The American historian Granville Seward Austin described the Constitution of India, drafted by Ambedkar as ‘first and foremost a social document’. As we have discussed in an earlier article, the Constitution is also a fascinating piece of art. The master artist, Nandalal Bose, called upon by Jawaharlal Nehru, led the design process assisted by his students from Kala Bhavan, which included women artists as well. The artist-laureate of the country (Bharat Shilpi) thus embellished the original Constitution, using indigenous techniques of applying gold leaf and stone colours.
Looking at each page of the Constitution, is an art-exercise and a reflection of India’s rich history. The illustrations represent styles from the different civilizations of the subcontinent, ranging from the prehistoric Mohenjodaro, in the Indus Valley, to the present. Somewhere though, in these pages, are names that we have forgotten to acknowledge.
As we flip through the pages of India’s Constitution, we take a deeper look at the five women artists who illustrated this defining document.
Their signatures sparked our curiosity, leading us to dig deeper into their art and creative pursuits. What we found left us in awe. Did you know, the youngest illustrator to work on the Constitution was a 21 year old (female) artist? Or, that this book holds the artworks of three generations of a celebrated artist-family?
Gauri Bhanja (1907 – 1998)
Gauri was the eldest daughter of Nandalal Bose. The family had moved to Shantiniketan upon Bose’s appointment as the Principal of the Kala Bhavan. Gauri, already inclined towards art, joined the institution as a student on the suggestion of Rabindranath Tagore. She graduated with a diploma in painting as a nineteen year old after receiving her early training under her father and maternal uncle Surendranath Kar.
Over time, Gauri became an accomplished singer and dancer as well. Sighting these qualities, Tagore chose her as the lead actress of his dance drama – Natir Puja. When the play was staged for the first time in 1925 at Calcutta, it shocked the audience. Back then, women did not act or dance on stage. With her portrayal of Shrimati, Gauri challenged these age-old customs; her respectable family background too, threw into stark contrast, the existing societal view on women in the performing arts. Gauri also took active interest in back-stage work, designing costumes for other plays like Chitrangada and Tasher Desh (by Tagore).
Later, when Gauri was saddled with the responsibility of grooming the craft skills of Kala Bhavana students, she transformed into a systematic pedagogue. Her deep knowledge of Javanese Batik, Badhani of Rajasthan, embroidery, leather embossing, macramé wall hangings and Manipuri textiles helped her plan a sequential choreography of craft education. Her methodical approach not only revived these textile and craft traditions but ensured they flourish at Shantiniketan.
In 1952, she designed the 26th January parade tableau along with her students. The Shantiniketan designs were not ornate but catered to the new urban elite with a sense of traditional design and contemporary preferences. Being a part of the arts and crafts movement in Santiniketan, she oversaw design, becoming an intangible part of Kalabhavan. The design movement was based on the tradition and innovation which blended to evolve an eclectic view on art which would be traditional and modern in its representation. This new aesthetic tried to replace the cheap imitations of the west which were a rage in the markets at the time.
Gauri is also credited with establishing alpana or floor painting as a formal art form at Shantiniketan. She had participated in the wall decorations and alpana creation for the stage at the Congress’ Haripura session (1938) and was also part of the ornamental fresco work for the ‘Shaheed Smarak Mandir’ at Jabalpur.
Here’s a wonderful documentary on the incredible and inspiring life of Gauri Bhanja. It also features some of her exquisite works across mediums.
Jamuna Sen (1912 – 2001)
Jamuna Sen was Nandalal Bose’s youngest daughter. She followed her sister Gauri’s footsteps, joining the Kala Bhavana as a student in the early 1930s. In her initial years, crafts did not interest Jamuna; instead, she learnt the art of creating frescos and linocut print making along with painting.
Her landscape paintings were engaging visual travelogues, which reflected the influence of the works of Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal. These paintings included seascapes of the Ghats and the mountainscapes of Darjeeling. On the other had, her linocuts showcased performers from Tasher Desh among others.
Sen’s artistic prowess is evident in this illustration from the Constitution which depicts a scene from Lord Mahavir’s life.
After Nandalal Bose retired, Jamuna (together with Bose’s former student Nani Gopal Ghosh) started a two-year certificate course for the housewives of Shantiniketan (1951). The course included training in various crafts like batik, embroidery and weaving. This was the time when Sen had learnt the crafts herself. During the Poushmela in 1958, her students would put up a stall where handicrafts were exhibited and sold.
This initiative marked the revival of the artists-guild Karunsangha, under the leadership of Jamuna. Over time, the name remained the same but the artists group transformed into ‘Women Artists Association’ of Shantiniketan. The aim of sangha was to encourge members to pursue handicrafts in their spare time from home chores. Additionally, the women were also trained in marketing these products – an effort to connect the urban populace with the local art. Batik was the main focus of the sangha though Kantha received equal importance.
Nibedita was Tanayendranath Ghosh’s daughter. Ghosh, a teacher and hostel warden at Shantiniketan raised Nibedita as a single parent following the death of his wife while Nibedita was still young. Later, Nibedita married Nandalal Bose’s son, Biswarup Bose (also a fellow illustrator).
Amala Sarkar (1922 – 2010)
Amala studied at the Patha Bhavana, Sangeet Bhavana and the Kala Bhavan at Shantiniketan. During the time she illustrated the Constitution, she was associated with Kala Bhavan (in the late 1940s and early 1950s). Later, she went on to teach at the Patha Bhavana and the Kala Bhavana for 10 years.
Amala was a prolific singer and often toured with Rabindranath Tagore and Shantidev Ghosh as part of the dance-drama troupe that raised funds for Vishva-Bharati. In her hey-day, she also sang Bengali songs for the All India Radio in Calcutta. Some of her songs were recorded by HMV (gramophone). Amala married Kanailal Sarkar, (former student of Shantiniketan), a director at the Ananda Bazar Patrika.
Here is her interview from 2007, where she talks about her time in Shantiniketan. This podcast is in Bengali.
Bani Patel (1928 – 2018)
Bani Patel was Gauri Bhanja’s daughter. Under the guidance of her illustrious grandfather Nandalal Bose, she illustrated a couple of pages of the Constitution. She was only a 21-year old back then, making her the youngest illustrator in the team.
In 2018, the All India Radio produced an audio documentary to commemorate India’s 69th Republic Day. This documentary featured an interview with an 89-year old Patel – the only one in her lifetime about her work in the Constitution. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
Updated on December 1, 2021, following the comments:
There was a sixth female artist who had illustrated one of the pages of the constitution. Her name was Sumitra Narayan, whom we had misread to be Supriya. Read along to know more about her.
Sumitra Narayan had studied in Kala Bhavan from 1949 to 1953, under the guidance of Gauri Bhanja. Brought up in Secunderabad, the environment of Shantiniketan was new for her. Since her native language was Konkani, she picked up Bengali slowly but surely.
Sumitra later became the Arts and Crafts teacher in Patha Bhavan School, Kolkata from 1965 till 1991.
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 ‘The Women Artists of early 20th century Bengal, their spaces of visibility, contributions and the indigenous modernism’, PhD thesis by Aparna Baliga Roy
 ‘Tagore’s Ideas of the New Woman: The Making and Unmaking of Female Subjectivity’ by Chandrava Chakravarty, Sneha Kar Chaudhuri
Women have often been written out of history. What is astonishing is, that despite their signatures being visible in the Constitution, little is known about these women artists.
If you have come across any pictures / artworks or information related to these women artists, please share them with us in the comments and help us make these little known (but important) stories, visible and freely-accessible.