During the 1970s, the government of India named nine artists whose paintings were to be treated as national treasures. While this was a wonderful recognition for the artists, it also meant that by law, their work couldn’t be sold outside the country, limiting their international exposure.

For the next few decades, the artists’ works were restricted to government museums and a few private collections. Until, in 2013, Christie’s included some of the pieces in its first auction in India. And now, the works have been stitched together into a narrative about nationhood and identity.

Navratna: Nine Gems explores the contributions of Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Nicholas Roerich and Sailoz Mukherjee towards defining the idea of an Indian nation-state at a time when the country was finding its footing. Organised by DAG at Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the exhibition will be on view till Sunday. “The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi has a lot of works of these artists, but Mumbai has not seen their work together before,” said Kishore Singh, president of DAG.

Abanindranath Tagore.

The works in the exhibition are remarkably diverse: they address a range of subjects, employ an array of techniques, and take shape on diverse mediums. While Roerich’s canvases ponder on the jagged peaks of the Himalayas, Bose’s pen-and-ink sketches on paper depict people negotiating with nature. Abanindranath Tagore paints evocative landscapes with watercolour and gouache on handmade paper, and Rabindranath Tagore uses crayon and watercolours on paper to depict melancholic and brooding faces.

Yet, despite the differences in styles and subjects, the artists are bound by their preoccupation with rural India. They “have moved away from the urban landscape, and are looking at art practice as a reflection of the things around them,” said Singh. “Amrita Sher-Gil came back from Paris and moved into a small village in Uttar Pradesh. Roerich came from the West and went to a village in the Himalayas, while Bose moved from Calcutta to Shantiniketan. The works respond to a call of the nation’s grassroots, which was being articulated by two very important people then – Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Even though Ravi Verma catered to the elite, and his subjects emerged out of mythology to a great extent, he took pains to create images that occurred after he travelled the country, creating a pan-Indian image for his hero and heroine.”

According to Singh, although the artists attempted to depict the country’s realities, they did not seek to impose a single image of Indian nationalism. “The artists themselves weren’t harping on about the idea of patriotism,” he said. “They were not preoccupied with creating a visual which would have authority, or an image to which people had to be subservient.”

Consequently, each artist defines just one facet of India’s nationhood. “Individually, it would be harder to see it, because it [the work of a single artist] is just one part of something larger,” said Singh. “But when you put all the artists together, the idea of the nation comes through very strongly. The idea of a nation is not about pomp and glory, but about everyday life and what the artists see around them.”

Sailoz Mukherjee.

The paintings also collectively point to the precarious social and cultural position of marginalised communities in India. Gaganendranath Tagore’s illustrations, for instance, point to the misuse of social and economic clout by the rich and privileged class, while Jamini Roy conveys the hypocritical nature of Bengali priests in his rendition of the Biral Tapsavi (The Meditating Cat) theme.

Several of the exhibited works, such as Bose’s illustrations on the Constitution of India, represent epochal moments in the life of the country. Singh points out that Abanindranath Tagore’s image of Bharat Mata became a rallying point for the freedom struggle. “The image is important because it moves away from the aesthetic that was popular in those days, to a very secular image of a goddess,” said Singh. “It is a reflection of an ancient country looking towards freedom.”

Many paintings address mythological figures, particularly Hindu gods. Some works, such as Bose’s intricate drawing of the goddess Durga or Rabindranath Tagore’s rendition of a man offering namaz, pose implicit questions about spirituality and religion. “All art comes from a certain historical past that defines it, and this is true of the art of any country in the world: typically, places of religion and authority commanded patronage,” said Singh. “But it doesn’t mean that religion has to be ritualised. When it is a free expression of what you are, then it survives long beyond not just generations, but across centuries.”

The artworks are accompanied with books about or by the artists, letters received by them, and in some cases, their personal belongings. These objects serve to enrich the historical context of the paintings, and also hint at the blurring of boundaries between archives and art collections. “Rabindranath Tagore’s art might have very little to do with the fact that we have a mortgage deed displayed along with his work,” said Singh. “But it is essential to know that Tagore, in the making of his university, had to sell off land and property, and was indeed in a lot of debt. It opens up newer ideas of interrogation into how we look at and understand his painting.”

Rabindranath Tagore.

Even as the exhibition points to the ways in which the artists have shaped the idea of the Indian nation, it illustrates the porosity of geographical boundaries by acknowledging the diverse foreign influences that have influenced the aesthetic of the national treasure artists. Bose, for instance, was inspired by the Japanese watercolour wash technique, while Roy blended various western conventions with indigenous influences to develop his visual language. Consequently, the paintings hint at the fluidity of national identity, and the importance of free dialogue between different cultures.

Singh hopes that the exhibition will help people understand that art plays a crucial role in shaping identities. He also hopes that it encourages audiences to ask questions about the world of art. “We don’t ask because we don’t understand art,” he said. “We are scared to ask. Just come in and ask, and that way, we can free ourselves from the fear and educate ourselves.”

Nandalal Bose.

All images courtesy DAG.

Navratna: Nine Gems is on display at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum till November 11.