraha (literally, "holding on to truth," referring to his methods of nonviolent political activism) in South Africa to secure for its colonized people some measure of social justice from the country's white rulers. This strategy of nonviolent protest was so unprecedented that it became the talk of the entire world. After spending more than 20 years in South Africa, Gandhi moved back to India in 1915 and, over the course of the next three decades, used the same agitational techniques to help emancipate the country from colonial rule. Bose was an involved witness to this process, and soon became one of Gandhi's admirers; his respect for the Mahatma increased when his action program broadened its purview to include the economic independence of India and the strengthening of its widespread artisan traditions to achieve this.

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The focus on India's artisan traditions had a special appeal for Bose. In his childhood years, the artisans' workshops in his hometown of Kharagpur in the northeastern state of Bihar held a great attraction for him, and he often visited them to watch with wide-eyed wonder as potters, woodworkers, metalsmiths, scrollpainters, and others plied their trades with seemingly effortless skill. This fascination, in fact, fed his desire to become an artist. During his years as a student at the Government School of Art in Calcutta, Bose came to realize that this exposure to art and craft skills had special value, enriching artists' experiences and broadening their horizons. Even after he became a renowned artist and educator, he continued to see art and artisan practice as a connected panorama that ensured aesthetic creativity in a modem environment.

While Gandhi's primary concern was the country's political and economic independence, Tagore's focus was the cultural regeneration of India. According to him, a culturally alive, self-assured, and educated youth was the best promise the country had for its independence. He felt, like many others, that the colonial educational system introduced by the British had some beneficial aspects, but these were outweighed by the consequence that Indian youth who were trained in the system became distanced from their cultural antecedents and artistic heritage. Tagore and other likeminded individuals believed that the younger generations in India needed to reestablish contact with these antecedents and understand their sources--by thus grounding themselves in their own history and traditions, they would be equipped to meet the demands of the changing times and work to shape the future of a strong nation. From this position of cultural self-definition and maturity, Indians would be in a position to influence and partake in the broader artistic and cultural traditions of the rest of the world. Tagore felt strongly that India had just as much to contribute culturally as it was receiving, and he recognized the importance of establishing suitable platforms where such balanced exchanges could be effected.

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To set an example of a model locus for balanced cultural exchange, he founded the now well-known Visva-Bharati (World University) in Santiniketan in West Bengal in 1901. Its Sanskrit invocation describes it as a place "where the whole world can meet as in one nest." It obviously was an ambitious venture, but Tagore, a literary figure with a worldwide reputation who had traveled widely in the East and West while gathering a large circle of distinguished friends and admirers, was confident that this project would be a success.

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