Some good people, when they see certain pictures of modern artists, recall some two or three colour-prints that they have seen, and sagely remark, with a trace of disparagement: “Ah, Japanese influence.” As if a great grandmother of the arts of Asia should be rebuked for preserving some trace of resemblance to her children's children. Wider knowledge knows that the matter is the other way round, and that Utamaro's ladies are lineal descendants of the Shakti of India, thinned, coiffed and costumed by the temperament and climate of Japan.
The same good people or others have been heard to remark in front of one of Rahman Chughtai's pictures: "Ah, Persian influence." Persian surely, for the very reason that Chughtai is of the Persian lineage of the Tartar-Mughals and of the family of the master-builders of the Pearl Mosque of Delhi and the Taj Mahal of Agra.
It does not, of course, follow that, because Chughtai is in blood Persian, he should therefore paint Persian. Some of the masters of Mughal art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were pucca Hindus, and some of the Indians today who ape a foreign art are not pucca anything, but in the case of Chughtai it just does follow. His cultural tradition takes fresh birth in him with a difference due to passing time and personality.
So far as Chughtai's art is concerned, India to him might as well be India of Akbar. It is perhaps as well for us that it is not. If it were, he might have created for us some other, and it might be some less delectable world than the Persian world of dreams that is evoked in these lovely pages; for he belongs to the tribe of romantics whose caravan is never fully content unless when it is camped by the river of yesterday or tomorrow. Another of the tribe, the English poet Keats, took refuge from his time in a Grecian world of his own making. But Chughtai carries his refuge about with him, and sets it visibly in our midst with the fine gesture of invitation to enter and enjoy which is made in this volume.
What some wealthy institution or patron should have done, the young artist has himself accomplished out of the results of a short but brilliant career, he loves his art; he knows that others love it; and he desires that the happiness of the possessors of his original paintings should be shared by a large circle of lovers of art. And, being a romantic, he desires no profit. He gives us this gallery of the most exquisite art, this product of his highest inspiration and craftsmanship and the finest achievement of colour reproduction, for what it costs.
For this the little world of lovers of pure painting will thank him. Were this foreword to this volume permitted to be more than a simple signal, it would dwell on what is within with greater enthusiasm; on the skill that has achieved perfect assurance and extraordinary ease and on the passionate reserve and chaste intensity that are perhaps the most distinct contribution of the Persian and Mughal genius of the past and of Chughtai today to the art of India and the world.
It is perhaps the "Oriental" character of Chughtai's pictures that will win admirers for them outside Asia. Their amazing technical skill is acceptable to all who are sensitive to excellence achieved. But the remoteness from so-called realism which Chughtai has deliberately cultivated will be specially acceptable to those who are now feeling the pull away from an alleged truthfulness to eyesight, towards the truth of the imagination. This has been the mission of the Oriental art for ages, and a study of a set of Persian paintings (of which good reproductions can now be readily obtained) side by side with these of Chughtai, will show where they are at one in their mood of gentle repose, in their pictorial lyricism, and where Chughtai, with the impulse of the creative artist who has the sense of tradition, has made his wholly delightful and individual contribution. He retains the distinctive mood and of posture the Persian tradition but gives his pictures a special quality of his own in lovely colour combination, in delicious lines that seem to be less lines of painting than of some inaudible poetry made visible, in folds of drapery that are never mere coverings to or discoverings of the human body, but best men in the liturgy of beauty, in decorative backgrounds based on Saracenic architecture that call the imagination away from the tyranny of the actual into free citizenship of the realm of romance.
One would like to follow up these excellences from picture to picture, but space forbids. The wish must here be content with hand outstretched towards infinite riches in a little room and a profound salaam to the gifted artist.