The dust jacket of The Making of a Modern Indian artist-craftsman: Devi Prasad is his painting titled ‘Dreaming watching lizards’. In this portrait of his twenty-two-year-old self, Devi Prasad is recumbent, the open book in his hand forgotten. He looks into the distance lost in thought. It seems an appropriate choice, a hint of what is in store, because though Devi Prasad is known as one of India’s great potters, his proficiency as a painter is not well-known. Moreover, the painting is about reflection, a constant motif underlying his life as charted by Naman P. Ahuja, associate professor of Indian art and architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Born in 1921, Devi Prasad was shaped by a time when India was in a quest for freedom, both politically and in terms of identity. How this quest drew from and informed the practice of Indian arts and crafts was a critical debate. By focusing on how Devi Prasad negotiated this debate through his synthesis of diverse influences that inspired him, Ahuja traces his journey as a ‘special kind of artist’.
Broadly, the book could be divided into three parts, starting with Devi Prasad’s tenure in Santiniketan as a student. Tagore’s vision of India was one where the individual, community and nature lived in a constantly forged harmony. To achieve this, he found inspiration in art and poetry making creativity the cornerstone of his educational philosophy. The ‘swadeshi’ or nationalist conception of Indian art and craft as articulated by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and others was another influential current. How Devi Prasad imbibed and interpreted these ideas is elaborated using excerpts from his writing, academic references, his artwork, photographs and meticulous footnotes that in addition to references, many a time provide a helpful synopsis of newly introduced terms.
Even though at times flipping pages to find the illustration associated with the text at hand breaks the flow a bit, it is a small price to pay for a layered narrative that the interplay of text and almost 400 images of Devi Prasad’s work provides. Even the printer’s ornaments are Devi Prasad’s work sourced from his sketchbooks. Such a narrative is a product of Ahuja’s extensive research that had the benefit of interacting with Devi Prasad over almost 20 years, supplemented by insights from Devi Prasad’s son Sunand Prasad, an architect. The academician’s rigour and effort is evident, especially in the detailing, be it a comprehensive bibliography of Devi Prasad’s publications; a footnote digressing about various misspellings of ‘Nayee Taleem’; or an aside about Gurdial Mallik, a Santiniketan teacher, describing a mystic encounter between him and Tagore.
The second part deals with Devi Prasad’s life at Sevagram. For Gandhi, livelihood was crucial, in line with his philosophy of self-reliance that stemmed from the complex idea of Satyagraha, a path to non-violence. How then did Devi Prasad synthesise this view with Tagore’s? It is a journey that strikes at the heart of the debate between high and low art, tradition and technology, as well as creativity and commerce, as Ahuja demonstrates. Adopting a ‘do-it-yourself’ approach to the act of making, which meant adapting technology using local materials, he forged his own pedagogy centered around the art of making that formed the basis of art education for Gandhi’s ‘Nayee Taleem’.
Building on the experience at Sevagram he later served as the Secretary General (later Chairman) of War Resisters’ International in London for more than a decade while continuing his journey in making. This forms the third part.
The contemporary relevance of Devi Prasad’s pedagogy is elaborated in an essay by Krishna Kumar, former director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). Ahuja defers to such experts and they weigh in at the end of each section. Other essays are by Kristine Michael, a ceramic artist who has curated exhibitions of contemporary Indian ceramics, and Bob Overy, a British anti-nuclear peace activist. Put together, these pieces build up to a complex socio-economic and political matrix to comprehend Devi Prasad’s work with and create predominantly an intellectual portrait of this painter, potter, ceramic artist, photographer, educationist, and activist, than a personal one.
Yet, the book manages to convey a sense of intimacy though it does not stem from delving into the personal. For instance, in one section Ahuja mentions Devi Prasad’s refusal to react to the regular racism his family encountered when they moved to London despite much pushing by Ahuja. As a true Gandhian, Devi Prasad believed in not holding on to hate, Ahuja reasons. What then animates Devi Prasad as a spirited and sensitive person is his own writing and work thoughtfully interspersed through the book.
There are not many such extensive works on individual artists of Devi Prasad’s time and this book is a step toward addressing that. Released as a companion to an exhibition of the same name, the book was published a few months after Devi Prasad passed away in 2011. It is ironic that in today’s India Devi Prasad’s work is limited to well-lit galleries rather than finding a home in street corners and schools. For his philosophy echoes in Coomaraswamy’s words, which he quoted often: ‘The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist’.