A picture has, properly speaking, two functions, with both of which the cheapness of modern commerce has sadly interfered. One of these is its place in architecture; the other is its place in the book. The first was developed in India to an extraordinary degree, under the Buddhistic civilisations of the first thousand years of the Christian Era. The second was equally highly developed under the auspices of the Mogul dynasty of Delhi. In both cases, the basis on which a great art was reared, is still extant. In any village, or on the old river-boats, we may see the rude mural decorations, processions of horses, dogs and elephants, or pictures of tiger-hunts, or marriage ceremonies, all interspersed with sterns and scrolls, and half-geometrical flowers,-out of which grew the noble works of Ajanta, and Sigiriya in Ceylon. In every province, despite paint-boxes, filled with horrible aniline dyes, linger the old school artists, with their bazaar-pictures, so reminiscent of a glory that has passed.
Modern easel-painting. is a compromise between these two functions. The picture of today aims at illustrating a single moment in a sustained intellectual conception, epic or natural, like the book- illustration. But it attempts to combine with this, the grandeur and breadth of wall-painting. It is more or less large, and yet it is detachable. In actual book-illustration, the thirst after perfection of the old masters, has now been modified by considerations of easy mechanical reproduction, till specimens of the old work have become like precious jewels, to be sought after with eagerness and rarely found.
There can be no doubt that there is a great future in India for mural painting. The large halls of assembly that the coming era of nationality and democracy will popularise,- for purposes of education and of the civic life,--will all demand decoration, and undoubtedly that decoration will take the form of painting, to a great extent. This painting will have three different subjects, the national ideals, the national history, and the national life. Amongst these shadows of noble thought, the men and women of the future will grow up. Against such a background, a constantly grander civic life will be moulded.
These village-halls, in which the deepening political consciousness of the future will find expression, have had their prototypes in India, in the chaitya-halls of the Buddhist viharas, by means of which, as Mr. Havell very lucidly points out, one of the great world-schools has been developed in art.
"The universities of ancient India, like those of Taksashila, near the modern Peshawar, Nalanda in Bengal, and Sridhanya Kataka (Amaravati) on the banks of the Krishna, comprised schools of religious painting and sculpture and in these great culture-centres of India all foreign artistic ideas were gradually transformed by Indian thought, and nationalised.
From them, also, the Indian art thus created radiated all over Asia in the great epoch dating from about the first century B.C. down to about the eighth century of our era. No doubt it was to these Schools that India owed the paintings of Ajanta as well as the sculptures of Amaravati, Ellora, and Elephanta. The early Buddhist records contain many allusions to 'picture halls', which were no doubt the halls of monasteries painted with sacred subjects, like those of the sculpture galleries already described; or paintings on the walls of garden quadrangles, protected by verandahs, such as are commonly attached to royal palaces end private dwellings in Northern India. These were used as picture-galleries even in recent times, before Indian art fell into utter disrepute."
Undoubtedly it was the existence of the great chaitya-halls,--used as these were, in the Buddhist abbeys, for monastic chapters, general councils, worship, and university purposes,-that occasioned the rise of the magnificent schools of Indian painting, whose remains we still find, in the caves of Ajanta.
It is clear, also, that such paintings must have been executed by members of the Order residing in the monastery itself, in the same way that the Dominican Convent of San Marco outside Florence has been decorated, by the hand of Fra Angelico. There can be no doubt that it was the monks themselves who spent their talent and energy in building, sculpturing, or painting the ancient viharas. This was the contribution of certain members to the common good. They required no reward for their services, beyond maintenance and. the active sympathy and encouragement of their fellows. It is for this reason that monastic orders have always been able to do memorable work, in whatever direction they have applied themselves.
"The period covered by the religious paintings of Ajanta", says Mr. Havell, "extends from about the second or first centuries before Christ to about the seventh century of our era, or over most of the great epoch of Indian art which has been reviewed in the previous chapters. Unfortunately, owing in a great measure to neglect and ill-treatment these beautiful paintings have lost all their original charm of colour, and are so damaged otherwise as to be at present only pitiable wrecks of what they have been. We can see in the best Ajanta paintings, especially in those of the caves numbered 16 or 17, the same intense love of nature or spiritual devotion as are evident in the sculptures of Borobudur."
From the fragments published in the work of Mr. John Griffiths on Ajanta, it would seem that this combination of artistic ideals Hellenic and mediaeval Catholic, was the most remarkable feature of the Ajanta pictures. But Mrs. C. I. Herringham, a distinguished art-critic who has seen them lately for the first time, has stated in England that their most striking distinction lies in their delineation of state-ceremonials and processions, and in the ease with which the artists discriminate between persons of low and of noble race,--powers that the art of Europe, as she points out, had not yet acquired, in the time of Giotto, five hundred years later.
It is to the gem-like works of the court-painters of the Mogul period and after, that Mr. Havell has been obliged to go, for the bulk of his illustrations of Modern Indian painting. Messrs, John Murray &. Sons are to be congratulated on the beauty of some of their reproductions of these, especially for the wonderful "Portrait Group by one of Shah Jahan's Court Painters" that forms the frontispiece of the whole volume.
But true to his own inspiration, Mr Havell does not neglect the present. The charming “circle of travellers round a camp-fire,” which he gives as a specimen of the work of unknown artists today has evidently suffered in reproduction. The lights are too defined, the. touch too hard. Yet it is a typical Indian scene. If only Indian men and women were prepared to buy such works, there would be more produced. The artist has felt thethrill of the midnight scene under the trees: the hushed voices, the half-veiled woman listening in the doorway to the tale told in the flickering fire-light, the sense of converging roads, of the parting, never again to meet, that the dawn will bring.
When we realise that it is our own want of culture that prevents our selecting and buying such pictures, as this, we are able better to understand the depth of education that characterised the women of the Mogul Court when they collected some of the priceless manuscripts to be seen in the Khuda Bakhsh Library at Bankipore. It was the Queen Arjamand Banu- to whom afterwards the Taj was built- who spent 40,000 Rs. to buy, for her husband’s birthday, the illuminated book that bears his signature. In great ages, woman is always educated, always competent, and often literary. Her ignorance marks the oncoming of national decadence.
Nothing could better illustrate at once the likeness and difference of the Mogul abd the modern styles of painting, than a comparison between such pictures as the portrait of Sadi and Mr Tagore’s illustration for Omar Khayyam.
There is a marvellous quality of truthfulness and imagination in the Mogul portraits. But the modern sets himself to convey the mental atmosphere of his subject. He so paints a man- seated on a roof, at sunrise- that we follow him into his very dreams.
Sadi also is a poet, painted with book in hand, and intensity of thought upon his face. But this Omar seems to melt away into his own reverie.
The fault of the old painters may have been a leaning towards too great severity: the fault of the moderns is a tenderness and sentiment that approaches sometimes too near the verge of weakness.
There is no weakness in the final picture of the modern school, reproduced by Mr Havell. Whatever we may think historically of the Flight of Lakshman Sen in 1203, before the Mahommedans, - and I for one do not accept a word of the current nonsense that would make of him a coward!- the picture, by Surendra Nath Ganguly, is magnificent, strong, nervous, full of energy and vigour. The escape of a discrowned king speaks in every line. We could have named it, has there been no title. And after all, is not the moment portrayed one of promise, if also of regret? Sadness for the occasion, promise for the art? The picture speaks of both. The boat waits by the palace steps. But- the door is left open, and in the grim determination of the face of the fugitive king, hope still lives! It is a moment of withdrawal rather than flight. In some remote fastness of his kingdom, Lakshman Sen will still live and reign. When the hour strikes, he will return again!