A Visual Archive: Hiding in Plain View
As a textual document, the Constitution of India has been studied extensively by political and legal scholars. As a visual document with 22 illustrations, however, it has not received enough academic attention so far. The fact that the illustrated personas are almost always masculine doesn’t make it just a garden-variety example of patriarchy. These illustrations, when viewed closely through the twin lenses of masculinity studies and visual studies, greatly elucidate some complexities and problematize some oversimplifications (Fig. 01).
These images and their political potential however have not escaped the attention of our legal luminaries. ‘In 1993, the Allahabad High Court…delivered a detailed judgement on allowing prayers and darshan at the makeshift temple of Lord Rama in Ayodhya…. The High Court (Lucknow bench) judges, Mr. N. H. Tilhari and Mr. A. N. Gupta, opined that an image or an illustration is as valid a source of meaning and interpretation as a text. They drew strength from the fact that the original constitution also includes the sketches of such Hindu Gods as Rama, Shiva and Krishna drawn by the well-known artist Nandalal Bose. They noted that portraits of Akbar, Shivaji, Gobind Singh and Gandhi are also to be found in the original constitution adopted by the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949.1 By virtue of the sketch of Lord Rama (Fig. 02) in the original Constitution, adopted about 43 years previously, the learned judges argued that Rama became a “constitutional entity and admittedly, a reality of our national culture and not a myth....”’2
Rather than dismissing this merely as a partisan argument, we should consider it as an eye-opener for re-considering the importance of the Constitution of India as a visual document. Textual history is often at odds with visual history; the superimposition of visual history on its verbal and textual counterparts doesn’t always reconfirm the official narrative of Indian nationalism. It often unlocks other major narratives which used to be widely but tacitly understood – the ones that were ‘seeable’ but not as much ‘sayable’ in public.3
‘For constitutions are not merely juridical objects of a superior rank that ground rights, institute law-making capacities, and secure state legitimacy. They attest to the self-constituting capacities of society to produce normative structures and shape life in common. This power of a community (or some of its members) to make and re-make its political form of coexistence manifests itself in the sedimentation of social practices, concepts, institutions, and knowledges.’4 If we consider the Constitution as a visual-material object, reflecting the freshly forged norms of the newly independent Indian society in its illustrations, the norms are without doubt overwhelmingly masculine.
Besides the figure of Sita illustrated with Ram (Fig. 02), the portrait of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi (Fig. 03) and a handful of images that include subsidiary female figures (Fig. 04), the Constitution illustrations are peopled with male bodies: super-humans/deities (Ram, Lakshman, Buddha, Mahavir, Shiva, Vikramaditya), supra-humans (yakshas, ascetics) and historical figures (Akbar, Guru Gobind Singh, Shivaji, Tipu Sultan, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose).
How do we parse these depictions of embodied male ideals spread across time, space – and if we disregard the Allahabad High Court ruling above – parallel realities? The strange chronology in the List of Illustrations could be a starting point (Fig. 05).
The chronology goes thus: ‘Mohenjodaro Period–Vedic Period–Epic Period–Mahajanapada and Nanda Period–Mauryan Period–Gupta Period–Medieval Period–Muslim Period–British Period–India’s Freedom Movement–Revolutionary Movement for Freedom–National Freedom’, suggesting that the Muslim Period (featuring Akbar, Shivaji, Guru Gobind Singh) is a definitive historical break from the Medieval Period (featuring Orissan Sculpture, Nataraja, Mahabalipuram) and these two are chronologically non-concurrent. The same applies to the timespan of ‘India’s Freedom Movement’ (featuring Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi in two avatars) and ‘Revolutionary Movement for Freedom’ (featuring Subhas Chandra Bose) apropos ‘British Period’ (featuring Rani Laxmibai, Tipu Sultan), denying the chronological overlap of the former two time periods with the latter, as if they were realities completely independent of each other. This kind of surgical separation of simultaneous temporal realities doesn’t seem strange to us anymore. Through school textbooks guided by nationalist historiography, this process has been naturalized already. Structured as the long antagonism of ‘sons of the soil’ Indians vs. ‘outsiders’, in our textbooks Indian history is celebrated as a saga of the vanquished against the vanquishers (with periods of pure oppression and periods of pure resistance, neatly separated), where the spiritually and morally superior side finally wins. What remains only tacitly told is that it was a battle which was equally fought between the opposing archetypes of masculinities. Thus it is useful to see this collective of illustrations as a gallery of triumphant Indian masculinities in all their acceptable diversity.
Commissioned by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of independent India, the planning and execution of these illustrations were carried out under the active supervision of Nandalal Bose, then in his mid-60s. Among the students he selected for this purpose from Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, Beohar Rammanohar Sinha took the lead. At Bose’s insistence, Sinha inserted his own diminutive signature (‘Ram’) in the bottom right corner of the title page, and at a few other places. From a recorded conversation with Bose,5 this comes across as one more routine job undertaken by Kala Bhavana for the newborn nation-state. From ideation to execution, even if there were complications, the evidence of these is not forthcoming. Keeping in mind the tearing hurry in which the Constitution was formulated,6 and the ability of Nandalal Bose to gauge the Indian National Congress’s pictorial expectations (he had been associated with the INC since the 1930s), it’s also safe to assume that, by then, the icons of nation were already cast in stone by common consensus. In acknowledgement of his services, Dr Rajendra Prasad feted Bose with the title ‘Desikottam’ (Best of the Country) on 26 December 1952 at the artist’s Santiniketan residence.
But instead of reading the images as just illustrations of the textual canon of nationalist historiography, we should look closer at their formal qualities.
Niharika Dinkar argues that Nandalal Bose’s works between 1905 and 1915 (the aftermath of the Bengal partition declaration and Abanindranath Tagore’s ‘Bangamata/Bharatmata’ painting) depict the male body in a way that is androgynously supple yet ascetically wiry, i.e. exploring the theme of brahmacharya (celibacy) in its leanness – thus neither following the Western exemplar of anatomical correctness nor representing the classical Indic voluptuousness.7 This symbolized a discredited indigenous masculinity, now resurgent via the penance of nationalism. After Gandhi’s first visit to Santiniketan in 1922, Bose got increasingly involved with the Mahatma and zealously took upon himself the custodianship of visually expressing the INC’s ideals. This very relationship culminated in his being given the responsibility of illustrating and calligraphing the Constitution of India. Even though it is not certain exactly how many of the 22 illustrations were executed by Nandalal himself, the reproduction of the famed ‘Bapuji’s Dandi March’ linocut (p. 149) and ‘Bapuji the Peace-maker: His tour in the riot-affected areas of Noakhali’ (p. 154) are unmistakably his (initialled at bottom right corner). In contrast to Gandhi here, in the representations of the ever-youthful, super-human bodies (Ram, Lakshman, Buddha, Mahavir, Shiva, Vikramaditya) as per the Indian conventions,8 ascetic wiriness is underplayed and androgynous suppleness is highlighted.
I would like to argue here that Bose’s ascetic-androgyne pictorial body ideal found its prime outlet in depictions of Gandhi (Figs. 06–09). To formulate that argument, I consider visual representations of ascetic wiriness and androgynous suppleness as two ends of a single formalist spectrum.
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This essay is part of the 'Manly Matters: Representations of Maleness in South Asian Popular Visual Practice' | How best to navigate this essay
1 See Bhatnagar, Rakesh, ‘HC’s Unique Interpretation of Secularism’, Times of India, 11 January 1993; Irani, C.R., 'A Matter of Faith and Fortune', The Statesman Weekly, 16 January 1993.
2 Sharma, Arvind (ed.), Hinduism and Secularism: After Ayodhya, Hampshire, NY: Palgrave, 2001, pp. 129–30.
Also see: https://youtu.be/jZfZ158Bccw?t=5m3s, accessed 23 March 2018.
3 See Mitchell, W.J.T., ‘What Is Visual Culture? Its Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside’, in Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside: A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968), edited by Irving Lavin, Princeton, NJ: Institute for Advanced Study, 1995, pp. 207–17; Pinney, Christopher, ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India, New Delhi, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 7–14, and Ramaswamy, Sumathi, ‘Maps, Mother/Goddesses, and Martyrdom in Modern India’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 67, No. 3, August 2008, pp. 819–53.
4 Call for Papers Statement, 4th International Colloquium in Social and Political Thought: ‘Constitution: The Power of Shaping Forms of Life’, 2–3 November 2017, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago de Chile, http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/19393, accessed 26 June 2017.
5 Mondal, Panchanan, Bharatshilpi Nandalal (Nandalal: The Artist of India), Vol. 4, Bolpur: Rarh Gawbeshana Pawrshad, Sri Durga Press, 1993, pp. 624–25.
6 Shekhawat, Vineeta & Shekhawat, Vibhuti, ‘Indian Constitution: Model Designing and Summation’, The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 51, No. 1, January–March 1990, pp. 54–74.
7 Dinkar, Niharika, ‘Masculine Regeneration and the Attenuated Body in the Early Works of Nandalal Bose’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2010, pp. 169–88.
8 Ganapati Stapati, a contemporary temple sculptor from South India gives the most vivid verbal description of this body ideal: ‘smooth, tactile, like the skin of a mango. It should look as if it could have grown into its present shape from the inside out.’ Parker, Samuel K., ‘Unfinished Work at Mamallapuram or, What Is an Indian Art Object?’, Artibus Asiae, Vol. 61, No. 1, 2001, pp. 53–75; see p. 66.