Placed in a special helium-filled case in the Indian Parliament Library, the pages of the handcrafted Indian Constitution are bound in black leather, embossed with patterns in gold. It defines not just the laws of the country, but its authors also envisioned for it to share Indian history and heritage. So, while each word was carefully calligraphed by Prem Behari Narain Raizada, the task of illustrating the book was assigned to artist Nandalal Bose and his team from Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan.
One of the longest written Constitutions for any sovereign state in the world, each of the 22 parts of the Indian Constitution begins with an illustration. Chronologically, Bose and his team chart the history of India, from Mohenjo Daro to the national freedom struggle. While the Preamble page has intricate patterns sketched by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha, and bears his signature, Dinanath Bhargava sketched the National Emblem, the Lion Capital of Ashoka. Rendered largely in miniature style, there are influences of Ajanta cave paintings and the Bagh murals in its borders and illustrations.
In his office at Nai Sadak in Delhi, Yogendra Saxena, nephew of the late Prem Behari Narain Raizada, flips through photographs of his uncle presenting the Constitution to then president of India, Rajendra Prasad. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had approached him with the proposal of handwriting it in calligraphic style when the draft of the Constitution of India was ready to be printed. The master of calligraphy, who had learnt the art from his grandfather, immediately agreed, says Saxena. “When asked how much he would charge, he said, ‘Not a single penny… By the grace of God, I have everything, and am quite happy with my life’,” says Saxena. Raizada’s only request was to have his name on each page and alongside his grandfather on the last.
It took the graduate of St Stephen’s, Delhi, over six months to complete the task, writing on the parchment sheets both in Hindi and English. Allotted a room in the Constitution Hall, Saxena says Raizada used No. 303 nibs for the English calligraphy, and Hindu nib, imported from Birmingham, for the Hindi calligraphy. “Rajendra Prasad asked his (Raizada’s) employer, Mr Vishnu Hari Dalmia, to grant him leave with pay since he was doing a service to the nation,” says Saxena.
While the Vedic period in the Constitution is represented by a gurukul scene that features in the section on citizenship, the part on directive principles of state policy begins with a scene from the Mahabharata, with the discussion between Arjun and Krishna before the onset of the war. For fundamental rights, the artists turned to the Ramayana, drawing a sketch of Ram, Lakshman and Sita returning home after the battle in Lanka. Interestingly, it is reportedly on the basis of this that in 1993 in the Vishwa Hindu Adhivakta Sangh v/s Union of India case, the Allahabad High Court pronounced that Ram is a “Constitutional entity, and, admittedly, a reality of our national culture and fabric and not a myth”. In Part XIII, we see sculptures from Mahabalipuram, including legendary king Bhagirath’s penance, and the descent of Ganga to Earth.
While Emperor Ashoka can be seen propagating Buddhism in a scene in Part VII of the Constitution, part IX has a scene from King Vikramaditya’s court to signify that arts were promoted by the kingdom. The only female figure illustrated prominently in the Constitution, Lakshmibai, the queen of Jhansi, is sketched in her armour. She shares the page with Tipu Sultan, the king of Mysore in Part XVI of the Constitution. Part XIV has emperor Akbar in his court, representing the Mughal rule; the backdrop denotes the period’s striking architecture. Posing a challenge to the Mughals, meanwhile, are Maratha ruler Shivaji and 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, in the subsequent section.
Bose’s depiction of Mahatma Gandhi walking with a stick – created in 1930 to mark the Dandi March – also features in the Constitution, in the section on official language. Gandhi reappears in the section on emergency provisions, where he is seen visiting riot-hit Noakhali in south-east Bangladesh. He is being welcomed by women with an aarti thali in their hands, even as Muslim peasants seem to be looking at him from behind a bamboo fence. The contributions of Subhas Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj have also been acknowledged. In Part XIX, Bose is seen against a mountainous backdrop, saluting the flag ,with Tipu Sultan’s mechanical tiger mauling a man at the centre of the Tricolour. The borders recall his message to Mahatma Gandhi on the Azad Hind Radio in 1944: “Father of our Nation, in this holy war for India’s liberation, we ask for your blessings and good wishes.”
The illustrations also showcase the diverse geography of India, from camels marching in the desert in the temporary and transitional provisions section, to the mighty Himalayas in sombre shades in the amendment section. The torrential ocean waves are sketched in Part XXII, the last section of the Constitution that mentions the commencement and repeals.