‘The Making of a Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman – Devi Prasad’: Naman Ahuja

This is a guest post by NAMAN AHUJA, who teaches in the School of Art and Aesthetics, JNU and has recently put together this fascinating exhibition that is on in Lalit Kala Academy, Delhi till 21 May

Tempera, Santiniketan / Dehradun, 1944 (painted on the artist's 23rd Birthday)
Horse in a fit
The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman is intended to be a biographical and critical insight into the work of the potter, painter and photographer Devi Prasad. Apart from the making of his personal history and his times, it leads us to why the act of making (art) itself takes on such a fundamental philosophical significance in his life. This, I feel, derives directly from his absorption of Gandhi’s philosophy that looked at the act of making or doing as an ethical ideal, and further back to the impact of the Arts and Crafts Movement  on the ideology of ‘Swadeshi’ and on the milieu of Santiniketan.
The exhibition and the accompanying book examine Devi’s art along with his  role in political activism which, although garnered on Indian soil made him crisscross national borders and assume an important role in the international arena  of war resistance. Devi Prasad graduated from Tagore’s Santiniketan in 1944 when he joined the Hindustani Talimi Sangh (which espoused the concept of Nayee Taleem) at Gandhi’s ashram Sevagram as Art ‘Teacher’. His political consciousness saw him participate actively in the Quit India Movement in 1942, in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan and later from 1962 onward as Secretary General (later Chairman) of the War Resisters’ International, the oldest world pacifist organisation based in London. From there he was able to extend his Gandhian values internationally. All of this, while continuing with his life as a prolific artist. Rather than view them as separate worlds or professions, Devi harmonises them within an ethical and conscionable whole. He has written widely on the inextricable link between peace and creativity, on child /basic education, Gandhi and Tagore, on politics and art, in English, Hindi and Bangla. In 2007 he was awarded the Lalit Kala Akademi Ratna and in 2008, the Desikottama by Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan.

Devi Prasad, Autumn, unfinished oil on paper, London, 1974
Devi Prasad
Devi Prasad does not approve of the intellectualisation of art making, the fall-out of writing a book about him and curating an exhibition on his work! He does not believe in the ‘isms’ that art-history creates, problematises and ends up critiquing, while bracketing an artist’s peaceful joy of making one way and then another! And yet, for an art-historian, art practice once contextualised lends light equally to history and to the very context itself in which an artist’s work exists. My endeavour in the exhibition and book is to hopefully provide a sympathetic reading of a particular context.
In accepting that ‘India’ has never had any singular notion of ‘nation’ as it has no singular notion of ‘tradition’, different artists have elected differing notions of these constituents to notable effect in their modern and contemporary art practice. For Devi Prasad, art experience was most concretely formed out of the Sevagram  and Santiniketan philosophies – that comprised a most persuasive brand of ‘national’ language and one to which freedom fighters like him turned. His quiet determination and spirit for peace has seen him actively shape the political voice of conscionable human activism for the past sixty years.
As we move toward concretising a national policy on culture for a liberalised India, we can look upon the period from the 30s to the 60s with historical hindsight. Gandhian, and Tagorean definitions of cultural practice, even in the latter’s cosmopolitanism, was avowedly located in philosophical bases at the grassroots, with roots that stretched via Coomaraswamy and others to the context of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  The resulting ideology for artisanship and design was founded in a structure of educational pedagogy which certainly stands buried today, even if its mandate has not been achieved. In this exhibition, I trace one man’s journey across this terrain.
Devi Prasad is known as one of the great Indian artist-potters. He is also well-known as an activist, pacifist, educator and writer. His ceramic works have been collected and shown in India and Britain. However few are aware of the variety and extent of his work. Devi has rarely shown his paintings in public, although he was trained as a painter by India’s foremost modern artists, and he has only exhibited a small fraction of his prolific work as a painter and photographer, and as yet there has never been compiled a comprehensive bibliography of his publications on matters concerning education, pacifism, Gandhian thought, art and politics.
The accompanying book concerns itself with contextualising his work in the history of Indian studio pottery, the specific nature of the intellectual history of the craft and art divide which is related to a wider divide on traditional art practice and modernism, within the history of modern Indian education, and pacifism. Not much is published on the nature of Indian contemporary design environment and the history of the modern craftsman-artist-designer. These questions have been central to Devi Prasad himself and the specific historical trajectory that he treads is based on a self-conscious intellectual awareness of this difficult terrain. His negotiation is a discussion that leads us towards some fundamental disciplinary questions.
Paradoxically in the international arena there is almost an omission of the modern histories of the legatees of the Arts and Crafts Movement’s pioneers in India – this, after all, was very Movement that was profoundly impacted by Eastern (Chinese, Japanese and Indian) art, artisanship and aesthetic philosophy. The foundations of the Arts and Crafts Movement looked to models of art practice in places like India, and that the impact of their polemics formed a basis for modernism itself is well known.  Yet the major international exhibitions held in the past few years on themes such as the Arts and Crafts Movement and on the history of modern design have rarely engaged with the specific constituents of these movements outside a Euro-American sphere. In her monumental 2005 exhibition at LACMA, Wendy Kaplan argues for a telling of Arts and Crafts history that shows the inexorable link between ‘Design and National Identity’ that arose from the philosophies of ‘Art and Industry’ and ‘Art and Life’.[1] As that exhibition’s catalogue demonstrates, in all countries involved, the idea of ‘the land’ was a potent force; one to be reclaimed as industry and urbanisation were destroying time honoured social modes and relations of production, and destroying also a pastoral (if, as some argue, a ‘medieval’) idyll, and equally, the currency of the Movement gained as the emerging ideas of ‘nationhood’ depended on holding on to some essential place considered the heart of the nation. Tagore and Gandhi both tried to locate that essential ‘place’ in their ideologies and in each of their ashrams – Santiniketan and Sevagram – places with which Devi Prasad was intimately connected.  I would like to extend an interpretation of his work here to trace a specific lineage to the Arts and Crafts Movement and Devi Prasad’s construal of it on Indian ground.
Devi 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. The show spans 65 years of his work as an artist, from his earliest artworks, painted in Santiniketan in 1938 and end with some of his last works made in 2003-’04 (the last time he used his studio). The show comprises approximately 300 artworks interspersed with panels of text drawn from Devi’s writings on Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, art, education and politics. This will allow the pots for which he is so famous to be seen in the broader context of the history of his motivations and work as an artist. This draws out the common sensibility that runs through all his work.
All the foyers, landings and connecting spaces in the galleries’ design are concerned with Devi Prasad’s philosophy, his writings on history, peace-activism and education: literally positioned as a central intellectual core. As a retrospective exhibition they lead into different rooms that are concerned with the chronology of his art practice. We enter the building thus to see Devi Prasad’s famous photograph of Gandhi’s last meeting with Tagore. They are also the two most significant influences on him. Their philosophical unity is expressed in Devi’s honesty to the medium of his practice. The friendship with the means, tools, materials used, their procurement, their being founded in artists’ physical (i.e. spatial) and spiritual (and corporeal) reality and their adaptation to the artist’s imagination forms one of the central leitmotifs of his life. Adapting the available mediums to the needs of the modern studio potter, photographer, carpenter and designer to his environment provide an insight right into the specifics of a method that has had tremendous historical impact and it is thus that we enter the first gallery of the exhibition: The Making of Devi Prasad; which reconstructs portions of his various studios, the tools he made, the philosophies that made him. The pottery workshop that extended from the garage of his flat, the wheels and kilns he built himself, drawings of kiln and wheel designs, the clays and tools he adapted, his studio-diaries with recipes of clays and glazes and meticulously annotated firing logs can be seen here. They show how, right until the last firing at his studio, Devi remained a faithful student and hence a true teacher.
Perhaps Devi’s first moment in launching himself and truly imbibing his ideology came from a formative experience only a few years after graduating from Santiniketan when he was invited to design the Jaipur Session of the Congress. The aesthetic philosophy was concretised through the architectural design and actual making of 1.2 million square feet of ephemeral architecture. We proceed thus to some of the photographs and plans of this space. The two other foyers in the building form the core of the galleries and it is here that photographs of his political work, sections from his prolific publications are composed into text panels that form the backdrop to the pots. Actual books, pamphlets and photographs provide us an insight into his politics and his work as a graphic designer.
The first chronologically arranged gallery is concerned with the 1930s and 40s Santiniketan (comprising mostly works on paper and some photographs), leading to others which concern his work in the following decades mostly at Sevagram. Apart from his many student works in varied styles at Santiniketan, we see a number of significant self-portraits in the Santiniketan galleries. Two of these are particularly incisive and reflect the artist’s angst shortly after having graduated in 1944, at a profoundly moving moment in his life, contemplating whether to adopt the Gandhian ideals in accepting the offer to be the art teacher at Sevagram. The visitor is then led upstairs, to the Sevagram galleries where we see how pottery and photography become as much a part of his practice as painting. Only one of his photographs has been selected here to be blown up and used as a backdrop for the space. This is the near prophetic photograph that Devi took in 1950 of the lonesome labourer marching away, back into some eternal obscurity at Rajghat, where Gandhi was cremated two years earlier. Display cases for pots are designed as windows in all the partition walls thus permitting views to photographs and paintings of that period. The rural countryside and pastoral idyll are repeatedly painted or photographed by him: jowar and cotton fields, village carts, people spinning at their charkhas… building up the vision of a Gandhian utopia.
This proceeds to works made in the next two decades (1963 – 1983) in England which focus on sophisticated stoneware and porcelain studio-pottery, several landscapes and portraits. Large photographs of the peace marches and demonstrations, the mood of Europe during the ‘flower power’ days are vividly captured by his photographs. An attempt has been made to juxtapose paintings and pottery to see the common aesthetic sensibility that runs through them even if they seemingly belong to different art-historical ‘isms’.  The exhibition then continues downstairs and ends finally with the last few galleries designed to reflect his work when he returned to India and concentrated mainly on studio pottery and writing from 1983 – 2004. In each of these rooms an effort has been made not to separate the pots for which he is so renowned from his paintings, photographs and other works in order to see the common sensibility that runs through his oeuvre.  His observations of nature have always been a strong spiritual core in his work. It is for this reason that I have chosen two details (Summer and Winter) from his impressive pen and ink line drawings as wallpaper, again forming a context for the pots we see in that section. This gallery, called ‘Full Circle’ is dominated by a large circular or rather, ring-shaped stand for pots that visitors may enter to see his pots as isolated individual pieces in profile. The mood of the room is nearly zen-like and Spartan to reflect the artist’s own life in this phase and to focus the viewer’s attention on the pots.
[1] Wendy Kaplan’s goal is to shed light on how artists in what she calls the “peripheral” countries of Europe used handmade craft and the vernacular not just to ward off industrialization but also to promote local political identity and autonomy. Kaplan, Wendy (et al),  The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America: Design for the Modern World, Thames and Hudson, 2004

The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman is intended to be a biographical and critical insight into the work of the potter, painter and photographer Devi Prasad. Apart from the making of his personal history and his times, it leads us to why the act of making (art) itself takes on such a fundamental philosophical significance in his life. This, I feel, derives directly from his absorption of Gandhi’s philosophy  that looked at the act of making or doing as an ethical ideal, and further back to the impact of the Arts and Crafts Movement  on the ideology of ‘Swadeshi’ and on the milieu of Santiniketan.

The exhibition and the accompanying book examine Devi’s art along with his  role in political activism which, although garnered on Indian soil made him crisscross national borders and assume an important role in the international arena  of war resistance. Devi Prasad graduated from Tagore’s Santiniketan in 1944 when he joined the Hindustani Talimi Sangh (which espoused the concept of Nayee Taleem) at Gandhi’s ashram Sevagram as Art ‘Teacher’. His political consciousness saw him participate actively in the Quit India Movement in 1942, in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan and later from 1962 onward as Secretary General (later Chairman) of the War Resisters’ International, the oldest world pacifist organisation based in London. From there he was able to extend his Gandhian values internationally. All of this, while continuing with his life as a prolific artist. Rather than view them as separate worlds or professions, Devi harmonises them within an ethical and conscionable whole. He has written widely on the inextricable link between peace and creativity, on child /basic education, Gandhi and Tagore, on politics and art, in English, Hindi and Bangla. In 2007 he was awarded the Lalit Kala Akademi Ratna and in 2008, the Desikottama by Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan.

Devi Prasad does not approve of the intellectualisation of art making, the fall-out of writing a book about him and curating an exhibition on his work! He does not believe in the ‘isms’ that art-history creates, problematises and ends up critiquing, while bracketing an artist’s peaceful joy of making one way and then another! And yet, for an art-historian, art practice once contextualised lends light equally to history and to the very context itself in which an artist’s work exists. My endeavour in the exhibition and book is to hopefully provide a sympathetic reading of a particular context.

In accepting that ‘India’ has never had any singular notion of ‘nation’ as it has no singular notion of ‘tradition’, different artists have elected differing notions of these constituents to notable effect in their modern and contemporary art practice. For Devi Prasad, art experience was most concretely formed out of the Sevagram  and Santiniketan philosophies – that comprised a most persuasive brand of ‘national’ language and one to which freedom fighters like him turned. His quiet determination and spirit for peace has seen him actively shape the political voice of conscionable human activism for the past sixty years.

As we move toward concretising a national policy on culture for a liberalised India, we can look upon the period from the 30s to the 60s with historical hindsight. Gandhian, and Tagorean definitions of cultural practice, even in the latter’s cosmopolitanism, was avowedly located in philosophical bases at the grassroots, with roots that stretched via Coomaraswamy and others to the context of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  The resulting ideology for artisanship and design was founded in a structure of educational pedagogy which certainly stands buried today, even if its mandate has not been achieved. In this exhibition, I trace one man’s journey across this terrain.
Devi Prasad is known as one of the great Indian artist-potters. He is also well-known as an activist, pacifist, educator and writer. His ceramic works have been collected and shown in India and Britain. However few are aware of the variety and extent of his work. Devi has rarely shown his paintings in public, although he was trained as a painter by India’s foremost modern artists, and he has only exhibited a small fraction of his prolific work as a painter and photographer, and as yet there has never been compiled a comprehensive bibliography of his publications on matters concerning education, pacifism, Gandhian thought, art and politics.

The accompanying book concerns itself with contextualising his work in the history of Indian studio pottery, the specific nature of the intellectual history of the craft and art divide which is related to a wider divide on traditional art practice and modernism, within the history of modern Indian education, and pacifism. Not much is published on the nature of Indian contemporary design environment and the history of the modern craftsman-artist-designer. These questions have been central to Devi Prasad himself and the specific historical trajectory that he treads is based on a self-conscious intellectual awareness of this difficult terrain. His negotiation is a discussion that leads us towards some fundamental disciplinary questions.

Paradoxically in the international arena there is almost an omission of the modern histories of the legatees of the Arts and Crafts Movement’s pioneers in India – this, after all, was very Movement that was profoundly impacted by Eastern (Chinese, Japanese and Indian) art, artisanship and aesthetic philosophy. The foundations of the Arts and Crafts Movement looked to models of art practice in places like India, and that the impact of their polemics formed a basis for modernism itself is well known.  Yet the major international exhibitions held in the past few years on themes such as the Arts and Crafts Movement and on the history of modern design have rarely engaged with the specific constituents of these movements outside a Euro-American sphere. In her monumental 2005 exhibition at LACMA, Wendy Kaplan argues for a telling of Arts and Crafts history that shows the inexorable link between ‘Design and National Identity’ that arose from the philosophies of ‘Art and Industry’ and ‘Art and Life’.[1]

As that exhibition’s catalogue demonstrates, in all countries involved, the idea of ‘the land’ was a potent force; one to be reclaimed as industry and urbanisation were destroying time honoured social modes and relations of production, and destroying also a pastoral (if, as some argue, a ‘medieval’) idyll, and equally, the currency of the Movement gained as the emerging ideas of ‘nationhood’ depended on holding on to some essential place considered the heart of the nation. Tagore and Gandhi both tried to locate that essential ‘place’ in their ideologies and in each of their ashrams – Santiniketan and Sevagram – places with which Devi Prasad was intimately connected.  I would like to extend an interpretation of his work here to trace a specific lineage to the Arts and Crafts Movement and Devi Prasad’s construal of it on Indian ground.

Devi 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. The show spans 65 years of his work as an artist, from his earliest artworks, painted in Santiniketan in 1938 and end with some of his last works made in 2003-’04 (the last time he used his studio). The show comprises approximately 300 artworks interspersed with panels of text drawn from Devi’s writings on Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, art, education and politics. This will allow the pots for which he is so famous to be seen in the broader context of the history of his motivations and work as an artist. This draws out the common sensibility that runs through all his work.

All the foyers, landings and connecting spaces in the galleries’ design are concerned with Devi Prasad’s philosophy, his writings on history, peace-activism and education: literally positioned as a central intellectual core. As a retrospective exhibition they lead into different rooms that are concerned with the chronology of his art practice. We enter the building thus to see Devi Prasad’s famous photograph of Gandhi’s last meeting with Tagore. They are also the two most significant influences on him. Their philosophical unity is expressed in Devi’s honesty to the medium of his practice. The friendship with the means, tools, materials used, their procurement, their being founded in artists’ physical (i.e. spatial) and spiritual (and corporeal) reality and their adaptation to the artist’s imagination forms one of the central leitmotifs of his life. Adapting the available mediums to the needs of the modern studio potter, photographer, carpenter and designer to his environment provide an insight right into the specifics of a method that has had tremendous historical impact and it is thus that we enter the first gallery of the exhibition: The Making of Devi Prasad; which reconstructs portions of his various studios, the tools he made, the philosophies that made him. The pottery workshop that extended from the garage of his flat, the wheels and kilns he built himself, drawings of kiln and wheel designs, the clays and tools he adapted, his studio-diaries with recipes of clays and glazes and meticulously annotated firing logs can be seen here. They show how, right until the last firing at his studio, Devi remained a faithful student and hence a true teacher.

Perhaps Devi’s first moment in launching himself and truly imbibing his ideology came from a formative experience only a few years after graduating from Santiniketan when he was invited to design the Jaipur Session of the Congress. The aesthetic philosophy was concretised through the architectural design and actual making of 1.2 million square feet of ephemeral architecture. We proceed thus to some of the photographs and plans of this space. The two other foyers in the building form the core of the galleries and it is here that photographs of his political work, sections from his prolific publications are composed into text panels that form the backdrop to the pots. Actual books, pamphlets and photographs provide us an insight into his politics and his work as a graphic designer.
The first chronologically arranged gallery is concerned with the 1930s and 40s Santiniketan (comprising mostly works on paper and some photographs), leading to others which concern his work in the following decades mostly at Sevagram. Apart from his many student works in varied styles at Santiniketan, we see a number of significant self-portraits in the Santiniketan galleries. Two of these are particularly incisive and reflect the artist’s angst shortly after having graduated in 1944, at a profoundly moving moment in his life, contemplating whether to adopt the Gandhian ideals in accepting the offer to be the art teacher at Sevagram. The visitor is then led upstairs, to the Sevagram galleries where we see how pottery and photography become as much a part of his practice as painting. Only one of his photographs has been selected here to be blown up and used as a backdrop for the space. This is the near prophetic photograph that Devi took in 1950 of the lonesome labourer marching away, back into some eternal obscurity at Rajghat, where Gandhi was cremated two years earlier. Display cases for pots are designed as windows in all the partition walls thus permitting views to photographs and paintings of that period. The rural countryside and pastoral idyll are repeatedly painted or photographed by him: jowar and cotton fields, village carts, people spinning at their charkhas… building up the vision of a Gandhian utopia.

This proceeds to works made in the next two decades (1963 – 1983) in England which focus on sophisticated stoneware and porcelain studio-pottery, several landscapes and portraits. Large photographs of the peace marches and demonstrations, the mood of Europe during the ‘flower power’ days are vividly captured by his photographs. An attempt has been made to juxtapose paintings and pottery to see the common aesthetic sensibility that runs through them even if they seemingly belong to different art-historical ‘isms’.  The exhibition then continues downstairs and ends finally with the last few galleries designed to reflect his work when he returned to India and concentrated mainly on studio pottery and writing from 1983 – 2004. In each of these rooms an effort has been made not to separate the pots for which he is so renowned from his paintings, photographs and other works in order to see the common sensibility that runs through his oeuvre.  His observations of nature have always been a strong spiritual core in his work. It is for this reason that I have chosen two details (Summer and Winter) from his impressive pen and ink line drawings as wallpaper, again forming a context for the pots we see in that section. This gallery, called ‘Full Circle’ is dominated by a large circular or rather, ring-shaped stand for pots that visitors may enter to see his pots as isolated individual pieces in profile. The mood of the room is nearly zen-like and Spartan to reflect the artist’s own life in this phase and to focus the viewer’s attention on the pots.

[1] Wendy Kaplan’s goal is to shed light on how artists in what she calls the “peripheral” countries of Europe used handmade craft and the vernacular not just to ward off industrialization but also to promote local political identity and autonomy. Kaplan, Wendy (et al),  The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America: Design for the Modern World, Thames and Hudson, 2004

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