Delivered at the 'Abanindra Centenary Seminar' at the Department of Art History, Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, 1973. First published in Abanindranath by Abanindra Centenary Celebration committee, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, April 1973
Each artist is surrounded by the ideas and the environment of his time whether he chooses to work within them or strives to break out of their bondage and be free. A proper insight into his work is possible only against this background. Similarly each art scholar evaluates works of art within the norms and standards of his time and it falls to each generation of scholars to go over the ground afresh. This results in a re-alignment of the evaluative sky-line, as it were; old citadels fall, new steeples shop up, old mythologies crumble and give way to new insights. No one was probably more aware of this than Abanindranath Tagore. In one of his Bageswari lectures, those astounding and untranslatable verbal tapestries of poetry, wit, word-play and scintillating insight, he says “on the string of time today morning is beaded side by side with yesterday’s morning, today’s society with yesterday’s society; on the same string hangs our ancient culture, with its wealth of literature, music, science and philosophy, as a priceless jewel. The greatest responsibility of our present society will be to add on it something that will hold comparison with what has gone before, by way of virtue, learning or intelligence. But our contribution, however paltry or inconsequential, be it like a sliver of glass, a lump of clay or a blemish on the face of the moon, will be there, irretrievably, in the series. May be someone in posterity will write a favourable treatise on it or expound it in a university lecture, investing it with philosophic meaning and making it seem profound; may be someone else will criticise it, along with the present day life and culture, in the most stringent terms and call it an excrescence. Both these have happened to Abanindranath in his own life time. He has been apotheosised and worshipped and his work has been packaged with philosophic meaning; he has been brushed aside as a quaint old aesthete including in his little pastimes with paper and paint. Some have extolled him as the father-figure of the modern art movement in India while others have dismissed him as an artist of no consequence, to the extent that, in the prefatory note to the catalogue on the recent Lalit Kala Akademi’s exhibition 25 years of Indian Art, he has not even merited as one of the progenitors of the modern Indian art movement. One of the main reasons for this is probably the fact as Benode Behari Mukherjee has already mentioned in one of his articles, that his personal image has got lost in the larger image of national revival, with its contingent banalities. His own enthusiasts have never presented his work in proper selection, their criteria having been extra-aesthetic. Hardly anyone has studies his work as a whole in its proper background. Many have not even seen his work except through the soiled screen of the work of his camp followers. It is also partly due to a change in attitudes of the modern art critic, who tends to isolate each work of art as a separate object and centre his attention on the dynamics of its external image, and is taken in more readily by its histrionic qualities, its scale, liveliness of colour and all over visual impact. He has no taste for muted delicacies of paintings like Abanindranath’s and certainly no time to ferret out its aesthetics perspective.
I do not want to examine here the justice and otherwise of these various reactions. Such reactions are inevitable as Abanindranath himself foresaw. My effort here will be to study the ‘phenonenon’ of Abanindranath, by which I mean the various contributory elements that made Abanindranath’s work what it was and how they came together, and to see whether, in their light, his work has any special virtue. I will also try to see whether Abanindranath’s ideas on art had basic validity and breadth, and have relevance to our new art situation, or whether as it is popularly supposed, they were narrow and sectarian. For, to me, the importance of the work and the values of an artist is related to how much they quicken our sensibilities and add to them a new dimension, and to how valid and basic this new dimension is.
Abanindranath came on the Indian art scene at a critical time. On the one hand the Indian pictorial traditions were petrifying and subsisting precariously on insensitive and listless patronage. On the other the new art schools were trying to substitute them with crassly mediocre alternatives, out of contact with the environment. For all the enthusiastic and zealous advocacy of a few (including a number of western Indophiles) for a drastic national revival, pleading almost for a walk-back to the tenets of a classical golden age, its strings were terribly out of reach. In the field of painting the nearest they could get to a living tradition were the decadent miniature schools of Patna, Lucknow, Jaipur and Banaras. Whatever the quality of their work, their attitudes were no more the old traditional attitudes. Their images were no more the old semantic composites of idea and visual images, the visual image growing on the idea of varying stages of elaboration as it permitted. They were mostly documentary or topical realistic pieces and the quality they prided in was a laboured, if piecemeal, naturalism. The general form concept was that of a united visual scene (not the old serial narrative), although some of the old conventions persisted, incongruously. The visual metaphor was almost extinct, the artists feeding ground was factual reality. This was understandable; for, at the level of the professional artist, religion was ceasing to be a powerful influence. Its influence was confined to the icon-painters, who now fell into the category of conventional craftsmen, or the folk artists who lived, far apart, in rural seclusion.
With the new category of school educated artists this was even more so. They came into answer the new professional needs for illustration, documentation, portrait and landscape painting as arose with the new education and the consequent change in taste of the urban patrons. They worked against the background of European realism, although realism of the European kind never became a confirmed attitude among Indian artists, for one reason or the other. It may be because the new education did not quite succeed in converting the educated Indian to scientific materialism. It may also be because, at the time the realist attitude sought a perch on the Indian art scene, its image on the western art scene itself was a little mixed up. Whatever the reason may be, it is a historical fact that its influence on the Indian art scene was not deep and, if we count out a few craftsman-like protraits, landscapes and genre painting, its upshot was poor. Even in the work of artists like Ravi Varma or H.N. Mazumdar it was only a thin veneer, never going beyond the stage of laboured competence.
So the professional artists of the day, both traditional and non-traditional were stewing in the juice of bland and awkward naturalism, a little out of line with what had gone before. Since professional art is generally cut to the size and proportions of the patronage it depends on, one may assert that this was largely because of a lack of taste and criticism in the patronage itself. So even if these professional artists wanted to break out of their stagnation it was not easy for them to do. The most professional miniaturists could so was to backstep into certain incongruous archaisms. The most the new painters could do was to wrap local mythologies in realistic vestment, equally incongruously.
It was a rather cheerless and frustrating situation from which if an artist wanted to make a break through he had to effect a drastic change in climate. He had to rescue art from the rigid conventionalism of the traditional artist, he had to release it from the constrictions of pedestrian patronage, he had to reconcile it, at whatever point of contact, with its previous history. He had also to reckon with the new cultural fact that the cultivated Indian was coming out of his traditional predispositions and the old mythologies and symbols did not hold with him the same credence and immediacy as they did with his predecessors. So he had to begin afresh and seek a new language, starting with a personal bivouac with nature and environment.
Abanindranath’s work has to be studied against this background for he was the first Indian artist to attempt such a break through the face the problem at its different levels. This can be seen from his Bageswari lectures, which having been delivered in the middle of his working career (1921-29), should be considered the most authentic compendium of his views and methods of approach. In them he clarifies the whole problem, the nature of art as he understood it, the nature of the artist as he would like him to be, the nature of perception, the problem of creativity, the theory of Beauty, the relationship of art and tradition and an analysis and re-exposition of traditional canons of art practice. This is as near a complete statement as any one had got with regard to the various levels of the problem and I shall take recource to freely-translated quotations from them to clarify his painting and his idea in the course of this paper.
Ass an artist Abanindranath started with a naturalist attitude not unlike that of many of the ‘fin-de-siecle’ European painters, he wanted to comprehend nature with his sensibilities, and produce an art image part object, part sensibility, one transforming the other. He was in this near to the ‘imagist’, not the objective realist; what he was leaning forward to was a poetic vision of reality, not unlike what Mallarme rerefs to when he states the imagist position by saying, “We renounce the erroneous aesthetic which will have the poet fill the delicate pages of his book with the actual and palpable wood of trees rather than the forest’s shuddering or the silent scattering of thunder through the foliage”; a vision that will base itself on nature but will be at the same time, poetic and personal. This vision had to be arrived at by the use of one’s sensibilities and had its own internal norms - Abanindranath states this in the following way, ‘what mind can accept and hold is Beauty, what it finds hard to hold is its opposite’. This vision had to be personal “You can’t see your image of Beauty in another’s mirror, he says; it had to be raised within the conflicts of our passion and judgement, so he says, “This small nest of our being is built with layers of peace and conflict, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness; within it a man’s life gets a glimpse of eternal Beauty, which drives it into a momentary flicker of dream, like that of a drop of dew. It has performane to be tentative and inclusive, “If art could realise perfect beauty,” he says, “the whoke show would have ended long ago”; and to figure it out in clarity is not in the character of an artist or poet”, artists, mystics and poets play around with Beaty,” he asserts, “while the art scholars sits on its chest and count its ribs.” In short, this was a synthetic naturalist vision a vision that defied analysis and division, a vision that could not be broken up into its syntactic components.
So when Abanindranath tries to project such a vision, in the beginning of his career (with probably a desire to contact his artistic antecedents) into traditional moulds or ‘composition motifs’, it had its inbuilt problems. The paintings of his ‘Radha-Krishna’ series (1893-95) are attempts at infiltrating patches of his poetic naturalism into the compositional structures of Rajasthani or Pahadi miniature, in different ways in different paintings; in the painting captioned “on the swing” he tries to unite the traditional components (as usually go together in a three-tier composition) into a united structure; in “Angry Radha” he preserved the usual flat and static composition but activates the central curtain with a degree of naturalism as is absent in the rest of the painting; in “The Consummation of Love” he places relatively flat figures against a fluid naturalistic diorama of a background, almost like a tableau, just to mention a few instances; they are exploratory, but certainly, inconclusive.
When he tried to project such a vision into the framework of the Mughal miniature he had a greater measure of success. Although a painting like the “The Building of Taj Mahal” tends to be a close parody of a Mughal miniature, in paintings like “the death of Shah Jahan” or “Shah Jehan dreaming of Taj Mahal” his vision keeps its unity and plausibility intact. The plausibility increases when it came to simple figures, figure groups or portraits, as the rationale of Mughal studies stressing a characteristic graphic image came near to what he was driving at. His vision is able to find a similar area of congenial contact with the naturalism of late Japanese paintings; and his animal studies carry overtones of both. His ‘Monkey and the Goat’ brings together values that one can identify in a Mughal study or an animal painting of Sosen, there are many other studies of birds and beasts that also have such dual innuendoes.
But at no stage does Abanindranath submit to the demands of a preconceived ‘compositional motif’ to the extent that he compromises his personal vision and renders it inarticulate. It was against his grain and he slowly gives up the chase. He was aware of the dangers of self-conscious style alignments. He clearly states his stand in the first Bageswari lecture itself. He says that it is disastrous to think that art and literature can get a new lease of life by conforming to the stylistic or syntactic norms of old treatises, Hindu, Mughal or European; this is a quicks and in the way of an artist’s progress; the irrational fascination for traditional is like the irrational fascination for a buried treasure, only when an artist breaks out of it will he have wind in his sails or else he will flounder. So in his mature works, like the paintings of the Omar Khayyam and Arabian Nights series, he keeps close to his genius; they are tell-tale pictures (rupa-katha) based in visual facts he is familiar with, with a drama of their own, subtle, articulate, delicate, credible, a storage mixture of naturalism and fantasy.
The artistic personality of Abanindranath was an interesting one. He was a born romancer; both in his painting and his writing he had an alchemy of touch, investing has actual descriptions with the far-away-ness of dream and his fantasies with a strange palpability, an ambivalence one associates with a child’s imagination. He himself recognized it; he revelled in telling stories to children, and to adults who had the child in them still alive. In his lecture on ‘Vision and Creation’ he states that an artist’s vision should be like a child’s vision, simple, direct, non-pragmatic. “In a child’s vision the objects of nature are full of delight and mystery,” he says, “but when a man grows old, with all his needs, he already losses he freshness of this vision and comes to consider the whole world as having been made to serve his ideas. “Vestiges of this child-like vision of wonder, he continues, can be seen in the grown-ups in certain situations, but an artist or poet holds on to it. Whether all artists do so or not, Abanindranath certainly did, and one can judge to what subtlety and depth if one reads his Apon Katha. Although it is dangerous to speculate, it appears that Abanindranath’s artistic personality, hedged around with the constrictions of an Indian aristocratic household, sought escape from it by looking across to the world outside with a tireless and nostalgic delight, like a caged bird, transforming it in this delight into a poetic fairlyland. As he mentions in Apon Katha, even as a child he leaned over his crib to contact this mysterious land of sounds and smells and elusive lights; as a grown man he leans over his South Verandah’ to see the Calcutta street below within a similar aura of mystery and wonder. This aura made for him each trivial visual fact magically alive, the tumbledown buildings, the tattered roofs, the broken staircases, the birds, the beasts, the people, the play of sunlight. These were the dramatics personae of his rupa-katha. The world of his Arabian Nights is this world; the traders and mandarins are the familiar characters of his drawing room, the enchanting ladies are the women across the street in the half open doors and windows in tantalising dishabille, the Alladin’s lamp-shop is the shop selling lanterns across the road, the asses are the dhobi’s assess that pass by every morning. I am not being fanciful; one can see these standing on the ‘south verandah’ even today. I venture to describe what one sees today-down in the courtyard below the verandah a frayed piece of canvas sticks close to the corrugated roof of a shed, fading grey on grey; a water-tap leaks drip-a-drop and crows play round it. It is surrounded by rough shrubbery. In the houses opposite the doors are half-open, filled in with skirted women, mysterious, colourful. Light flickers off the curves of their bangles, their ear-rings, the sequins and tinsel on their wraps. A roving cat jumps from roof-top to roof-top, peers into kitchen windows, sniffs at cooking pans. In a street booth down below an old tailor cuts and sews on an ancient machine. In another rusted lanterns of various shapes are put out for sale. The washerman drive their asses though the narrow lane, crowding on each other. It is remarkable how slowly things change in this country. For this is the same world that was Baghdad or Damascus to Abanindranath if you study his paintings closely, this authentic world of the Calcutta street, but to him, watching from his verandah at his fanciful remove, a far-away and fabulous world, full of glitter and mystery.
It is this pulsating authenticity that gives Abanindranath’s work its special character and sets it apart from the affected puppetry of most of his followers. It is the same authenticity that saves it from literariness; he was not illustrating an Arabian Nights story, he was reading Arabian Nights into something he already knew, even as the Pahari artists read the Krishna legend into their intimate locales, giving life a theme, as it were, and not vice versa. This is what his followers (and non followers) did not learn from him, and have not learned since. They have probably acquired a larger vocabulary and a greater technical repertoire, but they have not been able to put together a language. And this is where the importance of Abanindranath lies.
As made out at the outset my effort in this paper is confined to the study of the elements that made Abanindranath’s works what they were; and how in this light his work has special virtues. It is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt a full survey of his works. If we take a toll of all of Abanindranath’s (surving) work spread over half a century of working life, they will include various categories of these, some tentative and inconclusive, some playful and slight, some in the nature of exploratory studies, some in the nature of recreational scrawls; the paintings that can be considered landmarks will be few are of signal imoirtance, combining great delicacy of feeling, unity of concept, a highly sensitive range of colour, tone and texture, and linguistic authenticity and depth as I have explained above.
Abanindranath’s ideas on art were no less important and individual. Having grown up in an art scene that was shingled with art formulae of various kinds, he distrusted formulae; and having had to face the cultural controversies of his time that osed East and West as imcompatable opposites, he distrusted inflexible purist positions. He held, with the author of Kavyaprakasa that the roots of art should be in “lawless, self-dependent delight” and for this each artist had to depend on his personal experience, needing openness and receptivity. Rigid preconception could be hindrance to such an experience and so he was never tired of repeating that art cannot really be taught, nor could there be a fool proof teaching system. “It may be I can write a grammar of art” he says, “but I do not have the courage to do so, for all grammar, whether of the written or the visual language, is anathema to me.” Commenting on the ineffectuality of the art schools of his time he says, “The reason why no artist comes out of our art schools is that student slog within strict rules end do not get a chance to enjoy their work; in training to be painters and sculptures their hands get mechanically adept, but their minds starve and fret. “He was convinced that rules and principles, canons and technique were of subordinate importance in the field of art, though he did write books like “The introduction to India artistic anatomy’ and ‘Shadanga’ to examine and reinterpret the traditional codes. But he had no illusions about them. In the preface to the former he states unequivocally that “Art is not made to justify the Shila Shastras, but the Shastras are made to elucidate art.” He did not consider the hoary Silpa Sastras as comprehensive or sacrosanct. “We will have to realise, “he says, “Shilpa Shastras are not Shilpa Shastras in the real sense of the word” (meaning they are miscellanies of a kind), “What mention Shilpa (or art) receives in them is fragmentary and occasional; a large part of it hardly receives any mention at all.” Their value is maily as historical documents, so he says, “a great part of our treatises on sculpture, Painting, Architecture and the like is an account of what has been built or painted or written or sung without recourse to them,” and adds, “books, centuries old cannot contain today’s facts. To call them Shastras is itself a mistake; it is like calling encyclopedias gospels. He laughs outright at the talk of purity in art; commenting on Akshaya Kumar Mitra’s plea for purity in Indian sculpture and his statement that its path was a hard one, he says, “The path of purity is hard indeed, it is narrow and short, and contrived; it is more like a stagnant ditch or puddle; I see no sense in leading Indian art within the rules of tradition will preserve it from hybridisation; but the senile and deathly hideousness this outrage will force it into will be beyond all remedy. He really cannot understand all this fuss about purism when the Shilpa Shastras themselves have said, “that an artist’s hands are always pure, whether he makes the image of a god, or an ape, or a hybrid of god, ape, and bird together, if he is a real artist and makes these in his minds delight, their purity needs no further testimony.”
Puristic attitudes, on the other hand, stand contrary to growth for, he says, “any society, art, philosophy or science is always impure when it is growing;” and, “It is precisely because the roots of Indian art and culture are entrenched in this delight of growth, making India larger than Hindu India, Indian Art greater than Hindu art, that Indian art has lived and grown, while Greece died, Egypt disappeared, China got fatally cramped by its conventions…” Change is inevitable in life or art; he says, “Lake man’s lost years, art also cannot repeat”; what surprises him is the Indian society’s blindness to this basic fact,” If our forefathers have left us in our ancestral mansion permanent testimonials of their creativity, (this is not unique) this has happened in every other country. But the astonishing fact in ours is that generations after generations have continued to live like their ancestors did, with the same ways of dressing and working, the same dancing, music, the same painting, the same chandeliers, although times have kept changing..”. This agitates him, he says, “I would characterise this as a brutish mating of the past and present, keeping the past alive at the expense of the present; this sterile relationship does not forebode well for art.” This is not to mean that he wants to reject the past, he wants it to be put in proper perspective; “It may be true that there can be no art without its yesterdays,” he says, “but it is equally true that no art can survive out of contant with the present. The right relationship between these would probably be like that of the top sprouts of a tree with those shrouded in the mystery of its seed. “Those who are creative”, he says, “work through the past, the present and the future, transcending time, “those who are not, accept the bondage of the old or the new.” Any bondage is disastrous for, he says, “we observe in the history of art that, when a people or group hold on to something as a traditional ideal, their aesthetic experience gets impaired and art declines in quality.”
Coming to the basic imperatives for an artist he says, “All ideals are time-bound and cannot be of perpetual advantage. Tastes change, ideals change, what was considered proper at one time, is considered improper in another; once people wore tufts, now they wear ties, once they wore sandals, now they wear boots; this goes on.” So, “there are no immutable norms of Beauty or non-Beauty; so wherever you go there will be disputes about them. Infact only one who accepts this ambivalence (in life) -this unresolved mixture of pleasure and pain, light and shadow, beauty and non-beauty, this existential mish-mash of truth, beauty and blessedness can have a rounded and unique experience of Beauty. So artists are icnoclasts of a kind; “important artists”, he says, “do not come to build ideals of Beauty, but to explode such super structures as may grow from time to time, and push them into the running stream of life where Beauty and non-Beauty flow together.” So what is important for an artist is authenticity of feeling, not ideals and techniques; “when feeling plays truant, “he says, “a piece of writing can still be trussed up with ornaments of speech and picturesque vocabulary and made to go some way, but its flight will be like that of paper-butterfly; it will glide a while and then fall dead.” “But this authenticity cannot be attained to without a struggle: “The language that intones the ineffable, that gives form to the formless, that rolls the inert into motion,” which is what he thinks the language of art should be, “cannot be acquired without effort:” This struggle needs honesty and craft and each real work of conceals within it a history of such a struggle, making it unique and induplicable. Art really is the ‘defenceless’ man’s response to the over-powering enigma of nature; he says this in a brilliant poetic passage: “The rain-cloud sails in like a grey pigeon; the autumn cloud appears with the light wing of a white swan, the Spring’s sprouts come wrapped in their veils of green, but man, who comes to witness their pageant of Beauty, comes unadorned and naked, the cold assails him, the heat broils him, the actuality of the world oppresses him and whole creation tries to close him up in its fortress of mystery and he dreams of the invisible, the unreal, the impossible and the unknown, and, within this, transforms his vision, within creation and outside it -this undefeated representative of the first Artist, master of both the inner and outer worlds.”
This is a fragmentary digest of Abanindranath’s views on art, as he puts out in his Bageswari lectures. The body of his lectures covers a vast panorama with a breath-taking sweep and cadence of language, at once intimate and profound, terribly frustrating to a translator. Are these the views of a sodden revivalist? Or are these of an artist and thinker of deep insight and catholicity?
Delivered at the 'Abanindra Centenary Seminar' at the Department of Art History, Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, 1973. First published in Abanindranath by Abanindra Centenary Cel