Artwork in the Constitution — Myriad Interpretations
Seen in a wider space, the artwork, the sources of art, the different styles and the various images, from past and present, weave a national narrative of pluralism and secularism, of shared values and philosophies, of our harmony and peace.
The Constitution of India is not only the longest Constitution in the world but is also perhaps the only illustrated Constitution. While the text of the Constitution has been the focus of judges and lawyers during the last 75 years, recently its illustrations have begun to garner attention of art critics and politicians.
Various interpretations have sprouted in the last one decade: from aesthetic to feminist, from political to nationalist. While some of the interpretations may hold water, the modern nationalist interpretation tends to read too much in between the lines. The interpretation should, indeed, be a catholic one, and not a myopic one. Like the Constitution itself, the entire art work has to be read as a whole, and not in a piecemeal manner.
History and overview
Like the Founding Fathers of India, the artists had a vast vision of our cultural inheritance. They literally and figuratively painted a large canvas of our past and present. The art work, in fact, spans 5,000 years of Indian history. It showcases our achievements as an ancient civilisation. Those who see it with squinted vision miss the trees for the forest.
While the Constituent Assembly sat down for the herculean task of drafting the Constitution for a young nation, the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru asked Prem Behari Narain Raizada, a noted calligraphist, to write the entire Constitution by hand. Interestingly, Raizada did not charge a single paisa for his hard labour. He just sought the permission to sign each page of the Constitution. The permission was granted.
Meanwhile, Nandalal Bose, the famous artist from Santiniketan, was asked to do the art work. Bose and his team of students, which included six women artists, did all the illustrations of the Constitution. Some of the pages of the original Constitution bear their signatures. All the illustrations — mostly line drawn sketches and a few painted pieces — took five years in the making. The artwork not only embellished the Constitution, but also added symbolic meaning to its provisions.
The Constitution is divided into 22 parts. Each part is illustrated with line drawings. The drawings are based on various artistic traditions.
The horizontal format of the drawings is derived from the ancient palm leaf miniatures of Bengal and South India. The idea of having borders on each page is taken from the Mughal miniatures. Since Bose was trained in Japanese and Southeast Asian art, he has heavily relied on these two art traditions. The artists have also borrowed heavily from the art of Ajanta and Bagh Caves, from Chola art and the Oriya school of sculpture, and from Deccani miniatures and poster art of the 19th and 20th centuries. Hence, artistically, the Constitution speaks in languages of different art styles and traditions.
The art work spans 5,000 years of Indian history. It showcases our achievements as an ancient civilisation.
This was, indeed, apt as the Constitution has also borrowed heavily from the Constitutions of other nations, such as England, America, Ireland, Japan and Russia. The amalgamation in the Constitutional provisions is also reflected in the fusion of different art styles and movements. Pluralism is writ large on its pages.
What does the artwork denote?
The front cover is an upside down triangle defined by line drawing based on the paintings of Ajanta Caves. Although we see blooming lotuses, it would be a great mistake to see political symbolism in the image of the lotus. Since the lotus is a common symbolism in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism — it symbolises lofty ideas in a mundane world — the blooming lotuses were an appropriate image for a nation rising from its feudal past and blossoming into a sovereign, democratic republic: a new nation based on democracy and rule of law.
Front cover of the Constitution of India.
Part I: Indus Valley seal of Brahmin bull
Part I, dealing with the Union and its territory, depicts an Indus Valley seal of a Brahmin bull. Since the Indus Valley Civilisation is seen to mark the beginning of Indian history, it was befitting to begin the narration of our past with this seal.
The blooming lotuses were an appropriate image for a nation rising from its feudal past and blossoming into a sovereign, democratic republic: a new nation based on democracy and rule of law.
One should not read too much into the seal: the depiction of the seal is neither legitimising Brahminism, nor supporting Shaivism — after all, the bull is the vehicle of Lord Shiva in Hinduism. In the ancient cultures of India and Babylon, the bull was the symbol of fertility. For the bull fertilised the cow, which in turn gave milk and other beneficial things to mankind. Hence, the ancient civilisations worshiped the bull. But here it merely signals the dawn of our civilisation.
Part II: The Hermits and the Hermitage.
Part II, dealing with citizenship, depicts a scene of hermits living in forest, near ponds and rivers. It not only speaks of the philosophical achievements of our ancient period, but portrays the close relationship between human beings and nature as well. Citizens are reminded of their role in preserving and protecting the environment — a theme which runs through our ancient literature, and is a fundamental duty imposed by Article 51A of the Constitution.
It is a serene scene where fellow creatures live in peace and harmony. Interestingly, it does not depict a society in conflict with itself; it depicts a scene where man, flora and fauna live peacefully.
Part III, embodying the Fundamental Rights, depicts Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman returning to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. However, this does not mean that the Constitution proves the existence of Lord Ram as a historical figure. Far from it.
Lord Ram is returning after defeating Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka — it thus speaks of the triumph of good over evil. In political terms, it speaks of the fundamental rights as the good of the people over the tyranny of the State. But like Sita, the fundamental rights also need to be protected by the Executive and the Judiciary, Ram and Laxman.
Moreover, the depiction of the return of Ram to Ayodhya may hint at the establishment of a new era, a new raj, but not necessarily a Ram Rajya as the modern narrative would have us believe. After all, the fundamental rights were being recognised and acknowledged for the first time in the history of India. A new era of justice, liberty, equality; nay, of democracy was about to begin. A new order was being ushered in. But, one should not read too much in between the lines.
Part IV: Krishna and Arjun in the Battle of Kurukshetra.
Part IV contains the Directive Principles of State Policy. The directive principles are sermons to the State to keep certain imperative and important points in mind while framing its policies. Moreover, the directive principles are guidelines for the State to pursue. Similarly, Lord Krishna’s sermon on the battlefield revealed the principles and guidelines for our lives. Thus, there is a parallel between the written provisions and the sketch adorning Part IV.
The rest of the illustration also speaks of our history and culture. Thus, we have Lord Buddha in Part V, dealing with the Union, perhaps hinting that the Union government and its parts — the Executive, the Legislature, the Judiciary — have to be as enlightened as Buddha himself; Lord Mahavir adorns Part VI, dealing with the states, perhaps the State should follow the path of non-violence — ahimsa.
Part XII: Natraj and the Swastika.
Natraj dances in Part XII — dealing with Finance, Property, Commerce and Suit — perhaps reminding us of the prodigious commerce and trade of the Great Cholas. It also bears a reverse Swastika, perhaps hinting that commerce must reach all the cardinal directions like the Chola commerce had done.
Part XIV: Emperor Akbar in his Court.
Part XIV, dealing with the Services under the Union and the states, showcases Emperor Akbar with his courtiers — perhaps hinting at the excellent Mughal administration under Akbar. In fact, it is no secret that the revenue administration traces its ancestry to the period of Alauddin Khilji and to Emperor Akbar. The super-structure of the administration is based on revenue collection. Again, the pictorial art mirrors the written provisions of the Constitution.
Surprisingly, of all the historical women leaders, only Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi is portrayed. Sita is portrayed as a mythological figure. But for these two women, none other is depicted. This, certainly, is a gap in the artistic oeuvre.
We also have the portraits of Maharani Laxmi Bai, the only woman depicted in the original Constitution, Tipu Sultan, Guru Gobind Singh, Shivaji, Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose. These figures capture and reflect our quest for freedom. The original Constitution also contained landscapes of mountains and rivers, forests and deserts — the four geographical indicators of India.
Many have argued about the significance and meaning behind these illustrations. In the Ram Janam Bhoomi case, the Allahabad High Court even went to the extent of claiming that since Lord Ram is depicted in Part III of the Constitution, Lord Ram is, therefore, a ‘Constitutional entity’. Such an interpretation is highly misplaced. Firstly, law has to be interpreted on the basis of well established Rules of Interpretation, and not on the fantasy of an artist. Secondly, in case an illustration were to be used to lend meaning to a provision or an entity, all the illustrations would have to be read holistically, and not in bits and pieces. If this logic of the Hon’ble Judges were to be upheld, then even a yaksha would be a constitutional entity! For, Part VIII portrays a flying yaksha. Such fanciful interpretation is not permissible while interpreting the Constitution.
Others are overwhelmed by the images from Hindu pantheon. They emphasise the presence of Lord Ram and Lord Shiva, while ignoring the presence of Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavir, and Guru Gobind Singh. Such enthusiasts ignore the fact that there are at least three drawings dealing with Lord Buddha and his life. The presence of these three figures not only reveals the birth of three different religions in India, but also proclaims their great doctrines and philosophies. They prove the pluralism of our culture and civilisation. Hence, only to see the Hindu images while ignoring other pictures is doing injustice to the greatness of our Constitution.
The Constitution is not meant just for one single community; it protects all communities under its umbrella. After all, Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, guaranteeing equality before the law and equal protection of the law, and protecting personal liberty, have been called the heart and soul of our Constitution by the Supreme Court.
Of course, the feminist interpretation, that the artists ignored the contribution of women in our history, is a valid criticism. Surprisingly, of all the historical women leaders, only Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi is portrayed. Sita is portrayed as a mythological figure. But for these two women, none other is depicted. This, certainly, is a gap in the artistic oeuvre.
The illustrations showcase not only our historical achievements, but also highlight the basic foundation of Indian civilisation — assimilation.
However, the purpose of depicting the panorama of Indian history is two-fold: firstly, every young nation tries to derive legitimacy from its actual or borrowed past. Since India has a rich history, we could easily dip into our past and draw inspiration from it. America, a young nation, on the other hand, had to rely on the borrowed past of the Classical World.
Secondly, the illustrations showcase not only our historical achievements, but also highlight the basic foundation of Indian civilisation — assimilation. Philosopher and statesman Sir S. Radhakrishnan, the second president of India, in his book, The Hindu View of Life (1927), claimed that the hallmark of the Indian civilisation was its ability to assimilate various communities, thoughts, schools, philosophies and life-styles, and to weave them into a national life. He contrasted this unique ability against the tendency of the Western civilisation to annihilate the people and communities it encountered as it advanced. Hence, for example, the Romans killed the Gaul and the German tribes, the White man killed the Native Americans in America, the Spanish killed the Mayans and the Incas, and the English exterminated the aborigines of Australia. Thus, their civilisation is marred by battles and exterminations. We preached and practised non-violence; they robbed and killed in creative, violent ways. They speak of ‘clash of civilisations’; we, of peaceful co-existence of civilisations.
It is our ability to absorb different waves of communities, religions and languages which has assured our progress for the last five thousand years. After all, we are the only living civilisation in the world.
Seen in a wider space, the artwork, the sources of art, the different styles and the various images, from past and present, weave a national narrative of pluralism and secularism, of shared values and philosophies, of our harmony and peace. Those who interpret the artwork in a narrow compass ignore the wide vision of our Founding Fathers and Mothers, and the rainbow of images created by our artists. Both legally and aesthetically, the Constitution requires a liberal and wide interpretation.
Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan is a retired judge, having served as Chief Justice of the Uttarakhand and Telangana High Courts.
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