Artists: Notes on Art Making

During the height of the aggressive spread of British domination of this country's territories, in the 19th century, an influential section of the Indian intelligentsia realised that the English language was the key to amassing all the vast knowledge that gave the sahib his power and his invincibility. The introduction of English-oriented education following Macaulay's famous minute was, therefore, welcomed by those who proceeded to serve the alien bureaucracy as clerks and civil servants.

Literature, philosophy, mathematics and the major sciences became available from their European origins to Indian seekers through the agency of the English language. Unfortunately, this pragmatic and servile attitude towards the sahib's culture served to further alienate the Indian intelligentsia from the mainsprings of the country's own art and architecture. During the greater part of 19th century, an oppressive darkness obstructed from our view our ancient art heritage and completely dulled our awareness of what had gone before in the realm of painting, sculpture and, not the least important, the crafts. It took a concerted scholastic onslaught by a few visionary Britishers to correct this situation. Gradually, the excessive emphasis which was being laid on Western academicism in our art teaching institutions in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras began to yield place to indigenism. It does not matter that the positions taken by such pioneers as E.B. Havell and George Birdwood were contradictory in many essentials and that the latter could not appreciate the value of much ancient Indian art vis-a-vis the crafts. Both, in their own ways, no doubt, helped the Indian eye to turn inward, and both prepared the ground for the seminal role which Ananda Coomaraswamy was to play in the revaluation of Indian art and the revival of Indian craftsmanship.

When, today, we look back on the first dawn of indigenism in Indian art, we have to suspend some of the critical considerations which we would exercise in assessing the product of the revivalists themselves. The two focal points which appear to have attracted all those in search of an Indian idiom are, on the one hand, the overwhelmingly popular mythological paintings of Ravi Varma and, on the other, the far more dynamic and original frescoes of Ajanta and similar cave temples elsewhere in the Deccan. Ravi Varma was a sedulous influence on turn-of-the-century bourgeois taste. His orthodox academicism was masked by a truly religious feeling and, after all, he made his impact felt by being the first painter to attempt themes from the Hindu religious epics on such an impressive scale. Inspired by Havell, his student, Abanindranath Tagore, was attracted towards the aesthetic teachings of Ajanta. Two expeditions, originating from the Calcutta School of Art and the J. J. School of Art of Bombay respectively, descended on Ajanta to copy the frescoes-and both, incidentally, had European members. When Sir William Rothenstein, a friend of the Tagores, saw these copies he felt inspired to remark that this was, indeed, the true fountainhead of Indian art.

The Bengal School, led by Abanindranath, Nandalal Bose and others, also derived legitimate inspiration from the tradition of miniatures which was then just being discovered and properly evaluated. That many of the artists concerned proceeded to produce somewhat sentimental images with an appropriately gentle and two-dimensional touch does not reduce the concern .for indigenousness which characterised this school. Indeed, a rebel like Jamini Roy spurned both academicism and the anaemic manner of the Bengal School, only to explore the road towards indigenism more meaningfully. By turning to Kalighat pat paintings, by doggedly using earth colours of his own making, by simplifying his iconography in the style of folk painting, Jamini Roy tapped the resources of the indigenous tradition to the fullest. And, much as we choose not to recognise the fact, the over-productive decadence of his last years and his entry into a stylistic blind alley does not dull the edge of his path-breaking indigenism.

Whether it is the Bengal School or the art of Jamini Roy, or the highly individualistic and Expressionist painting of Rabindranath Tagore, today these efforts appear to have been significant exceptions in a still proliferating jungle of second-hand academicism. The works of Amrita Sher-Gil, seen before the Second World War, suggest comparisons with the prolific oeuvre of Ravi Varma. Here, too, the ties with an alien tradition are not completely sundered; although, to Amrita's credit, it must be said that despite her academic schooling in Paris, she discovered Gauguin and the Impressionists all by herself and proceeded to assimilate their influence. Amrita also responded to the miniature tradition of the Kangra valley which ensconced her own paternal estate and thus developed a subtle amalgam of both East and West. This mingling of contradictory streams seems genuine because of the artist's unique empathy with her rural subjects, with her entire environment. Amrita Sher-Gil is a singular example of an artist claiming an intra-racial background and yet digging her roots deep into the indigenous soil. What Ravi Varma succeeded in achieving only on a superficial and deceptive level, Amrita managed in a classic, almost prophetic dimension. The contemporary artist in search of indigenism may learn much from her but little from Ravi Varma.

Roughly speaking, the first stirrings of a revolt against academicism can also be largely identified with the realisation of a need for indigenism. This latter looms in a comparatively simple context, when we consider art that is figurative in some degree or the other. The rebellion of the Progressive Group of Bombay and the coming together of the Calcutta Group, both in the late forties, was no doubt a decisive gesture against the type of academicism that still infested our art schools. Indeed, this academicism did not fail to impart some minimum discipline even to those artists who charted out on modernistic paths very early in their careers. But the atmosphere was hot not only with revolt against academicism but also iconoclastic feelings about cherished idols like Sher-Gil. Whatever the revolution in style, it did not require much thought to label the work of, say, Francis Newton Souza, Ara, Raza or Husain as indigenous. In those years, this was still broadly figurative, and it was easy for those not disturbed by the blatant disregard of academic values in these paintings to see that they embodied an Indian spirit and propagated a total feeling of indigenousness. We may take a jump in time and remark here that, even when a painter like Raza moves on to near-abstract schemes, both in his metaphysical concepts and his brilliant colours, he powerfully imparts a sensation of indigenousness. It is exactly like seeing the work of an American-based Japanese painter andbeing impressed by an uncanny aura of his oriental origin in the visual schemes.

Since it is non-figurative art which provokes the question of indigenism, it is worth considering briefly how far indigenism itself is an important consideration in evaluating a work of art. During the post-war decades, the tremendous progress in science and technology on the one hand, and in communications on the other have brought artistic consciousness closer together into a narrow orbit. Sculptors, more than painters, work in an abstract manner; and, today, in the world of sculpture, the concept of a world language has come to prevail. Early in this century, artists like Picasso and Epstein displayed a unique eclecticism in absorbing figurative disciplines from cultures both geographically and ethnically far removed from their own Western origins. And, yet, the work of Picasso and Epstein is stamped with a clearly European identity; in Epstein's case, a deep religiosity marks it, while Picasso extends what is essentially a European tradition, moving from classicism to Impressionism. This awareness of an artist's legitimate claim to the aesthetic identity of another soil, another people, has gradually grown among Indian painters and sculptors who emerged after the heyday of the Progressives and the Calcutta Group. Allied to this is another realisation, and that is: much against what Jamini Roy would have to say in the matter, the very use of canvas, paint, brush and such other "alien" materials forges a link with that same world language which all modern artists share. It is not only difficult but futile to decipher whether the vision of a Gaitonde or the imagery of a Tyeb Mehta is the more indigenous. Basing ourselves solely on the evidence of the material aspect of their paintings, there is nothing in them to indicate, on the surface, that they are the work of Indians. Surely, there must be something more to indigenousness than appearances? The puzzle is not easy to solve; it is convenient to say that certain colours are used in a way typical of those living under the Indian sun. But this argument is irrational and subjective, for there must be several other countries in which the eye is used to chromatic values with similar intensities, to the same role played in fashioning our vision by a bright and burning sun. Like the Japanese feeling encountered in the sculptures of Noguchi, this Indian feeling must be emanating very very subtly, and it is for us to penetrate the layers of universality, of urbanity, in order to pinpoint the indelibly indigenous identity of an Indian art product.

During the post-Independence years, there has been an unprecedented flowering of Indian art and, from time to time, the artist continues to face the burden of this need for indigenousness. Several try to find convenient bye-roads; Tantric art, for example, has been the hunting ground of many who are fascinated by its easy-to-exploit imagery, without realising that it is difficult to re-create a whole metaphysic in order to lend naturalness to any Tantric-oriented expression. The marauders of folk art are equally numerous. Surrounded by these, we have a few intrepid surrealists and semi-surrealists, a sizeable body of abstractionists and experimenters with landscape, and a select band of sculptors (mostly marble carvers) who have created sweeping forms that instinctively appear to be emerging from a soil with a long tradition of carving. Like art, politics and sociological concern has also become today a world commodity. Painters like Krishen Khanna, Jogen Chowdhury and Gieve Patel do not surrender an essential Indianness, when painting their socio-political commentaries. And others, like Bhupen Khakhar, adopt the manner of the local bazaar, when painting their naive scenes of urban life. Such painters have plumbed the depths of indigenism more effortlessly than the self-conscious imitators of Tantric motifs and the plagiarists of folk art.

In the battle for indigenism, even the figurative artists have had to strike a blow in an inventive and convincing manner. For a long time, the effort had been to evolve an Indian approach to human anatomy. The Bengal School tried it in its own way and petered out. Amrita Sher-Gil struck a fine balance between Gauguin, the miniatures and, undoubtedly her own academic training. It was M.F. Husain who, encouraged by the rugged discipline of cinema hoardings and toys, evolved his own, highly indigenous human figure, especially the Indian woman. And these creatures, first perfected 30 years ago have never let him down in his most inspired moments. It is interesting to note that for Husain indigenism came naturally through the popular medium of the cinema! The least that can be said, in retrospect, is that this was in tune with the times. Jamini Roy, Husain, Bhupen Khakhar: three painters of three different epochs in Indian art, but they are all united by the main source of their inspiration, viz., bazaar art of one type or another. In other words, the artist really concerned about indigenism can derive strength not just from his classical past, from the frescoes and the miniatures, but even from the manifestations of the people's art seen on the walls, the paan shops and the public thoroughfares in congested cities. This, indeed, is the folk art of our times, and any artist endowed with a populist philosophy would turn readily to it.

From this point of view, the sky is the limit for a painter of our times; and it is a secondary consideration whether he, an Indian, also lives and works in his own country.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary 30
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