Published in Modern Review, 1907, Vol 1, p. 84-88

Tennyson has taught us that

“To look on noble forms

Makes noble thro” the sensuous organism

That which is higher.”

He has also taught us

“That Beauty, Good and Knowledge, are three sisters

That dote upon each other, friends to man,

Living together under the same roof,

And never can be sunder’d without tears.”

The uses of art are indeed many. When it gives us true portraits of the great ones of the earth, not only are their features, instinct as they may be with genius, or patriotism, or holiness, an inspiration to those who gaze on them, but “we can observe their habits of life, their manners, their dress, the architecture of their times, and the religious worship of the period in which they lived”. Other paintings, and sculptures too, many serve the same historical purpose. The art of a country epitomizes the whole development of the people that produced it. But it is the emotional aspect of painting that is the most important. It can elevate, chasten, subdue and discipline our emotions, and awaken noble and kindly feelings in those in whom they are dormant. No doubt “Art with poisonous honey stole’n from France” may degrade and blight the moral nature; but we are not speaking of the abuses of art, but only of its uses. In modern India, however, over and above its more conspicuous functions, it is called upon to exercise one that may not be so obvious in the West, -- we mean the function of nation-building.

The desire for national unity has found expression in our midst in various ways. The Indian National Congress is the political embodiment of this desire. The Indian Social Conference and the Indian Industrial Conference are the manifestations of this desire in the spheres of social reform and industrial revival. The Theistic Conference seeks to give practical expression to the same desire in the world of religious thought and activity. The Conventions of the Theosophical Society also point to the same desire in the world of religious thought and activity. The Conventions of the Theosophical Society also point to the same desire. Nor are linguistic manifestations of this desire wanting. Two or three years ago, a discussion went on, particularly in Hindi papers, as to the necessity of adopting some Indian vernaculars. For India is inhabited by various races, speaking more than a hundred and a fifty languages. To make the situation still more difficult, they profess many different religions. To build up all these races into one nation is a work of the greatest difficulty. The bond of nationality that lies in the past, - in common memories of glories and reverses, joys and sorrows, hopes and struggles, shared together - is absent, if we consider all the peoples now inhabiting India; though particular communities have this precious possession. But we can all love India as she is, live for her, aye, die for her if need be, hoping and working for her and having faith in her glorious future. But how is this community of love and life, hope and endeavour and faith to be brought about? Subjection to the same Government and struggle against the same bureaucracy do not seem all-sufficient to generate the kind of patriotism that we want. We, the inhabitants of the different provinces of India, must first know one another that we may love one another and be one. Such knowledge includes our past as well as our present. And as nations and races are seen at their best in art, no knowledge of them can be complete without acquaintance at least with their literature and art, past and present. A foreign literature and foreign tongue, as English is, cannot serve as the medium through which we may know one another and interchange our deepest thoughts and feelings. The books, periodicals and newspapers which we write in English, have their uses, but they do not either reveal or reach the heart of the nation. It lies unexplored, and unknown to many of us. And there is no vernacular common to the whole of India which can serve to make the different provinces known to one another. It is here that art comes to our aid.

More than seven years ago we referred to this aspect of the utility of art in the Kayastha Samachar, which we then edited, in the following words:­­--

“It does not require much observation to perceive that jealousies and prejudices exist not only among different nations and countries, but even among the provinces and districts of the same country, Take for instance, any two provinces or races of India, and you are sure to find much mutual jealousy, distrust and prejudice. ** What is the remedy? Evidently a deeper and wider knowledge of our neighbours and the charity which that knowledge is sure to breed. One of the most effective means of knowing the nation is to know its literature. In Europe, there are more people knowing languages other than their own mother tongues than in India. Europeans, or to speak of a particular nation, Englishmen have translated the best books in other languages into their own. Hence they are in a better position to understand other people than the people of India. Not to speak of those of other countries, we do not know the literature and people of our neighbouring provinces. How many men are there in India who know the principal vernaculars of the country? We do not care to read even the translations of some vernaculars books which Englishmen have made. No wonder there should be so much provincial jealously, distrust and prejudice. Happily, things are taking a turn for the better. Many educated Indians have begun to study other Indian vernaculars than their own.

“Another means of knowing a people is to know its art. It requires much culture to say why one admires a work of art. But even a savage may be struck with the beauty of a statue, a building or a picture. In this respect art enjoys an advantage over literature. It appeals even to the illiterate. Hence, as a factor making silently for national unity, we should welcome a revival of literary activity. A few facts, perhaps, otherwise insignificant, show that probably such an artistic revival is approaching. One is the increasing liking among Indians for illustrated newspapers, magazines and books. Another is the popularity and extensive use of the pictures of Raja Ravi Varma. Five years ago they were scarcely known in Northern India. As far as we are aware it was a Bengali magazine named Sadhana which in the north first pointed out the merits of these pictures. It is a pity that Ravi Varma does not seem to have had any intelligent imitators or rivals. The third fact that we wish to mention is the production by Mr. GK Mhatre of Bombay of the statue of which forms the subject of this article. It was given to the world more than two years ago. It was highly praised at the time several European critics including Sir George Birdwood. Much ridicule, was however heaped uponSirGeorgebysome persons, for having mistaken it for a marble statue, the material actually used being plaster of Paris. In justice to Sir George it must be said that he had no opportunity to see the statue itself, but could see only some photographs of it sent to him in England, which misled him. We admire and appreciate Mr. Mhatre’s work, but not more for its actual merit. Than for its promise. When the statue was placed before the public, it at once came to be talked of and appreciated in different provinces of India. Had Mr. Mhatre written a book in Marathi and others like us can admire and appreciate his statue, and be chastened and elevated by it. This exemplifies the advantage that art has over literature, which we have spoken of above.”

It requires some education to perceive the distinctive style or the hidden meaning of a work of art. But the language of form and colour appeals to all. It is no doubt true that the picture which tells its own story is often the least didactic, for it has no inner or deeper lesson to reveal. But in the work of nation-building even such pictures, representing stories in the mythological, semi-historical or historical literature of the country, possess considerable usefulness. For these stories have many a reason.

Ravi Varma, the greatest painter of modern India, whose death we now mourn, painted for the most part scenes from the religious and classical literature of India. In this way, perhaps unconsciously, he helped in the work of nation-building, at least so far as Hindu India is concerned.

Ravi Varma’s is not an eventful life. He belonged to an ancient Kshatriya family closely connected with the royal house of Travancore. He was born on the 29th of April, 1848, in his ancestral home at Killimanur, a large village given to his ancestors as a jagir for military services rendered to the State in troubled times. His was a family naturally gifted with artistic instincts. He was the eldest of three brothers and a sister, all remarkably endowed with artistic powers. His mother was a cultured ladyand a poetess of no mean order. Ravi Varma had in his boyhood the Sanskrit education then given to all boys of gentle birth. “But he took greater delight in making drawings with chalk or charcoal, of gods and goddesses, on the walls and floors of this mansion than in mastering his Sanskrit grammar.”

His maternal uncle, who was a man of uncommon parts and practiced painting as an amusement, encouraged the boy in his artistic tastes. When he was barely thirteen, he presented the then Maharaja of Travancore with some of his paintings, with which His Highness was greatly pleased. The enlightened Maharaja found great promise in the boy’s works and patronized the future of art in India. For what Indian art has for long centuries most needed is the infusion of fresh blood, the devotion to it of gifted and cultured persons of all castes and classes, who may be able to lift it from the position of a mere handicraft to equal rank with poetry.

Though strictly speaking Ravi Varma was a self-taught artist, yet the models that he followed being of European origin and the painter whose work he watched in youth, being a European, his style of painting is not Indian, but Western. Of late years, mainly through the efforts of Messrs, Havell and Abanindranath Tagore, public attention has been drawn to that of the Indian style of painting. If a man of Ravi Varma’s originality and feeling for beauty had in youth followed the Indian style, we do not know how much greater his success would have been; but of this there is no doubt that in that case the position of the Indian style in the world of art would by this time have been more assured.

We do not intend to follow in detail Ravi Varma’s successful career as a painter or mention the medals that he won at Indian or European throughout India. The curious reader is referred to his biographical sketch entitled, “Ravi Varma, the Indian Artist” for these details.

Of the distinctive features and merits and defects of the European and Indian styles of painting, we are not competent to speak. That task must be left to abler hands. We are able here only to record what appeals to our untrained eyes. We find that Ravi Varma’s paintings are for the most part taken from the Puranas, epics and dramas of ancient India. That shows two things, namely that he loved India, and had made a loving and careful study of her ancient literature. We would wish he had painted some scenes, too, from Vedic India as suggested directly and indirectly in the Upanishads. His paintings also show that he was gifted with poetic imagination to no small extent; for he has selected for his art some of the most beautiful, pathetic and soul moving scenes in the ancient literature of India. The costume of his men and women must have sorely puzzled him. But his unconscious patriotism kept him true to India; he did not in the least cast a longing look towards Europe, ancient, medieval or modern, for the habiliments of his characters. On the contrary he made a laborious effort to discover an all-India costume. He paid “a visit to Northern India with a view to study, if possible, the ancient costume worn by Hindu princes and princesses from old paintings or statues, but without success.” Rightly or wrongly, he came to the conclusion “that during a long period of Muhammadan supremacy, every vestige of whatever was old and purely Hindu, had been effaced from the face of the country. Every shade of race and nationality in India has a dress and ornaments of its own, so that it was difficult to find a common costume which would satisfy every class equally.” But one is tempted to ask, why, discovery falling, he did not make an attempt to invent some artistic and graceful Indian costume. Indian nationalists are sometimes found to discuss the question of an all-India dress. His would have been an artist’s solution to the problem. But somehow or the other, he did not make the attempt; a fact that all true nationalists cannot but regret. Hence we find in his pictures costume belonging to Southern India for the most part. But it is Indian all the time. And the various types of womanly beauty that we find in his pictures are entirely Indian. His love of warm and gorgeous colours is also Indian. If it be true that the physical features of a country exercise a formative influence over the minds of its people, the natural beauty of Travancore must have much to do with the making of the artist.

With the exception of his style, everything else in his pictures is Indian. But his foreign style, as far as we have been able to observe, does not detract from the usefulness of his paintings as sources of enjoyment and instruction or as an influence that makes for nationality. From the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, however much our languages, dress, manners and customs may differ, the social organisation andnationalcharacteraremuch the same everywhere. This is due to no small extent to the influence of our national epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Ravi Varma’s pictures taken from these epics appeal to all Hindus, at any rate, throughout India. May we not hope that hereafter a gifted artist will be born who will speak in the inspiring language of form and colour to all Indians alike irrespective of race or creed?

The most ancient Indian ideal was one of healthy activity and healthy enjoyment. Even in the Ajanta caves, which served as retreats for Buddhist monks, whose ideal was renunciation, we find an indication of the national character, taking delight in all natural forms and activities. The ideal of asceticism, of forsaking the world as mere illusion, was of later growth. This must have affected our art too. If the world was an illusion why take delight in it? The sooner one left it the better. This is diametrically opposed to the artistic temperament. May we not hope that the advent and popularity of a painter like Ravi Varma are artistic indications of the returning interest of the nation in mundane existence? This is not the place to enquire why the Greek gods and goddesses were given human and natural shapes, whereas India’s gods and goddesses had very often non-human and non-natural shapes. What we are concerned with is to note that Ravi Varma’s paintings represent to some extent, but not entirely, a return to nature in the creative function of art in the domain of mythology.

Published in Modern Review, 1907, Vol 1, p. 84-88
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now

The Photography Timeline is currently under construction.

Our apologies for the inconvenience.