The retrospective on the life of stalwart Devi Prasad shows how his hunger for peace dictated all his ventures.

To live a life committed to a cause and actively pursue it isn't something many of us can manage. As idealistic, clichéd and simple as it may sound, the fact remains. But then, it's a way of life for some, like Devi Prasad. Whether through his art, educational work or activism, the veteran artist has constantly engaged with the idea of a peaceful and better world. At ‘The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman', one gets a peek into this extraordinary life. The retrospective has been jointly organised by Lalit Kala Akademi and Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) and curated by Naman P. Ahuja, an associate professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Ahuja's massive exercise — around 300 photographs, pottery work, drawings, paintings, panels of text drawn from his writings, diagrams of stage design, books — probes how Prasad has bridged the gap between being an artist, a political activist and an educator.

Neatly divided into seven parts, the exhibition spans a period of 66 years — from his days in Santiniketan where he trained in painting under Nandlal Bose, up to 2004, after which he has not used his studio in his Delhi home. The first gallery showcasing his kiln, charkha, pottery tools, deals with how the act of making became important to him.

Self-reliance

After graduating from Santiniketan in 1944, Prasad joined Sevagram, Mahatma Gandhi's ashram in Maharashtra as an art teacher. Ahuja declares it was here that the Gandhian philosophy of self-reliance, respect for labour got entrenched in his mind. “So, he was making his own tools, glaze and clay. At Nandlal Bose's recommendation, Gandhiji had taken him as an art teacher. Prasad wrote to Gandhiji and in response, he got a reply from Gandhiji saying, ‘Bread comes first, adornment afterwards' and he gave the examples of how everyday utilitarian activities should be thought of as artistic. Prasad shared it with Bose, who wrote back to him saying Gandhi and Tagore should become two wheels of his chariot,” says Ahuja. A facsimile of Bose's letter is part of the show.

The message seems to have reached his core, for all his life, Rabindranath Tagore's philosophy of creativity and art came to be aesthetically integrated with Gandhi's idea of utilitarianism, in his works. The two most significant influences in his life, Gandhi and Tagore, were captured together by Prasad on the occasion of Gandhi's last meeting with Tagore in Santiniketan. This landmark image is the first thing one sees on entering the space.

A tempera painting of a young man with an art book lying open, while he thoughtfully gazes at the lizards on the wall with a letter peeping out from under his pillow, is reflective of the contemplation he went through over adopting Gandhian ideals in accepting the offer to be the art teacher at Sevagram. By including a number of self-portraits, Ahuja is in a way trying to recreate the time when Prasad was defining himself as an artist during and after his Santiniketan days. The Sevagram section — comprising his photographs of traditional potters, rural landscapes, portraits, people spinning at charkha and pottery — coffee pots, dinner sets, show how the two disciplines become integral to his art practice. Participation in the Quit India Movement and Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan movement in 1951 inspired him to see the world through the lens. Another iconic picture he produced, that of a lone labourer marching into oblivion at Rajghat, Gandhi's Samadhi, has also been put up.

During his stint as the Chairman of War Resister's International in London, images of peace marches and demonstrations in Europe, porcelain studio-pottery and sophisticated stoneware marked his oeuvre. And finally the gallery called “Full Circle” throws light on his life as an ace studio-potter in India following his return from Europe.

Later this month, Ahuja is also releasing a book on the artist's life (Routledge). The curator is also in talks with NMML to host the exhibition again during the Commonwealth Games.

(The exhibition is on till May 21 at LKA. The curator will conduct a free guided walk through the exhibition on Saturday)