First published in Present-Day Painters of India, Bombay: Sudhangshu Publications, 1950.
All great works of art are a heritage. They have a past, tradition and character. Only the so-called Modern Art seems to be, like a bastard, without a background or parentage; and certainly no future.
These and similar thoughts arise in one’s mind as one contemplates the present trends in Indian art and watches the various influences at work in the lives and arts of many of the promising young Indian painters.
In the course of my thirty years’ close association with Indian artists I have noticed that such of them that have had a grounding in the style and technique of their own traditional art and are steeped in their own culture find it easier to assimilate cultures other than their own. For how is one, who is devoid of his own culture, capable of appreciating, much less assimilating, other cultures?
A sad feature of our cultural life is the fact that most of the “bright young things”, of both sexes, who imagine they are leaders in fashion and art, are for the most part in blissful ignorance of their own culture; and some of them even perfect strangers to their own classics. An art is great only when it has its roots in the past and has a tradition.
Among contemporary Indian painters, who have had their early training in traditional methods and later switched over to the Western and made good with it, Lalit Mohan Sen is one.
L. M. Sen, like most famous painters of modern India, is from Bengal. Born nearly fifty years ago at Santipur, in the district of Nadia, a village noted for its weaving and for its fine white sarees which are worn by the aristocratic ladies of Bengal, he had his early education both in his province and the United Provinces, where he later joined the Government School of Arts and Crafts in Lucknow; and now its Principal.
The U. P. Government was the first to appoint an artist trained by Abanindranath Tagore as the first Indian Principal of a Government art school. Madras followed suit; Lahore, Calcutta and Bombay after. Asit Kumar Haldar became the head of the Lucknow School; Deviprasad Roy Choudhry of the Madras School; Samarendranath Gupta of the Lahore School; Mukul Dey of the Calcutta School.
L. M. Sen was one of the artists selected by the Government of India to do the mural decorations at the India House in London, the others being Ranoda Ukil and Sudanghsu Choudhry. The present writer recalls with joy, the strong fight he had to put up with the authorities then at Delhi for the inclusion of these artists for the India House decoration.
While in Europe he travelled all over the continent, visited art galleries in France and Italy, where he studied the technique of tempera-painting after the old Italian methods. The murals, which Sen and his fellow-artists did at the India House, were more of the Ajantan method, which does not demand wet surface.
During his stay in London he exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy, some of which were bought by Queen Mary. The press and the critics acclaimed his art with favour. A set of his wood-cuts were acquired by the Victoria Albert Museum; while the Fine Art Society reproduced his pictures for sale throughout the United Kingdom, a fine tribute to his genius.
Though essentially a painter, Sen has specialised in etching and carving on wood and stone. His lino-cuts, four of which the Illustrated Weekly of India published in one of its recent issues, have made his name popular throughout the country by being reproduced in almost all the art journals. While the themes are mostly Indian his treatment of them is Western. There is strength, precision and fine draughtsmanship in them.
Photography is a great hobby with him though he does not favour the idea of using it as an aid to art; and he dislikes painting portraits from photographs. Though photography is not an art there is an art of photography; and painters can contribute a lot to make it more attractive and interesting.
As the Head of the Government School in Lucknow, Sen has preserved the traditions and standards set by his predecessor, Mr. Haldar, whose versatility and broad cultured outlook on life Mr. Sen has imbibed. Some of the very promising artists to come out of this institution are: Somalal Shah, L. Merh, B. N. Jija, P. R. Roy, Ishwardas, Kanu Desai, and they have richly contributed to the art of India.
The paintings of Indian artists usually reproduced are certainly not the best nor typical of their style. Personally I prefer their earlier works in which the Indian feeling is more pronounced. The best works of a good painter invariably either get sold and therefore are not available for the purpose of illustration or the artist does not care to part with them.
The head study of a Pahari girl in pastel, one of Sen’s latest, shows not only his sculptural mood but the inherent strength of his art. Though powerfully moulded and boldly designed the face has not lost any of its beauty. It is a different kind of beauty, of course, but it is beauty nevertheless. The Pahari girls of Kulu and Simla valleys have more Aryan type of faces, with chiseled features, while those in the Kumaon and Gharwal hills are Mongolian, like the Gurkhas, and are full blooded creatures. Sen has successfully brought out the rugged strength and the sensuous character of these hill people on that mask like face.
“The Village Maiden” and “Ananda Paya” (two more of his latest) are in the Western technique, which he learnt when he was a student at the Royal College of Arts in London, and over which he has a commendable mastery. He has used the impressionist’s methods of boldly laying contrasting complementary colours in juxtaposition to catch the play of light and shadow. The bright sun-lit scene of a quiet Indian village against which a timid Indian maid is posed contrasts vividly with the subtle shadows of the interior of a Pagan pagoda with the standing figure of Ananda in the background.
It is really difficult to assess the worth of paintings from reproductions; but however poor they may be they are our only means of knowing at present their work unless, of course, one has seen their originals in exhibitions or in the artists’ studios. A visit to their studio is always full of surprises, especially in these days when several “isms” in art are striving to find expression in and through them.