First published in Proceedings and transactions of the All-India Oriental Conference, sixteenth session, University of Lucknow, October, 1951
The historians and art-critics of the West had to acknowledge that “Indian art had fallen into undeserved neglect in the Victorian Era’ and a true appreciation of its spiritual meaning was due to the work of three pioneers- E.B. Havell, Anand Coomaraswamy and Dr. Abanindra Nath Tagore. As regards the apathy of the early European art-critics, Professor Wilkinson writes: “the main reason for this is simply that Europe would not lift its heavy eyes and look beyond its heavy eyes and look beyond its borders” (vide ‘Indian Art’ essays by H.G. Rawlinson, K. De B. Cordington, J.V.S. Wilkinson and John Irwin. 1948). Another reason for such misunderstanding, he points out, “it was difficult for the European to see with Indian eyes without Indian guidance. Indian paintings were accordingly under-estimated and misunderstood.
Dr. Coomaraswamy and Havell were hardly understood by our Indian scholars of old generation and they never could take their works as authoritative version. Among a few others, who took up their pen in India, were those who looked at it as part of the national awakening and as such found an opportunity to make themselves known by advocating renaissance in Bengal. They in fact looked at the outer fringe of Indian art and began writing on it in a scholarly manner without understanding much of its inner meaning and ideology. This accounts for the utter negligence by our countrymen of the good work done by Dr. Abanindra Nath Tagore and his pupils for over quarter of a century. We now notice that some of our modern artists (like the artists of the early Victorian Era) have again begun to brush aside the traditional art of India to achieve something new by deliberately imitating the Surrealist or Dada School of Art in modern Europe. Tradition to these artists means imitation of the past and as such intrinsic value of the past experience lost all significance to them when we praise Kalidasa we should know how much he was indebted to Valmiki for producing his epoch-making ‘kavya’. Indian art which continued for over two thousand years, up to the early 19th century in Cochin, Travancore and also subsequently thrived in the folk-art of Bengal up to the beginning of the 20th century, received a great blow and lost its distinctive ideology and dignity in the hands of our so-called modern artists and art-critics. After Havell and Coomaraswamy, we have unfortunately got no one to throw more light on the meanings and vitality of traditional art and possibilities of its adaptation to sit the modernist’s outlook.
If we, on the other hand, trace the development of European art, we would see that it continued for a long time (after Gothic and Byzantine scientific manner with multifarious Christian romantic conception. With the advent of photography and the two successive wars, the ideology of European art, painting and sculpture lost all its charm due to the scientific approach in all sphere of life’s activity. Europe left its pure form of art of painting long ago in Gothic and Byzantine art. A modern European art-critic, Maurice Dennis describing the ideology of some of the modern art of Europe unwittingly defined pure form of traditional Indian painting and said, “a picture is a plane surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”. Indian art does not differ fundamentally, but only when he advocates that it should not convey any emotion, romanticism or traditional bias. According to another art-critic of the West, Claude Journot, “the painters of Europe have tried new experiments, taken lessons from the East and from Africa and turned towards the middle ages.”
According to Indian conception, a painting ‘citra’ literally means a creation which evokes surprise (ascarya). Therefore it never meant to be a photographic likeness of Nature. Moreover to understand art of both Oriental and Occidental countries in their true perspective, we should know about their historical development and ideologies. Art developed along with the increase of interest in life and growth of culture. Art, like religion, therefore can never be devoid of life’s ambition and as such it is impossible to make it secular. Differences of Oriental and Occidental art therefore lies in their respective approach. Secular and personal art can only appeal to cliques and like fashion can disappear, but a hieratic art unites a whole race in one spiritual foundation. In this respect what Hindu-Buddhist and Christian art did to Asia and Europe can well be ascertained through their continual achievements of several centuries. The inner significance of the religious form of Oriental art can be explained through their multifarious examples. Hokusai,, a great Oriental artist (of Japan) explaining the function of an artist said that he must identify himself with his subject which he paints in a spiritual sphere; and it should be an insult to credit him with observation; for to observe, implies a separation from that which is observed. It is likewise a test of art, that it should enable spectator to forget himself and to become its object, as he does in dreams. But this procedure is not really a short one. “Only when,” he said, “I was seventy-three had I got some sort of insight into the real structure of Nature; at the age of eighty shall have advanced still further; at ninety I shall grasp the mystery of things; at a hundred I shall be a marvel and at a hundred and ten every blot and every line from my brush shall be alive.” This mystic experience bears the ‘reality’- the Eternal truth, which has been explained in Hindu-Buddhist philosophy. Oneness of things was felt in ‘akasa’ (space) and in ‘srsti (matter). Artist can feel oneness with the object he depicts in his works, provided he can understand the symbolism and ideology which framed the whole structure of our ancient Indian philosophy.
Indian artists never ventured to copy Nature realistically and therefore sometimes invented awe-inspiring symbols which a man could hardly visualise through his senses. In ‘Bhagavad Gita’, the Visva-rupa, is an artistic conception of the ‘Virata-Purusa’- the infinity, ever-expanding all permeating force- the abstract and absolute truth. Symbols are concrete expressions, much easier to disseminate the spiritual value in human mind. The ceremonial symbols of Pauranic types were to convey more meaning in a greater vividness can claim much scope for concrete interpretations, of human mind. Rosetti or Blake, however strong they may have been in their allegorical conceptions, they had to invent deliberately symbolism of their own to express respective mental images through paintings. But an Indian artist can utilise symbolisms after understanding them from common ritualistic spirit. These symbolisms had sound meanings were understoodbythemaninthestreet;but due to our secular form of general education and also for the unwillingness on the part of the orthodox priests to explain, their significance remained a closed chapter for us. Otherwise infinite variety of allegorical and abstract form of original paintings, with the background of high-class scientific education of the artists were possible. If we have to live as a nation, we shall have to thrive just as other nations of the world with their respective cultural heritage
And are genuinely proud of their distinctive art tradition and its ideology. Some of them are making experimental efforts to bring about a solution for a secular form of art. In all these diverse outlook of the nations blossom variety of art-forms, just as the flowers of different land thrive in their own particular soil. Such unity in diversity can be traced all over the world in music, painting, dancing, sculpture, as architecture and also in languages, physiognomical character and dresses. We all can translate and understand their value and respect them. Similarly our own distinctive culture, which has got a great traditional background, cannot be ignored.
All ceremonial symbols convey more meaning in a concrete way and with greater vividness than in any other verbal formulae. Symbols are languages much easier to understand and learn in order to express the spiritual reality through them. Some aspect of the divine can be clearly spiritual reality through them. Some aspect of the divine can be clearly defined. In India such symbols (Mangalika) are to be found in abundance. ‘Sankha’ (conch) ‘Cakra’ (wheel) and ‘Padma’ (lotus) and ‘Vajra’ (thunder) are constantly employed in both art and religion. Of all symbols the wheel of a chariot, which is the emblem of all progress took great significance in both art and religion. The kings and priests were called ‘Chakravarti’. Sorrows and pleasure of life have been constantly compared to a wheel movement. The chariot stands for the psycho-physical vehicle as which or in which according to our knowledge of ‘who we are’ we live and move. The steeds are senses, the reins their controls, the mind the coachman and the spirit (Atman) the charioteer (Sarathi). Lord Krsna preached ‘Bhagavad Gita’ standing on a chariot. Buddha turned his wheel of Eternal Law Divine (Dharma). In early Indian art when making images of Buddha was forbidden, the wheel took its place to symbolise his dynamic teaching. Aesthetic and religious experience burst forth with an exuberance of manifestations through the symbolic representation of the wheel in ancient India. The “Svastika” symbol (though invented much earlier than Hindu Buddhist civilisation) took root in art and religion as it also came from the wheel pattern. In this pattern the infusion of ‘Purusa’ (energy) and ‘Prakriti’ (matter) is expressed in two opposite curvatures out of which all creation was possible. In another way, the constitution of worlds and individuals is compared to a wheel in India. We therefore find that early Indian art, in caves and temples, human figures and numerous scenes of life carved and painted, bore this effect of the wheel, and a rythmic and dynamic wave persisted. It can easily be traced in the composition of sculptural panels and in paintings. A warm current of mystical consciousness, the forces of the ‘wheel of life’, can be observed in all Buddhist Hindu art. The ‘wheel-order’ is evident in the circular composition, the gestures of the ‘Ksana-bhanga’ and ‘Ati-bhanga’ poses of the human figures of Ajanta, in the Bhanga caves, Sanchi and Bharut paintings and sculpture. The curve of the limbs and poses of the figure apparently indicate the wheel-movement which was ultimately adopted in all Hindu Buddhist art of the Asiatic countries: Khotan, Miran, Tarfan to China, Java, Cambodia and Japan, through the infusion of the Mahayana Buddhist religion, in early days.
In this way, Indian artists were rich in symbolical motifs in art and not isolated examples like Rosetti, Blake and few others to evoke symbolical and spiritual meaning deliberately. Artists of India could therefore afford to be visionaries and mystics. The central abstract and spiritual aspect of all undifferentiated creatures of this earth have been defined by them through multifarious symbolism. The central philosophical ideals found definite scope in visual art of this country. We can find this ideology of Indian art through the analysis of the inner spirit of human mind and its nature as described by the Indian sages. According to the Hindu religion, which primarily aimed at philosophy the creative power of God Eternity is ‘Maya’ ultimately transformed itself into ‘Kama’ (desire) and ‘Sankalpa’ (determination), which are essential aspects of all human activities. ‘Prakriti’ (Nature) consists of three distinctive forms of virtues (Gunas) and all human beings are subject to their influence; they remain active in the psychological sphere in ‘Sattva’- purity; ‘Rajas’-activity and passions; ‘Tamas’- apathy and darkness.
According to Bhagavad Gita, Sattva, ‘Rajas’ and ‘Tamas’ are nature-born ‘gunas’ (virtues), which bind fast in the human body of which ‘Sattva’ forms its stainlessness, luminous and healthy expression bound by attachment to wisdom. Whereas, ‘Rajas’ having the nature of passion, is the source of the attachment to the thirst for life, ‘Tamas’ born of unwisdom, indolence and sloth. In other words, ‘Sattva’, attaches to bliss; ‘Rajas’ to action; and ‘Tamas’ having shrouded light streams forth from all gates of the body, then it may be known that ‘Sattva’ is increasing. Greed, outgoing energy, undertaking of action, restlessness and negligence as well as delusion are born of increase of ‘Tamoguna’. All artists and poets of our country observed these ideologies in classifying their art and literature. I had the good fortune of meeting the last of the indigenous ‘Pat’ artists (Folk artists) of Kalighat (Bengal), who used to classify their works in the same manner. All paintings depicting Gods and Goddesses were classified by them as work of ‘Sattva-guna’.Rajoguna type of paintings were generally birds, animals, fish or a lady in toilet, etc.; and ‘Tamo-guna’ type pictures were unhappy married couple beating each other, a demon devouring a lady and such other hideous scenes. If we analyse the art of Europe through our ideology, all the types of Biblical paintings including Madonna can be classed as ‘Sattva-guna’ type of work; all landscape and portraits as ‘Rajas’ and all ultramodernist’s experiments in art in Europe, which contained the element of pride and destruction, can be classed as ‘Tamas’ art. These reactionary art-forms obviously originated due to the two successive world wars.
We can now, according to the ‘Sanskrit Kavya-Alankara Sastra’ divide these three elementary virtues (gunas) in nine different types of Rasas ‘Bhavas’.
Sattva-Gunaessentiallycontainsthefollowingthreevirtues:- (1)‘Santa-rasa’ (the quietistic) which brings peace in mind with the philosophical outlook on life; (2) ‘Karuna-rasa’ (the compassion) evoked through the death and calamity of the fellow-beings; (3) ‘Vatsalya-rasa’(affection for all creatures).
Rajoguna contains :- (1) ‘Vira-rasa’ (the heroic expression and courage with which people fight for their country, patriotism, charity and all other works containing ethical morals; (2) ‘Srngara-rasa’ or Adi-rasa’ (the Tender) which evokes love in man and woman essential for biological reproduction; (3) ‘Hasya-rasa’ (provoking laughter and humour).
In Tamo-Guna we find :- (1) ‘Adbhuta-rasa’ (surprising and unbalanced element in our mind); (2) ‘Bibhatsa-rasa’ - (the disgusting); (3) ‘Raudra-rasa’ (the fearful expression). These three Rasas are all psychological unsophisticated and primitive expressions of a child or a cave-man. It contained anger, pride and destructive elements. No artist can therefore escape from the above mentioned ‘gunas’ and ‘bhavas’ whether he prefers modernist ideology of Europe or spiritual abstractness of Indian Art. Valmiki wrote about them in his epic ‘Ramayana’ explaining the aim and object of his ‘kavya’.
The Artists of Ancient India never considered that reality of existence, is based on its apparent seed of origin. It went further to the absolute- the centre point of the wheel of life. In one of the Ajanta frescoes a wheel of life is depicted in which all aspects of human life and activities are shown between the axles of it.
With the abstraction of various aspects (gunas) of the life-expression, civilised man invented many symbols and patterns of art. Of course, such symbols depend upon the range, depth and exactitude of his apprehension. He should have an analytical power to discriminate and a trained mind and habit to hold the sequence of individual definitions in thought and imagination, compare them with each other, determine just where and how they focus sharp and clear meanings, ideals and attitude.