Published in Rooplekha, No.1, 1929, pp. 18-24
Paradoxical as it may seem, the new movement in Indian painting owes its inspiration to the old. During the first decade of the present century, attention of the connoisseurs was drawn by Mr. E. B. Havell, A. R. C. A., the then Principal of the Government School of Arts, Calcutta, to the intrinsic merits of Indian art as apart from its archaeological interest. Since then the popular interest-both in the West as well as in the East, is increasing and the art of India is coming to be appreciated for all it is worth.
This awakening of fresh interest in Indian art was still more strengthened by the foundation of a new school of painting, based on the traditions of the older schools, (chiefly the Ajanta and the Mughal ), under the leadership of a supremely gifted artist Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, C.I.E. To promote further interest in the art of the Eastern countries, a Society, since famous, was formed, under whose beneficent shadow the art of young India is chiefly nurtured and developed. The lead given by Bengal in the earlier years of the present century was gradually taken up by most of the other provinces of India and the artists of the new Bengal school were accorded public and Government recognition substantially in more than one province.
Those who were intimately in touch with the movement from its inception, naturally hoped that this new artistic revival would lead up not only to a revolutionising of Indian art and art-education in general, but also to a revival of most of the artistic crafts of India. The famous Exhibition of Indian Arts and Crafts, held at Delhi in 1903, in connection with the Durbar, emphatically proved that although the various Indian crafts were still as beautiful as ever, most of them were in a moribund state for lack of proper support and patronage. The passivity and the apathy of the public at large to almost all forms of artistic endeavour resulted not only in a devitalisation of many craft-works, but also told heavily on the development of artistic designs. Unless there is a steady and intelligent public demand, it is impossible to keep up the standard of craft-work, still less to evolve new patterns and designs for the appreciation of the connoisseurs.
At present the sale of Indian craft-work is mainly limited to two classes of people- (a) the tourists and (b) the handful of connoisseurs in India to whom Indian craft-work really appeals. The number of the latter is so small, in comparison with the vast majority of those others who do not hold that thing of beauty is a joy for ever, that their effective patronage can achieve very little in the resuscitation of Indian craft-work. The patronage of the former group, though considerable at times, is often retrograde and pernicious in its effects so far as craft-design is concerned.
The tourists who pass through the sunny land cure little for the real thing and reckless for the sustenance of Indian art, so long as they can pick up something like the genuine article in the far-flung Eastern bazaars at a bargain. The demand of the tourists, though mainly for the articles which look like the real thing, is slightly more constant than the demand of the Indian connoiseures and as a result, the craft-worker, or more specially the dealer on whom the craft-worker has to depend for his living, has to cater for the peculiar demand of the tourists. In his endeavour to please his customers the dealer has to order for cheap things which hardly go to maintain the standard of Indian craft-work and consequently, there is a distinct falling off in the quality of design and craftsmanship.
The peculiar demand of the tourists has also been one of the causes of the hybridization and deterioration of Indian design as Indian patterns and decoration are now being employed on unsuitable foreign shapes and objects, to meet the individual taste or idiosyncrasies of the purchaser. Thus, the all-over patterns and borders which would have harmonized with the graceful shape of an Indian vase, or khasdan or goblet, are now being forced to decorate an ash-tray, a salver or a cigarette-case, for which they are extremely unsuitable. If new patterns and shapes were evolved to satisfy the mild cravings of foreign tourists, the matter would have presented no difficulty at all and instead of being one of the drags to the development of Indian art, the demand of the tourists would have been one of the fruitful sources of inspiration to the Indian craft-worker to nobler achievement and a still more glorious fruition. But that is not to be. In an old country like India, whose artistic traditions go far back into the dim ages, past patterns, forms, models, shapes and decorations are so numerous, varied and prolific that the present-day craftsman seldom bothers his head about the formulation and evolution of new patterns and designs and as far as possible keeps his activities circumscribed within the narrow limits of older forms and designs. This and the constant watchfulness of the dealer to keep the prices clown as for as possible to suit the pockets of all classes of purchasers, are doing more harm to Indian craft-work than foreign competition and mechanised labour.
It is, however, very few who are noticing the incipient decline of Indian craft-design and still fewer, who are thinking of taking any active step to arrest that decline. Sporadic articles were shot in to the newspapers bewailing, as everything else is bewailed in India, the decay of Indian art and no effective measure was taken till the astute and far-seeing eyes of Sir James Meston detected the main cause of the decay of Indian artistic crafts. It was due to his foresight that the School of Design (now the Government School of Arts and Crafts) was established at Lucknow in 1912, to help the Indian crafts-men - especially those of the United Provinces-in obtaining good designs for their craftware. For about the last two decades this school has been doing praiseworthy pioneer work to keep up the high watermark of design and craftsmanship, not only by turning out delightfully conceived and well-finished articles, but also by supplying the various centres of artistic activity like Nagina, Moradabad, Benares etc., with new patterns and designs. It is very gratifying to see that the public are not slow to appreciate the excellent service which is being rendered by the school and gradually this institution is finding a place of its own in the heart of the art-lovers of India.
It has indeed led the way of all the other art-schools of India in all-round artistic development, notably in painting, architecture, lithography, commercial art, clay-modelling, jewellery and artistic wood and metal-work. Though the youngest of all the provincial art-schools, yet its work and worth are in many respects more useful than those of many of the others and its activities certainly more extensive and far-reaching.
Thesecret of craft-design, as of most other things in art, is to draw the inspiration directly from Nature. Nature is indeed source of all artistic forms-whether in painting or sculpture or craft-design and all patterns, models and designs are bound to become commonplace and stereotyped unless the artist or the designer constantly seeks in the handiwork of Nature the guiding principles of all his thoughts and actions. One impulse from the vernal woods, one may say with words worth, can teach you more of designs and patterns than all the exhortations and esoteric advices of learned professors.
It is however debated whether to utilise the natural forms as they are actually for decorative purposes or “to remould them nearer to Hearts Desire", as old Omar aptly puts it. The considered opinion of the majority of art-lovers of modern times inclines towards the latter. It is now argued that Nature, though beautiful in itself, cannot satisfy the artistic cravings of Man per se, unless it is transmogrified a good deal by the finer laws of rhythm and harmony. Craft-design is thus a restatement of natural shapes and patterns in the light of aesthetic necessity and decoration. Mere imitation of natural forms, however faithful, cannot compensate for this want of human element in art and it is this judicious combination of the human subjectivity with Nature which transfigures even the most ordinary and commonplace representation of objects into the transcendental and the sublime.
The aspects and the outlook of this fundamental yeast in Art are different in different countries and as each country of the world has a peculiar linguistic development and feature of its own, similarly the nature of this national and racial subjectivity varies at different periods and is mainly influenced by the prevailing Zeit-geist or Spirit of the Age. It is principally the inherent traditions of the country- the precious spiritual heritage of the Past-which determine the national outlook and subjectivity on Art. The trend or the mood of national art is guided largely by its age-old traditions and lend it its peculiar distinctions.
In the same way, the artistic conventions of a country are the outcome of its national traditions and impress the stamp of individuality on the nation's art. They produce those distinctive features which distinguish the art of one country from that of another and give it its peculiar flavour and charm. The preservation on the artistic conventions of a nation is therefore extremely desirable, in a much as they serve the same purpose in a nation's art as the frontier lines in a state, -viz., the maintenance of necessary barriers without which the art of all countries will merge into and overlap on one another losing their individual and interesting features and become one shapeless and formless inanity.
All craft-designs should therefore draw their essential inspiration from the ample pages of the Book of Nature, but they are to be modified by the artistic conventions of the country. An accurate reproduction of the beauties of Nature will not give the real connoisseur of art that rare and delicate pleasure which is to be found in the discriminate blending of the beauties of Nature with the imaginative beauty in the heart of Man. On the other hand, failure to seek inspiration from Nature will lead only to the stagnation and sterilization of the creative faculties of the artist and result in abstract stylisations or foolish and monotonous mannerisms. Only a judicious fusion of Nature and Man can hope to attain abiding success by combining the three eternal principles- the Beautiful, the Good and the True.
Published in Rooplekha, No.1, 1929, pp. 18-24