Published in World Window Vol. 4, No. 3, April-June 1961, pp. 10-12
Spinoza the philosopher may perhaps be kept distinct from Spinoza the man. But it would certainly give us a clearer understanding of his writings if we could understanding of his writings if we could relate his philosophy to his life. Quite early in his life he suffered cruelty at the hands of Society, but even in the mid of great hardships he never forelook the path of truth. All his life he had to battle with poverty. Louis XIV had proposed to award him a handsome pension on condition that Spinoza dedicated one of his books to him. Spinoza did not agree. One of his friends died and left him his property, he did not accept it but returned it to his dead friend’s brother. It is, therefore, necessary to integrate his philosophy with his life in order to appreciate the real nature of his work, and to understand that it was not inspired merely by his logical intellect but was the expression and fulfilment of his entire personality.
The relations between a man’s nature and his work in literature and the fine arts is probably still more intimate. We do not always get the chance of regarding the two together, but if we could do so we should have a clearer idea of the truth behind the work. The true poet and the true artist reveal themselves not only in their writing or handwork, but also in their behaviour, in their way of life, in their everyday speech and manner.
Many in our country know Nandalal Bose by name, and there is no doubt that their judgement of his paintings vary according to their differences in taste, temperament, education and affiliations. Unanimity of opinions in such a case can never be possible; in fact, the adverse criticism it provokes is often a proof of merit of one’s work. But I have had the opportunity of knowing Nandalal the man very well by seeing him at close quarters and amidst a variety of circumstances, and because I have come to respect the man it has been easy for me to accord my respect to the pictures he has painted. It is this respect which gives strength to one’s vision and enables it to go deep into its object.
I had once taken Nandalal with me to China and Japan. My English friend Elmhirst was also with us. He said it was an education to be in Nandalal’s company. That is perfectly true. Nandalal’s artistic sense is unerring and his judgement penetrating. There is a class of men who are bewildered unless they can place Art in artificial categories, for the purpose of appraisal. To judge Art in this way is to depend, like a lame man on his crutches, on fixed extraneous standards and precedents. Such a method of evaluation may be useful for arranging exhibits in a museum. The thing that is dead has reached finality; it is easy, therefore, to see it in all its aspects and to give it a stamp of a particular class. But the Art that is not a mere relic of the past but is bound with the living present by the strongest ties is ever moving forward towards the future, and has neither exhausted its possibilities nor received the final signature of time on its credentials. Those who, in the domain of Art, belong to the conservative camp, compare the features of living entities with those of dead specimens, and consign the living forms of Arts to airtight graves or categories.
Nandalal is not a man of that type. For him Art is a living entity which he apprehends by touch and sight and feeling. That is why to be in his company is an education. I consider them fortunate who have had the opportunity of coming close to him as his pupils; and there is not one among them who has not realised and admitted it. In this matter his nature has responded readily to the inspiration of his own guru Abanindranath. He never tries to mould the later talent of his pupils to any traditional pattern. On the other hand, he aims at giving that talent freedom to follow its own path, and he usually succeeds, because he enjoys that freedom himself.
Recently, Nandalal held an exhibition of paintings by his present pupils in Bombay. As everyone knows, Bombay has a School of Art, and perhaps many also know that the followers of that school have often written contemptuously of pictures painted in our part of the country. Their charge against us is that we have, in our artistic creation, adopted a mannerism typical of early Indian Art. This, they say, is just a trick to catch the eye, and takes no account of the variety of life in the actual world around us. We did not care to rebut this charge in writing, but just organised the exhibition referred to, so that our critics might have direct evidence against the things they had said in ridicule of our work. They saw for themselves the varied nature of the paintings-the diversity of styles which were imitations of neither ancient nor modern Art. Moreover, they saw that not one of the pictures showed the slightest concern for current market-values.
The river whose current is sluggish collects weeds and moss that impede its progress. Likewise, there are many artists and writers who set up immovable barriers in the path of their own progress by their mannerisms and tricks of style. Their work may have many commendable qualities, but it can never turn the corner. It does not want to go forward but is for ever repeating itself, constantly pilfering its own productions.
I know that Nandalal could never tolerate this setting up of bounds to his own genius by the inertia of habit. I have long watched this attitude of revolt in him. This rebellion is part of the creative energy, for true creation never follows the beaten track but cuts out a path for itself by its revolutionary fervour.
The dynamism of the vital force in creative work is characteristic of Nandalal. It is not his destiny to halt for good at a stage on the way, and to sit at ease in an arm chair, swinging his legs. If he could have done that he would have found a steady demand for his wares, for the judgement of regular customers is tethered fast to a post; they can only evaluate a thing by reference to familiar patterns. They are afraid of letting their taste amble beyond those models: the measure of their appreciation of a work of art is based on the measure of popular opinion in its favour. Popular appreciation of the work of an artist takes time to grow, but once it is in vogue the artist is saved all further trouble if he follows the same line. But the artist who, in revolt against himself, breaks the habit of his brush time and again will, whatever else may happen to him, be frequently cheated of his dues in the market-place. That is all to the good, for it is better to be cheated by others than to cheat oneself.
I know that Nandalal disdains to discuss himself, even though he may suffer loss by such an attitude. One hears from time to time the opinion of the market-place that such and such a book or picture marks the final limit of excellence reached by suchandsuch a writer or artist. This often means that people have gone wrong in their calculation of what to expect as a matter of course from the particular writer or artist. Unless one can resist the temptation to be a regular supplier of customary stuff to the public, the temptation will lead to sin and sin to death. There is no danger of Nandalal’s yielding to such sinful temptation. His brush is a traveller on the road that leads away from its own past. All creation sets out on its tryst along that road at the call of the Infinite.
The artist’s distinctive aristocracy is to be found in his character and his way of life. We have had continual proof of this in Nandalal’s case. Firstly, there is his completely selfless devotion to Art. If his ambition had been worldly he could easily have found the opportunity to make a fortune. That appraiser of true genius, the god Indra lays for the devotee of art the snare of jingling silver. Only the gracious touch of the goddess Saraswati can preserve him from the temptation, and deliver him for the meshes of lucre to confer on him the emancipating boon of fulfilment. Nandalal is a denizen of that emancipated world; he has nothing to fear.
His natural aristocracy has another trait: his unruffled composure. I have noticed that even the unjust censure of a friend does not disconnect him. Those who know him have often been offended by such a thing, but he has forgiven easily. This proves the opulence of his nature. He has not a beggarly mind: he has never betrayed the slightest trace of envy of the work of his colleagues. He has never allowed himself to be so mean as to fear that his share of fame would suffer any diminution if he gave others their proper due. He is true to himself and to others; he neither cheats himself nor deprives others of what they deserve. It follows from this that he is an artist in his creations as well as in his life, and is free from pettiness in both.
I have seen Nandalal as man and artist at close quarters. Such a combination of intelligence, warm-heartedness, skill, experience and insight as one finds in him is rarely to be seen. His pupils feel this, and his friends who see him daily in the context of things big and small are drawn to him by his generosity and the depth of his nature. What I have said about him I have said on their behalf as well as on my own. He does not at all care for praise such a thing, but I have felt an inner prompting to write these words.
Published in World Window Vol. 4, No. 3, April-June 1961, pp. 10-12