Artists: Notes on Art Making

Indian Sculpture and Painting [1]

We have here for the first time a book about Indian art written by a European, which expresses, throughout its pages, a feeling of love and respect for India and her people. To Mr Havell, Indian art is no mere toy of commerce, nor is it even the fruit of some rich bygone period, irretrievably departed. He sees India past, present and future, as one. The builders of fortresses and tombs, of palaces and temples are the same Indian people, who are alive today and could do as much again, if need arose, or opportunity called. Seeing behind each historic achievement of our art, the social and psychological background that gave it birth, he finds, in our present continuity with that background, the rich promise of the future. Indian society is still unspoilt, in this author’s eyes, for art and industries. As long as the handicraft dominates the situation, India remains in that fertile mediaeval condition, out of which the cathedrals of Europe were built, and her great pictures painted, but which Europe for love of gain, has cast for ever behind her.

“India, unlike Europe”, says our author, “has a still living, traditional, and national art, intimately bound up with the social and religious life of the people; and this art, if we knew it better, might help both Europeans and Indians to a closer mutual sympathy and understanding. But the secularised and denationalised art of Europe has no affinity with the living art of India, and we, aliens in race, thought, and religion, have never taken anything but a dilettante archaeological, or commercial interest in it. Its deeper meanings are hidden from us, and those spiritual longings and desires which come straight from the heart of a people, to find expression in their poetry, music, and their art, strike no chord of sympathy in ours."

But this passage must not be held by Indian readers to imply that we, because we still have a "living, traditional and national art" are to hold blindly by every chance, thought and impulse that comes to us artistically, believing that we are divinely inspired in this matter and therefore, unfailingly correct in every particular. Such a fallacy could not tempt us, in other subjects. India, almost alone amongst the nations, has still, in like fashion, "a living traditional and national" logic of her own. But this does not mean that every Indian tyro is logically infallible! A severe training would be necessary, for the most Indian of Indians, before he could venture to trust his own opinion against that of the pundits of Nuddea, for instance, and the training required to qualify. The judgment in art is not less stern and difficult than that for logic. We have just been going through the least hopeful and most chaotic transition that has ever overtaken us as a people, in art. Under European Commercialism, our decorative faculty has been shaken to its very roots. Our architecture is undermined by the desire for cheapness, and the high fiscal value of materials. Our nobler ideals have been almost eclipsed by the love of cheap notoriety. If we are ever to emerge out of this confusion, we can only do so by patiently building up a great art on a basis of sincere admiration of the truly beautiful for true reasons. But in order to know how to begin directing this force of admiration, we want the help of a competent mind and this is what Mr. Havell's book gives us. It is an account of how a trained mind may look to relate itself to Indian art, primarily to the great works of the past, but secondarily also to the possibility of present and future. From this point of view, the work is as useful to the European as to the Indian reader. But in its communication of courage and inspiration, it is of supreme value to us. Our author rightly feels that Indian art is only to be understood through Indian ideals. He points out that the current idea, that India derived her art from Greece, is of very little consequence so long as it is admitted that her ideals were not derived from Greece. "It is of course true that every nationality, when it seeks to work derive artistic ideals, makes use of any agents, native or foreign, which happen to be within reach. But the Greeks no more created Indian sculpture and painting than they created Indian philosophy and religion. Their aesthetic ideals were essentially different from those of India, and they never at any time imposed them upon Indian art, which, in its distinctive and essential character, is entirely the product of Indian thought and Indian artistic genius.”

This is a fine argument finely stated. Throughout his published writings, Mr Havell always answers the charge of the derivative character of Indian works of art, by pointing to the calm and assured orientalism of their style. If the Taj could really have been the product of an Italian mind, the fact would have constituted the greatest miracle in history. If Hellas had really given birth to an art so unlike her own as the Indian, it would have been the supreme paradox. Hitherto, as he very aptly points out, the European criticism of Indian art has lacked the aid of minds with a thorough artistic training. Art cannot be studied as a side issue of archaeology or literature. Only those who are capable of judging of the differences between Greek and Indian art, are competent to discuss what either may owe to the other.

The European pre-conception that India at all times borrows everything from the West, has been unspeakably discouraging to Indian originality and self-respect. The usual movement of ideas like races is from East to West, but, as in the present age so also in the past, there have been back-currents, and reflex trade-routes occasionally, and the development of the child does often, after maturity, influence that of the parent, so that the Hellenic contact is not inconceivable as a powerful factor in Indian evolution. That there was such a contact in the fourth century B.C., is a known historical fact, and its duration and energy are point that yet remain to be determined as elements affecting the truth about Indian sculpture.

Mr. Havell thus sums up the historic argument:

“At the beginning of the Christian Era, and for some centuries previously, when the classic art of Europe had already passed its zenith, India was drawing in towards herself a great flood of artistic culture from Western Asia, derived originally from the far-distant sources of Babylon and Assyria, but strongly tinged with the subsidiary stream which was then flowing back into it from Greece and Rome. Out of these eclectic influences joined with the old indigenous traditions, Indian religious thought quickly formulated a new synthesis of art, which in its turn became the source from which other great currents flowed North, South, East and West.

“In these early centuries of the Christian Era, and from this Indian source, came the inspiration of the great schools of Chinese painting which from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries stood first in the whole world. Successive hordes of Asiatic invaders, beginning with those which flocked like vultures to gather the spoils of the decaying Roman Empire, kept open the high ways between East and West, and brought a reflex of the same traditions into Europe. The influence of India's artistic culture can be clearly traced, not only in Byzantine art, but in the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Europe is very apt to dwell upon the influence of Western art and culture upon Asiatic civilisation, but the far greater influence of Asiatic thought, religion, and culture upon the art and civilisation of Europe is rarely appraised at its proper value.

"From the seaports of her Western and Eastern coasts India at this time also sent streams of colonists, missionaries, and craftsmen all over Southern Asia, Ceylon, Siam, and far distant Kambodia. Through China and Korea Indian art entered Japan about the middle of the sixth century. About A. D. 603 Indian colonists from Gujarat brought Indian art into Java, and at Borobudur in the eighth and ninth centuries Indian sculpture achieved its greatest triumphs. Someday, when European art criticism has widened its present narrow horizon, and learnt the foolishness of using the art standards of Greece and Italy as a tape wherewith to measure and appraise the communings of Asia with the Universal and the Infinite, it will grant the nameless sculptors of Borobudur an honourable place amongst the greatest artists the world has ever known."

Full value is here given to any direct influence that Greek art may have had upon Indian. But it will be noticed that even accepting this at its highest estimate, the later art of India cannot be accounted for, unless, as here, we postulate those indigenous elements whose vigour and importance made it possible in the earlier period to assimilate foreign influences. This has to be understood, that without a genuine creative faculty of our own, all the art universities of the world would be powerless to make original creators of us. They could make nothing more than images or reflections of creation. The Bharhut sculptures in the Calcutta museum are witness sufficient, to anyone who cares to go and see them, of an art which was Indian before the contact of India with classical Europe. Those sculptures themselves probably date from about 150 B.C. No one has ever suggested any Greek influence in them and it is clear that the hands that undertook to work on such a scale in stone had received their previous training in perishable materials like wood and clay. Whatever foreign influences may be brought to bear, the one question of importance, with regard to any art history, is whether or not there was enough native vigour and faculty to result in the eventual assimilation of those influences. Mr. Havell's whole book is a demonstration of the answer to this question, in the case of India.

Our author's next point is one of great delicacy and significance. Still combating the European idea that India's place in great art is to be marked as absent, he takes up the question of ideals. Sculpture is appraised, in Europe, according to its qualities of physical portraiture. Anatomical and physiological perfection are to it the starting-point of all beauty. "Imitation is the real and only end of all fine art." Really this last sentence does not do justice to the intention of European art. The Zeus of Olympus and the Moses of Michael Angelo were not imitations of anything in nature. But undoubtedly the notion that "imitation is the real and only end of all fine art" is the common conception of Europe to-day, and, is that element in European art which has been grasped by India, in the persons of Ravi Varma and his followers.

Mr. Havell boldly sets forth the theorem that Indian sculpture has from the beginning had a totally different ideal. According to him, the Indian artist believes that the highest type of beauty must be sought after, not in the imitation, or selection, of human or natural forms, but in the endeavour to suggest something finer and more subtle than ordinary physical beauty. "When the Indian artist models a re-presentation of the Deity with an attenuated waist and abdomen, and suppresses all the smaller anatomical details, so as to obtain an extreme simplicity of contour, the European declares that he is sadly ignorant of anatomy and incapable of imitating the higher forms of nature. But the Indian artist would create a higher and more subtle type, and suggest that spiritual beauty which, according to his philosophy, can only be reached by the surrender of worldly attachments and the suppression of worldly desires."

This argument, the author carries into considerable detail. The self-controlled man being the Indian spiritual ideal, it is clear that there must be a physical type corresponding to it. And this he finds admirably suggested in that one of the thirty-two principal lakshanas (or 'marks of Siva,' as they are called, in Modern Bengal) which demands that "the upper part of the body shall be like that of a lion."

As Mr. Havell points out, the most striking characteristic of the Indian lion is its broad, deep shoulders, and narrow contracted abdomen, making it wonderfully analogous to the new spiritualised body which the Indian sculptures aimed at giving Buddha after his enlightenment, "broad shouldered, deep-chested, golden-coloured, smooth-skinned, supple and lithe as a young lion." In thus going black upon the sources of our greatest creations, and making clear to us our own master ideals, Mr. Havell has rendered an immense service to Indian criticism.

The illustrations of this wonderful volume are unexampled in their variety and interest. India is a country whose attainments can be measured still better by what she has done for others than by what she has kept for herself. It is in the circle of daughter civilisations that we find the surest records of what she has achieved. Our author has been well advised in drawing upon the art of Tibet, Nepal, Ceylon and Java for his examples. Most of those Indians who read his pages will learn, we fear, for the first time, of the Indian Colony who wrought the great temple of Borobudur in Java. If we want to realise the immeasurable difference of spirit between the semi-Greek art of Gandhara, in the first or second century of the Christian Era, and genuine Indian sculpture, secure in conscious possession of its own sources of inspiration, we cannot do better than compare the Loriyan Tangai relief of Buddha Preaching with the same as treated at Borobudur. Well may Mr. Havell say that the Indian ideal was never realised in Gandharan art and anyone who has visited the Gandharan sculptures in the Calcutta Museum and stood face to face with the smart military looking young men 'who pose uncomfortably there in the attitudes of Indian asceticism', their moustaches touched with all the hairdresser's latest art, will echo his words. There is nothing here of the lofty calm and simplicity of the Buddhas of Magadha nor is there the spontaneous sweetness and gentleness of the Dhvani Buddha of Borobudur. How gradual is the building up through century after century of those great ideals that later generations are to inherit with their first breath! Well may the writer say, "European art has, as it were, its wings clipped: it knows only the beauty of earthly things. Indian art soaring into the highest empyrean, is ever trying to bring down to earth something of the beauty of the things above."

Notes

[1] By E.B. Havell, London, John Murray, 1908 Published in The Modern Review for October, 1909. Courtesy - Swaraj Art Archive
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