On January 26, 1950, after 165 days of deliberation, 284 members of the Constituent Assembly of India unanimously adopted the Constitution. The original, calligraphed copies of the document were sent to the artist Nandalal Bose and his students at Santiniketan, who decorated each of the 22 parts with elaborate art. When placed in sequence, the art reveals a linear, rather banal, narrative of the Indian subcontinent from the Indus Valley civilisation to the birth of the Republic.

The artworks are titled after the eras they depict: the Mohenjo Daro Period, Vedic Period, Epic Period (covering scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata), Mahajanapada and Nanda Period (covering Mahavira and Buddha), Mauryan period, Gupta Period, Medieval Period with scenes from Orissa and the South, Muslim Period (portraying Akbar, Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh), British Period (portraying Jhansi Lakshmi Bai and Tipu Sultan) and the Indian Freedom Movement (including images of MK Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose). This list could easily belong in a children’s pop-up book introducing Indian history.

In recent years, art historians, academics, culturists and journalists have talked about the origins of the constitutional artwork, which has captured interest among writers and public intellectuals. For instance, the front cover of A New Idea of India, written by Harsh Madhusudhan and Rajeev Mantri, has the sketch of Ram, Sita and Lakshman from the Epic Period series of artworks from the Fundamental Rights Chapter. The cover art fits the book, which argues for an idea of India as a civilisational republic that predates 1950.

Cover art for a popular book is one thing, but the government and courts informing their work based on the constitutional artwork is quite another. But, in India, the temptation to obfuscate history with folklore and myth never ceases. There have been several attempts to popularise this artwork, and more alarmingly, use it as some sort of an authoritative source for constitutional or policy matters.

Drawing Inferences

In 1992, in one of the earlier Ram Janmabhoomi cases, a Division Bench of the High Court of Allahabad had allowed darshan and rituals in the makeshift temple. Writing for the bench, Justice Hari Nath Tilhari relied on the constitutional art and held that “Lord Rama” is a “constitutional entity”, a reality of the national and cultural fabric and not a myth. Taking off from this, the court held that the case was not just about the right of religion and faith but also about the fundamental obligation of the State to allow the petitioner (Vishwa Hindu Adhivakta Sangh) to perform the rituals.

In another case concerning adoption under Hindu personal law, the Karnataka High Court relied on this image of Ram as well as other gods and historical figures in the constitutional artwork to claim that the expression “Hindu” represented the “entire nationality and culture of India”. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad too has argued that the paintings are a source of understanding the milieu of the Indian subcontinent. He told his audience that it was “important” to “remember” that Mughal Emperor Akbar has been portrayed in the artwork, “but not Aurangzeb”.

These are nonsensical attempts to establish a link between the text, values and spirit of the Constitution and the themes of the border artwork in the original copies of the document. The themes of the paintings, especially the mythological ones, are claimed as historical fact, simply because they were drawn in the Constitution. But the fact is, these paintings do not have any constitutional relevance or historical significance beyond one version of cultural interpretation.

Bose’s art, while beautiful, is quite literally in the periphery of the document. But that too is beside the point. Constitutional interpretation is always text-based, and no rule of modern statutory, including constitutional, interpretation relies on images. This is because modern law sees language as rational and unambiguous, and therefore best suited to exercise social control. Images, on the other hand, are primitive and decorative. If images have to be treated as tools of interpretation, lawmakers must strictly rely on them to communicate the law.

Reading Above The Lines

The members of the Constituent Assembly debated in more than one language, but never used artwork to communicate constitutional provisions. The Preamble, the Constituent Assembly debates and the reports of the several sub-committees of the Assembly, which form the bulwark of the secondary sources for constitutional interpretation, are also textual and have a direct link to the text of the Constitution. The paintings, however, do not. Neither the Constituent Assembly nor the first Parliament discussed the “illumination” project to handcraft the text and artwork in the original copies of the Constitution.

Secondly, when members of the Constituent Assembly adopted the document on January 26, 1950, they were signatories to the text alone. The artwork did not exist then. It was only completed and incorporated in the document four years later. At the time of the signing, on January 24, 1950, three copies were presented. Two of the copies, one in English and the other in Hindi, were handwritten and eventually bore the paintings, and the third one was a print version in English. It is this print version, without the artwork and bearing only the text, that has been used by all State functionaries and publishers. The handcrafted copies of the Constitution were sealed and preserved in helium-filled cases, which were placed in the Parliament library and continue to remain there. Few people have seen these copies. In fact, the average Indian has no idea that there is constitutional artwork of any sort. This remains a sore point for some nationalists who have petitioned the courts using public interest litigations to direct the government to publish and popularise the artwork.

Even as a non-constitutional, purely cultural project, the artwork should not carry much weight. It is necessarily a reductive periodisation of Indian history, constrained by the limited border spaces of the document. For every Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Nataraja and Krishna, the artwork ignores Mariamman, Pochamma, Yellamma, Fathiamma (Bibi Fatima), Bada Deo, Jaher-than and more. For every Noakhali riot (as illustrated in the original copies), it papers over Bihar riots, multiple partitions, displacements and traumas. For every mainland male ruler or political leader belonging to oppressor castes, it omits several Birsa Mundas, Tilka Manjhis, Jhalkari Bais, Uda Devis and Rani Gaidinlius. And, for every Gandhi, it forgets a Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar. The archetype captured in the artwork therefore offers little historical or cultural insight into the pluralistic life in the subcontinent.

On the 71st anniversary of our Republic, we could do worse than reading the constitutional text to make better sense of our precarious present. The decorative artwork can at best serve as a footnote.

Shreyas Narla is an independent legal researcher in New Delhi and a former law clerk at the Supreme Court of India.