Nani Gopal Ghosh: A Lifetime Dedicated to Santiniketan Design

Nov 06,2021
Nani Gopal Ghosh: A Lifetime Dedicated to Santiniketan Design

Nani Gopal Ghosh (1930-2014) , more popularly known as Nanida in Santiniketan, had a dramatic backdrop in his life to carry with him before he came to Santiniketan. It is important to know his story to understand him as a person, an artist and an Ashramik or inmate of the Santiniketan campus. He came to Santiniketan and joined Kala Bhavana, as a student, in May 1946 from Shibpur village in Noakhali, Bangladesh, via Chandpur and Gwalondo steamer ghat. That was before India got Independence.  In October of the same year, when the Puja vacations started, Nani Gopal was eager to go home and join in the festivities with his family. Nandalal Bose, Principal of Kala Bhavana at that time, forbade him to do so as news about riots of Noakhali had already started trickling into Santiniketan.  Young Nani was distraught. He was so keen to go to his village that he disobeyed the Principal's suggestion and went ahead with his plans only to be caught in a wild vortex of gruesome communal hatred dominating his native place. He saw torture, assassinations, illegal detention, the war cry of communal hatred, injustice and disrespect from proximity.  In a single night, his home of a vast joint family was burnt down. Members died and escaped –he did not have full knowledge. He, too, ran with the help of some Muslim friends to Tripura.  In Tripura, within some time, his big joint family separated into fragments. Motherless Nani Gopal did not find a place in his father and stepmother's family, nor for that matter, in any other family branch.   He was caught amid the recent terrible memory of the riots behind and an uncertain shelterless future ahead.


In the meantime, Nandalal Bose also became very anxious to get news of his young student. He employed different sources and finally, through Azad Hind members, sent a message to Nani Gopal to come back to Santiniketan. Filled with remorse at not heeding to Mastermoshai Nandalal's advice, penniless Nani Gopal managed to reach Santiniketan somehow.  Mastermoshai welcomed him with open arms and arranged for his studies at Kala Bhavana on free studentship. Nandalal became his lost father, and Santiniketan his lost home.  It is also a narrative on Santiniketan's education ethos, especially Nandalal's paternal care and responsible disposition towards his students. Surprisingly all these scathing experiences left no traces of bitterness or angst in him; instead, he was gentle, inclusive and very forgiving. Gratitude overpowered all other emotions, and he was forever surrendering and submissive. It is reflected in his work.


When Rabindranath Tagore founded his small school and later on Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, he always wished that the students here should consider this campus their very own. Their love and bonding with this institution and the place should bloom like the petals of the lotus. Nandalal felt the same about the place. In Bharatshilpi Nandalal, he writes that he has struck a chord of the heart with everyone here, be they young or old, high or low in status. He felt the love of relation with the Santhals of the adjoining villages, and they also considered him to be one of their own.  He felt this same oneness with all his students, boys and girls. It was the same with Nani Gopal; this ashram was his home, and everyone here was his family. He went on to stay here till the end of his life and served as if this was his very own. It was much beyond an academic, professional, interest vested career. It was humbleness, dedication and devotion.


Nani Gopal Ghosh was a student in Kala Bhavana from 1946 to 1950.  Some of the finest teachers were in Kala Bhavana at that time. Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, Benodebehari Mukherjee, Gouri Bhanja, Arunachalam Perumal, Vinayak Masoji, Biswarup Bose were his teachers. In 1951, he joined as a teacher of Two-Year Certificate Course in Artistic Handicrafts along with Smt. Jamuna Sen.


As in Tagore's ideals, Nandalal sought to place art education in freedom and creativity above teaching.  To encourage individual choice, he exposed his students to a broader cross-section of artistic possibilities.  He inspired the artist to connect with life, move beyond self-expression, and conceive art as a creative response to social needs.  Along with all students, Nani Gopal started viewing the world around him and expressed his response in his art.  So we find the happy Santhal couple, the washermen's donkeys, the ferry ghat of his memory, the old violin player, the women at threshing paddy, the lady spinning the charkha in his paintings. The technique was usually tempera, but the colours were applied in fine layers, almost giving watercolour effect.  He hardly used oil; his paints were water-based. They all carried the unmistakable gentleness, ease, intimacy, and compassion of the artist, whether in colour, effect, composition, or content.  He drew from his immediate surroundings, the compositions were direct representations, and the subjects always had his empathy.  The colours chosen were soft and subtle, never to hit hard the sensibility of the viewer.

Nani Gopal Ghosh, Santhal Family - Emami Art

Nani Gopal Ghosh, Santhal Family, tempera © swati ghosh

In Santiniketan, murals were more of a form of public art that enhanced the environment and refined the community's visual sensibility.  The subjects chosen were nature, surroundings or legendary tales which viewers could relate to in their understanding. Nani Gopal was also assigned to paint a fresco as a student on the boys' hostel wall at Kala Bhavana. He painted "The Birth of Christ". Besides showing Joseph, Mary and their newborn child, the artist also pays details to the horses, the cow, their fodder in the stable, the makeshift fire burner, the shepherd boys, the night sky and above all, the devotion lit in the eyes of all the faces. It is interesting to note how frugal he has been with lines yet conveying the right atmosphere and emotions. Later, he painted frescoes at Mahajati Sadan in Kolkata and the Shaheed Memorial at Jabalpur. He has done a relief work of an alpona design on the inner ceiling of the roof of Goenkalaya Ladies' Hostel.   The Mahajati Sadan and Jabalpur frescoes were team work.


Nandalal played an active role in the promotion of practices of craft. He encouraged his colleagues and students to learn from the programs at Sriniketan and meet social artists and designers.  He used the seasonal festivals and events pioneered by Rabindranath as another effective way to sharpen their skills and add to the community's sensitivity. With opportunities to try their hands at weaving, pottery, alpona, Batik, needlecraft, leathercraft, stage and costume design, book illustration, panel and mural painting, relief decorations, graphic prints, students were encouraged to work in multiple areas of art and craft, cutting across the conventional divide that separated them.  He wanted his students to be versatile and able to respond to different functional and communication needs.  Like many others, Nani Gopal Ghosh perfectly fitted into the scheme as envisioned by his Guru.  Though promising as a fine artist, he was versatile and adapted crafts without any breach in his conviction that crafts were as good. He became an exponent in alpona, Batik, leather batik, weaving, stage and costume designs.


In the era of Sm. Gouri Bhanja, the leading supreme artist in alpona drawing at that time and an influential guide for him, Nani Gopal created his unique style – a mixture of tradition, simplicity, and motif building.  His alponas were never too intricate; the motifs were simple, introducing the half paisleys, half cones, inclined patterns, curved on one side and straight on the other, with or without crowns. There was pause and space, leading the viewers to visual relief. Also, unlike Gouri Bhanja whose alponas were lyrical, developing from a point towards the outer borders, he drew more symmetrical alponas using motifs in repetition, much like our traditional alponas, in all probability keeping the interests of students in mind.  In Batik, Santiniketan developed its own designs, under Gouri Bhanja, mainly based on the classical alpona motifs of Ajanta.  Though largely traditional in Santiniketan alpona style, his batik designs also consist of some amazing designs where he incorporated local nature in Java-style designs. The Sonajhuri leaves and fruits design for instance. He also introduced geometrical motifs in Batik, some of which are still used today.    Gouri Bhanja always included him invariably in her team of alpona drawing at the Mandir and other functions. He also accompanied her to draw designs at the dam's inauguration at Massanjore, at AICC sessions of Kalyani and Durgapur and at the Republic day parade in New Delhi 1954, where the tableau was created and presented by Kala Bhavana. The Kalyani Congress Session pavilions were decorated with panels of alpona all over. Some amazing works were featured there. He was a committed and gentle teacher, and all of his students remember him fondly. He was never a hard taskmaster but believed in participation through love. But Santiniketan will forever be indebted to him for the countless alponas that he drew for the innumerable occasions that dotted his career and the large number of students whom he had taught. He knew about the varieties and details for each occasion- the leaves and flowers arrangement in alpona for Independence day celebration; The dry colour alpona on the sand for Vriksharopan; the white alpona at the year ending prayer in Mandir, the same alpona to be filled with colour for the New Year morning prayer; the furrow shaped alpona of dry grain powder and later artificial colours to be drawn at Halakarshan;  the long alpona to be beautified with flowers at the borders; the Convocation panel and the Chhatimtala extensive panels.  He never misplaced the motifs.   His alponas never dominated the occasions; they were always a part of the celebrations. He knew how to keep them in rhythm with the tone of the occasion.  That was his most significant contribution. He never quit the space, though alponas for important events like Convocation or Chhatimtala prayers could be arduous and painstaking, continuing over days, especially in the twilight of his career, when he was ageing.


 Nani Gopal Ghosh, Batik on Cloth - Emami Art

Nani Gopal Ghosh, Batik on Cloth (left) and Java-style Batik Design with Sonajhuri Motifs (right) © swati ghosh



Nani Gopal Ghosh, Chalta Flower - Emami Art

Nani Gopal Ghosh, Chalta Flower, tempera (left) and the Design Pattern of Tagor Flower (right) © swati ghosh



Nani Gopal always worked within the limits of traditional style. A tradition is for the artist what capital is for the businessman, said Nandalal. He believed individuality and tradition should be informed with a close study of nature, without which individuality could become mannerism and tradition merely technical skill.  Nani Gopal studied nature intensively, as was the practice in Kala Bhavana. Local flora and fauna were his regular content. So Chalta, Jarul, Jaba appear in his studies with conviction and fervour. He could identify the formative patterns in them and implement them in his designs.  Simplicity was his trademark style, and he could study floral and natural patterns in their simplest essentials. Let us take a look at the study and design of his Togor flower to understand this. He created amazing leather Batik designs, and one that he made for the folio cover to be presented to the President of Bangladesh in 1972 is outstanding. He taught Manipuri weaving to his students along with embroidery and Bandhni.  He continued to decorate stages for year-long functions in the Santiniketan calendar throughout his service career. Simple, minimal, dignified, these stages became iconic in Santiniketan culture.  He also looked after costumes and makeup for artists.  Nandalal Bose had set the tone for costumes and makeup in Santiniketan - subtle, classic, timeless. Nani Gopal followed his Guru, never given to excesses.   Organised, disciplined and always ready to help, he was an indispensable part of cultural teams in Santiniketan and outside, for he carried the mantle of Santiniketan style that the entire world admired.  He went to Pune, Bombay, Patna, Bangladesh, Kolkata, Durgapur and Delhi on such trips.


 Nani Gopal Ghosh - Emami Art

Nani Gopal Ghosh, Design Layout (left) and the Final Leather Batik Folder (Gift for the President of Bangladesh), 1972 © swati ghosh


 Nani Gopal Ghosh, Alpona, Kalyani Congress Conference - Emami Art 

Nani Gopal Ghosh, Alpona, Kalyani Congress Conference, 1954 © swati ghosh


In 1924, Elmhirst was a co-voyager of Nandalal Bose in the Poet's trip to China. Elmhirst famously said that Nandalal's company was education. It was indeed so for Nani Gopal, who had the fortune of being his student, aide, and trusted follower. Nani Gopal's company was also an education. He had learnt from his Guru the art of picking up the rhythm of life.  It reflected in every work of his – big and small. It was a lesson to see him at work, whether tying a mosquito net or separating bones from a fish, driving a nail, folding, binding, pasting, cutting, chopping, clipping. It was always precise, accurate, neat and effortless. He knew the rhythm flowing through objects and so where to hold and how to operate. Watching him was like seeing an artist in flow –lucid, spontaneous.  He was also a worker, just like Nandalal. He functioned silently, behind the limelight immaculately. So stages would be ready on time; Convocation and Deshikottam trays with all the presentable one above the other arranged serially to fit into the custom: on the top the garland; then the elegant Batik scarf prepared by him, folded in a way that it opens right while placing it on the recipient's shoulder; then the certificates handwritten by him in Devnagri script painstakingly over the years; the Chhatim leaf at the end. Nothing was missed ever in his service time. The conch shell, the flowers, the Chhatim leaves, the incense sticks were all in place. The same happened for Mandir rituals, the same for Vriksharopan. He was the only one who knew that each of the five elements representatives had a different shaped crown and which one belonged to whom. He knew the colours they wore and the symbols they carried, and he was religiously particular about them. Everything would be prepared in advance over long days and nights. The national flag at the hoisting should be washed, cleaned, folded in a way so as to unfurl correctly hassle-free.  Obviously, he knew, and he prepared. All the ceremony sites would be decorated after cleaning, sweeping with mud, dried and then beautified with some exquisite alponas.  Throughout his career, he silently prepared all of this and upheld the cultural beauty and aura of Santiniketan. Without him, spanning his long service career, Santiniketan would not have been able to uphold its attraction and charm after the passing away of Nandalal Bose, Gouri Bhanja and Jamuna Sen. It was Nani Gopal and his selfless unflinching devotion that kept alive Santiniketan's traditions and standards of refined beauty.  It will be impossible to write about the cultural history of Santiniketan, ignoring him. His long service period was forty-four years, and it was almost a Tapasya that he took upon himself as a mission. He was proud to be Nandalal's flagbearer, a worker, and a craftsman and proud not to believe in the conventional divide between arts and crafts just like his Guru.  Santiniketan had once given him a new lease in life, he never forgot. He revered and loved Santiniketan with his life.


 Nani Gopal Ghosh, Alpona, Kalyani Congress Conference, 1954 © swati ghosh

Swati Ghosh is a researcher and writer.  She completed her master’s degree in English Literature from Visva-Bharati. She has authored numerous articles and books which include Rabindrabhabnaye Santiniketane Alpana (Ananda Publishers, Kolkata: 2011), Kobir Pathshala (co-authored with Dr. Ashok Sircar, Signet Press,2015), Prasanga Bouddhadharma (translation from English by Sr. Nivedita, Signet PressKolkata, 2015), Paye Paye Kolkata (Translation from English by Prasenjit Dasgupta, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 2018) Design Movement in Tagore’s Santiniketan (Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2019).  Currently engaged in freelance writing.

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