The Illustrated Constitution of India

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    In India’s Parliament House is a black, leather-bound book embossed with a gold pattern. It looks like any other handsome, vintage tome. Except, it’s not. The words, carefully emblazoned across its cover, indicate its significance. They spell those stirring three words – ‘Constitution of India’.

    This beautifully illustrated and handwritten document is the supreme law of India, the document that lays down every aspect of the governance of the country, and which enshrines the rights and duties of every citizen. This is the original manuscript of the Constitution of India, and it became the law of the land on 26th January 1950.

    Every Indian knows that Dr B R Ambedkar was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, and are familiar with at least some of its provisions, but few are aware that the original manuscript of this hallowed work is a piece of art. It is a document that was painstakingly illustrated and calligraphed by hand, and embellished with art that includes various symbols of the nation and can be called a microcosm of its history. Today, we explore this aspect of the Constitution.

    Two illustrated manuscripts of the Constitution of India were created at the time of its creation and adoption in the late 1940s and in early 1950. The principal manuscript is written in English and is thus in the Roman script; the second one is in Hindi and thus written in the Devanagari script. Both copies are kept in a helium-filled case in the Parliament of India, in New Delhi.

    Each page of the Constitution measures 45.7 cm × 58.4 cm and is made of parchment paper believed to have a lifespan of a thousand years. The English version of the Constitution has 117,369 words, each painstakingly written by Prem Behari Narain Raizada and illustrated by a team led by Nandalal Bose, who also designed the emblem of India as well as the Bharat Ratna and other civilian awards bestowed by the Government of India. It was the English copy of the Constitution that was signed by all the members of the Constituent Assembly, to adopt it.

    Prem Behari Narain Raizada, born 1901 and a graduate of St Stephen’s College in Delhi learnt the art of calligraphy from his grandfather, Master Ram Parshadji Saxena, a scholar of Persian and English. Raizada quite literally wrote the Constitution over a period of 6 months, in a flowing, italic style. Interestingly, he didn’t take any remuneration for his work; instead, he requested Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru permission to write his and his grandfather’s names on the document.

    The completed copy has 230 pages, and 1,000 copies of the Constitution were made by photolithography, a printing technique, by the Survey of India in Dehradun.

    Nandalal Bose, who was born in Munger district of Bihar in 1882, studied art in Calcutta. He was deeply influenced by the art of Abanindranath Tagore and went on to head the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. Bose is one of the Navaratnas of Indian art. In a period when Western ideas and motifs were dominant in Indian art schools, Bose stuck to depicting Indian subjects and using Indian techniques.

    Bose created the illustrations for the Constitution with a team of artists from Kala Bhavan, which had been established by poet Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Bose’s artistic contribution to the freedom struggle goes back to the Dandi March, when he created the iconic illustration of Mahatma Gandhi with his walking stick.

    Each of the 22 chapters of the original Constitution opens with a hand-drawn illustration drawn from the history and the legends of India. These illustrations range from the Indus Valley Civilization period to scenes from the freedom struggle. Bose wanted to capture and illustrate the history of India in chronological order through these illustrations. The writing on each page is framed by a gold border, with some pages at the beginning and end of Schedules unclosing a second inner border. This is inspired by medieval Indian manuscripts from the Mughal courts.

    The intricate patterns on the page with the Preamble were sketched by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha.

    The artists at Kala Bhavana had studied and been inspired by art across the length and breadth of India. Hence, one sees the influence of the murals of Ajanta and the Bagh caves in Madhya Pradesh; the miniature traditions of Rajasthan, the Deccan, and the Pahari and Mughal schools, and the sculptures at Konark, Mahabalipuram and Bharhut. One can also see a distinctive Ajanta-inspired lotus pattern on the cover of the document.

    Illustrations in the document take inspiration both from actual history as well as from the legends and epics of the country. So one sees the bull seal of the Indus Valley Civilization; Rama, Sita and Lakshmana from the Ramayana; portraits of Emperor Akbar and Rani Lakshmibai as well as images of Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose. Each of these illustrations has been signed by the artists who drew them.

    The Constitution of India is imbued with a sense of patriotism and a vision that are unique to India but it wasn’t only the great statesmen who wrote it that accomplished this delicate feat. The artists who illustrated every page also made sure that it reflected an India rooted in its past and one that also looked towards the future.

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