Remembering Nandlal

one of the works of art i carry around in my head is sahaj path, the classic bangla primer written by rabindranath tagore and originally illustrated with woodcuts by nandlal bose.

and i really mean that – for i remember sahaj path as a work of art, not as a textbook. my mother, bringing us three brothers up in the (then) distant little town of mt.abu in the aravali hills of rajasthan (all the way across the country from calcutta!) tried diligently to teach us to read and write bangla. we all spoke the language reasonably well, but never progressed beyond 2nd. standard level as far as reading and writing was concerned.

but the magical black and white images from that book we used to pore over have never left my head. i remember them so vividly forty years later… two boys huddling under a basket – the rain coming down in sheets around them, the farmer’s hut nestled in the deep shadow of a spreading tree, the leopard resting in a clearing at the water’s edge – calm, surrounded by birds and fish like in a vision of the garden of eden, the fisherman perched on his boat peering at his own reflection in the inky depths, the row of trees on the edge of a paddy field (i could hear the wind whipping through them), those two creatures – perhaps dogs, sharing a moment – strangely intimate, strangely wild…

as a 5 year old, i would leave the abstract world of letter forms, and enter the deep shadows and pale spaces of nandlal’s woodcut world. there for the first time, i discovered the delights of shape, line and pattern – and a fervent desire to draw. and soon the exercise books meant to contain neat rows of letter-forms were being taken over by bold unruly scrawls. after a while i think my mother gave up trying to seriously teach language, and allowed me to fill the pages with drawings even as we continued our lessons.

as i progressed in my drawing adventures, i started to become more proficient, and moved onto subjects such as cowboys and aeroplanes. but i would return to sahaj path every now and then till the book, much thumbed, finally disappeared from our lives at some point. nandlal’s bold forms taught me something very valuable about how – and why – to combine intensity of purpose with a playfulness of touch, sharp observation with a warm empathy for the subject, and the precision of craft with the ecstacy of inspiration.