Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in Roop Lekha, volume XXVI, no. 2, Winter, 1955, pp. 13-18

The tradition of painting which swept back to 2,000 years with the first murals of Ajanta came to an apparent close towards the end of the 19th century in India.

The last efflorescence of traditional painting was witnessed in the historical Trigartha or Three Valleys, of Himachal Pradesh. In these small principalities, built by Rajput clans from the plains in the foothills of the Himalayas, the idiom of Rajasthani painting had become yet more lovely, partaking of the cleanness of mountain air and the limpidity of mountain streams. Painting in Kangra, Basholi, Suket, Mandi, Chamba and other places declined with the decline of patronage and in 1905 the earthquake at Dharamsala brought physical ruin to the art of this region.

A hybrid type of painting carried on the tradition of portraiture of the nobility, and influenced by Westernism lingered on in many places in India. At Lucknow and Patna and in the South at Tanjore and Mysore, competent portraiture continued to be executed. But of the great lyricism of Pahari painting there was no trace left.

In 1854, under the very strong impact of foreign culture, the Calcutta School of Art came into existence. The school looked for its inspiration to Britain and it was a tragedy for the country that during this period British art was at a low ebb, unable to distinguish between stodginess and academic solidity. Impure ideals vitiated English art and through it, early art training in India.

Amid the number of mediocre personalities belonging to this phase, one man stands out with considerable claims to solid achievement, though in a limited field. This man was Ravi Varma. Later, the Renaissance painters of Bengal, as well as the modernists of the next generation, were to look down upon him - for different reasons. But the fact remains that Ravi Varma retained that respect for drawing which is not one of the most conspicuous traits of the younger moderns and also did not lean heavily on the literary appeal of themes to sell his pictures. It is true that he illustrated numerous legends from the Puranas, but they were invariably competently executed as regards drawing and colouring. His exacting scrupulousness, if not his originality, should be a legacy to posterity.

Against the weighty background of British imperialistic designs in India, it is heartening to recollect that two Englishmen nearly made amends for the great injury to indigenous culture which foreign conquest meant. These men were Lord Curzon and E.B. Havell. Curzon was struck by the great architectural and sculptural heritage of this country and enacted legislation for the preservation. Havell, who was the Principal of the Calcutta School of Art, realised the tragic futility of inducing Indian artists to copy an alien idiom while they had such a variety of precious heritage of their own. He advocated, therefore, a study of traditional achievements. Abroad, the philosophical background of the revival was discussed and made known to an international public with profound scholarship by Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy. In India, a group of young painters, led by Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, gave body and substance to Havell’s pleas by dedicating themselves to an earnest study of Ajanta, Rajput, and Mughal masterpieces. Thus was the revival of painting ushered in.


In evaluating the revivalist outlook, the historian should not forget the deep social roots. During the Counter-Reformation in the West when Catholic Europe was trying to regain the old energy in the face of Protestant onslaughts we find the great painter El Greco, deliberately adopting the intense quality and the peculiar idiom of the Christian paintings of the catacombs, the product of a crisis in Christian history, when they were living amidst a powerful and alien Roman world. Confronted with a political conquest which was fast maturing into a cultural conquest, it is not surprising that the artists of the revival sought a passionate inspiration in the flawless art of the great periods of Indian history.

The artists of the revival gave up Western values like correct realisation of perspective, emphasis of verisimilitude and adopted a poetic and evocative manner. In the matter of technique also, the artists abandoned European methods of oil painting and returned to water colour. The revolt was against the West, not against all foreign influences. For example, Chinese and Japanese styles of painting were very carefully studied. The calligraphic quality of the line in revivalist Japan has influenced the technique of giving repeated washes for achieving a subtle quality of colour and tonal harmony.

Their intense mood has passed away along with its historical justification. But the historian of art will always note with gratitude that the energy for rekindling art activity all over India radiated from the Revival. It was the Old Guard which supplied teachers to almost all the important art schools of the subcontinent. Nandalal Bose taught at Santiniketan; DP Roy Chowdhury became Principal of the Madras School of Art; Venkatappa trained many young Mysoreans; Promode Kumar Chatterjee taught in Andhra-desha; Sailen Dey taught at Jaipur; Asit Kumar Haldar became the Principal of the Lucknow School of Art and Mukul Dey of the Calcutta School of Art, while Sarada Charan Ukil drew Delhi into the orbit of the reawakening by founding the Ukil School of Art in the Capital.

Meanwhile, a more cosmopolitan trend was emerging in Bombay as is understandable in the case of a port in contact with various regions of the world through the great shipping lines. The Bombay School of Art did not believe in specialising in the wash technique because it felt that the student should be given training in all media and styles so that he can let the theme guide the choice of style. Life classes were thus started for the students of the Bombay School as early as 1919. But Bombay was aware of the great decorative tradition native to the land and therefore they also started a special class of Indian decorative painting. When nostalgia gradually disappeared with time from revivalist painting and when Bombay continued its research in the decorative idiom, the gulf which separated them originally became narrower. Calcutta also produced great exponents of the Western type of representationalism in the case of artists like Hemen Mazumdar, Jamini Roy, Atul Bose and others. Today it can be safely stated that no style has a specific geography.


Meanwhile, insinuating between the heavily literary manner of the revivalists and the very academic representationalism of the moderns of those days there emerged a radical movement in Indian painting. Gaganendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, and Amrita Sher-Gil are the four great pioneers of Indian radicalism. Without any regular schooling in artandtherefore free form preoccupations with technique, Rabindranath Tagore adopted a style of free expressionism, letting his brush move under the guidance of sub-conscious impulses. His lines and colours have a mysterious suggestive power carried up from the depths of his personality. Technically more advanced, G.N. Tagore was a great experimenter, attempting cubism, studying the role of light in painting and accepting social reality as his theme. Amrita Sher-Gil attempted a profound synthesis of the more enduring elements in Western and Indian painting. She managed to evolve a simple yet intense idiom, which has influenced a host of younger painters.

The Revivalists had salvaged the aristocratic traditions of the past. There was another - a rich and vital folk tradition - which had to await the advent of Jamini Roy. Today the nation accepts not only its princes and emperors, but also its poor relations. Motifs of folk art have the great virtues of simplicity, refreshing colour, direct emotional impact. Roy enriched this inheritance by taking over the classical purity of line of Picasso’s “Greek” period reinforced often by the use of a single colour and in many other fascinating ways. His vigorous, coherent statement of form mediates today between the younger artists like Sunil Paul and Sitesh Das Gupta and the folk art tradition to which they turn for inspiration.


The assessment of the contemporary scene is difficult because of the wide range of tendencies it exhibits. There has been a chastened prolongation of the renaissance idiom. Diverted of its morbidity which had often led to unpleasant exaggerations of style, the renaissance manner survives today, content to evolve purely decorative effects. Two legacies have been left by renaissance painting which are of great value to contemporary decorative art: the melodic beauty of line and the appeal of delicately blended tonalities.

The new political context, after independence, has resulted in greater possibilities of internationalism in Indian art. There is an element of frustration in the back wash of all revolutions. And that could be good at times, as for instance, when it leads to a more objective appraisal of the qualities of other nations. Though artists and critics both frequently get themselves tied up into knots in controversies over borrowing suggestions, the younger artists have quietly gone ahead hunting up affinities, tripping up badly on occasions, but on the whole succeeding remarkably well in assimilating various influences and producing a modernistic art.

The far flung nature of this network of stimuli can be made clear by some random examples. Y.K. Shukla’s Fish comes to us from Chinese seas and some of Masoji’s landscapes recall Sung work. Pran Nath Mago, comes under the seductive influence of the Japanese master, Hiroshige, in his Rain in Almora and Paritosh Sen in his Birdseller goes back to the ancient frescoes of Egypt.

Coptic art has influenced Makhan Dutta Gupta’s studies of Christian from the southern lands and the influence of Aztec art is very much evident in Subho Tagore’s work. The revolutionary art of Newton and Gujral has fed with Gargantuan appetite on the work of the Mexicans, Orozco and Diego Rivera, and the great Frenchman, Rouault, Van Gogh and Gauguin have had many followers. An example of the fruitful synthesis to which correct assimilation can lead is furnished by the art of Sailoz Mookerjea, where French and Rajput elements blend and undergo a sea-change into things of exquisite taste.

The difference between academism and radicalism is not the same thing as the difference between stodginess and brilliance. Academism ends up in stodginess only when the solid workmanship, which is its first preference, is not backed up by inspiration. When it has the backing it comes to incarnate myriad, ageless beauties. Conversely, when a flame-like intensity of inspiration is lacking in radical attempts their structural weakness and slightness of total impact begin to show up. Anyway, the present neurotic age has no time for patient construction. So we find the various elements of classical architectonics dissolving and being independently pursued.

The impact of the West emancipated the landscape which was a mere backdrop to the play of tender human sentiments in the Nayika and Radha Krishna paintings of the Rajput schools, but it is rarely that one sees ambitious constructions which can equal a Constable or a Poussin.

Rhythm is another minor deity who has broken loose from the general pantheon and has started demanding adoration on her own rights. In Sudhir Khastgir it expands into distended patterns, which reflect, for example, the climax if ecstasy in dancing figures. Slower and more controlled in its undulations, the line in Hebbar conserves volumes planned to fit in with each other as an ensemble. Hugging the enclosed volumes loosely, ungainly at first sight and attractive at second, the line in Rathin Maitra gains beauty by patterned repetition. Deliberately brittle and staccato, it develops an explosive nervous energy in Gopal Ghose. And so-as we may judiciously put it on.

Expressionism has not found great favour with Indian painters. But we have at least one painter who has to be taken seriously - Maqbul Fida Hussain. Mosaic in its psychological import, his presentation condenses many memories, held together by masculine violence rather than by feminine harmony and delivering its cryptic message with a finality that has to be respected, though it cannot often be loved. Amrita Sher-Gil had known the secret of using pure blacks and pure whites for rich aesthetic expression. Hussain has taken over the formula from her.

The most important problem facing contemporary painting is the question of derivatives. There is a general realization that imitation of Ajantan and other art forms of the past does not lead to real intense self-expression today. And some of the younger painters are violently hostile to this practice. But the issue is not so simple as all that. For many of these modernists think it’s legitimate to imitate extensively the contemporary painters of Europe. If one finds a young artist, probably a very young artist, doing a Christ in the manner of Rouault and finds, further, that he is staking his all on his originality, the confusion can only be described as thorough. The possibility that the artists independently discovered the validity of the medieval idiom for reflecting the crisis and anguish of modern civilisation and therefore is as much a pioneer as Rouault can be ruled out by having one straight look at the artist instead of his painting. The younger radicals of today have to learn to distinguish between assimilation and imitation and this is going to be much more difficult than they can imagine.

The present is a transitional phase in the history of Indian art. Tradition has dissolved onthesurface, but lives in innumerable concealed prolongations. Dissolving cultural frontiers have brought strange merchandise from afar to which our men are learning to traffic with increasing aptitude. Given a fair measure of sincerity on the part of the artist and the critic we can be optimistic about the future.

Published in Roop Lekha, volume XXVI, no. 2, Winter, 1955, pp. 13-18
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