Artists: Notes on Art Making

If one were asked what is the most significant factor in the national life of India today, one can unhesitatingly say, it is the great awakening of Indian women to their rights and responsibilities and their bold entry into the public life demanding in no uncertain voice freedom first for themselves so that they may easily free India from her thraldom. Their progress in the very recent years is indeed phenomenal. The older generation of women leaders like Mrs. Ranade, Pundita Ramabhai, Saraladevi Chaudhurani, Mrs. Sathianadhan and others were, like the Moderate Politicians of India, a cautious set of workers, slow to deliberate and slower yet to act. They did splendid service in their time for the country cannot for a moment be questioned, but constitutionally they were incapable of rapid change and wider outlook on life, and hence the progress they were able to effect was slow and almost imperceptible. But the present generation of Indian women, and especially women workers in the fields of education, social reform and politics, seems an entirely different set, quite distinct and apart from their elders. A gulf of at least half-a-century seems to divide the two generations. The new women-leaders of modern India who are rapidly stepping into their rightful place and slowly replacing the elder ones are for the most part, young, enthusiastic, full of vim, vigour and vitality. They are out to change India, quickly and thoroughly. They do not believe in half-measures nor in halting-steps. They want to move with the times and move definitely to the desired end, and to that extent they are extremely practical. They cannot exactly be described as either "fire-eaters" or "social rebels" (these may appear in time) but they are tremendous enthusiasts, fine idealists, visionaries and spirited patriots. They have an abundance of self-reliance and are confident of their mission and success. Their practical common sense and their power of organisation is really praise worthy; the innumerable conferences, conventions, societies and Samajans that they are able to organise all over India with remarkable success reveal their intense practical nature.

These young women pioneers have not confined their activities to mere political, educational and social problems, but have ventured into fields that have not been trodden hitherto by the elder generation of Indian women. Indian art is drawing their attention and interest as much as either Indian education or politics. There are many young workers in the field already, and once again the inherent creative instinct in the Indian woman is seeking expression in different forms of fine art. The Indian woman has an innate artistic sense; in the graceful folds of her sarees, the harmonious colour-choice of her dresses, the delicately-designed and cunningly wrought jewels she delights in wearing and in the varied domestic art which have become part of her daily life, one sees her inborn artistic sense. “The elaborate and richly coloured rangoli designs of the women of Gujarat, the white, black and vermillion coloured alpana patterns of the women of Bengal, the simple geometrical kolam designs of the women of south India, the Kajri dance of the Punjabee Women, the Rasleela of the Rajputs, the Gerba dance of the Kathiawar women, the flower-garlanding of the Prabhu women, the multi-coloured cholis and chunaries of the women of Marwar and the delicately-dyed hues of the shawls of the Cashmere women, all these attest to a long ancestry of a cultured taste for beauty and art the Indian women,” writes Mr. G. Venkatachalam, the well-known critic.

The present national awakening and the cultural renaissance that is fast spreading over the country have brought to the fore-front several young creative and interpretative artists among Indian women. The pioneering work of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Nalini Rajam, Suhashini Devi in Drama, Mrs. Leela Sokhey, Miss Money Patel and Gowri Devi in the art of dancing, Seeta Devi, Maya Devi and Miss Rama Rao in the movie, Sahana Devi, Comalata and Daulat in music, Pratima Devi, Sunayani Devi and Sukumari Devi in the art of painting, will help to build the India of tomorrow.

The Indian stage has become highly morbid and vulgar by the unnatural convention of allowing men to act the character of heroines dressed up as women, which, even at its best, is too crude to be artistically justifiable in a highly developed drama. Professional theatres in India do engage the services of courtesans and dancing girls, to take leading parts in the plays, and since the moral level of such theatres is still very low, no respectable, educated and cultured woman was willing to come forward to go on the stage. Srimati Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the talented wife of the poet Chattopadhyaya, was pioneer to set an example, and her appearing on the stage with her husband in many big theatres in India has given encouragement to many a young educated girl in this country to brave public opinion and to take to acting seriously. There are a few amateur theatres today with their women members taking part in the plays.

The next to follow Shrimati Kamaladevi in this kind of expressional art is the talented young Bengalee lady, Mrs Leela Sokhey, a daughter of a well-known Calcutta Barrister. Tail, slim elegant, graceful, cultured and attractive, Leela, Sokhey took to dancing as her best and natural mode of expression. She is a born artist, sensitive and full of feeling. After a commendable mastery over the technique and expression of Western dancing, in which she was trained in Europe, she turned her attention to the revival of old Indian Dancing. The art of dancing in this country has attained a high state of perfection and was one of the noblest of arts in ancient days. It was a sacred art, and according to the old treatises on the fine arts of India, this was the first art to be learnt and mastered by all would-be artists. A theoretical, and to a certain extent, practical knowledge of this art was necessary before any artist took to either painting or sculpture. Rhythm, according to ancient Hindu Silphina, is the basis of all creation, and therefore it was the basis of all truly great arts. Hence the student was expected to learn the art of dancing first, where he will get to know the laws of movement, pose, poise, repose and expression. Such a fine art fell into disrepute, and as age went on, became the sole monopoly of a definite community, the Devadasis, professional dancers. Its high idealism was lost, and the art was used to baser ends, to fascinate men and lure them to evil ways. It is now associated with sexuality and is looked down upon by the so-called decent folks. And therefore it required no ordinary courage to make an attempt to revive this wonderful art and to raise its moral tone, and thanks to Leela Sokhey,ithas been lifted up from its present position and is placed on a pedestal worthy of the art, drawing men's attention to its beauty, sanctity and usefulness. Leela Sokhey looked to Ajanta for her inspiration, and she interpreted, several of the classical poses that one sees in the fresco paintings there with admirable skill and ability. “Ajanta Darshan”, she rightly called her dances.

Motion picture or Movie, as it is called, is a new innovation into world and especially in this country, pregnant with great possibilities for the future. It is fast becoming a potent factor in modern life, full of educative value. It is bound to become one of the greatest educators of the future world. Its influence is world-wide and enormous; and as an art it is getting perfected more and more every day. India is fast going "cinema mad". It not only imports considerable quantity of films from America and Europe, but has begun to manufacture them locally. The actors and the actresses are, for the most part, recruited from the scum of society, ill-bred, illiterate and uncultured. There are certainly exceptions to this, but in most of the chief film producing companies in Bombay and Calcutta, the Stars are either dancing girls or professional actresses. It is therefore all the more encouraging to notice that a small group of educated, cultured, and well-connected young people, youngmen and women, are now coming forward to produce high-class Indian films. In the two popular films released by the Indian Players, The Light of Asia and Shiraz, educated Indian girls took the leading role and acquitted themselves ably as movie actors. Seeta Devi of Calcutta, who acted as the wife of Prince Siddartha in the Light of Asia film led the vanguard, and she is now followed by other talented young Indian ladies, and with the coming forward of such women to help this industry there is certainly a great future for it in India.

The art of painting was one of the accomplishments of a high-born and well-bred educated Hindu girl along with the arts of dancing and singing in the India of old. According to an ancient tradition, the first portrait-painter in India was a woman. In the folk arts of India this creative expressional side of Indian women is best seen. The art of drawing figures, geometrical patterns and floral designs on the floor in colours is universal among all classes of Indian women. Hindu girls are really the folk artists of India; they create for the mere joy of creation. The love of their religion calls for their services in a practical manner and that is to beautify their homes for occasions like festivals and worship. Nothing give greater joy to an Indian girl than to be busy cleaning the house, watering the street, tending the tulsi plant, hanging festoons and torans across the doors and decorating the floors of houses and streets with designs of white and colored rice powder. This art is entirely in the hands of women-folk in India, and it is a highly developed decorative art in which the artists and the onlookers take delight and pride. It is entirely a freehand art, and most of the girls that draw such beautiful patterns freely and "out of their minds" have had no instruction or training in drawing or designing. The forms and the contents are drawn from their own imagination carried on through generations; and in the joyous exuberance of their life it finds the fullest and the freest expression.

Three women artists stand out prominently among the small group of modern painters of the Indian Renaissance, Sunayani Devi, Pratima Devi and Sukumari Devi. All these three artists have come under the influence of Abanindranath Tagore, the leader of this modern movement in Indian painting. Of the art of Sunayani Devi, Mr. G. Venkatachalam, writes as follows: "In the art of Sunayani Devi we see no influence of any of the leading artists of the Tagore School, though she works under their inspiration, She is distinctly herself; her originality is admirable. She has coined new types of faces for her head-studies which are delightfully Sunayani Devi's. Indian artistic convention demands that certain ideal faces must be drawn with certain definite type of eyes and expression. The Indian artistic anatomy which permits copying of "ideal forms" from all the kingdoms of nature, gives Indian artists greater freedom of choice and an infinite variety of types. The half-closed, elongated eyes, which give an introspective look, for instance, are used to portray divine beings; the fish-shaped eyes with long eye-lashes are meant for royalties; the eyes of a deer in spring time, for human lovers; the almond-shaped eyes for men of pleasures and so on and so forth. Every conventional type in Indian art has its deeper significance; and Sunayani Devi, with the imagination and the instinct of a true artist, has coined types which are original and suggestive. Her paintings of Radha and Krishna have the eternal charm of the divine lovers, tender, compassionate and full of mirth and innocent mischief. All these are indicated by the peculiar shape of the eyes she has given to those faces. Sunayani's special charm lies in her bold drawings and vivid colourings. She is a great admirer of the folk-art of Bengal and a close analysis of her works will reveal the basis of her art in that".

Pratima Devi belongs to the family of the Tagores. She paints on large canvases, and her art shows very much Ajantan influence. She has painted big panel studies of the Buddha in a strikingly an interesting manner, and one sees a little trace of Japanese influence in her technique. That is inevitable, as a good number of these artists did learn at first hand some of the technical features of the Japanese art direct from the artists of Japan who were invited to teach them their methods and on which the Indian artists experimented latterly. Pratima Devi was one of those who came under the direct tuition of the Japanese artists, and she has succeeded remarkably in assimilating some of the essential features of the pictorial art of Japan. Her “Prince Siddartha and Devadatta” is a best example of that kind. It is to be regretted that of late we do not see many works from her brush, but it is hoped that she will take to her artistic career with a little more lest and enthusiasm and delight us with her beautiful creations.

Sukumari Devi is the youngest of the three and is a student at Santiniketan. Her delightful little decorative paintings are being greatly admired and she is slowly winning a place for herself among the rising generation of young artists in India. Mr. G. Venkatachalam summarises her art very ably in the following paragraph: "Folk art in India is essentially decorative and Sukumari Devi is first and foremost a decorative artist. If the purpose of decorative art is to weave out of an ensemble of lines, masses and textures, a magical pattern of adesiredkind or of an infinite variety to effect a cameos of perfection, then Sukumari's art is truly decorative. Originality of designs, skilful combination of lines and a proper arrangement of colours are some of the essential features of a good decorative art. Sukumari has an over-abundance of imaginative feeling which expresses itself in flowing lines and intricate patterns. Her "Krishnna teaching Radha Flute" (the collection of Mr. B. N. Treasuryvala of Bombay) is an exquisite composition of color-masses of vivid yellow, green, black and gold. "Krishna the Charioteer" (in the collection of the Chitrasala, Mysore) is a delightfully drawn tapestry-like decorative work; "Ganga Mai" or the Descent of the Ganges (now in possession of Dr. Johnson of Trichy) is a fine, charming piece of decorative painting, done in black and white, green and gold. The wavy, foaming waterfall, the figure of the Goddess on a mythological vahana, the standing figure of Bhagiratha performing penance near the foot of the chasm and the general grouping of reveal a remarkable originality that is rare the decorative details in a young artist”.

There are other rising girl artists who are showing great promise, prominent among them being Gowri Devi, the gifted daughter of Nandalal Bose, Kironbala Devi, Sushila Devi, Gnana Sundari Devi and Lakshmi Devi. And thus Indian women are coming to their own in the different departments of human activities, and with the inborn, natural artistic instinct they possess they are sure to enrich Indian art and raise it to its ancient glory and grandeur.

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