Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Potter marries Gandhian and Tagorean values, creates art

He hero worshipped Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He photographed their last meeting for posterity. The picture of Gandhi and Tagore sitting together with students at Santiniketan is now a rare treasure.

Devi Prasad, 90, then a young photographer and an aspiring art student at Santiniketan, now Viswa Bharati University, took that photograph just before Tagore died. Since then it’s been reproduced and reused numerous times. But he never exercised any copyright on this photograph. Perhaps he wanted the world to see these iconic personalities as much as possible.

Tagore and Gandhi tremendously influenced Devi Prasad, his personality and what he was going to become in the future — An artist, a photographer, but foremost a studio potter.

A retrospective of ‘The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman’ is currently on at Lalit Kala Akademi (Academy of Fine Arts) in New Delhi. The exhibition showcases 300 works of Prasad who created them in 65 years of his artistic life -- from his earliest paintings in Santiniketan to his last pottery he made in his Delhi studio in 2003-04.

Prasad’s work spans the entire latter half of the 20th century at a moment in the history of Indian art and design which brings India into the modern era,” said Naman Ahuja, a curator.

The exhibition, which is on till May 21, gives a sense of how he with “the act of making art” furthered Gandhian philosophy of ‘swawlamban’ or self reliance and pacifism with the help of Tagorean philosophy of seeking beauty of life through art and literature. He successfully complemented Gandhi’s utilitarian view of life with
Tagore’s spiritual perspective of the world. However, striking a balance between the two philosophies did not come easily.

Prasad came to Santiniketan, founded by Tagore, to be an artist. While here, between 1938 and 1944, he was drawn to Tagore’s philosophy to seek truth and beauty through art. He was trained under master of Bengal School of Art Nandlal Bose and “imbibed many different painting styles, including Modern Art, stills, Bombay School of Art, Bengal School of Painting, Malwa and Rajput Schools of Art,” said Ahuja.

While here, he painted outdoors, countryside in water colours, drew sketches and “made self portraits to define himself”. One of his self-portraits shows him lying on a cot with a notebook by his side. “It conveys that he was contemplating about his future and what he wanted to become”. Another painting on display “depicts a female boar and her tensed body before she was going to give birth in a stormy day.

The picture is quite symbolic of his tension just before he was going to be graduated,” says Ahuja.

His six years at Santiniketan groomed him to be an artist—a painter, a sketcher and a photographer. As an artist he wanted to capture beauty on his canvas. But when he joined Gandhi’s Sevagram centre in 1944, his idea of becoming an art teacher came crashing when he received a letter from Gandhi:

“Bread comes first and adornment afterwards…but since you are here, do whatever you conveniently can. Learn here what true art is. The art teacher should first take up some work which would enable him to earn his livelihood. Later on he may paint and teach painting. Such artist alone will teach true art. You will remember what I had said about the broom. Sweeping is a great art. Where to keep the broom, how to handle it, should there be one broom or different brooms for different jobs, should one raise dust or sprinkle water before sweeping, does one sweep the corners by paying attention to the walls or roof — all these questions should occur to an artist. Only then will he finally find beauty in sweeping.”

Gandhi’s reply to a letter from Prasad showed the significance of utilitarianism and self-sufficiency in art.

After reading the letter he was “devastated and went back to Santiniketan to Nandlal Bose who sent him back with a drawing of two wheels representing two different philosophies of Tagore and Gandhi. Bose asked him if he could use them to chart a new direction for himself,” said Ahuja.

For the next 18 years he stayed on in Sevagram. While here, he imbibed Gandhi’s mantra of self sufficiency or “swawlamban” a key element of “Nai Talim” (new or alternative education) to transform society by educating children.

Prasad’s quote on a panel reads that by ‘talim’ Gandhi meant “getting the best out of a child… and it could be only possible by teaching handicraft to him.” According to him, Gandhi believed that the “act of making” would make people self-dependent in making what they needed, instill self pride and respect for labour, create jobs locally and eventually stop migration from the village to the city.

At Sevagram, Prasad built Kalabhawan (building for art and craft). While here, he took to pottery after reading ‘A Potter’s Book’ by Bernard Leach. To drill in Gandhi’s sense of self-sufficiency, he built a kiln at Kalabhawan and redesigned pottery wheels. He taught his students to make their own pottery for everyday use.

To guide potters he wrote “Potters make your own tools and equipment”.
His activism of self reliance drew him into national movements like the Quit India movement, and in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement (exhorting landlords to give land to the landless).

During this period, he pursued photography actively and recorded various events. One of his photographs that finds special place in the exhibition is of a farmer walking into oblivion near Mahatma Gandhi’s mausoleum at Rajghat. It was taken two years after Gandhi was assassinated.

“The picture is quite symbolic. After the death of Gandhi, there was no one left to take up the cause of farmers, poor and the hapless so vigorously,” says Ahuja.
But even after his death, Gandhi’s followers continued to practise his teachings of peace.

It was for this cause, Prasad left for England in 1962 to join the London-based pacifist organisation, War Resisters’ International, and later became its chairman. During this time he could not paint, sketch or do pottery. When he left, his colleagues gifted him a kiln and a wheel. While here in London, he tried his hands with porcelain and stoneware and painted on them. His art of pottery evolved to a greater standard but he was always conscious that his pottery should never be overpriced.

Twenty years later when he finally returned to India in 1983, he continued making pottery until 2004. He set up his first pottery studio in Delhi in 1985 and began teaching pottery apart from building gas kilns, wheels, and designing tools to suit Indian conditions. He always emphasized on achieving precise measurement and spot on quality of pottery which could be mastered only after a thorough practice.

Today, he is known as one of the top studio potters in India. Patterns on his pottery, faces and other drawings on platters and plates show his grip on both brush and wheel. His contribution to art won him Lalit Kala Akademi Ratna award in 2007 and the Desikottama from Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, in 2008. However, he maintained a low profile throughout his career.

His genius lies in ‘drawing’ his own artistic course, in creating beautiful art to instill humane values by synthesizing Tagorean and Gandhian philosophies.

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