Kosetsu Nosu: The Japanese Artist who Painted at Sarnath
— Satyasri Ukil
Once upon a time the Chitralekha House at Santiniketan had a richer collection of original paintings than what it has now. Many of these were displayed in our south facing verandah and other rooms. One such painting, hung on the wall adjacent to a peculiar staircase leading to the first-floor, was a brush-n-ink work by Kosetsu Nosu done on golden yellow Japanese silk stretched on a wooden frame. It depicted Lord Buddha, sitting cross-legged amid a stark desolate landscape. The picture fascinated me even as a child, the lines being bold, fluid and beautiful.
We were told that the artist, Kosetsu Nosu, from Japan had visited India many years ago to make copies of ancient Indian paintings at Ajanta Caves, and then painted his own frescoes at the Buddhist temple of Sarnath. Our grandmother Bina, Mukul Dey’s wife, would often recount that Kosetsu Nosu was very fond of his proper Japanese dress and he was never ashamed to wear it in best of formal occasions. She also narrated us that though Kosetsu neither spoke any Indian languages nor English, he would communicate with people very skillfully.
As I grew up, I tried to find more about this Japanese artist who visited India as early as 1918 and had worked at the cave shrines at Ajanta. Unfortunately almost nothing was available. I don’t remember having seen in any books by Indian art historians even a passing mention about Nosu! As if his artistic efforts and deep respect for our ancient art did not merit a notice by the scholars! As if the cultural connection between modern Japan and India never matured beyond Tenshin Okakura, Tagore and Yokoyama Taikan!
However, I kept Kosetsu Nosu in my focus.
After Mukul Dey passed away in March 1989, we tried to put some order into the heaps of papers he left behind. There we found his Visitors Books, altogether five in number, which provided me some valuable information about our Japanese artist. Dey maintained his Visitors Books from 1927 till 1989. For sixty-two years he would always request his visitors to sign his book, many of whom being artists made little drawings on its pages. I found Kosetsu Nosu and his assistant there!
On November 30, 1932 Nosu and his assistant S. Kawai visited Mukul Dey at Government School of Art, Calcutta. They signed the Visitors Book, as well as made little drawings adjacent to their signatures in Japanese.
I was thrilled!
Later on, were found a number of papers and photographs which helped me to glean some precious interesting information about this forgotten artist. I even found palm-impressions of Nosu and his assistant imprinted with red ink on paper, and inscribed with brush and black ink. Some old photographs of Nosu were found as well. One photograph shows garlanded Kosetsu Nosu at the Government School of Art, with noted Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bina Dey, Mukul Dey and a number of Japanese ladies and dignitaries. Probably this photograph was taken in 1936, when the artist held his show at the Art School.
Two most important documents found were: a 1932 issue of Our Magazine and a 1936 catalogue of Nosu’s exhibition at Calcutta. I was much surprised to find in the catalogue that the 1936 show at Government School of Art, displayed eight sketches by Kosetsu Nosu on which noted Japanese poet Yone Noguchi had inscribed his poems. These were for sale at rupees thirty-five a piece! Mukul Dey’s deep love for the Japanese people was responsible for this exhibition at Calcutta in 1936.
Below I reproduce from Our Magazine, vol. 1, No. 4 (December 1932), the notes on Kosetsu Nosu:
The Japanese Artists Mr. Kosetsu Nosu and Mr. Kisho Kawai in Calcutta
Elsewhere in this number will be found a short article from the Principal on the artists of Japan who have come to our country to paint the frescoes in the new Buddhist Vihara at Sarnath near Benares. Prominent members of Calcutta society and some of the artists of Calcutta were enabled to accord a hearty welcome to Mr. Nosu and his assistant at a reception organised in their honour by Mr. M. Hara, Consul for Japan in Calcutta, at the Nippon Club, 225 Lower Circular Road, on the evening of the 12th December last [i. e. December 12, 1932]. It was a most successful function, and a very impressive one, as an expression of the friendship and bond of spiritual fellowship between the two great lands, Japan and India. Rabindranath Tagore presided, and among the Indian guests present were Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, the founder of the New Indian School of Painting, his brother Mr. Samarendranath Tagore, Mr. Justice Manmatha Nath Mookerjee, Mr. N. C. Sen O. B. E. and Mrs. Sen with Misses Sen, Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Dr. Kalidas Nag (representing the Greater India Society), Mr. and Mrs. Mukul Dey, Dr. and Mrs. D. R. Bhandarkar, Mr. Devapriya Walisinha of the Mahabodhi Society and Mr. Nalini Ranjan Sarkar. The Japanese colony in Calcutta both ladies and gentlemen were also strongly represented, and a few European ladies and gentlemen (Mr. A Gumboill of the Indian Railway Board, Mr. Johan van Manen C. I. E. of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and Mrs. Glen the artist, among others) were present. The young German Buddhist Bhikshu, Ananda, was also present. After tea, there was a meeting in which Mr. Hara introduced the artists, and said that they wanted the sympathy and support of the people of India for the success of their undertaking. Rabindranath Tagore in welcoming the artists spoke of the great qualities of the Japanese people and of his genuine love for them, and he made it clear by some touching personal reminiscences how the masses of the Japanese people, simple men and women, felt drawn to India as the land of Buddha whose message brought such spiritual uplift for man. This old sense of kinship through a great spiritual experience may not be as strong now as it was before, but the new age through science has brought India and Japan closer, and he welcomed the advent of the Japanese artists to decorate the most important Buddhist shrine of modern India as being fraught with great significance. Mr. Nosu replied in Japanese, and an English translation of his speech was read by his son Mr. Yoshiaki Nosu. The common elements of the Buddhist arts of India and Japan, such as, for instance link up Ajanta and Nara, it is expected, will be emphasised upon in the frescoes to be painted. We are glad to be able to reproduce Mr. Nosu’s speech in the current number of Our Magazine (see below). Mr. Justice Manmatha Nath Mookerjee thanked the artists and the Japanese hosts, and assured on behalf of the Mahabodhi Society and of the Indians in general of their heartiest good wishes and sympathy and support.
The Japanese Buddhists have sent a large and beautiful gilt bronze bell for the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, a fine specimen of the present day bronze-casting in Japan, and a most appropriate symbol of Indo-Japanese cultural friendship, with its Chinese and Japanese inscriptions and Sanskrit salutations and a Buddhist Sanskrit formula in North Indian characters of the 8th century which, slightly altered in shape, are still in use in China and Japan, in connexion with Buddhist ritual and art. The bell was exhibited and was much appreciated, both in the workmanship and in the rich tone of the sound. The function terminated after flash-light photos of the party, Rabindranath Tagore and Mr. Nosu forming the centre of the group, were taken, one of which through the courtesy of Mr. Hara and I. Nishi we are enabled to reproduce in our current number.
Mr. Kosetsu Nosu’s Speech at the Reception in his honour at the Nippon Club, Calcutta, on 12th December 1932.
I have come from the Eastern Country of Cherry Blossoms to this sacred Land of Lotus Flowers, to offer my humble devotion to our Lord Buddha. This is the greatest privilege I have been looking forward to, for many years.
Permit me to say something of my idea about the fresco work at the Mulagandhakuti Vihara which has been entrusted to me. It is well-known that every nation’s art reflects its soul. Naturally the spirit of Japanese Art would not be the same as that of the Indian. How to harmonise these two is, I believe, the most difficult but essential part of my task. The other day I had the honour of paying a visit to Dr. Tagore at Santiniketan. The poet was so kind as to call my attention to this very point. When he strongly impressed upon me the importance of unifying the characteristics of Indian Art with that of the Japanese, through the spirit of Buddhism, I could not but reply that it would be impossible to accomplish such a work within the time allowed, to say nothing of my poor skill. The poet encouraged me by saying that devotion to our Lord Buddha would solve my difficulties. Thereupon I really made up my mind to do my very best in painting the sacred frescoes, always bearing in mind this valuable advice from the poet. I shall be grateful if you, Ladies and Gentlemen, who are present here today, kindly favour me with facilities and encouragement directly or indirectly. My hearty prayer is due to our Lord Buddha for the great chance that has been given to me. If my work leads to closer unity and friendship between nations, I shall have amply earned my reward.
Japanese Buddhists asked me to bring a temple bell to be presented to the Vihara. I am sure that the sound of the bell will echo the sacred voice of our Lord Buddha, who departed from this world 2500 years ago at Kushinagara, proclaiming peace on earth.
I now pray for blessings, to Lord Buddha to his Doctrine, and to his Monks: Santi, Santi, Santi.
I thank you.
The Japanese Artists in the Government School of Art
Mr. Nosu and Mr., Kawai also visited our School and were shown round by the Principal, on several occasions in November and December. They were much interested in the work which is being done in the school. Their visits were characterised by a quite dignity and a fine courtesy which is as much the product of the culture of Japan as her art. On the 11th of December our Principal had Mr. Nosu, Mr. Nosu Junior and Mr. Kawai, and Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterji member of the Governing Body, as guests in a small dinner party. True to the Japanese traditions in such functions, the artists made sketches, and portraits of their hosts, and landscapes in the Japanese style: a custom which our artists and artistic circles in India can very well adopt in their own intimate little social gatherings.
As Buddhists on an artistic mission which is also a sacred one, Mr. Nosu and Mr. Kawai requested Professor Chatterji to translate their names into Sanskrit. (Professor Chatterji’s own name he had already rendered into Japanese as Zendoshi Kashyo). Mr. Nosu’s personal name was accordingly been Sanskritised as Gandha-tushara (Ko-setsu, ‘Fragrance and Snow’) and his surname as Kshetra-nayaka (No-su, ‘Field Leader’), and Mr. Kawai’s name as Su-dhi (Ki-sho, ‘Mind or Will and Broad or Good) Prayaga-pala (Ka-wai, ‘Confluence Dweller’).
Sri-Gandha tushara Kshetra-nayaka, Sri Sudhi Prayaga-pala: Jayatam !
At the request of the Maha Bodhi Society through the Imperial Japanese Government I have been working on the Fresco paintings for the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, Sarnath, Benares, for the last five years from 1932. As the work has been unduly prolonged I am confronted with a burden of expenditure which has exceeded the estimate. I must somehow overcome this obstacle to the fruition of my cherished aim. I have therefore decided to hold an exhibition of my paintings which may appeal to lovers of art and persons interested and earn some funds for completion of the remainder of my work.
The exhibits mostly represent my impressions received while I was travelling in different parts of India and have been produced by the characteristic method of the Japanese Art.
The special technique of describing the natural phenomena so artistically by light and shade of a black pigment only, as will be seen in some of the exhibits, was originated in ancient China. It developed in Japan for 700 years assisted by her own ideals and tastes. I have tried to describe the impressions of nature and things acquired during my long stay in India by this particular method of art.
Here I wish to present my works so described before the Indian Public who are very keen in spiritual culture with the hope that they will be much appreciated.