Oriental art has always been a prey to unjust criticism. The Western critics who are in the safe and reliable position of being the third disinterested party, gaze at it and pronounce their judgment not only with a lack of appreciation but with a positive note of disapproval. The more generous ones are certainly willing to approach it without any prejudice and praise it, not because they are convinced of its excellence but because they try to realize the possibility of its appeal to the Oriental mind.
The European critics regard art more or less as a well-laid dinner table, and it is their perpetual grudge against the Oriental creative genius that while he provides them with the accessories of the table, such as the jam, the pickles, and the sauce, the principal dish is missing. They admit that the delicate tit-bits placed before them are very palatable, but it is at the same time preposterous that any one should feed on that froth and bubble and get up from the table satisfied. They labour under the delusion that because most Islamic painters favour the frail and aesthetic looking figures, the theme of their paintings becomes purely conventional. They confuse, for instance, the luxurious dreaminess of a reclining posture with a fatalistic passivity. The fact is that the restless European craves more for action and variety, perpetual change of formulas and new development in art. He is always looking for a logical conclusion and a definite aim. To achieve a thing without the appearance of conflict has no value in his eyes. He would much rather sense a workman's fist in any piece of art, than a sublime and unseen power, which has no part in his personal experience. If he had to choose between two evils he would prefer a curt and premature conclusion to what he thinks is a dull monotony which goes on forever. He, who glories in stage settings and drama, fails to find anything satisfactory and to the point in a motionless brook, a group of motionless flowers and human beings as impassive in their meditative stillness, no matter what great regions of thought they might be disclosing through their dreamy eyes. It is his firm belief that the Orientals have a formula which they have learnt by heart to such an extent that it has proved injurious to their individuality and creativeness. Their mind becomes so fixed in the repetition of this formula (which they try to vary by elaborate devices of ornamentation), that they fail to find out things for themselves. The Oriental taste for monotonous decoration is laid stress upon. The artist is accused of proceeding by comfortable and lazy superimposition. It is admitted that there are complications in his art, but these are not the result of any conflict of emotions. At best, they are intricate decorations cunningly handled by a master-juggler. A third dimension, a counterpoint, is needed to make his art emotionally expressive. The Alhambra, says Mario Praz, produces that impression of precariousness as if at a strong puff of your lips the honey-combed cupolas should float away like thistledown and the embroidered walls be rent as easily as cobwebs. He does not add whether he tried this experiment or not, but I feel sure that if he had, the Alhambra would have held its ground, cobwebs and thistledown intact, as it has done for hundreds of years. He would have obtained more favourable results if he had puffed at King Charles' palace next to it and left time to do the rest. Praz fails to see that Oriental Art can contain both eloquence of expression and the strength of dramatic activity-that while preserving the formula which is a necessary foundation, it has ample scope for development and variety. What could be more appropriate as an example than the art of M. A. Rahman Chughtai who although is in the direct line of Mughal and Persian art, puts his vital individuality in all his work ? The intricate little designs he so freely uses are not merely dumb decorations, but take an active part in the formation of his pictures by enhancing the importance of the ‘subject’ they surround and bringing out its details. They are expressive patterns instead of meaningless and superfluous lines. They are so characteristic of Chughtai that his less gifted contemporaries have inevitably failed, in trying to copy them; his art is so complete, such a concentrated whole in itself, that no alien power is needed to lend it depth and expression.
Chughtai expresses himself by forming a line of thought and connecting it with all the objects in any particular picture. In doing so he achieves a perfect harmony of line and expression, which is one of his greatest assets.
There is no logic in the hasty conclusion that because a thing has the appearance of an unearthly daintiness it is lacking in vitality and emotional expression. It would be as relevant to say that only a stout and thick vessel can contain a rare and stimulating wine. As a matter of fact the so-called frailty of his art is really its strength. The delicate lines of Chughtai's pictures are by no means inspired or shaky but firm and precise with a marvellous neatness and a most careful exactness of material.
It is obvious, and should always be kept in mind, that Oriental Art does not pretend to be realistic in the photographic sense of the word. It never boasts of reproducing the exact likeness of a human face or figure, but has created for itself a symbolical motif as a substitute. Chughtai's figures are vividly alive and not merely beautiful designs. There are fleeting emotions in their mobile faces; their attitudes and gestures are full of meaning.
Since the word ‘drama’ does not necessarily imply a display of exaggerated postures it can easily be proved that Chughtai's art is full of dramatic action. Its symbolical technique, however, demands a certain restraint in expression. The figures therefore are mostly drawn in an attitude modified by the dignity of repose and tranquility. It does not however incapacitate them from expressing themselves by more vital gestures, but they always have the appearance of just having done so, or planning to do so, and in this respect, although they are living in the present, they also have the power to remove themselves from it. The drama is implicit rather than explicit. In Chughtai's paintings one is conscious of the unique combination of three elements-the actual present, a most prophetic vision, and a revival of the past. Someone has said that a human face should either by a promise or a history. The faces of Chughtai's women contain both promise and history inextricably blended each with each. He never sacrifices the truth of situation and fidelity to details for the sake of conventional beauty. As a matter of fact there is much less formality in his art than in that of Raphael and his school. The Florentine has so emphasized, cultivated and stereotyped his own ideal of the forever motherly Madonna, that (so subtle istheinfluenceoffixed types, in pictorial art upon the current standards of truth and beauty) the maternal function came to be regarded as the sole and sufficient object of a woman's existence, and the conventional Madonna face of Raphael became a bondage from which Christianity took very long indeed to set itself free. The dominant motif of Christian mythology was woman as the respective and passive vehicle of the God-Man. The artist never presented woman as daughter, sister, lover or wife, apart from the concurrent idea of potential motherhood. This was a very serious limitation from the point of view of art and it is Chughtai's triumph that he suffers from no such bondage. His art is not in the thrall of the conventional, of the accepted canons of what should be perceived and how things ought to look in pictures.
In Chughtai's art you feel that the rational elements have been melted into the decorative. It is perfectly rational and yet purely decorative; without ascertainable content and yet full of significance in the highest degree. His art is not a fabricated concoction nor is it merely an instinctive and inspired achievement, but the result of a careful selection of that which is essential to the development of his individuality and a rejection of all that is superfluous.
While studying the old Mughal and Persian Masters he discovered that they had a marvellous sense of "faces" and an almost psychic wisdom in the delineation of character. This he has most ardently preserved while their unsymmetrical perspective which gave their pictures the look of being upside down and possessing invisible staircases, did not quite agree with his more fastidious ideas of the harmony of gradual lines. So he changed these surroundings into more realistic ones, giving his pictures the accentuated beauty of ordinary things and a conscious idealization of that which is commonplace. The treatment of his colouring is entirely his own. He has introduced some new tones which would have appeared insipid to his ancestors, but give his paintings a singular freshness.
He seems to have lifted a third unnecessary layer of paint from the old Indian paintings to expose the second hitherto protected layer in all its clear softness and healthy glow.
The most distinctive feature of Chughtai's art is his line work. It is this which gives his pictures their exquisite fineness, their maturity and a perpetual look of elegance. It is worthwhile to notice the trend and flourish of these lines. They are never forced or abrupt but give one the feeling of continuity and expansion.
Chughtai's art has had a great reforming influence on his contemporaries. By setting an example he has encouraged them to break away from the ties of convention, to regard tradition in art not as something which must forever be copied out faithfully to the minutest detail; but as a well-laid foundation upon which to build up their particular talent and develop it according to their own creative instincts. He is convinced that nothing is more ridiculous than to make an artist a dictator. He has opened the gates and made straight the way, but as a guide, not a commander: Truth lies open to all. I'll have no man addict himself to me, he says in the spirit of Ben Jonson-for too many things a man should owe but a temporary belief and not an absolute resignation of himself or a perpetual captivity. It is to Chughtai's credit that he refuses to be enslaved by his own triumphs: the key-note of his art is development. He is not content to rest on his laurels-witness his latest book Naqsh-i-Chughtai and the Book of Chughtai and Omar Khayyam still in progress. He claims for himself the right of free thought in the realm of art and he allows that right to others: it is with him a question not of authorities but of truth.
His line work and his design's, although not easy to imitate, have pointed out to the Indian artist of to-day the right method and significance of their use, and the amount of importance which should be attached to decorative material in painting.
Having chosen water colour as his medium, he has taken great pains to preserve the light texture and airiness so urgently associated with it. He has never been tempted to use it as a transparent layer of oil colours in order to produce a certain pleasing effect.
He is precise and firm in his choice: when he uses a copper brown he means a copper brown and his pinks' are unhesitatingly pink. Nothing is left to chance and no age-old Whistlerian conventions are observed. To appreciate Chughtai in any high degree one must appreciate pure form, rhythmical proportions, the relations of parts, and extreme refinements in these relations. He hates the vague and uncertain, loving to see with his mind's eye as clearly as with the eye of sense the geometer sees his triangles, his circles and his squares. His paintings are in truth the Geometry of beauty. He knows that art begins at the point when the thousandth of an inch makes all the difference.