John Chambers, the Chairman of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), expressed his admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, labelling him the "best leader in the world today."
Indian art and history are not subjects one would easily associate with Sister Nivedita, the Irish disciple who identified herself closely with her Master, Swami Vivekananda. While we commemorate anniversaries of both the disciple and the Master, it is through volumes of her complete works that we realise the depth and width of Sister Nivedita’s articles on Indian art, reviews of books on art and appreciation of Indian and European paintings. The rebirth of Indian art was one of Sister Nivedita’s dearest dreams.
She believed that “art offers us the opportunity of a great common speech, and its rebirth is essential to the upbuilding of the motherland ~ its reawakening rather.” It is a discovery of her insight as one the foremost of art connoisseurs who inspired and encouraged young artists to revive ancient Indian art and to develop modern Indian art. She told them: “Art is charged with a spiritual message, in India today, the message of Nationality.
But if this message is actually to be uttered, the profession of the painter must come to be regarded, not simply as a means of earning livelihood, but as one of the supreme ends of the highest kind of education.” Caught in the throes of social-cultural and political upsurge, following the Partition of Bengal in 1905, Sister Nivedita’s notes on Abanindra Nath Tagore’s ‘Bharat Mata’ published in the Prabasi in August 1906, and ‘India the Mother’ published in The Indian World, are an inspiration for all times. “We have here a picture which bids fair to prove the beginning of a new age in Indian art,” she wrote.
“Using all the added means of expression which the modem period has bestowed upon him, the artist has here given expression nevertheless to a purely Indian idea, in Indian form. The curving line of lotuses and the white radiance of the halo are beautiful additions to the Asiatically-conceived figure with its four arms, as the symbol of the divine multiplication of power.” Abanindra Nath Tagore’s Bharat Mata was identified by Sister Nivedita as the first masterpiece in which an Indian artist has actually succeeded in disengaging, as it were, the spirit of the motherland ~ giver of Faith and Learning, of Clothing and Food ~ and portraying Her as she appears to the eyes of Her children.
“What he sees in Her is here made clear to all of us. Spirit of the motherland, giver of all good, yet eternally virgin, eternally raft from human sense in prayer and gift. The misty lotuses and the white light set Her apart from the common world, as much as the four arms, and Her infinite love. And yet in every detail, of ‘Shankha’ bracelet, and close-veiling garment, of bare feet, and open, sincere expression, is she not after all, our very own, heart of our heart, at once mother and daughter of the Indian land, even as to the Rishis of old was Ushabala, in her Indian girlhood, daughter of the dawn?” she wrote with characteristic devotion and passion.
In ‘India the Mother’, an essay published in 1906, Sister Nivedita wrote more extensively on Tagore’s picture published in the periodical Bhandar. “It is not always those events which are most loudly talked of that are really most important, and I for one have no hesitation in ranking far above most things that have happened during the past month, the appearance of Mr Abanindra Nath Tagore’s picture… We see in Mr Tagore’s drawing, which is reproduced here, something for which Indian art has long been waiting, the birth of the idea of those new combinations which are to mark the modern age in India.” In the collected works’ volumes there are innumerable essays and notes focusing on the civic ideal in the European context and the colonial context of India.
She explained the significance of symbols: “For if nationality, and the civic ideal, and every form of free and vigorous cooperation for mutual service and mutual aid, are indeed to be the distinguishing marks of the new era, then it is clear that we must have definite symbols under which to think of them, and with the creation and establishment of such symbols Indian art will be occupied, for these many decades, or even if it may be, for centuries to come.” To students of art in the age of Swadeshi, she urged the mass printing and enlargement of the ‘wonderful Bharat Mata’ of Mr Tagore.
“We have a combination of perfect refinement with great creative imagination. Bharat-Mata stands on the green earth. Behind her is the blue sky. Beneath the exquisite little feet is a curved line of four misty white lotuses. She has the four arms that always, to Indian thinking, indicate the divine power.
Her sari is severe, even to puritanism, in its enfolding lines. And behind the noble sincerity of eyes and brow we are awed by the presence of the broad white halo. Shiksha-DikshaAnna-Bastra the four gifts of the Motherland to her children, she offers in her four hands,” she wrote.
Struck by the purity and delicacy of Bharat Mata’s personality, she wrote, “from beginning to end the picture is an appeal, in the Indian language, to the Indian heart. It is the first great masterpiece in a new style. I would reprint it, if I could, by tens of thousands, and scatter it broadcast over the land, till there was not a peasant’s cottage, or a craftman’s hut, between Kedar Nath and Cape Comorin, that had not this presentment of Bharat Mata somewhere on its walls.”
Through January and February 1907, ‘The Function of Art in Shaping Nationality’ was published in The Modern Review in two parts by Sister Nivedita; included in ‘Civic and National Ideals’ in 1911 as ‘The Function of Art in Shaping Nationality’ and ‘The Message of Art.’ In these essays, she underscored the spiritual bearings of nationhood and nationality.
“It is in the endeavour to take spiritual possession of its own, in struggling to carry out the tasks before it, that the national idea is shaping itself in India. Readjustments are necessary in all directions, and in making those very readjustments, it may be, we shall become, we are actually becoming, a nation. For it is not change that is destructive, but aimless or wrongly-purposed change. And precisely from such it is that the ideal of nationality, with its overwhelming impulse of moral direction and ethical stability, is to deliver us.
Wherever we look, on the sea of struggle, we see this thought, “That we be a nation,” shining as their pole-star above the tossing voyagers,” she explained. Through her years with Swami Vivekananda, travelling and absorbing the sights and sounds of different countries, Sister Nivedita’s observations on Hinduism are worthy of attention. “Hinduism, in one of its aspects, is neither more nor less than a great school of symbolism.
Every peasant, every humblest bazaar-dweller understands and loves a picture, a pot, a statue, a decorative emblem of any sort. The culture of the eye is perfect in this land, as it is said to be in Italy; and the ancient habit of image-worship has made straight and short and much-travelled the road from eye to heart,” she wrote. “The appeal of this symbolism, moreover, is universal,” she felt, adding, “It matters not what be the language spoken, nor whether the reader be literate or illiterate, the picture tells its own story, and tells it unmistakably.
The lamp left lighted on the threshold that the housewife, returning from the river before dawn, may know her own door; the bunch of grain made fast with mud to the lintel; the light beneath the Tulsi plant, or the wending of the cows to the village at sundown, these scenes and such as these will carry a single message to every Indian heart alike. Hence art offers us the opportunity of a great common speech, and its rebirth is essential to the upbuilding of the motherland, its re-awakening rather. For India has known many great artepochs which cannot yet have died.
The age that sculptured Elephanta was deeply impressed with the synthesis of Hinduism. The power that painted Ajanta was as free and living in its enjoyment and delineation of nature as any modern school of realists. The builders and carvers of Sanchi, of Amaravati and Gandhara enjoyed a continuous evolution of art, marked by great periodic waves of enthusiasm, through several successive centuries.” The art historian in Sister Nivedita shared these profound thoughts. “The man who has no inheritance has no future.
The modern student needs to know and understand this,” are her words that need to be written in gold.
(The writer is a researcherwriter on history and heritage issues and former deputy curator of Pradhanmantri Sangrahalay)