As a young boy, Prem Bihari used to watch his grandfather write. Every now and then his grandfather would dip the nib into the bottle to draw ink, and the little boy would be fascinated to see letters taking shape on the paper.
Prem Bihari had lost his father when he was quite young and was brought up by his grandfather, Ram Prasad Saxena. One day, his grandfather presented him with a set of penholders, nibs, and inkbottle. Under the watchful eyes of the old man, who was himself an expert calligrapher, Prem Bihari started crafting letters on paper. He took care not to make spelling mistakes, as he hated striking off letters and not even a little drop of ink would he spill! Teaching him the secret of handcrafting artistic letters, his grandfather would say, “What you hold in your hand is not just a pen, it is an artist’s brush. An artist creates images using his brush. You breathe life into letters with your nib. Such should be your dedication that as your nib touches the paper, letters should bloom like flowers…”
When he grew up, Prem Bihari Narayan Saxena chose the art he loved as his life’s vocation. He earned fame as an expert calligrapher of his time, like his grandfather before him. While he was admired for his artistic handwriting, little did he dream that he was going to have a hand in the writing of a historic document: the Constitution of free India.
The exercise of making a constitution for India by her own citizens had begun even before the country emerged independent. The Constituent Assembly, consisting of people’s representatives, met for the first time on 9 December 1946, in the Constitution Hall which is now known as the Central Hall of Parliament House. Two hundred and seven representatives, including nine women, were present. The Drafting Committee of constitution experts, headed by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, worked day and night to prepare the Constitution. Jurist B. N. Rau who was appointed as the constitutional adviser travelled to the US, Canada, Ireland and UK, where he held discussions with scholars, judges and authorities of legislative law. In early 1948, he prepared the original draft of the Constitution, which was later debated and revised by the drafting committee, steered throughout by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The draft Constitution was discussed by the Constituent Assembly, under the chairmanship of Babu Rajendra Prasad. It took nearly three years to complete the discussion. After several sittings, finally the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution of India, which came into force on 26 January 1950; we celebrate this day as Republic Day.
The opening page of our Constitution begins with these famous words, “We the people of India …” and concludes with, “… in our constituent assembly, this twenty sixth day of November 1949, do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this constitution.”
The Constitution of India is not a lifeless book of dry rules and regulations. It is book which reflects the dreams and aspirations of every Indian. Cold prints would not capture the heartbeat of those men and women who dreamt of an India of equality, prosperity and justice for all. No wonder, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the country, decided against getting the constitution typeset. He picked up the phone and asked for Prem Bihari Narayan Saxena.
Prem Bhihari was elated when Panditji told him that he had been chosen to write the Constitution of India in his own hand. Panditji gave him a room in the house of Parliament to set up his calligraphy studio. Bundles of parchment sheets were neatly arranged. Over 400 penholders with nib number 303b were kept ready. The nibs were brought from England and Czechoslovakia.
Before Prem Bihari began the work, President Rajendra Prasad took Prem Bihari to Santiniketan to meet artist Nandalal Bose. Prem Bihari discussed with Bose how the pages would be laid out, where the text would appear, and where Bose would place illustrations and decorations to add beauty to the precious book which the nation was eagerly waiting for.
It is Nandalal Bose and his students who adorned the pages of the Constitution with artwork representing the history, geography and culture of India: the seals of the Indus Valley Civilisation feature in it; episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and from the lives of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira; Emperor Ashoka and his propagation of Buddhism; of King Vikramaditya; Emperor Akbar; Queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi; Tipu Sultan; of Mahatma Gandhi leading the Independence Movement; of Subhas Chandra Bose. These were painted with great thought, matching them to the content on the pages.
On the parchment pages, Prem Bihari inscribed the Constitution in the beautiful italic style of calligraphy, with its delicate loops and gracefully curled quotation marks and parentheses. Not one word is out of place, nor is one blotch of ink to be found anywhere. The aesthetically slanting letters, the borders covered with decorative designs, and headed by historical illustrations, will make you salute those who created this work of art.
It took Prem Bihari six months to finish writing the Constitution. When Panditji had asked how much he should be paid for his labour, Prem Bihari had just smiled and said it was a labour of love and no payment was expected. But Panditji had agreed to Prem Bihari’s one request that his name would be inscribed at the bottom of every page, and that the very last leaf would also carry the name of his grandfather who taught him calligraphy.
The Indian Constitution is a 251-page bound volume, measuring 22 inches in length and 16 inches in width, weighing 3 kilos and 650 grams. It is housed today in a case in the Library of India’s Parliament House in New Delhi. The nitrogen-filled case in which a temperature of 20°C (+/- 2°C) and a humidity level of 30% (+/- 5%) is maintained, protects it from decay.