On his last visit to India, Okakura promised to send one or two artists from Japan to see India and to paint their own pictures, so that Indian artists might watch them actually at work. In that way, he thought both the parties would be benefited. The two artists he sent on his return home to Japan were Taikan and Hishida. They were mere boys then. Of the two, Taikan had more pronounced features and was handsome in a way. He was besides an extremely interesting fellow. Hishida with his bright black eyes, apple-pink cheeks and sweet expression was more like a girl, masquerading as a boy in pants. I used to call him Madame Taikan, jokingly. At this both of them would burst out in peals of laughter.
The two visiting artists stayed with Suren. They used to roam about a good deal, sketching from Nature. Now and again, looking out of my carriage, I would see Taikan busily surveying the scene around him, his index finger tracing lines on the open palm of his left hand. I remember I once stopped the carriage and went up to him.
'What are you fidgeting for', I asked him.
'I am trying to get the form by heart', he said, 'once I trace the lines on my palm, I won't easily forget what I have observed'.
On several occasions I surprised him while he was hastily sketching with a pen or pencil on his starched shirt sleeves. He was supremely indifferent about his personal attire and thought nothing of making a tour of the bazars of Calcutta in the midday sun with nothing but a wide-brimmed straw-hat to protect him. The street urchins must have had a lot of fun following this Bohemian about. If someone commented on his unconventional style of dress, he would simply laugh and say, by way of explanation, that the straw-hat was wonderful to keep one's head cool. Taikan used to visit our studio regularly whenever he had a painting to do. After a fair number of pictures accumulated, we would arrange an exhibition to get some of them sold. At times we would commission them to do a few for ourselves. In this way we tried to help our visiting artists to earn a living or some part of it.
I remember how the first picture that Taikan did baffled us. It was done with a few feather-touch strokes on a piece of silk. At first sight the outline was hardly visible to our eyes, used as we were to the more emphatic style of pigmentation of the Persian and Mogul schools. All that we noticed was neither colour nor ink but a ghostly rising wraithlike. What kind of picture was this? When Okakura held out to us the prospect of Japanese artists coming to us, we had pitched our expectations pretty high. We looked forward to watching their technique of drawing a picture and applying colour on it. Belying all our hopes, comes this fellow in a straw-hat, picks up casually a piece of charcoal from the nearest cinder-heap, essays a few lines with it on a fine piece of silk only to brush them away with a feather, and, finally, touches the outline with the lightest of ink, and, "behold" he says, that is his picture complete in every detail! Uneasily I went up to Suren and whispered to him: 'Where is the picture? Hardly anything is visible at all!' Suren said reassuringly: 'Just you wait and watch and you will see. Your eyes have to get used and trained'. Suren was right; after some time we did learn to see and also to like the pictures that they did. They painted a fairly large number. Among them were some pictures of Hindu deities about whom we had to provide authentic description according to the sastras. In this manner Taikan did two pictures-one of Saraswati and the other of Kali. Sarala's mother purchased them both.
We had a large-sized canvas-an oil painting in Western style-on our studio wall. We sold this to Rajen Mallik, and requested Taikan to fill in the gap with a picture of his own on the subject of Ras-lila. He asked for a description and I gave it to him. He then wished to know how Indian women draped their sari. We got hold of one of the youngsters in the house to demonstrate how the draping was done. As to the ornaments, I explained to him with reference to the photograph of an old piece of sculpture as to the kind and variety of jewellery women of India favoured in the classical times. The preliminaries over, he started on his work. In the first instance the studio-floor was bared of all impediments. On it he gummed a backing sheet covering almost the entire floor space. On this he placed the piece of silk he meant to use as canvas. The actual drawing was done with a piece of charcoal. That over, he sat on a cushion placed on the picture itself and started laying down the colour, section by section. Within a matter of days the painting was nearly complete. Everything was there, all according to the sastric description, including the full moon bathing the entire scene of the sport of divine lovers in a romantic glow. But Taikan deferred giving the finishing touches. He would come on a morning all the way from Ballygunge where he had his lodgings to our studio at Jorasanko, remove the screen from the face of the picture, subject it to a prolonged scrutiny and end up by nodding his head this way and that, as if in a kind of disagreement. This scene was repeated for days together. Unable to hold patience any longer, one day I could not help asking what was it that he disapproved of. He shrugged in an undecided manner and said that he did not quite know-although he felt that the picture lacked something. He looked at the picture once again, up and down, from one side to another, nodded his head disconsolately and left.
One morning it so happened that as Taikan entered the studio, his eyes fell on a few siuli flowers lying on the floor: it was early autumn and the ladies of the house had sent up a platter-full of the delicate blossoms to the studio. The stray flowers scattered on the floor by a casual breeze, Taikan picked up, one by one. I was looking on highly amused. With a sharp jerk he removed the screen, placed the flowers in the foreground of the picture and was obviously delighted with the result. He gathered up more flowers from the platter and scattered them all over the picture, on the trees and on the clouds in the sky.
He was in ecstacies. He would step back to get a better perspective of the picture and then come nearer only to scatter more flowers until the platter was empty. It was as if he was having the time of his life indulging in a highly amusing diversion. After the whole picture was in this way bedecked, he looked at it once again with concentrated attention and slowly collected the flowers to return them to the platter. Only one siuli he held in his left hand as he sat on the cushion. Then in a fine frenzy he began embroidering the picture with delicate white flowerettes with a yellow dot for a heart and a pink stalk supporting it. He would turn the flowerinhislefthand,roundandround, while with his right he showered the painted siulis all over the picture in a glorious abandon. In a matter of minutes the picture was dotted over with the white blossoms until it looked as if the gods themselves were showering flowers to felicitate the divine pair in the midst of their dance of love. The flowers appeared to have landed in their place wafted by the wind, and did not look like having been painted at all. In addition to a kadamba flower placed in Radha's hand, she was now provided with a garland of siuli flowers. Another garland was wound round Krishna's flute. In the white of the blossoms, the moon's brightness was enhanced to a degree. At last Taikan declared the picture complete and sighing with satisfaction said: 'I have made good what it lacked!' He mounted the picture himself. All around the frame he made an outline with strips of woven-in designs of the well-known baluchar pattern sari. Then came a day when a party was arranged for ceremonially hanging the picture in its allotted place on the studio-wall. Friends were called in to witness the Ras-lila and there was a flow of much good cheer all around. Those were great days: I don't hope to see their like again.
Taikan initiated me in the technique of line drawing with a Japanese brush. We are apt to be too hasty with our line drawing. He demonstrated how very careful and circumspect Japanese artists can be in drawing a single line. In reciprocity, I used to tell him all about the technique of the Mogul school of painting. There was such a spirit of give and take between us that we became the best or friends, and the usual distinction between the alien and the native had no meaning for us. Regrettably, this type of camaraderie has become all too rare in the domain of creative arts these days.
I noticed that nature-study was a regular routine with Taikan. He would fill in page after page of his sketch-book with studies of flowers and foliage, trees and shrubs, faces and figures, ornaments and clothes-all of them typically Indian. He would make a note of whatever took his fancy. Faces and features of Indians were an object of special interest to him and he would spend hours studying them. About this time, while watching Taikan at work, the idea came to my head to try the wash-technique. At a particular stage of the picture, he would go over it with a flat brush dipped in water. I gave the whole picture a bath and discovered the effect to be quite pleasing. That was how the wash-technique came to be naturalized in India.
Taikan was an indefatigable worker, but Hishida delighted in playing the truant. He would just roam about picking up odd bits of things and use them for his picture-making. He would rub a piece of rock until it yielded the earth colour he had set his heart upon, or cajole pigment out of some leaf or flower and then apply the concoction on his picture. For charcoal he would burn the twig of a berry tree on slow fire. Altogether they spent nearly six months or so in this country. At leave taking they said they would come back or send some more Japanese artists. That was not to be. Poor Hishida died soon after his return home. With maturity he would have grown into an artist of stature: he had all the attributes of one. Out of all the pictures that he did here, there is one that I still remember vividly: the background showed the sky-line merged in the ocean's brim while the expanse of the sandbank in the fore-ground had one solitary billow beating against it. It was a superb composition-too grand to describe in words. I can still hear the roll of that one solitary emerald wave and I wish I had the picture with me.
Hishida is no more, but Taikan is still there, and we kept up regular correspondence for quite some time.
The last time that Rabi-Ka was to visit Japan, he wished to take Nandalal along so that he might meet the artists there and see things for himself. 'You should not visit Taikan empty-handed', I told Nandalal. I had in my collection a piece of engraved bronze, a real antique-probably some part of the trappings of some royal mount of the Mogul times. I gave this to Nandalal and said that that was to be my gift to Taikan. The bronze piece had a ring which he might use to hang one of his pictures. For his wife I gave a sari and a few pieces of Indian brocade. On his return home, Nandalal brought me the report that Taikan was greatly pleased with my gift: he would turn the engraved bronze this way and that and roar with laughter!
Translated by Kshitis Roy from Bengali
Published in Roopa-Lekha, 1958