Fundamentally, man views his world in three different aspects, in three distinctive perspectives following three different mental attitudes, to find answers to the innumerable questions that beset him constantly, dominating his whole attention with ceaseless insistence.
First of these is the yogi’s; the second, philosopher’s, and the third is through the eyes of the artist. The yogi seeks in deep contemplation to grasp the vital link that endlessly holds to order the manifest complexity of the entire enormity and diversity of the cosmic phenomena. To reach the unchangeable absolute in order to understand the secret of constant changeability that pervades all cosmic phenomena, is the yogi’s determined quest. A fervent seeker after the quest of ‘multiple unity’ is the yogi, for he knows that one cannot understand the mystery of universal changeability without knowing the nature of the Immutable; that one cannot characterize the fragmented phenomena of constant experience without basic knowledge of the Boundless and Beyond-limit.
Wielding firmly the shears of cause-and-effect sequentiality, the philosopher cuts through massive formations of factual preponderance, intent, basically, upon building his edifice of knowledge on the firm foundation of logical indisputability. It is thus that he serves the needs of humanity to comprehend, on the evidence of first-hand experience, the universe in terms of logic. Not for him is the mystic mystery of the One multiplied into diverse manifestations, nor is he concerned with the intricate reactions reflecting this diversity in endless reflexes of the human mind. To determine the justifiability of experienced existence in incontrovertible terms of logical sequences is his sole and only concern.
But the artist is supremely indifferent to logical determinations. Unlike the philosopher and the yogi he does not concern itself with logical explanations for factual experience, nor for realization of meditational comprehension of the absolute fundamental knowledge of Eternal Truth. Impermanence does not bother him; he is charmed by it, on the contrary. He is fascinated by the incalculable interplay of colours, shapes and forms that dominate his experience and he avidly strives for a deeper and intrinsically intensive contact with it. Creative art begins neither with the Immutable Absolute, nor with immobile explanations of basic experiences of life.
It is this interplay inherent in the impermanence of mortal experience that motivates creative art; and as the interplay is ceaselessly varying, we get no end to our experiences with colour, shapes, forms and formative suggestions that besiege us constantly. That is why we have a rich diversity in artistic interpretations of even one and the same phenomenon over and over again.
Artistic comprehension seeks to interpret, never to explain. There is no end to the artist’s points of contact with his world, and the result is a refreshing diversity that enriches our life with life with endless charm and sweetness and fragrance, colours and forms and shapes, and entrancing suggestions.
Abanindranath was an artist, a creator in colour and form; his was not the path of a yogi or a philosopher for integrated pursuit of creative culture. He was concerned vitally with the vivid interplay of visual manifestations. He set himself to capture with brush, paint and pallet the intrinsic appeal identified by each and every arresting phenomenon in the endless interplay of vivid and colourful touches dominating his visual receptivity. The eyes of the artist alone, have, however, watched very alertly the magnificent glory of light and colour in creation depicting a serene harmony of purpose and portents in ineffable messages of tint and texture. Let us, however, turn to a translated text of what Abanindranath has said about his initiation into his pursuit of creative art:
“My chair faced the east and, as I sat with eyes shut tight, profoundly seeking divine grace, I heard of a sudden thrilling whisper: ‘Seek not to see with eyes smugly shut. Open and use them to perceive what meets your eyes.’ With a guilty start I raised my head opening my eyes wide and, lo and behold, I was staring at a sky blazing red and resplendent with the glory of the rising sun. Fascinated, I watched the colourful splendour and it dawned on my mind that the sun was imbued with the tint of a splendid gloss emanating from the very being of the Creator Himself. The sun, I decided, reflected the shining glory of the Creator. And here I was, I thought to myself, blindly trying to grasp the nature of the Creator’s beauty with eyes tightly closed and so shutting out the vivid splendour that He was spreading out of His emanence in the rising Sun.
“I came to realize, there and sun, that mine was not the path of the fervent devotee seeking to know Him with unseeing eyes. I had, being the artist that I am, to live my life with eyes always open to receive the manifold revelations that I would be perceiving.”
Abanindranath thus chose deliberately the pursuit of art for himself. That is why he told Barin Ghose, the Bengal revolutionary, who wanted to be taught to paint by Abanindranath: “Learn to perceive through your eyes all that you come to see and that is how you will learn to paint.”
Visual perception leads us, of course, to incessant attempts to capture with brush and paint the magic beauty of what the eyes reveals. But consider the picture once painted: is it but just a reproduction of the colour effects that the eyes obtain externally? Is art, then, merely a practiced process of lifting from Nature the visual aspect from beauty in line, shape and colour? It is certainly nothing of the sort. The eyes perceive, but the mind exercises, in the resulting impression obtained, a subtle selectiveness upon the rich and riotous conglomeration of colours that beset the eyes. This impression, finally, is portrayed in painting only after a process of constant rejection and adjustments: it is a process of individuation of the appeal that motivates the creative spirit of Art, essentially. The materials that finalize this creativity are the outcome of mental sanctions operating upon the impacts of visual perception. For the artist, it is a hard process of distressing discipline.
Abanindranath had expressed himself on the disciplinarian aspect of artistic creativity with touching charm and simplicity. He says:
“When I begin to paint, I dip my brush in water, in colours, and then get it thoroughly immersed in my mind (italics, translator’s) and only then I am ready to start my picture. In my youth, I tried to capture the message of Indian music. It came even to my finger-tips but failed to infiltrate my mind. And so, away went by the board of all my industrious attempts, all the labour that I had put in to learn the formulae of music. It is futile to try tosingormakemusicwithanyinstrumentiftheheartfailstoaffordappropriateresponse. It was thus that my mind learnt this supreme lesson.”
It is a supreme achievement to relate visual receptivity to the work created in such a way as to obliterate effectively all signs of the material for motive and execution. Discussing this, Abanindranath has said:
“It was old Mati (a retainer in the Tagore household) who taught me this. One day he came up to me and said”
‘Will you mind if I tell you something?’
‘But certainly not;’ I said, ‘do tell’.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I have watched with interest your pupils -- Nandalal and Suren Gangoly at work. They are good; they turn out good stuff, no doubt. But your pictures do not look like theirs.’
‘But at least you can discern them as pictures, I hope?’
‘No, not even that.’
‘Really, now,’ I said, ‘I do work hard every day and you watch me at work all the time, don’t you? What do you now mean by my pictures not seeming worked out at all?’
‘No, they don’t, he insisted, ‘they appear to have grown upon the paper. It seems that they had been there all along on the paper you used for their portrayal.’
This was hard and solid criticism. Old Mati was a profound critic, indeed; he had given me a large certificate of merit. But it is true all the same. To efface all traces of labour from the finished picture is to rise to the peak of art.”
This high ideal for endeavours in art predicates that as the eyes perceive, the mind relishes and realizes the expression and relives it of all complicated conjunctions that obstruct the resulting crystallization of the impression thus obtained, and consequently, of its translation into visible representation again in terms of line, form, shape and colour.
It is indeed strange to note how alike in their thoughts in this respect were Abanindranath and Chuang-tse, the celebrated Chinese philosopher. This is the parable as spoken by Chuang-tse:
“There was a carpenter named T’hing. He was once commissioned to make a stand for a bell. When T’hing completed and delivered it, all those who saw it were astounded. For T’hing completed and delivered it, all those who saw were astounded. For T’hing’s creation seemed to be interspersed with the presence of souls without corporeal existence. It struck all onlookers with admiration and awe.
“The King of Lu thereupon asked T’hing: ‘What is the secret of our art?’ And T’hing replied: ‘Your Majesty’s devoted servant is but a humble labourer turning out manual work merely; what could such a one know of the secret of art? But there was something intriguing. When I set about making stand I was careful, first of all, to prepare myself so that nothing could occur to vitiate the intrinsic spark of life that I had now dedicated wholly to this work. I had seceded from all external contacts and calmed and concentrated my mind solely upon my undertaking.
‘And after three days since my mind attained quietude, I forgot about the money that I was going to make out of this job. And after the fifth day, I came also to forget about the fame which was to come to me through this assignment. After the seventh day, I lost cognizance of my own of my own outward self, of my appearance and even of my body itself. Thus, I forgot all about the royal commission I had obtained to make a stand befitting the august bell for the royal court. This is how my mind liberated itself from contact and influence of all my external environment.
‘It was then that I betook myself to a mighty forest and began looking at the trees. While I was thus engaged, my attention focussed itself upon a particular tree. That tree had exactly all that I was looking for. I then commenced work forthwith. Had I not had occasion to come upon the tree, I would have given up the commission and the job altogether. My artistry coalesced as it were completely with that tree. It is just what we mean by the influence of souls without body.’
This parable illustrates how an artistic soul coalesces with its creative materials. It is a beautiful story. But it is terribly difficult to attain this metamorphosis of the mind into matter. A wide span of several centuries separates Chuang-tse, the Chinese philosopher, from Abanindranath, the maestro of Indian art, but in their approach and perspective for art the two are alike as replicas of each other.
Mortal life in its entirety is good material for art. But artists exercise choice, each according to inclination and individuality. Every aspect of life as it happens can provide ample materials to the artist. There is, however, another scope for exercise of choice. After the artist has decided upon his subject, it becomes necessary to liberate it from many useless appendages that encumber it and often obscure its true aspect and perspective. The artist must first undertake this liberation, for his whole job is concerned with what is true and real to his nature.
It is only then that the artist releases his subject in a correct perspective, free from encroachments of periodicity upon time and hence attuned appropriately to the extensive essence of boundless eternity.
Of this, Abanindranath says:
“To take just a look and make a picture of it is beyond my nature and temperament. The mind has to be at work consistently on the creation which is revealed ultimately to view as a picture painted. The mind is an inveterate angler, waiting patiently for a good catch. Absolute quiet prevails then. Nothing seems to happen, although the eyes are sorely beset by a plethora of diverse phenomena. The mind, however, is quietly busy rejecting much of what the eyes catch. Only those are retained that can awake responsive impressionability. And these last form the material we draw upon.”
Such intense integration, however, is very difficult to attain. It is a fervent quest upon a trial of fire; it is not enough to perceive, but what the eyes hold must obtain through scorching scrutiny, mental sanctions to be acceptable for retention. It is an arduous pursuit that has to go through three definitive stages systematically. In the first, the artist arrives only at the fringe of sparse colours; just a vestige here or a tinge there. But this fascinates him, for the intermittent interplay of those colours at the beck of his brush absorbs his mind. Getting over this primary absorption, the artist arrives at the second stage. Here the colours are rich and rare in motive and materials. Through these eventually he enters the finale in his gambit, the sacred sanctum of the mind where his colours abjure the trivia of superficial glitter and are imbued with the resplendent image of essential appeal. Here art comes to rest in fulfilment, the artist is blessed with the serene tranquillity of attainment and the essential appeals of his art melt into sombre moods of aesthetic appreciation.
Abanindranath refers to “the three steps forward in art” and goes on to say:
“Theyoungsterstakingtopaintingwill,youmayhavenoticed,startwiththeusualdécor motifs oftraditional wall-paintings, chandeliers or lamp-shades and stands; attributes, in short, mostly involving a bit of line or colour variations and that keeps them absorbed. This, in time, matures into definite mood-motifs in art appeal. We notice this particularly in Moghul art with its vivid colours, elaborate grandeur and gorgeousness. From there, we find art processing to a higher stage in emotive appeal. Now come those creations which use but little colour but are replete with the serene sensitivity of shadows cast by clouds heavy with rain. These are the steps that the artist has got to tread and climb in order to be worthy for the calling of art.”
The essential lesson that one has to learn is that accomplishment is achieved by one’s own effort alone and cannot be contrived through merciful intercession of prayer - potential or piety. No preceptor can do more than hint at the correct path to pursue, but the pursuit has to be accomplished by the discipline alone. Similarly, in the art of painting, the Master indicates the broad principles and essentials for achievement of basic purpose; but each pupil individually has to view the perspective through his own eyes, awaken his mind to receive this perspective through his own eyes, awaken his mind to receive this perspective and, through the process of rejection and adjustment of non-essentials, finally arrive at the picture he has to paint and then start working on it. In this lonely quest, there is the joy of intrepid adventure, also the timid trepidations of uncertainties that tantalize the throbbing heart of the desperate lover on her way to a secret rendezvous. But all of it, its exhilarating joy as well as its exciting fears, is for the seeker alone to experience and relish; and this is the only way to accomplish successful self-integration in creative art.
To quote Abanindranath again in this context, we take his advice to aspirants for proficiency in painting:
“For the chick to come out of the egg, a fixed period of time has to elapse. That’s true enough, but once it has happened, the chick is free to take forthwith to the air, or, if a duckling, to water. Same should be with you. It must, essentially and actually, be your own painting, produced by you only. Why emulate the work of your teacher? It happens, doesn’t it, that at times the curry turns too salty? What is to be done in that case? Throw out that curry and cook again. Mistakes also occur in painting. Scrap it and set to work again. At least that is what I would have done, every time. To work out a picture by patchwork corrections and retouching here and there, that is no way to learn or teach to paint.
“You have drawn your branch of a tree. To hold out a fixed criterion for branch drawing and you get to do it following a pattern of set formula: I am not for that way of teaching at all. And I have taught Nandalal in my own way…
“An artist, you see, keeps on learning throughout all his life. I am also learning, year in and year out. It is an endless process.”
To instil in his pupil self-confidence, and a sense of perspective in the matter of choosing his subjects; and, further, to help him proceed to develop his realization into an achievement of creative effort, this is all that a teacher has to do. No real teacher seeks to impose upon his pupil’s vision his own perspective; for, to do this is to entomb the creative urge of his pupil, to kill this individuality of effort that motivates the basic urges of creative vision. It is just as futile to seek to quench your hunger by getting someone else to eat your food for you, as it is to seek to perceive through borrowed vision. Abanindranath discussed it entrancingly: He said:
“Let me tell about what happened to me once. Nandalal had just painted his ‘Umar tapasya’. Standing aloft on a rocky hillside, Uma appeared in resolute contemplation of Siva with just a slice of moon peeping out of the sky. The picture was barren of colour, save for the faint overall wash of an orangeish tint. I said at once, ‘But why exclude colour, Nandalal? It sets my heart throbbing with pain to look at this. Do, if nothing else, let Uma be at least a little decorative; a little touch of sandalpaste on her brow or, say, a red carnation in her hair?’
“Coming home, however, I could not sleep at all that night. Impatiently I waited for the dawn and with the first glimmer of the dawn of the sky, I betook myself to Nandalal in haste. For, I was afraid that he had already gone and altered the picture. All night I had been stung with remorse and was constantly remonstrating with myself. ‘What have I done’, I told myself all through the night, ‘Nandalal’s perception of Uma may well have been different from mine. To him, perhaps, Uma appears in the stern splendour of iron determination, sacrificing all colour and emotive shades to her grim resolve. Was it not then but meet that the heart would cry out in pain at sight of Uma as she then was? Who would then bother about sandalpaste at times like this?’
“I found Nandalal sitting in deep thought with brush and paint lying ready near him, looking intently at the picture as he had painted it, yet untouched. ‘Hold, hold it, Nandalal’, I cried, ‘stop, stop; for it was I who had blundered. Your Uma is quite as she should be. Do not touch the picture at all.’
“You see what a catastrophic blunder I was about to make. I had all but destroyed a piece of splendid art. Since then, I have become very careful, indeed. And I have learnt this: each painting is identified indissolubly with its creator individually; and it just nobody’s business to offer advice.”
Those who are about to start on an arduous pursuit of creative art will do well to ponder deeply over these words of the Master. And also for those who undertake to guide the young enthusiasts, those words of the Master are charged with import and significance. For, they shall have to be extra careful to curb and crush the encumbrance of egoist vanity so that they become teachers fully worth the name.
Let us now consider the source of the diversity of forms that crowd into the work of creative painting. First, we ask: how and from where does the artist acquire such abounding enthusiasm, such extravagance of energy! It comes actually from the difference between the artist’s conception and formal execution; the artist strives to give expression to his thought, but what takes shape, eventually, is something else; a distinction thus arises between the artist’s wish and actual work. And from this divergence originates the outflow of formative expressions that are ever anew, and is the fountain of bewildering diversity.
Thoughts do not flow unrestricted for the artist. A thousand obstacles crop up to thwart the course of contemplation; and so the mind follows a crooked track. That is why differences and divergence areinevitablebetweenintentionandexecution.Outofthisstrugglecomesthenthecrucialpain of new creations, thetortuous twists of imagination and intention tortured by excruciating effervescence of dominant hopes. It is thus that there comes to happen a profusion in patterns of dynamic diversity as the outcome of the opposition of superficial obstacles.
Of this crucial disunity between wish and feeling Abanindranath has, in a letter to Nandalal, made illuminating reference. He wrote:
“Given a fixity of thought and purpose, it matters little if intermediary ways follow crooked paths. For, each and every tree intends to rise straight up to push forth its flowers in air and light, but its purpose is invariably assailed by many contrary indications; and so, not every tree can afford to attain the sturdy straightness of the palm. We find, therefore, some are creeping or leaning far out, or just spreading out in all directions…This thwarting of purpose and direction does not, however, take away its beauty; rather, it lends an enchanting variety to its growth. And this creates a refreshing diversity to one and the same emotive appeal. Had there been no conflicting opposition offered to progressive culmination of thought into effective execution, the art of painting would, indeed, have equated with the art of magic. You wish for it and hey presto! the picture appears just as you wanted it! Somewhat like camera work, more or less. As a matter of fact, it never happens exactly as you wish it whether in painting, literature or music.”
And so, ever springs the desire for renewed efforts, again and again, to get to satisfactory expression of thoughts, feelings and perspectives in any of these media. It will be a catastrophe, really, for the artist if his wish be fulfilled exactly or precisely to specific wishes. “For, that will mean an end to his own basic interplay of perspective and inspiration: he is then finished,” said Abanindranath.
This discloses the supreme fact that, without any challenging opposition to the desire to find self-expression, art would lapse into inert immobility. The very imperfections that it has to grapple with, provide the basic life-urges to art and the artist. Abanindranath interpreted the crucial birth of creation in these words:
“The misery that dominated my creative life beggars description. How inadequate, indeed, has been my success in the matter of expression in my paintings of what actually I felt and strove to express! To find that, after all, not even quarter of the vivid visions could be made to appear out of the dazzling perspective that I had been trying to bring out, cast my soul in distress indescribable. All through my life I have had to fight and face this crucial grief; it always leaves an aching void in my soul wrought by the pangs of thwarted fulfilment. Nowhere, never, has come the feeling of accomplishment precisely answering desire and purpose.”
Man has eternally struggled along his path of painful and tantalizing non-fulfilment; but, out of this alone, has come the inspiring inundation of blessed variety in man’s self-dedicated pursuit of art. We close with a final quotation from Abanindranath :
“In this will be revealed the historic reality of the quest for art. It is all a story of tidal ebb and flow. In high tide much is acquired only to be dismissed or decomposed when the tide ebbs out. In spring the tide comes with its festive force of fecundity that makes the flowers bloom in preponderous profusion. And when it ebbs out, the tide carries the frayed remains of the same flowers it had helped to bloom. Likewise, at the ebbing moments of my life, I have scattered much and lavishly, and you will know from them how rough and meandering had been the path that I had to follow and make, to obtain what I have gathered. And what has been my award for all that I could acquire? Three memorable drops, my dears, of multi-coloured honey have provided the containment of a long life spent in arduous quest!”
Three memorable drops of multi-coloured honey provide ample compensation for any maestro in art at his journey’s end.
Published in The Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta