Artists: Notes on Art Making

I first heard of W.G. Archer in Patna, before the Second World War, as an eccentric Englishman of the Indian Civil Service, who was prone to wander about in Santhal villages, collecting folk songs. Our common friend, Verrier Elwin, showed me some of the renderings of tribal poems by this eccentric and I recognised in them the manner of the modernist poet, near enough to the school of neo-romantics. In fact, I took them to London with me and showed them to Herbert Read.

When I met W.G. Archer in Bombay after the war, on his way out after retirement, we felt we had known each other for years. We had common interests in poems and paintings. After the en-counter, we met almost every year, played host to each other, went on some expeditions together, into the interior of the Punjab Himalayas, and were involved in the rediscovery of Indian cultures which Nehru had initiated, as well as in establishing links between the intelligentsia of India and the West.

Archer had felt, throughout his sojourn in India, that 'styles in art do not spring from acts of reasoning'. And when he found 'the emotional element' present, as in the primitivist floor drawings or alponas or in the Kalighat pats and Madhubani paintings in Mithila, Bihar, he reacted warmly and made pioneer efforts to collect the pictures and wrote about them. In fact, in his book on tribal sculpture, The Vertical Man, and his essay on Kalighat Drawings, and the Mithila Paintings, in MARG, he drew the attention of art lovers to how the plastic sense and the colour energies could only come when people felt intensely enough about the images they were creating. There is no doubt that the primitivists in the interior were creating robust works from personal participation in the worship of their dark gods.

When he began to look at the hundreds of paintings, in the collections put in his charge, in the India Section of the Victoria & Albert Museum, he began to look for the sources from which they had been created.

In a similar situation, the pioneer critic, Ananda Coomaraswamy, had already addressed himself to the sources of creative art in India. And he had found that Indian art could not be interpreted in the same way as the European art of the renaissance and after, because it had been primarily the expression, in painting and sculpture, of the myths of the Buddhists and the Hindus, the images being put out on the walls, so that the onlooker could seek to ally himself with the exteriorised icons and extend his consciousness to the psychic planes on which the energies of the arms, the calm on the face, or the dancing feet, could uplift the worshipper beyond mundane, existence. Thus, the Nataraja image expresses the ecstasy of the cosmic dance into which God Shiva leads us, after fighting the asuras or demons. Similarly, the Goddess Durga destroys the demonic bull, in her aspect as vanquisher of evil, even as she can assume the benign incarnation of the great mother of the world as Parvati, the loving spouse of Shiva. The boy god, Krishna, was the lover always dancing with the gopis, (human souls) in the joyous ring-dance. The eyes in prayer before an image were seeking affiliation for the soul.

Archer had been affected to a large extent by the various European theories and felt that basically the creative process partakes of musical experience, of strivings between tensions, relations, through tonal effects, point counter-point expectation of fulfilment, disappointment and surprised awareness of moods.

But how was he to apply this analysis to Indian art of the various periods?

From his early wanderings among the tribal peoples, he had imbibed a feeling that the source of much art expression was in the fertility cults. And he felt that even in the romantic poetry of the Vedic Aryans, like Urvashi Pauranas, the symbolism of the human soul as a bride reaching out to god the bridegroom in the Upanishads, in the passion of Kalidas, in the love book of Vatsyayana, in the Gita Govinda of Jaya Deva, in the Rasika-Priya of Keshava Das, in the Rasa Manjari contemporary consciousness through the restlessness of his later years, with the sense of permanency of experience.

Archer saw in these nostalgic recognitions of Rabindranath Tagore the delight which the poet-turned-painter may have felt in the spontaneous experiences of certain characters who came alive in his pictures. The poet-critic realised that prehension of forms is often from the sense of intense awareness of the past. The artist enriches his own consciousness by evolving symbols from the flow of memories into stirrings of the brush. Also, there is alliance in Rabindranath with the folk spirit, insofar as the ghostly forms were hauntingly suggestive of the primitivist, almost childlike, and naive consciousness of moods of fear, sorrow, anger, disgust and bewilderment of the magical makers.

Archer suggested that Rabindranath may have been floating on the currents of surrealism and automatic writing, which Dr. Stella Kramrisch had talked about in one of her articles in the Vishwa Bharati. And, certainly, the poet knew of the works of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Also he had heard of Odilon Redon.

Spontaneously, however, he had begun to scribble the twists and turns of words in black ink with pen and brush into interlacings of lines, which procreated embryos, emerging from the kinetic pressure of the hand, into lyrical flows, triangular thrusts of bird beaks and lovable ovals of phallic heads. The poet artist did not give titles to his paintings but wrote poems.

One of these pictures, an agonised camel, has the title:

‘Life chained to an imperfect mind sends the agonised cry’.

Another image of monster, with a bird sitting on it, is paralleled with the words;

‘Thou lightly carrieth thy triumph, being grace on the spontaneous unmeaning of arrogant bulk’.

All these poem-pictures have the form-making qualities, which the conventional critics ask for in works of art, such as unity, balance, form. But the sheer pleasure of creation possesses the painter. And the resulting gestures belong to a world of romance beyond the experience.

In the work of another painter, Amrita Sher-Gil Archer found another kind of romantic vision' similar to that of Paul Gauguin. The similarity of outlooks of the Frenchman, who had turned away from the west, and gone to Tahiti, with that of the inlook of Amrita Sher-Gil, born of a Hungarian mother and Indian father, who came to stay in India, is traced by Archer to the inspirational words which Gauguin wrote in the face of South Sea Island landscape:

‘A delight distilled from some indescribable sacred horrors which I glimpse of far off things . . . in the dreaming eyes, in the overcast surface of an unfathomable enigma’.

Similarly, Amrita Sher-Gil had written in a brief sketch ‘the story of my life’.

‘Assoon as I put my foot in the Indian soil, not only in subject, spirit, but also in technical expression my painting underwent a great change, becoming more fundamentally Indian. 1 realised then, to interpret the life of Indians, and particularly the poor Indians, pictorially, to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict their angular brown bodies, strangely beautiful in their ugliness, to reproduce on canvas the impression their sad eyes created in me…’

Archer who had himself wandered in 'endless tracts of luminous yellow-grey land of dark-bodied, sad faced, incredibly thin men and women, who 'moved silently' recognised the silhouettes `over which an indefinable melancholy reigns', in Amrita's pictures like Hill Women, Three Girls, Child Wife, The Bride's Toilet, the Brahmacharis and South Indian Villagers going to Market.

Indeed, in the paintings of the prodigy Amrita Sher-Gil, in her evocations of the exuberant colours, intense depth and solemnity of the paintings, they both touch the vibrations which Archer traced to inspiration from the intimation of earlier memories.

Archer then turns to a different kind of rhythmic experience.

Colour-music as Jamini Roy heard it from the scroll paintings, the Kalighat pats of toys painted in the Bengal villages seemed to this critic reflect the ethos of the near folk artist, who had also rebelled against the Bhadra log (middle class) drawing room approach of the Jorasankho atelier.

The transition of Jamini Roy had been painful. He had escaped from the artificiality of Calcutta, where he imbibed European and Chinese formalism in colour and form, to the suburb of Kalighat, where he acquired a love of the lyrical curved line. And he went further and took up the mineral and vegetable dyes and earth colours of the village.

The return home was through an alliance with the white fire in the eyes of the ochre coloured santhal aboriginals, the brusqueness of the ants with their souls in their hands, and the peas lyrical incline of cats and deers and fish-all stirrings which converge into visions of disconsolate flowers of the earth. In such groups as Santhal Dance, felicity springs from the gesture of hands and movement and eyes uplifted with blossoming of the sense of wonder. The faint blossoming of parted lip-flowers of the men and women takes us to interiors for which we too are homesick, which outstretch our gaze to life itself, so that we can live more purely and in humility in the heart of nature.

Jamini Roy’s mature life coincided with the Second World War. No wonder then, that, in his subconscious, the image of Christ entered in a mood of acceptance of pain. Of course, his Jesus is incarnated as a Santhal, monumental and dignified in his stoicism.

In his later years, Jamini Roy recaptured the happier moods in which worshipers, with large eyes seem to upgaze at Krishna, while the demure Gopis lift their supplicating hands to the God who has plundered their clothes and left them naked.

Archer instinctively perceived the primitivist, spontaneous and lyrical elements of Jamini Roy's genius, in those intimate renderings of the cat with a fish in its mouth, inspired by the Kalighat pats. The artist seems to sense, in the playful stance of the kitten, the rhythm of his own smile. And his symbolic leafage, the touches of grass, the flowers in the hair, symbolising the black marigolds, with yellow leaves, takes us to his inherited poetical landscapes, peopled by mobile human beings, drifting like energies in their search for life.

The painter in whom Archer found the parallelism of poems in words and poems in painting, running parallel in the atmosphere of romance, which was nearest to his own heart is George Keyt, the Singhalese burgher.

Curiously, George Keyt, with his nostalgia for the sensuous delight of Indian poetry had himself found in the words of his notebook, his heart expanding from obscure corners into the streams of consciousness of the adorer of women.

It is not surprising, therefore, that his earliest naturalistic studies are of nudes almost reminiscent of Matisse, Picasso, and Leger. Only these females have the moon-breasts of the Sigiriya queens in the rock paintings and the heavy hips of the Cochin palace murals and the charm of Kalidasa's heroines. The mixed origin of the poet-painter may have also compelled the new splendour of the heart-land. And if Archer recognised a certain universality in George Keyt's temperament, it was because this poet-painter was imbued with passionate feelings about life of a genuine pantheism compelled by the garden of Eden which is Lanka. As Keyt’s metaphors show: ‘He is always bursting out of the foliage of longings’ like ‘an image in exile, gazing into the sound of air.’

There were ‘deep disturbances’, in George Keyt’s consciousness in the early beginnings. He wrote:

‘I lie concealed beneath the passionate blunderings of a vast appetite’… And:

‘In dreams I see myself ranged before the reflection of nakedness. I wander forever with dazed eyes’.

These poems of the thirties suggest disenchantment. He was already outgrowing the nudes drawn from models and naturalism.

Then George Keyt began to search for ‘the sense of love’, which is expressed in the fusion of figures, achieved in Radha Krishna embracing in 1936 (Lionel Wendt Memorial, Colombo).

The conjugal composition of the embracing couple, reclining on bed, re-emerges in Sringar Rasa of 1936 (Victoria & Albert Museum, London), and the Varsha Vishara figure of 1937, where the male and female bodies press into each other in near fusion. And here the essence of union of love enters, beyond the previous disquiet, into the memory of endearing experiences.

Archer distinguished the love paintings of George Keyt of the early thirties from the powerful images of Shiva in Vibhatsa Rasa, where the God appears dancing furiously; Maheswara, where Shiva comes riding on a bull; Yama and Savitri where the God of Death stands facing the anguished Savitri: Rakshas Viyahaya, reflecting the power urges behind the demons of the second world war as poetised in the ancient myths of earlier demonical strivings’.

Archer saw that preference for glossy globular forms has disappeared in these paintings and their place has been taken by ‘nervous, agitated lines’, ‘stabbing the figures with furious resentments’. The former linear rhythm is still present, but now expresses a violent crucifixion of feelings’.

Even in the phase of direct political passion, as in the later years of the World war, George Keyt renders his moods through the myths of the epic Mahabharata, like Bhima and Jarasandha.

After the world descent to barbarism was over, George Keyt returned to the enchantment of sensuous form.

Archer quotes a poem of the painter from the volume,DarknessDisrobed:

‘Beneath flowering branches

You sit relaxed

With a blue sky and a yellow sun

Resting your cheek on your arms,

But arms like water-falls;

But that which a night will wash away

I cannot stay sharing -

Your dreams in the sun’.

And the critic sees pictures like Prema, Girl Bathing, Nayika, Woman with a Sheaf, Kinnari and Reverie, as the lyrical expressions of women who flit across the painter’s gaze as in the paradise of Kandyan hills.

Archer notices an air of frenzy in post-war pictures like No Sooner uprooted than transplanted, Portrait of Toilet. This phase discounts Keyt’s romanticism. Archer felt that, after exploring the ecstasies, George Keyt swings to the opposite extreme. But he finds that it is typical of Keyt’s constitution that ‘he does not stay there for the same length of time’. ‘A will to sensuous delight asserts itself’, ‘in the one supreme subject which fascinates him which connects the poet with the Indian tradition’. Thus in Sringar and the Girl Singing, both painted in India in 1947, Archer saw the return of ‘the swinging line’, ‘the rhythmical form’ and ‘the glowing colour’ to imbue his subjects with the ‘innocent, sensuality of poetic charm’!

I began these comments about Archer with the suggestion that he was obsessively evolving a poetical critique of Indian art, consonant with the poetical critique of Indian art, consonant with the poetical way in which he himself saw life. This attitude implies that to this poet-critic works of art were important only in so far as they have significance to desire. Desire was the symbol of happiness in life, of growth and vitality.

It is quite likely that against the death wishes of our time, which expressed themselves in the extermination of millions of people in two bloody wars, Archer wished to emphasise the significance of creative action, as the only counter to the torpor and decay with which the exploitation of science for material gain was leading upto.

In his own poems, Archer seems to be straining towards the current by which life may be restored to spontaneous flow of the instinctive life.

It seems to me that he found life most worthwhile, when he was living in direct contact with works of art. He considered mere academic discussion to be futile exercise of verbiage, which went astride the music of human expression in paintings and in poems. Significantly, he did not pile up his aesthetic reactions in abstract thoughts and maxims of books of knowledge. He was for participation in his recognitions of rhythms behind the paintings.

In fact, he had got back to the attitude of some of those patrons of paintings of India, like Jehangir, who boasted that he could recognise the brushwork of every artist, even if the work shown to him was unsigned; of Nasir-ud-din of Mandu, who had the Nimata Namah, cookery book paintings done at the same time as Persian poems illustrated; of Raja Balwant Singh of Jammu, who kept the Pahari painter Nain-Sukh by him in all his travels to paint pictures for his delectation.

I feel that Archer was one of the small band of Englishmen who were inclined to distrust clever intellectual judgements as well as dry-as-dust abstract history, with the search for exact chronology. He preferred to recall feelings as the undertones of ­being. He did not discard thinking, but he was against systematisation. He felt that he could not write his critique of paintings in coherent prose, without constantly referring to poetical metaphor.

And, from the personal communion he enjoyed with others in talking of paintings from his collection, in sharing reminiscences and recalls, in which I was often a partner, I noticed his love of communicating, in exclamations, the pleasure of works which were apprehensions of forms and enhanced the pleasure of living.

It is possible in eschewing eternal essences, he remained a restless romantic. But he intensified our feeling and took us often to the sources of creativeness itself. In doing this he enlarged the consciousness of a whole generation of lovers.

The article is an abridged version of Dr. Mulk Raj Anand’s W. G. Archer Memorial Lecture delivered at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary 28, 1979
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