A recent un-boxing of painted postcards between the artist, Nandalal Bose and Ramesh Charan Basu Majumdar, a teacher and his close friend, has led to exciting additions to the vast oeuvre of Nandalal Bose. The postcards emerged in the personal archives of Basu Majumdar’s family and were gifted to the Jadunath Bhavan Museum and Resource Centre (JBMRC) by his granddaughter. They can now be viewed on their maiden exhibition, “The Art of the Painted Postcard: Nandalal Bose and his Contemporaries”. The virtual show opened on 3 December 2020, the 138th birth anniversary of Bose and is hosted by the JBMRC in collaboration with Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) and Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH).
According to Tapati Guha-Thakurta, the curator of the exhibition, “the spontaneity, brevity and flourish” of Nandalal’s sketches translate well into the format of the postcard (1). The postcards provide an excellent overview of the artistic evolution of Nandalal Bose and acquaint us with the friendship shared between the artist and Basu Majumdar. The retrospective show juxtaposes the postcards between them with those of Bose’s contemporaries such as Abanindranath Tagore, Asit Haldar and Jamini Roy, granting intimate access to exchanges within the community of artists, their friends and family.
The exhibition is hosted on a webpage and visitors can navigate through 5 carefully curated categories- Travelling, Annotations of a Friendship, Birds, Animals, Figure Studies, Environs of Santiniketan and Contemporaries. Traversing through them emulates the experience of going through pages of a book. The format of a webpage is an interesting choice at a time when placing works of art in AI-generated virtual rooms or mounting them on ‘walls’ of these rooms is becoming exceedingly popular. This curatorial exercise is no accident; Guha-Thakurta explains how the postcard is not meant to be put up on walls. Engaging with postcards has always been a haptic experience.
Of personal and political
The postcard embodies the tenets of mobility, travel and the desire to communicate. The first stop is a section on Travelling, Painting and Posting, where you witness picturesque landscapes and sites through Bose’s eyes and brush. The painted postcards are testimony to Bose as a keen observer and point to landmarks intricately woven into his legacy. This connection is visible in the postcard Bagh, 6 June 1921, the site of the 5th-century caves where artists of Santiniketan would sketch and paint from murals.
The postcards from Faizpur (1936) and Haripura (1938) blur the lines between personal and political as both places are connected to Bose’s involvement with the Indian National Congress (INC). Bose, who would decorate the pavilion for the Haripura congress, chooses to sketch a solitary tree surrounded by the landscape to his friend Basu Majumdar. As stated by R. Siva Kumar, these show his “empathetic and personal responses to nature”, using drawing as a method to explore the world around him (2).
Annotations of friendships, the second section of the exhibition, gives insight into Ramesh Charan Basu Majumdar through his works such as Lathi-Khela, 1918 and different residential addresses in pre-Independence India; Sunamganj, Sylhet, Shillong and Allahabad. Remarks by Bose on Lathi-Khela, as well as a portrait of Basu Majumdar made by the artist attest to the close friendship between the correspondents and give a glimpse into a more private space.
The postcards provide a rich repertoire of material to understand the multitudinous influences on Nandalal Bose. As a common man’s method of communication which is available to all, it is an embodiment of his politics. Through sketches like Man who paints doors, 8 October 1921 and Bhil woman, Bagh, 18 January 1921, the artist immortalizes his encounters with ordinary people going about their everyday lives.
Bose propounded how previously he sought for divinity in the images of gods and goddess, but now he seeks for it in the “sky, water and mountains” as well (3). These elements find form in his postcards. According to R. Siva Kumar, Bose imbibed from Japanese Scholar Okakura Kakuzo, the tradition of experiencing the environment and honing individual sensibility to produce “rooted, authentic and contemporary” art (4). Sea Waves, Puri, 1941, can easily be mistaken with Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa at first glance.
The final sections of the exhibition, Environs of Santiniketan and Contemporaries, help place Bose and Basu Majumdar as part of a larger community of artists. As observed by R. Siva Kumar, the drawings of Abanindranath Tagore, Bose’s teacher and mentor, are not restricted to artistic expression and “embody colour, mood and atmosphere”. This can be gauged in Abanindranath Tagore’s postcard to Nandalal Bose from 1917 which depicts a river with “astonishing minimalism” (5). The section also consists of an ink sketch by Jamini Roy in his distinct idiom of enmeshing folk and modern. Art seldom exists in isolation and Santiniketan occupies a prominent place in linking artists despite their stylistic differences as does the medium of the postcard.
The exhibition is an ode to Nandalal Bose, but also to friendship and the dwindling art of sending postcards. Painted postcards awe with their ability to hold sketches consisting of a kaleidoscope of details in their miniature space as well as minimalist drawings made with the flick of the hand. As you slip into the shoes of all those who received them, it transports you across time and geographical space. The exhibition could not have come at a better time, fulfilling a wanderlust that has been long growing in many of us.
The exhibition is from 3 December 2020 to 9 January 2021 and can be visited at the JBMRC website. .
Images: Copyright: Malini Bhattacharya, Courtesy: the visual archives of the CSSSC/JBMRC
(1) Tapati Guha-Thakurta. Curator’s Note, “The Art of the Painted Postcard: Nandalal Bose and his Contemporaries”, 3 December 2020- 9 January 2021.
(2) R. Siva. Kumar. Presentation on “The Art of the Painted Postcard: Nandalal Bose and his Contemporaries”, 3 December 2020.
(3) Nandalal Bose and Sisirkumar Ghose.“The Discipline of Art”, Indian Literature, vol. 11, no. 2, 1968, pp. 5-10.
(4) R. Siva. Kumar. “Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview.” Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 3, 1999, pp. 14-21.
(5) Exhibition text, “The Art of the Painted Postcard: Nandalal Bose and his Contemporaries”, 3 December 2020- 9 January 2021.