Art in the Constitution

Here comes January 26th and we are so excited to celebrate it as our Republic Day. Whether we truly understand the meaning of the republic is certainly a matter of guesswork, but we all take part in the commemoration of the day our Constitution was finally enforced. She is very dear to us, because she claims the sovereignty of our beloved homeland. Our Constitution is the very foundation on which the entire legislative process of our country rests. It also embodies the spirit of our culture and tradition, as well as the efforts of the rulers of the time who laid the foundations for a future India – by promoting the civil, religious, social and political rights of its citizens. Whether or not that actually happened is debatable, but that ethos is not lacking. However, our Constitution, in addition to being a body of law, is also a display of artistic work. This in itself is worth considering because on the one hand it has an aesthetic value, and on the other hand the paintings highlight the philosophical dimension of our Constitution.

It took almost three years for the Constitution to be prepared. Ours is one of the largest written constitutions in the world. This was no small responsibility, for the calligraphic pattern in which the Constitution was written demanded nothing less than excellence. Eventually, that excellence was found in the form of Prem Behari Narain Raizada. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru approached him regarding the handwriting work of the Constitution in calligraphic style when the draft Constitution was ready to be printed. It is known from Yogendra Saxena, Raizada’s nephew, that when asked about the fees for the job, Raizada replied, “Not a single penny… By the grace of God, I have everything”. Raizada’s only request was to have his name on every page and next to his grandfather’s name on the last. Raizada had learned the art of calligraphy from his grandfather, master Ram Prasad Ji Saxena. It took Raizada more than six months to complete his assignment, writing on the parchment sheets – both in Hindi and English. The calligraphy was done on pages that were in the style of Mughal and Sultanal inscriptions. Two types of borders are used throughout the manuscript. While all pages have a simple gold speckled border, some at the opening of an appendix, and the page where each appendix ends, have a second interior border of gold ornament.

Placed in a special helium-filled case in the library of the Indian Parliament, the pages of the handcrafted Indian Constitution are bound in black leather and engraved with gold designs. So while every word was carefully penned by Raizada, the task of illustrating the book was given to the great painter Nandalal Bose and his Kala Bhavana team, Shantiniketan. Nandalal Bose and his team – which even included members of his family, including his son Biswarup Bose and his daughters Gauri Bhanja and Bani Patel – traced the history of India from the time of Harappan civilization to the struggle for independence. The preamble page has an intricate design sketched by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha. It was Dinanath Bhargava who came up with the layout of the national emblem – the Lion Capital of Ashoka. Along with these engravings are also present paintings from the Ajanta cave and the wall paintings from the Bagh caves. These images are mostly used on page borders and fringes. The entire setting is a kaleidoscopic presentation of major events, personalities, art and culture in Indian history and civilization. The inscriptions were taken from the Indian epics but not for the purpose of preaching any form of religion; rather, they illustrate our rich heritage of assimilation and universality. Nandalal Bose has tapped into a variety of Indian artistic traditions. His artistic narrative relied on the depiction of characters from history and myth. Illustrations have a serious message to convey. It’s like the winged chariot of time as civilizations come and go. The artist’s vivid imagination shines with a global image where nature and human civilization intertwine. Each of the 22 parts of the constitution bears the work of Bose and his compatriots.

While a gurukul scene from the Vedic period is in the citizenship section, there is a Mahabharata scene in the guiding principles of state policy part. In the section dealing with fundamental rights, the artist turned to an image of Ram, Lakshman and Sita returning after the victory of Lanka. This scene appeared as a testimony in a case between Viswa Hindu Adhivakta Sangh and the Union of India in a verdict of the Honorable High Court of Allahabad. The verdict treated Ram as a “constitutional entity”. Almost every episode of Indian history is delineated. We have Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavira; there are illustrations from the Maurya period, the Gupta period, the medieval period, etc. with scenes from Orissa and South India. The illustrations also show the Mughal period, depicting Akbar, Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh. The British period is reflected through Rani Lakshmi Bai and Tipu Sultan. Regarding the Indian Freedom Movement, we have the representation of Mahatma Gandhi walking with a stick in the section on official languages. He appears again in the section on emergency arrangements, where his visit to Noakhali, affected by communal violence, is shown. Subhas Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauz appear in Part XIX. Netaji is depicted against a mountainous background, saluting the tricolor. A huge geographical diversity is also represented in the illustrations in the form of forests, waves, mountains, etc. in Section XXII. This flow of history justifies the plurality that our Constitution enshrines.

In recent years, the works of art in our Constitution have begun to attract the attention of young artists and intellectuals. Many interpretations have been offered where the legal part of the Constitution is explained by many in the context of the artwork. This may not be exactly a correct interpretation of our Constitution because a set of rules is concrete whereas an artist’s imagination always has an abstract element. It is also unfortunate that many Indians do not even know that the Constitution has works of art. Essentially, our Constitution is also a document of art in addition to being a document of law. Many object to deciphering the meaning of our Constitution through works of art. But even then, no one can ignore the historical commentaries inscribed in the form of paintings on the pages of the Constitution. Images from different historical eras bear witness to the development and march of Indian civilization. No country can prosper by ignoring its past. Thus, to sweep away the importance of the work of art in the Constitution is historically incorrect. If the framers of the Constitution envisioned a prosperous future for the people of India, they had to draw lessons from Indian history and culture. The great display of art in our Constitution is a tribute to Indian art itself, as it is rare to have such art captured in the Constitution of any country.

The writer is an educator from Kolkata. Opinions expressed are personal

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