Nandalal’s Guide to Picture-Making

In a series of cards, within an envelope addressed to Ramesh Charan and redirected from Dacca to Sylhet, postmarked from Santiniketan, 23 May 1940, Nandalal shares these thoughts about picture-making a postcard to Ramesh Charan Basu Majumdar, dated 16th Magh, 1924


“1. Scratch and draw. Just as you write an alphabet on a flat piece of paper. Thus from the act of drawing pictures has the term ‘writing pictures’ emerged in Bengali. A small sketch of a lion – This has both indicated the subject of the picture and kept intact the language of pen and paper. This is an old technique that was invented by the early man. This is the way small children scratch and draw on their slates. Most paintings of the prehistoric age were done through this basic process of scratching on a surface.


2. Cast a shadow and draw. A dark blob of an image – This is an image of a box on a flat wall. This is also called drawing by spreading [laypa kaaj]. This is the form of drawing invented by humans in the second phase…, and this was the technique used by the people of ancient Egypt, China and India. But to this was also added the work of lines, because even as the form of the object is caught by the work of the shadow, much of the details get left out. These have to be brought out by lines and if needed colours.


3. Draw like you would carve out an image on a small flat piece of wood. This is what is called relief work in English. This is the form adopted by the paintings of Ajanta and Bagh. Two small sketches appear. Outside this, any other form of work will leave out some essence of the work of drawing and painting and will not meet the requirements of the artists [the terms used here are ‘dharma’ and ‘adharma’]. 


The representational essence of a picture lies in its flatness – that is what captures the form of objects through the language of brush and other pictorial tools, and what brings out emotion and feeling [of mind’s bhava and rasa]. The different ways in which a seen image can be rendered into a flat drawing, I will write [more] on this…”


News from Santiniketan, in a postcard, 23 September 1924 


Nandalal writes to Ramesh Charan about – (i) an exhibition of Chinese paintings and other Chinese artifacts organised in Calcutta [presumably at the Indian Society of Oriental Art] after their return from their tour (ii) the performance of Rabindranath’s play “Arupratan” in Santiniketan (iii) Rabindranath Tagore’s departure for South America, along with Rathindranath Tagore, Pratima Debi and Surendranath Kar (iv) Asit Kumar Haldar and Sailen Dey joining as teachers at the art school at Jaipur, and Ardhendu Bandyopadhyay taking up a job at Lakshadeep.


Two decades later, in a postcard written from Santiniketan, dated 15 November 1946 


Nandalal refers obliquely to the tumultuous times in Bengal, the communal carnage of that year, and of Gandhiji’s arrival to stay in Calcutta to fast and pray. “Bengal is today blessed”, he writes, “a saint [mahapurush] has come to share our sorrow. ‘ Save us from danger, this is not our prayer’ [‘Bipode more roksha koro, e nohe mor prarthana’, a line from Rabindranath’s song] Lord, give us the strength to bear up, and give new strength to our arms. [In the midst of all this], I have finished my work on the frescoes and returned safely, and all is well here.”