First published in Contemporary Indian Painters. Bombay: Nalanda Publications, 1949.
The old walled cities of North India, with their many darwazas, narrow crowded thoroughfares, colourful shops, quaint sounds, smells and sights, are extremely intriguing; and still, to a certain extent, possess the mediaeval Moghul glamour and, to a casual visitor, look almost alike. Of course, to a born vagabond like the present writer, cities like Delhi, Peshawar, Lucknow, Lahore, have their distinctive colour, smell and atmosphere.
Chabuk Swaran, in Lahore, is one such typically mediaeval part of the city, away from the spacious maidans and garden houses of the Mall Road, where the fashionable folk live and government officials thrive. Here in an unpretentious looking house and with his family, lives, dreams and works a great Indian artist, a lineal descendant of the Moghul builders, Abdur Rahaman Chughtai.
It was on a frightfully cold wintry morning, in February 1928, that I arrived at Chabuk Swaran to be the guest of Rahaman Chughtai and to see the artist work at close quarters. I had known him before that by correspondence, and when we met that cold dismal morning we felt as if we had known each other intimately for years and became good friends.
I had admired his art greatly and written and spoken about it all over the country, and also, in a small way, helped him to realise one of his life-ambitions, which was to bring out a sumptuously illustrated volume of Ghalib with his own paintings. Muraqqa-i-Chughtai was that book.
The story of its birth is worth telling here. Chughtai had two dreams in life, both naturally concerning his own art, and they were to render the intimitable poetry of the two great poets he admired, Ghalib and Omar Khayyam, in line and colour. He was not satisfied with the poor and unconvincing attempts made by European artists like Edmund Dulac and others. Even Abanindranath’s delicate studies of the Persian tent-maker’s merry songs did not satisfy him.
A persian himself by heredity, he felt he might succeed where others had failed. That he was most fitted for such a task cannot be questioned; and his ‘Muraqqa-i-Chughtai’ showed what he could do as an illustrator. It was hailed as one of the finest achievements in art book production in this country, and the most beautifully illustrated volume of an Eastern poet.
My visit to Chughtai that year was in a sense to celebrate the occasion of the birth of this book. Chughtai noted ten to fifteen thousand rupees to bring out the book and he had written to me a couple of years before if I could induce some prince or millionaire to buy a fine set of his twenty original paintings for that price and permit him, at the same time, to reproduce some of them in his book on Ghalib.
As luck would have it, I had a representative collection of his pictures at an exhibition at 6, St. John’s Road, Bangalore, and invited Her Highness the Maharani of Cooch Behar to a private view of them. She was greatly impressed and chose a few for her collection; and not wishing to miss such a golden opportunity, I tactfully brought to her notice the artist’s intention and commended it to her consideration.
She was non-committal at first, but visited the exhibition twice, all the time devoting her attention to Chughtai’s paintings; and when later she sent her private secretary, Major Khusru Jung (now Major-General) with her proposal I was not at all surprised and which, on behalf of the artist, I gladly and gratefully accepted.
The next problem for Chughtai was to get the paintings reproduced in suitable sizes and colours, and in order to have them done successfully, (for his delicate colouring is difficult of reproduction) he sent them to Paris; where, years later, he had some of his other paintings reproduced in big sizes to look almost as good as the originals.
The rest of the book was designed, printed and bound in a small room within his house, all executed, single-handed, by the artist himself. “Faultless reproductions” was the verdict of that great critic, the late Roger Fry; and E. B. Havell wrote: “Your book is a great achievement.”
This was followed, about the year 1936, by another little book of his paintings, in black and white, leather-bound and attractively got up under the title of ‘Naqish-i-Chughtai’. And later, a souvenir volume of nearly forty paintings and drawings, to meet the popular demand, was sent out from his Jahangir Book Club at Chabuk Swaran.
I spent two delightful days in his company, and in real Moghulai style he entertained me, took me round sight-seeing, introduced me to the poet Iqbal, whose great friend and admirer he was, and presented me with two edition-de-lux copies of his ‘Muraqqa’, one of which was for Mr. Fred Harvey as a token of his appreciation for his enthusiasm of Indian art.
Chughtai, since then, has painted scores of masterpieces, visited Europe twice, held exhibitions in London and Paris, and has taken the world of European art by storm. His works have been greatly admired by almost all the great painters in Europe, and critics and newspapers hailed him as a unique messenger of beauty from the orient. Few Indian artists have won such fine tributes and appreciations in Europe as Rahaman Chughtai; and curiously enough, he is one Indian artist of the traditional style who has also won recognition from such an indifferent body as the Government of India!
And here let me record a revealing fact to illustrate the lack of understanding and sympathy of the powers that be in this country where Indian art and artists are concerned. Since the Government Schools of Art were started in India, over half a century ago, the heads of the schools have been imported from England and were men who had little or no knowledge of things Indian and of such a thing as Indian art. Often these so called schools of art were only glorified workshops where nice furniture and such other crafts were turned out and sold to Europeans who needed them.
The Madras School of Art was the worst offender in this respect; and when the last English Principal of this school, Mr. Haddaway, was about to retire, it fell to my lot to carry on an intense agitation for an Indian artist to take his place. Of course, there was opposition from vested interests, including local artists with no talent or qualification, who believed that they were fit for the job because they were Indians or had strong recommendations from high quarters.
The Indian ministers whom I interviewed several times in that connection and on whom I impressed the necessity of appointing an artist like Deviprasad Roychoudhry to the place were agreeably surprised to hear that there were eminent artists like Roychoudhry, Venkatappa, and Chughtai in India.
My monograph, “Modern Indian Artists”, was a revelation to them; and when I told them that an artist like Venkatappa had even refusedthePrincipalshipofGovernmentSchoolofArtsand that a man like Chughtai wouldn’t even care to consider an offer like this, their surprise was all the greater.
But it did the trick. They decided to try Deviprasad; and whatever may be his failings, it cannot be doubted that he made the institution a school of art, where students are taught to draw, paint, sculpt, mould, carve and to create beautiful objects of art.
Of Chughtai’s art, I have written elsewhere in my books, “Modern Indian Artists” and “Pen Pictures and Sketches.” As the former was printed nearly two decades ago and has been out of print for a long time I wish to reproduce a few extracts here for the benefit of my new readers.
Persian by tradition and Moghul by birth, Chughtai brings to his art the delicacy of line and the fine finish of Indo-Persian art. He expresses himself clearly and spontaneously and all his pictures have an air of radiant simplicity about them.
You feel that the artist’s vision comes clothed in line and colour, direct, easy and without much effort on his part at the perfection of form and design. His lines flow tenderly, gracefully and there is an eternal charm in the draperies and ornaments he puts on his female figures.
Chughtai has, in an abundant measure, the artist’s delicate spirit of choice and subtle tact of omission. His simple chaste architectural backgrounds, without elaborate ornamentation or decorative effects, throw out the figures in relief and make them vital and living.
He is very successful in fine drawings and creates in thin lines of blue and vermilion on a ground of white a whole world of passion and love. One of his popular themes, in tinted lines, is “Playing Holi” where the intensely passionate dalliance of two lovers is portrayed with such inimitable grace and beauty that you notice, untold, soul communing with soul in those long condensed lines.
“The Princess of Sahara,” with a sandy desert and a camel for a background, sits with eyes made languorous by many summer suns; and in “The Sisters” the heads are drawn with great discrimination, the lower portion of the dress being disposed of in a few strong significant lines.
“Prince Salim” is a portrait of the great Moghul emperor Jahangir in all his splendid youth. The chief feature of this painting is its utter simplicity of colour and composition. Decorative detail is reduced to a minimum. A pale turban in plain purple and a slightly greenish garment do not hinder but enhance the unbounded ambition of a royal youth who was a great lover and a great connoisseur of beauty.
In the picture “A Circassian Beauty” there is evidence at first sight, and at first sight only, of a faint resemblance to the Italian Master Botticelli; but the unique charm of Chughtai’s genius pervades the picture so completely that you are transported into a fragrant mood of Persian life.
“Leila in the Wilderness” is a work of supreme artistry. The stooping figure of Leila, led by two animated antelopes, is full of suggestive pathos. Her eyes seem almost to say in terms more eloquent than words: “Yes, the course of true love never runs smooth.”
The shifting day with its golden shadow is cleverly painted in “Where the Vine grows”, with the edges of the vine leaf tinged with gold and the various grades of faint and fading crimson lighting up the whole background with only two bird-lovers on a tiny branch at the lower corner in a hale of light.
Some of his finest masterpieces are: “Life”, “The Extinguished Flame”, “The Song Offering”, “Vanity”, “The Web of Life”, “The Poet”, “The Serenade”, “The Hermit”, “Sunder Valley”, all too delicate and beautiful to be described in words. Let me attempt the last two:
“The Hermit” is a delightful study in pink, gold and white, of a young ascetic who had seen better days and who has now renounced everything in quest of Truth. With a staff in hand and a faraway gaze in his eyes, he sits dreaming. His dark curly hair, large tranquil eyes, thin straight nose, small sensitive mouth, long arms, tapering fingers and his flowing robes and conical cap betray the artist who has become a hermit. A straightforward study of a Sufi soul is this. This picture reminds one of Bihzad’s portraits in its directness, simplicity and beauty.
“Sunder Valley” is lyrical in its nature and appeal. Youth and Beauty stand, shy and romantic, at the threshold of life’s joyous adventure. A lovely valley, with undulating hills, tree-covered meadows, rushing rivulets and nestling white villages spread out before them, challenging them to come out of their narrow prison walls of marble palaces and towering terraces, to taste the simple natural pleasures of a free and unfettered life of the wilds.
A far-fetched interpretation, the artist might say to a simple study of Radha and Krishna in one of their pastoral playful moods. This sweet picture is, in its theme, treatment, setting, background and lyrical nature, a little reminiscent of a Kangra miniature.
Chughtai finds his motif everywhere, and all his pictures seem to whisper that there is always an escape from this sordid world into a wider and more beautiful one. Shy and sensitive, gentle and strong, Chughtai is a charming man with a big bold face, robust nature and a distinctive individuality. He doesn’t boast or brag or scowl at those who are more happily placed than he is, but is ever happy, cheerful, kind and generous.