Artists: Notes on Art Making

The aims of art have been very various at different times and in different places. The aims of Indian art, as of Indian culture in general, have changed less than the aims of art elsewhere, a fact not so much due to the supposed conservatism of India, as to the fact that Indian civilization and culture are founded upon a rock. As in two previous papers I have discussed the present state of Indian art, it seems to me important now to enquire what has been this consistent aim of Indian art in the past, and of what importance it is that the same aim should still be before the Indian artist, and of what value art of any kind is to India today. Some-one, it may have been Sir George Birdwood, has said that,

"Antiquity from its being nearer than we are to the divine origin of things, was ever mindful to symbolize in its sublime art the truth of the conviction that the green circle of the earth and the shining frame of the out-stretched heavens are but the marvellous intertexture of the veil dividing between the world we see, and the unseen and unseeable world beyond. This is the mason of the vitality, the dignity, and the power of giving contentment possessed by the arts of the world of antiquity, with which the arts of the modern world of the West will never be indued until they also become animated by the spirit of the pristine faith of every historical race in the old world."

This is a statement of the truth of which every student of Indian art must be convinced. We nowhere find art for art's sake, but everywhere art for the sake of men and of gods. Indian art like every other aspect of Indian culture is informed with religious ideas; it has sought always first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and in my view, all else has been added to it. The study of Asiatic art is yet in its infancy; in the meanwhile it is necessary for us to speak with the courage of our convictions and say without hesitation what we really believe, that the artistic achievement of India at various times, has been as great as any that the world has seen. The most unprofitable use of art which we can make is to quarrel over the relative superiority of its several achievements; and yet we must hold some view as to their value and perhaps we shall not be altogether wrong in, making public what we think, at a time when, in India at least, the deeper significance of art is almost forgotten. It is always easy to point out deficiencies and to discover what a man or a nation has not accomplished; but it is not a profitable pursuit, and we shall find ourselves doing better by considering what has been the accomplishment of Indian art, and what were its aims. These aims were often enough quite contrary in their trend, to the criticisms levelled against the resulting productions. What it is important to see, then, is that Indian art, just as much as Greek or Gothic, must be considered for its own sake, as an end in itself and not merely as a foil or set off to these.

When we first meet with Indian art in permanent form, in the buildings of Asoka, and particularly at Bharhut, its special characteristic is already well-marked. This characteristic is its Idealism. This it shared, of course, with the early Asiatic and Egyptian art that preceded it; but it alone has remained true to one ideal since, and carried that ideal further than any others. Before the building of the Bharhut rails, the aims of Greek art had already sunk from idealism to naturalism: and with the exception of 13th century Western European sculpture and 14th and early 15th century Italian painting, there has been no great idealistic school in the West at any later time. How long ago the idealism of Indian art was self-conscious we do not know; so little have Indians valued or studied the wonderful collection of works on art known collectively as the Silpa Sastra, that we do not even know when the canons of proportion and design were formulated. It must have been long ago, before the Muhammadan invasions, and before the growth of a feeling of antagonism between Hinduism and Southern Buddhism; the canon may have been transmitted orally before it was committed to writing; and idealism must have been a conscious aim long before the canon, in which its methods are defined and established, was laid down at all.

We shall understand the idealism of Indian art as well from a study of the Bharhut sculptures as in any other way. Consider the trees particularly. There are two ways of seeing a tree; at a first glance, or in a photograph, or an impressionist sketch, it strikes us as an irregular growth of branches and leaves, producing a confused effect of light and shade. We soon learn to distinguish one kind of tree from another. But as we consider more deeply a number of trees of different kinds, we realise that each has, as it were, a law of its being; its leaves have a certain form, with a certain range of variation, its branches a certain manner of growth, its flowers a particular symmetry; each actual tree seems to be an incarnation or embodiment of some more perfect and rhythmical idea of the tree. This idea it is the artist's business as the prophet and seer to reveal to others. In this way the work of the artist and of the scientist are reconciled in a common aim: each is endeavouring to recognize the one in the many, to formulate natural laws, always a master passion of the Indian mind. All lotus flowers are resumed in the eight or sixteen petaled forms of Indian art. Just so in Western mediaeval art all roses are resumed in the Tudor rose; the ‘Tudor rose’ is as much a ‘natural law’ as the ‘law of gravity.’ It ‘explains’ all roses just as much (and just as little) as the law of gravity explains the fall of an apple and the flow of a river. Such laws once discovered, are discovered for good, and this explains the permanence of so many of the decorative motifs of Indian art ; they could only change in the direction of naturalism, and that would be again to clothe them in the accidental and unessential, from which art has separated them in its ideal world.

The ideal treatment of the human figure is a greater thing. The human ideal is infinitely complex, whether we regard man as made in the image of God, or as an incarnation of part of God himself. The ideal form, say of a lotus, is a thought in the mind of Isvara; the ideal man is part of Isvara himself. Indian figure sculpture, while, of course, unable to cope with the expression of the infinite in finite terms, has yet endeavoured to express more than the mere human idea; in other words, since it could not express the whole, it has depicted neither God (the Unconditioned) nor man (the very limited), but gods, who to finite man represent comprehensible aspects of an infinite whole. Brahma is not represented; but the personal gods, even the highest, may be symbolized in art, according to the capacity of those that worship them. For simple men a god not too farawaywasmeet, one ‘easy to reach,’ such as Ganesha; others can make the effort requisite to reach even Nataraja; and there are some who set the heart upon the unconditioned only, who cannot in any wise be represented. In one sense it may be said that the ideal of Indian sculpture was thus the representation of the ‘superman,’ in the Indian view nothing else than God. It is natural that such ideals should have reacted on work of less exalted aim and that we should find the same great qualities in the early statues even when mere kings and men were the subjects.

Thus whether in decorative or substantive art, the consistent Indian aim has been to represent the Ideal, to express in the language of form and colour the logos or Idea underlying phenomenal appearance.

The aim of the trained scientific or artistic imagination is to conceive (con-cipio to take hold of) or invent (in-venio to light upon) some unifying truth otherwise unsuspected. The fact already exists; the creative genius discovers it. The theory of evolution, or of electrons, or atoms;[1] the rapid discovery by a mathematical genius of the answer to an abstruse calculation; the conception that flashes into the artist's mind, all these represent some true vision of the Idea underlying phenomenal experiences. Ideal art is thus rather a spiritual discovery, than a creation.

The mere imitation of nature is not attempted, because not desired. The revelation of the idea underlying each sensuous appearance has more concerned the Indian artist, than has the appearance itself. He embodies the vision arrived at by inward contemplation, in the language of art, which is based on natural forms. It is from natural form that he must learn the grammar of his speech; the thing which he has to say must come from within. How long ago this point of view was consciously assumed by Indian art, we can hardly say; perhaps when the whole idealistic philosophy grew into shape; or it may be as old as Egypt. In later times, it is clearly expressed in the words of Shukracharya, quoted by A. N. Tagore on p. 392 of the first volume of this journal:-

“The artist should attain to the images of gods by means of spiritual contemplation only. This spiritual vision is the best and truest standard for him. [2] He should depend upon it, and not, indeed, upon the visible objects perceived by external senses.”

“It is always commendable for the artist to draw the images of gods. To make human figures is bad, and even unholy. [3] It is far better to present the figure of a god though it is not beautiful, than to reproduce a remarkably handsome human figure.” [4]

The doctrine of idealism is here stated with uncompromising sternness by the great sage, in relation to the kind of art which is generally called 'fine' or 'high.' It would not be reasonable to expect that all art should be produced at this high tension. The simple expression of man's joy in handicraft, of his humour, his fear, or his desire, are motifs sufficient to inspire the lesser art which should be a part of, and should humanize, every aspect of daily life. What does matter, is the aim of the highest art, for all art is really one whole, and the less conscious aim of the lesser sort of art will be the same as that of the greater. And we find that in India this is so ; the same idealism pervades it all, is as conspicuous in 18th century Sinhalese art, (representing Indian art reduced to the level of a great and beautiful scheme of peasant decoration), as it is in Early Indian, Ajantayan, or 16th century Dravidian. It is this fact which gives so much dignity and value to the lesser arts of India, and separates them so entirely in spirit from the 'pagan' art of the Western renaissance, or the merely imitative decorative art of modern Europe. We have seen one religious view of art. The relation between art and religion is a matter of eternal interest. The whole of Indian life is so based on theocratic ideals that it is not surprising that art should also be. India is wont to express the eternal and inexpressible in terms of sensuous beauty. The love of man for woman and for nature, symbolize the love of man for God. The recognition of the unity of all life leads the artist to depict the beauty and the wonder of it; the knowledge that all diversity is a manifestation of but one reality, leads him ever to seek the ideal and avoid the transitory and accidental. Indian religion as a whole has accepted art as it has accepted life in its entirety, yet with open eyes.

“Any Indian man or woman will worship at the feet of some inspired wayfarer who tells thorn that there can be no image of God, that the world itself is a limitation and go straightway, as the natural consequence, to pour water on the head of the Siva-lingam” (Okakura, Ideals of the East).

There is another religious attitude towards art, that of the ascetic or sannyasi. It is illustrated by the Buddhist monk Chitta Guta who dwelt as a recluse in a certain cave for 6O years without ever raising his eyes so far as to observe that the roof was beautifully painted, nor was he aware of the yearly flowering of a great na-tree before his cave, except by seeing the pollen fallen on the ground. He was following the instruction of the Dhammika Sutta, “Form, sound, taste, smell, touch, these intoxicate beings; cut off the yearning which is inherent in them.”

It is thought by many Hindus and Buddhists as it has been by many Christians, that rapid spiritual progress is compatible only with an ascetic life. The goal is salvation from the round of repeated individual existence and the realisation of man's one-ness with the unconditioned. Before such a goal is reached even the highest intellectual attachments must be relinquished; art, like all else in time and space, must go. This attitude is quite logical in the case of one who believes that rapid spiritual progress can thus only be made, and who is in haste. But it is admitted that spiritual progress can be made in other ways, and perhaps not much less quickly, for example, by the performance of right action without attachment to the fruit. And for those who tread such paths, art is a means and an aid to spiritual progress; but it is important that it should be so used, and not as a hindrance. And so like everything else, it has been made a part of religion; the ‘pagan’ sense of all life as a sacrament survives still, and explains how the Indian is able to regard all things as a part of his religion, including the love of woman.

The ascetic path has never been intended for all men, and all occasions. The citizen or householder is first, as without him the race would not continue and the purpose of the cosmos would fail. Art is of the first importance, as the form of culture which most easily humanises his toil and spiritualizes his ideas.

There is a third religious attitude to art' however, based on a confusion of the two alreadymentioned; thatispuritanism. This wish to impose the ascetic ideal of renunciation upon the citizen appears to be founded on a confusion of ideas. The citizen should indeed be restrained; but the very essence of his method is that he should learn restraint or temperance by life, not by the rejection of life. The ascetic ideal is right for those to whom it appeals, (except when it is really a form of selfishness); the citizen's ideal is for the many, and it is important that the two paths should not be confused.

So long as man is related to the world of phenomenal appearance, whether real or not, art of some kind is the necessary means of spiritualizing that relation. This applies as much to the ornament of utilitarian objects and to architecture, as to the purely substantive and ideal art which definitely aims at the revelation of the divine. I have more than once heard it said by 'practical' men that art, as it used to be practised in India, was a waste of time. The organized guilds of royal craftsmen were disbanded when a Western ruler came; and too often the ruler of a native state to-day, guided by a mistaken notion of the practical, has also dismissed the royal craftsmen and musicians. How unpractical such an attitude can be, I have suggested in an earlier article. It is based on a mistaken view of the purpose and power of art.

There is a view of art, which if true, would go far to justify the statement that art is a waste of time. This is the modern western view, now much accepted in India, that the only purpose of art is to please, its only goal the representation of beauty. The subject is immaterial, and need not even be comprehensible, much less edifying, if only it be considered beautiful. Well, if art be only such a tickling of the senses, a pastime like billiards or horse-racing, then it is true that we in India, upon whom lies so heavy a burden of work today, ought not to waste our time on art. But remember that all art is one; if pure pleasure be the aim of any art, it is of all; if any be waste of time, all are the same. If you will not allow the carpenter to ornament the door-jambs of your house, neither should you allow the poet to write for you or the singer to sing. Not so did men so practical and so devout as Akbar and Asoka regard the matter; not so shall we, if we are wise. The imagination in man, scientific and artistic, is the quality which most indicates his real evolution from a lower state. If we banish from our house the carven timber and from our bodies beautiful adornment, save it be from the strictly ascetic point of view, we become no better than the beasts who live in dens.[5] All art is a very essential part of culture, an integral and inseparable part of any noble 'civilization.' The ornament added lightly by the craftsman to an everyday utensil, is at once the humanization of his labour, and the witness that man does not live by bread alone. These are the great meaning that art has for all of us, and fools we are if any ideal of ' utility' should blind us to it.

Let us pass to a consideration of tradition and convention in Indian art. Some would have it that in them we see the foes of art, and the time has come for Indian art to free itself. But was any noble art free from the help, as I call it, of tradition and convention? Says Prof. Gardner,-

" At all times, in the history of Greek art, sculptor and painter succeed in nothing better than slight variations on a given theme, by which they manage, without once breaking with tradition, (to cast) it in ever fresh forms of beauty." [6]

Moris calls it

"That wonderful, almost miraculous accumulation of the skill of ages, which men find themselves partakers in without effort on their part."

Take in illustration of tradition, the images, Hindu or Buddhist. Strict rules are laid down in the Silpa Sastras as to the proportion of the figures, the attributes to be associated with them, and the pose of body and limbs. Here is a specimen from the canon-

“These are the marks of Siva, a glorious visage, three-eyed, a bow and arrow, a garland of serpents, ear-rings, a rosary, four hands, a trisula, a noose, a deer, hands pointed up and down, a garment of tiger skin, his vehicle a Bull of the hue of the thank" (Rupavaliya).

The written tradition, perhaps at one time only orally transmitted, is thus only mnemonic or memory verse, exactly corresponding to the mnemonic verses of early Indian literature.[7] In both cases the artist had also a living and fuller tradition, handed down in the schools from generation to gene-ration, enabling him to fill out the meagre details of the written canon. There was room also for the expression of his individual genius.

Another example will explain the position better still. In figure 1, I have reproduced from a Tamil artist's note-book, about a century old, a sketch of Nataraja, [8] another form assumed by Siva. This sketch embodies the bare details given in the canon (which in this case I am unable to quote) together with the traditional interpretation; it represents very fairly just that amount of guidance which tradition hands on for the behoof of each succeeding generation of imagers. Contrast with this the picture shown in the plate B, which is from a bronze of the same subject to be seen in the Madras museum [9]; it may be of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, or earlier. To praise this magnificent work would be superfluous! It shows what a tradition can mean when interpreted by genius.

I take another case. The traditional representation of the seated Buddha is too well known to need description or a reference to the canon. It is quite typical of the cases in which tradition and convention are supposed to fetter artistic imagination. But in the plate O, I reproduce a Javanese figure of a Dhyani Buddha, [10] which shows that this simple conception can be made the vehicle of all the beauty and emotion and repose that can be expressed at all, in the language of art. This One, with “in unfettered, quiescent, and absolutely pure mind," is a conception belonging to all time, a vessel into which the genius of the greatest artist we can imagine can be poured without fear of over-flowing. The tradition is the means of expression of each succeeding generation of artists.

We have seen the tradition as enabling the greatest artist to say, in a language understanded of the people, all that art can say. This element in the power of traditional art must not be forgotten,-it enables the artist to speak directly to the heart without the necessity for explanation, which reduces the value of more individualistic art ; at the same time the tradition does not hinder, but rather helps, the artist to express the deepest that is in him individually.

What was the relation of the tradition to inferior workmen, the majority for whom art is but a craft? It gave them a conception so defined, as to avoid all danger of the greatand sacredsubjectsbeing treated absurdly or irreverently. How well this aim was attained, is shown by the vulgarity and stupidity that do appear in Indian art, whenever the tradition is rudely and contemptuously broken with. But the tradition while it existed, saved the vulgar or stupid man from his own folly, and made it possible for him to work acceptably, within its limits.

So much for the meaning of the tradition as it is, perhaps I should say, as it was, for it is scarcely alive to-day. I hear it said that it is dead, and that even were it not, there are new things to say, new hopes and fears and loves to be expressed; all art is not un fait accompli, there is more to be done than merely to copy and copy; the future is infinite and cannot be limited by the conventions of the past. And this is nothing but the truth. But the fault lies not in the inherent nature of the tradition, much rather in the very fact that it is no longer alive and developing, no longer enriched by the continual addition of new motifs and new synthesis of feeling. Art is a language, and will be a dead language if no change in it be permitted, if it is not to be the medium of expression of new ideas and new thoughts, it will lose relativity to national life. But like the spoken language, it can only change nobly, in response to an impulse from within, the irresistible demand for words in which to communicate the new conceptions. I think no one will claim that the recent change in the aims and methods of Indian art, or the rejection of tradition are an expression of any new thing which the heart of India is endeavouring to express at this very time. Much rather are they the parrot repetition of much that has elsewhere been repeated unto weariness already. [11] When a living Indian culture arises out of the wreck of the past and the struggle of the present, a new tradition will be born, and the new thoughts will find expression in the language of form and colour no le than in the language of words and rhythm. The people to whom the great conceptions came long ago are still the Indian people, and when life is strong in them again, strong also will be their art. It may well be that the fruit of a deeper national life, a wider culture, a greater knowledge and a pro-founder love, will be an art greater than any of the past. It may be that tradition as known to us will pale before the greatness of the new expression, as the moon pales before a rising sun. But this can only happen as a growth and a development, not by a sudden rejection of the past. The aims of the Indian art are not for one time only, the synthesis of Indian thought is one whole composed equally of present, past and future. We stand in relation to both; the past has made us what we are, the future we ourselves are moulding; our duty to the future is to enrich, not to destroy the past. The aim and the method are eternal, the formula and the vision must change and widen. The future is to be greater than the past; not contemptuous of it, but its inevitable product, an integral part of it. The message of the old tradition to the new, may be given in the words of a great idealist of the present:-

“Singing not our songs, sing thou newer, better.

Thinking not our thoughts, think thou bolder, truer.

Dream thou not our dreams, but dream thou as we dreamt,

Let not our dreams die.”


[1] The atomic or any other theory need not represent objective fact; but may nevertheless stand for a fact, incarnate in words, more real than any particular example of a reaction between two elements, because it represents a part of what is not accidental or transitory in any particular relation of elements.

[2] Sometimes the canon itself is meant more to stimulate this vision, than to define the manner of its presentation. "The image (of Buddha) must exemplify a person with an unfettered, quiescent, and absolutely pure mind" (Sariputra); or again "The neigh of a horse is like the sound of a storm, his eyes like the lotus, he is swift as the wind, as stately as a lion, and his gait is the gait of a dancer" (Rupavaliya).

[3] Meaning that portraiture is a lesser aim than the representation of ideal forms. In terms of European art, it would have been a sin for Giotto or Botticolli, who could give to the world an ideal conception of the Madonna, to have been content to portray obviously earthly persons posing as the Madonna, as was done generally in the sixteenth century, when art had passed from spirituality to naturalism. So also, Millais later work, has a lower aim than his earlier. In the same way, the work of Ravi Vanua, representing mere men, posing as gods and heroes, transcripts of living models, is 'unholy' compared with the ideal pictures of Tagore.

[4] The very antithesis of the Puritan attitude, which is opposed to all art but especially to that of the imager who attempts to represent.

[5] “If we are to be excused for rejecting the arts, it must be not because we are contented to be less than men, but because we long to be more than men” (William Morrie). My experience has been that those who regard art as superfluous, are not often of those who long to be more than men, but are of those whose ideal is one of purely material prosperity. “Industry without art is brutality.”

[6] Grammar of Greek Art, 1905, p. 191.

[7] For example, the satsatiya, or seven great weeks in the life of Buddha are thus summarised in the 'Dipavamsa', 1, 29, —"The throne, the Animisa (sanctuary), the cloisters, the gem court, the Ajapala (tree), and the Muzalinda (tree) together with the Khirapala (grove) as the seventh." The reciter had to fill in the details of the story and make it live, from the traditional knowledge outside this mere mnemonic.

[8] Nataraja, the 'Dancing Lord' is a great and wonderful conception. The legend is given in the Koyil Puranam is briefly as follows:—Ten thousand rishis endeavoured to destroy Siva, who appeared amongst them in disguise. A fierce tiger was created in sacrificial fires, and rushed upon Him, but smiling gently He seized it with His sacred hands, and with the nail of His little finger ripped off its skin, and wrapped it round Himself as a soft silken garment... Undiscouraged by failure they renewed their offerings, from out of which came a monstrous serpent, which He seized and wreathed about His neck, where it ever hangs; and then began His mystic dance. And now came forth the last monster in the shape of a black dwarf, hideous and malignant Upon him the God pressed the tip of His sacred foot, and broke the creature's back, so that he writhed on the ground; and thus, with His last foe prostrate, Siva resumed the dance of which all the gods were witnesses (Pope, Tiruvacagam p. lxiii). An interpretation of the legend says that He subdues and wraps about Him as a garment, the tiger fury of human passion; the guile and malice of mankind He wears as a necklace, and beneath His feet is for ever crushed the embodiment of evil. The figure also symbolizes in terms of the marvellous control and rhythm of Indian dancing, the effortless ease with which the God in His grace supports the cosmos. It is but play to Hith. The five acts of creation, destruction, preservation, embodiment and gracious release, are His ceaseless mystic dance. Around His head appears a glory, He dances within a ring of flames of light. In sacred Tillai shall the dance be finally revealed and Tillai is the very centre of the Universe; that is; His Uwe is within the cosmos and the soul.

[9] The photograph was taken for me, in Madras, by the kindness of Mr. Edgar Thurston, Director of the Museum. For the other photograph I am indebted to the kindness of Mr. E. B. Havell, Principal of the Calcutta School of Art.

[10] Dhyani Buddha. The earthly mortal Buddha is sometimes regarded as merely a projection or partial incarnation of a pure and glorious being existent on a finer, ideal plain. A statue of Dhyani Buddha stands for this pure being, not merely for the man as he appeared on earth. The idea corresponds to the Hindu conception of partial incarnation. We are also reminded of Myers' theory of personality, with its 'threshold of consciousness', dividing the greater part not functioning on the material plane, from the lesser which does so function.

[11] “That virtue of originality that men so strain after is not newness (as they vainly think), it is only genuineness; it all depends on this single glorious faculty of getting to the spring of things and working out from that; it is the coolness, and clearness and delicious-ness of water fresh from the fountain-head, opposed to the thick, hot, unrefreshing drainage from other men's meadows” (Ruskin, ‘Modern Painters’).
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now