In my experience as a teacher in Ireland I had brought the influences of natural and artistic beauty into association with my work.. Something in the atmosphere of India reawakened me to this aspect of life.. On.. December 5, 1915, the Arts League was formed. Its formal opening meeting was held in the Theosophical Headquarters [at Adyar] on December 16. Mrs. Besant presided..
The programmes of The Arts League were almost entirely western at the beginning.. The east ultimately arrived through the medium of painting. It began with a leading article by me on a report in New India of the young Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta.. under the caption 'The Art of the East':
"Here is a society, formed in the year 1907 at Calcutta, whose membership has never exceeded 130; and yet it has set the artistic worlds of England and France talking with enthusiastic admiration of Indian Art and Artists, and has made available to the Indian public a series of books on art subjects, and reproductions of Indian works of art, that are of the most profound significance to New India .. It is certain that the painters and sculptors and writers of the Society are engaged in no mere academic amusement, but are busy on the inspiring work of expressing through the Arts the Soul of India, and of so bringing about an imaginative (which is the reverse of an imaginary) unity amongst the great distinctive groups of the Mother's children.. It is well that the Art of India should be enriched by the advancement in technique and knowledge of the West; but enrichment will be assuredly turned to -poverty if the artists of India allow themselves to be lured away from their own vision and their own method..
"We feel sure, however, that our artists will remain proof against any wiles to draw them: from themselves. Their native spirituality, with its natural expression in quiet tones and simple themes, is the most precious and abiding thing in human life, and they are not likely to desert it for the big-drum effect of other schools of Art."
The article found its way to those at the head of the Indian Society of Oriental Art. Much pleasure, I learned later, was felt that a first class newspaper in South India had expressed the real significance of the new edifice of art that was being drawn back onto its natural foundations. The anonymity of the editorial ‘we’ was broken. An understanding friend was much more important than a convention.. My knowledge of the works of the new Bengal artists was confined to colour reproductions in The Modem Review once a month. What I needed was direct knowledge; and this the invisible Hand behind the dealing of my tarot cards saw to. I received a letter dated Calcutta, 6 January 1916, from Sir John Woodroffe. President of The Indian Society of Oriental Art, inviting me to Calcutta to see the Eighth Annual Exhibition of the Society, and write about it in my own and other papers..
A private view of the annual exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental Art was given in the afternoon in what ordinarily would have been a large shop or office on a main thoroughfare of the city. Good taste had turned bareness into an exquisite attractiveness that, on a first glance, had a curious delicacy and reserve in comparison with the broad and dramatic brilliance and bravura of exhibitions that I had seen in Ireland and such collections as those of the London, Liverpool and Manchester Galleries. In a short time I became aware that I was seeing not merely an exhibition of paintings by a number of artists whose personal distinctiveness was held together by a temperamental and technical unity, but was witnessing that exciting and incalculable thing such as I had experienced in the Irish literary and dramatic revival, the reawakening of a gifted nation to recognition of its artistic past in one of the arts, and to realization of its ability, in the persons of some of its nationals, to emulate, and in some phases to equal, ancestral achievement. I had the good luck to be initiated into the movement by its two heads, Babus Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore. The first, tall, spare, mentally energetic and remarkably articulate, had been, by his ability and social eminence, a God-send to the instigator of the movement. Mr. E. B. Havell, the said instigator, an English art-master, had been transferred in 1896 to Calcutta as Principal, of the Government School of Arts there. Being not only a craftsman but an artist with understanding of the nature of the creative impulse in humanity and the proper means to its authentic fulfillment in the arts and crafts, he proceeded to replace the foreign models in the school that had in his conviction obstructed and deflected the strong Bengali urge to art-expression, by examples of Indian painting of the past that would, he hoped, arouse the all but lost sense of national cultural dignity, and the inspiration of creative authenticity. But the foreign infection had gone deep. Pupils resented the attempt to reduce, their beloved oily messes by the introduction of what were regarded as wishy-washy imitations of an obsolete art. Some left the school. Newspapers derided the foreigner who derided European painting in an Indian art-school. But he went on his way as though Indian painting were natural and inevitable to Indian students of painting in India. Then a young man, accomplished in western painting, but by virtue of heredity responsive to patriotic idealism, Abanindranath of the eminent house of Tagore.. was the first wave of the turning tide.
With Abanindranath was his brother Gaganendranath, a markedly different type of personality, shortish, well filled out, round-faced, quiet. He had followed his brother on the quest of artistic reality, and soon attained with him a remarkable eminence in the revived style of painting. Others joined the school, chief among them Nandalal Bose who, like his seniors, attained wide fame as a front rank painter on his own fines. The exquisite work of the growing group gained appreciation that resulted in the formation of the Indian Society of Oriental Art in 1907. In 1914 an exhibition of their work was shown in Paris and gained cordial praise by discerning critics. London followed..
Rabindranath was most helpful in my endeavours to absorb the significance of what was taking place and to meet the personalities through which it was proceeding. Through him and others I met the members of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, a small group of Indian and Britishers and put forward a request that the exhibition, when closed in Calcutta, should not be distributed, but be sent in toto to Madras for a week's showing there. I guaranteed (in faith) that the paintings would be dealt with expertly, (though there were no experts then In Madras) and be given a dignified and intelligent display in a suitable place under the most distinguished auspices (where the place wouldbeandwho the patrons I had no idea, but I took it all on with complete confidence)..
The first exhibition of modern Indian paintings in South India was given in the rooms of the Young Men's Indian Association, Madras, from February 19 to March 4, 1916. My enthusiasm was shared by Mrs. Besant, who at once became the patron of the event, and succeeded in obtaining the support of her brilliant legal friend, Mr. C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar.. The exhibition made a stir in the cultural life of Madras, got wide newspaper publicity, sold not a single picture, but led on to expansive activities in art. All concerned were satisfied with what had been taken to be a historical event.
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