First published in The Modern Review, April 1921, pp. 529-535.
It was not with the desire to encourage that idle curiosity that fastens upon the smallest details in the existence of great men, that we studied the portraits of Abanindranath Tagore, placed beside that of Rabindra Nath Tagore in the autumn Salon; -- it was because the former has his part in the chief figure. Whereas in other countries one watches the fashions and influences chop and change, affected by voyages and personal successes, out there in India one sees a line subtly but exactly traced by a master and followed by his disciplines. I have mentioned the support given by Abanindranath Tagore to his uncle, by his caricatures of the actors and actresses who were degrading the traditions of the theatre. His brother Gaganendra Nath has similarly stigmatised in a series of cartoons he ridiculousness of the ridiculousness of those Indians who try to imitate Europeans, and in so doing lose their own individuality. Thus one can put one fingers on the origin of a movement that aims at the rebirth of a national spirit, in its most diverse manifestations. This attempt for our European culture. On the contrary, they wish to take from us all the best in our civilisation, to know our language, and to be initiated into our art. Whilst still remaining themselves and carefully discarding all that id worthless.
These two brothers, animated by the same purpose, have succeeded in grouping around them about twenty young disciples from every caste and creed in India. Banded together in a kind of sacred union for the renaissance of Indian art, they have formed the Indian Society of Oriental Art, which organises an exhibition of national art every year in Calcutta. In order to understand properly the difficulty of this undertaking, we must try to imagine the stage of things that existed until recently in India. Just as the actors were bringing the stage into disrepute, the priests religion, and the rajahs politics, -- so the schools of art were leading the artists away from their true source of inspiration. The pupils passed their time in copying Western pounced drawings and even posters. Young men accustomed to squat on the ground were made to work perched on high stools, there by paralysing the free play of drawing. The Tagore brothers led reaction against this systematic falsification of the genius of the country- and banished the bad habits and bad models of the West; but they kept in contact with French art, and showed their countrymen photographs of Cathedrals, and of the works of Puvis de Chavannes and Rodin.
They showed a predilection, which they shared with their disciples, for Indian miniatures and for monuments such as the frescoes of Ajanta. They collected these miniatures and for monuments such as the frescoes of Ajanta. They collected these miniatures, and revealed these frescoes. It was with their help, and accompanied by them, that Mrs. Herringham penetrated into the famous caves, and that by the light of acetylene lamps she could, partly by tracing (decalque), partly by drawing and partly by coloured copies, those charming decorations. The French expedition of M.Golubew, for its part, made an inventory and took photographs of these, and they were reproduced in a wonderful book, edited by the Indian Society in London, for the benefit of its members. The frescoes in the caves will continue to rot and decay, but will remain - a lasting monument to them.
So by letter and by picture, a pure tradition is slowly being reborn in India. We were able to form some idea of it in Paris itself, in February 1914, on visiting an exhibition of the Calcutta School, organised at the grand Palais. It is an honour for us Frenchmen to have been the first in Europe, -- before even Englsih, and before the Belgians, who were waiting for a collection of these works when war was declared, -- to welcome these witness to Oriental life. The Tagore brothers had sent the work of their whole lives, together with some old pictures and copies of the frescoes of Ajanta.
We must keep up this relationship, so delicately begun, and we must not leave it to reap the benefits of our initiative. The society of French Oriental Painter is preparing for the month of May, at the Salles du Jeu de Paume, yet another exhibition of the Calcutta School, its painting and applied arts. An art review, “Rupam” the second number of which has just appeared in English in Calcutta, seeks to come into contact with our French art-reviews. The editor Mr. Gangoly, one of Tagore’s disciples, is bringing out a book on French sculpture in the Middle Ages. What better proof can be given to their hands to us, whilst remaining firmly attached to the ancient land of their birth?
And now again there has just appeared in France, a translation of a delightful little book that, in the form of a breviary sums up the maxims of Indian artistic wisdom. Abnindranath Tagore, whose idea it was to search for these Sanskrit texts, and to group them together under the general title of “Hindu Art and Anatomy,” begins, before enumerating them, by begging his readers not to take them absolutely literally..
“What folly,” says he “to imagine that a statue merely modelled according to the Shilpa Shastra (that is, the technical treatises), would threshold of that far-off kingdom, where art is allied to eternal joy. The novice submits himself to their restrictions, but the master frees himself from their tyranny.”
He tells us how, one day, while the sage Sankaracharya was trying to elucidate the mystery of beauty by weights and measures, the personification of beauty appeared to him in a form that violated all the technical laws; -- the strange creation to him and claimed his attention. The sight of her was a revelation to the learned doctor, who cried-“These laws, O Godess! Were never made for thee; these canons that I write, and detailed analysis are for the images destined to worship. The forms in which thou dost clothe thyself O beauty! Are innumerable =, and no Shastra can be define them.” And he added -one figure perchance, alone among millions, will have a faultless form -a perfect beauty. The wise men will say - the only perfect image is that which conforms to the laws of beauty in the Shastras - no thing is perfect that has not the sanction of the Shastras. Others the contrary will say -anything that is passionately loved becomes perfect, becomes splendid.
Having laid this down, Tagore enumerates the measurements that prevent the novice from going astray, and then defines the form and characters of the figure. It is here that one sees the influence exercised upon art by Hindu poetry -so rich in metaphors, epithets and subtle imagery. He compare (and gives in support of his comparison schematic but suggestive drawings) the face to a fowl’s egg or a betel leaf… the forehead to a bow, the eye-brow to the leaves of theNeem-tree; theeyes,asthecase may be, sometimes to the lively and dancing wagtail; sometimes to the doe’s eye, of an innocent simplicity; to the water-lily, whose drooping eyelids have sometimes a reposeful calm. The nose is live the sesame-blossom, the nostrils resemble the bean; the moist sweet red lips the bimba fruits; --the chin, scarcely affected by the emotions of the other features, resembles a mango-stone; the neck, a shell; the shoulders, an elephant’s head; the arms, the trunk; the fore-arm, the trunk of a young plaintain-tree, whose firmness and supple symmetry it possesses.
In this way, one divines the intentions of Abanindranath Tagore. Like his uncle, the poet, he realises the importance of traditions, and searched for them in the original sources, that is to say, in the most ancient texts; but in no case must they serve as pretext for stifling the aspirations of life. If the artist must conform to a fixed type (which is a matter of convention), when he creates images that must be approached with fervour, he is free in other cases to follow his instinct, to escape, if he can, from the inexhaustible stock of iconographic formulas which the maxims of religious inspirations offer him. And just as the writer escapes somehow from the prison of words, by re-creating them through his thought and emotion, so the painter frees himself from fixed forms by discerning through the impassiveness of the gods, - subtle tremors, the delicate movements and the fleeting expressions of humanity.
(translated by Pramila Chaudhuri)