Artists: Notes on Art Making

I have been invited by the Editor to contribute one or more papers on Indian art; I shall, therefore, endeavour in two or three articles to review its present state and future prospects. The first deals particularly with the ‘line arts,’ i.e., painting and sculpture, not purely decorative in intention, though it must be understood that no real or hard line between fine and other art can or ought to be drawn. It will be necessary to go back a little in time, and briefly- trace the history of Indian fine art.

Not long ago there existed at least two interesting and closely connected schools of painting in northern India, the Delhi or Lucknow portrait-painters, and the painters of the Kangra valley. They display not only a capacity for composition, perfect colouring and tender feeling, but also very often a wonderfully accurate knowledge of drawing; the best work is, in fact, of a very high order. The finest collection of historical portraits is to be found in the Lahore museum, where it has been brought together through the patient and appreciative efforts of Mr Percy Brown, Principal of the Mayo School of Art. The finest general collection is to be seen in the Calcutta School of Art, where its presence is due to the foresight and appreciation of the principal, Mr. E. B. Havell and of Mr. Abanindra Nath Tagore, the present Acting Principal. The Maharaja of Jaipur has also a fine collection, and doubtless there are other royal collections, although it must be remembered that Indian art is rarely appreciated by Indian princes! The portraits are mainly those of kings and saints. Those of the earlier kings must be more or less traditional, but those of later rulers are evidently authentic likenesses. The fact that so many replicas were made and the work so much appreciated, as was evidently the case, argues a continuous tradition and the possession of a large measure of the `historical sense.'

The Dehli style of painting, which in the north has largely superseded a more formal late Hindu style, is not in India of great antiquity. It is of Persian origin; the Musalman rulers brought with them to India beautifully illuminated Persian manuscripts, and became the patrons of a like art in India. In spite of their Musalman puritanism they (and their queens) were great collectors and lovers of beautiful manuscripts, and many of the Mogul Emperors were themselves skilled fair-writers. Akbar is reported to have said: “There are many that hate painting, but such men I dislike. It appears to me as if a painter had quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for in sketching anything that has life, and devising its limbs one after the other, he must feel that he cannot bestow individuality (i.e., a soul) upon his work, and is forced to think of God, the only giver of life, and will thus increase his knowledge.” No wonder that a great art flourished under such conditions: this much is certain, that Musalman puritanism did not injure the life of art in India as modern western civilization has injured it.

The Delhi pictures are painted in `body colour,' i.e., water colour mixed with white, making it solid and opaque; they are done on thin country-made paper, `India paper,' in fact. The tiny paint brushes are made of squirrels' hair. The miniature paintings on ivory are similar in style, but apparently a later departure, the result of European influence; they are now produced on a commercial scale, with a corresponding lack of interest and feeling.

The painters of the Kangra valley dealt with a wider range of subjects; they are well represented in the Lahore museum gallery, in which collection should be noted the camel-string, a group of working goldsmiths, (full of close observation and curiously modern in effect) and the interior showing Radha cooking whilst observed by Krishna from a window; also some flower studies, particularly a mauve iris, drawn with a faithfulness and grace that recall a Ruskin flower or leaf study. Amongst religious subjects, besides Krishna pictures, must be mentioned those of Siva (three-eyed, with Ganga and crescent moon upon his brow), Ganesa and Parvati, with background of snowy hills and flowering forest. The Himalayas are holy land to all the Indian people, from north to farthest south; they are the great cathedral where, in heart, worship all the people of the plains. Naturally the pictures are fulfilled with this emotion, a surrender of the soul at once to God and Nature.

The Kangra paintings appear to represent a more definitely Hindu tradition, which else-where and especially in the south remained more formal and attained less technical perfection. Their technical attainment always suffices to convey at the least a suggestion of the felt emotion, and sometimes to do so with resistless force ; yet they have certain limitations or conventions which may repel an unsympathetic observer ; hence their delicate beauty make but small appeal to the few modern Indians who take any interest in art, and are captivated by the type of modern western art which exalts dexterity and imitation above imagination and tender feeling, seeing the outside, the mere rind and letting the great things escape.'

A more formal late Hindu style naturally predominates in the south where it still appears in a degraded form on temple walls; it is preserved in considerable purity in the 18th century Buddhist wall painting of Ceylon. Whether its stiffness represents the formalisation of a once freer art, or is a survival of an original severe conventionalism, it would seem that there lies in it little germ of growth, though it sufficiently attained its own aim, the decorative presentment of edifying matter.

The only other important Indian paintings which need be referred to here are the 5th century paintings on the walls of rock caves at Ajanta and Sigiri (Ceylon). They show wonderful power and knowledge, but hardly seem to come into the present tale, so little do they seem to fit into the historical sequence of Indian art, or to have influenced its later developments. There is much to be learnt from a sympathetic study of this early work however.

Turning now to the present day, we are brought suddenly face to face with the School of Art style. Much oil and water colour painting is done by the pupils of these schools, some quite clever, but quite indistinguishable (unless by a general weakness in the drawing) from ordinary European work of the same class. It has been questioned whether or not the whole decadence of Indian art in modern times is due to the influence of the schools of art. However this may have been in the past, the influence of schools such as those of Lahore and Calcutta at the present day cannot be other than good, for those in charge of them are in full sympathy with the best Indian art, and in Calcutta, at least, work of the utmost importance has been done; in both schools Indian aims and Indian methods find their due place.

It is otherwise in Bombay, which might be a London suburban drawing school translated wholesale to the East; every influence there is western and there is naturally little or nothing distinctively Indian in the work that has been produced by its students. It is the same at Jaipur, where in the class attached to the state Industrial school, drawing is taught from English natural history wall charts and drawing books. In Ceylon, again, the teaching of drawing is carried out on the most antiquated South Kensington lines, and even the freehand student might get through the Cambridge Local drawing without knowing or appreciating any part of Eastern art whatever. If Indian art-feeling survives at all to-day, it is in spite of influences such as these.

The best known exponent of the school of art style has been the oil-painter Ravi Varma. His works are known throughout India, have often been reproduced and are still growing in popularity. This evidence of the present state of Indian taste is possibly natural but not the less regrettable. It is natural, because the Indian art I have referred to above, although always sincere and decorative, and often spiritual and tender, was yet some-times over-stiff or over-formal, and lacking in technical power ; and so the untrained public, finding a painter who broke through these conventions and produced realistic pictures of familiar subjects, welcomed him with open arms. It has, indeed, been his reward for choosing Indian subjects: that he has thus become a true nationalizing influence to a certain degree; but had he been also a true artist, with the gift of great imagination, his influence must have been tenfold greater and deeper. He is the landmark of a great opportunity, not wholly missed, but ill availed of. Theatrical conceptions, want of imagination, and lack of Indian feeling in the treatment of sacred and epic Indian subjects, are Ravi Varma's fatal faults. No offence can be greater than the treatment of serious or epic subjects without dignity; and Ravi Varma's gods and heroes are men cast in a very common mould, who find themselves in situations for which they have not a proper capacity. Unforgivable, too, is the lack of a spontaneous expression of individual or national idiosyncrasy; for his pictures are such as any European student could paint after perusal of the necessary literature and a superficial study of Indian life. It was not for this that art was given to India ; not that India might but hold a smoky mirror to the art of other men, but rather that she might open yet another window whence men may look out upon the foam of perilous seas and fairy lands forlorn. Alas for the great chance gone by!

The greatest painting in Europe belongs to the period of growth that intervenes between Byzantine formalism and Renaissance science. But in India the golden moment has passed by without the appearance of its Botticelli. Unreasoning worship of ‘correctness,’ erudition, realism, have swept away at once all spontaneous beauty and emotion.

Yet there has been, even now is, at least one witness to show what might have been. I speak, of course, of Abanindra Nath Tagore, now Acting-Principal of the Calcutta School of Art, certainly by far the greatest of living Indian artists, [1] and a significant omen of what may be given to the world in this and other ways, if the Indian people once realize the duty which is theirs, not to borrow what they can from others, but themselves to give.

Amongst the greatest work Tagore has done, a series of Megha-duta pictures must be placed in the first rank; of these the most important are the ‘Banished Yaksha’ [2] and ‘Siddhas of the Upper Air.’ [3] Another picture of great importance is the ‘Passing of Shah Jehan’ [4]; the tenderness and grace and unapproachable Indianness of these delicate water colours is overwhelming. They are the perfect expression of Indian conceptions in an universal language. They reveal the soul of a people, not crudely or superficially, but utterly to those that have eyes to see and ears to hear; they have the mingled reticence and revelation that belongs to all great art. Such work, a true expression of the spirit of Indian nationality, is the perfect flowering of the old tradition; a flower that speaks not only of past loveliness, but is strong and vigorous with promise of abundant fruit. If in every culture-aspect India might thus be transfigured and re-born, then were wisdom justified of her children, and India mean and be again all and more than she has ever meant or been before.

Passing now from painting to speak of sculpture, we find again that a high level of conception and attainment has been reached at various times. The history of Indian sculpture has yet to be written. At the present time money is available for the study of Indian archaeology indeed, but not for that of Indian art.

First at Bharhut and afterwards in the ‘Graeco-Buddhist’ work of the Gandhara school, in the sculptures of Ceylon, Gaya, Sarnath, and in lands like Java and Siam whose art is Indian, Buddhist sculpture rose triumphant. Surely it is with casts of the figures and with the fragments that survive as a wreckage from those great days that our school of art museums should be filled, not only with western classic art!

At a later period the Dravidian sculpture of the south reached a high development. It is no lack of power which meets us here, but rather the terrible clearness with which an almost demonic and abundant life is revealed. There will always be those to whom certain aspects of this art does not appeal; but there has perhaps never been any sculpture at once so powerful and so patient.

Many South Indian bronzes have much grace and shapeliness; the dancing Siva (Nataraja) in the Madras museum is a miracle of swaying, measured and triumphant grace. All the controlled and resistless rhythm of Indian dancing is embodied in this beautiful bronze. The hands are especially noteworthy. Such images reveal new aspects of that divinity which the Egyptians shadowed forth in majesty and silence, Buddhism in utter peace, and the Medieval West in the love and sweetness of ivory statuette or Botticelli fresco. Equally beautiful but smaller bronzes of unknown age are sometimes met with in Ceylon. Old Indian ivory statuettes are rare; the most noteworthy appears to be the figure of Krishna from Orissa which was exhibited at the Delhi Exhibition.

Old Burmese wooden figures are sometimes exceedingly beautiful, with a special feeling for drapery reminding one of Gothic; but the modern alabaster figures which are in Ceylon and some parts of India replacing good local work, are weak and effeminate to the last degree. Perhaps the only really beautiful modern Buddhist work is to be found in Nepal, whence come bronze statues of surpassing charm and grace.

Of modern work from districts where western influence predominates there is little of any importance. The best known is that of Mr. G. K. Mhatre, so lavishly praised by Sir George Birdwood; but, as has been truly remarked, it smacks more of Paris than the East, which is not perhaps unnatural, considering the traditions of the Bombay School of Art. Much of the work that is done for temples in the south and elsewhere is weak and florid, lacking in invention and feeling. Much temple work nowadays is worse than weak, that is, vulgar and unseemly.

Thus, while there is in India ample inspiration for the Indian artist and abundant good ensample, there is on the whole an exceedingly small amount of great art forthcoming. For this there are many reasons; until lately art in India had been entirely in the hands of hereditary craftsmen forming a close corporation, with very definite traditions. Whatever of sculpture or painting originated thus, was accepted unquestionably by the public, just as the public of the Mediaeval west accepted the Gothic art that was the work of guildsmen there. A very large element of enduring beauty and greatness was in such traditional work ; but some forms of it were limited in certain ways and so severely conventional, (and the really very great work was often very local or forgotten) that as soon as modern western art appeared, its form and realism were irresistible to the untrained public; and at the same time the decay of the guild tradition made it possible both for individuals outside the hereditary artistic corporations to practise art, and for the public at large to have a voice in determining the sort of art to be produced. Such a period of artistic upheaval corresponds rather closely with the ‘Renaissance’ of Europe, but without the few great masters that veiled there the true inwardness of what was happening.

At this very time the influence of the Anglicists in India was strongest. Estimates of Indian art prevailed, analogous in prejudice and ignorance to Macaulay's notion of Oriental literature. Certain schools of art were established, wherein the idea prevailed that Indian art deserved no serious study, and students were taught to study western art and western methods, and that they must express such western conceptions as they could assimilate in western art language. Such analocism, so to say, produced the natural result of barrenness of thought and feeling. The study was often moreover brief and superficial, so that the attempt to show more knowledge than was really possessed lead to frequent disaster. Also the secular and materialistic tendency in popular thought made possible a less idealistic treatment of sacred and epic subjects, with the result that trivial and even sensual art became acceptable. Therewith a certain cleverness and realism captivated the public eye and set the new fashion firmly on its legs.

In those days the idea of Indian nationality was scarcely born. Art cannot flower in barren soil; the imitative tendency and lack of self-expression and self-development which marked every aspect of Indian life, could not but be reflected in its art. There are signs that it may be otherwise in days to come; we have adopted an ideal of Nationalism, not merely as a birth-right, but as a duty that we owe to other nations; we are again alive and growing. With the growth of this new life, will come the regeneration of Indian art. Men of transcendent genius must be always few; but the existence of even one such painter as Tagore is an earnest of what Indian art may someday be, losing nothing of its past greatness and having a new richness and power. It is no vainglorious pride that realises self-development and self-expression to be more essential now than any further wholesale assimilation; the shock and the lesson of the western impact were, it may be, needed to arouse the dreamer from his dream; but now it is his to work and give. It will be more blessed to give than to receive.


[1] It is strange, indeed, that his work is better known and more thought of in England and by English artists, than in India and by Indians. It will not be always so. In the meanwhile one would like to ask those who will not exercise their own capacity for artistic judgment, to reflect on the significance of the appreciation given to Tagore in Europe, and the absolute indifference of European artists to the work of Ravi Varma.

[2] This and other of Tagore's works have been reproduced in the ' Studio' and the Bengali magazine Prabasi ; many others have appeared in the `Modern Review.' Siddhas of the Upper Air' and some others are to be seen at the Calcutta School of Art.

[3] Yaksha --one of a class of demigods who are described as attendants of Kuvera, the god of riches, and employed in guarding his gardens and treasures. Siddhas-- semi-divine beings supposed to be of great purity and holiness, and said to be particularly characterised by eight supernatural faculties called Siddhis.

[4] Reproduced in the May number of the Modern Review.
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