Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in Roopa Lekha, Vol 53, 1982, p. 60-69

From the early nineteenth century onward the British raj felt it necessary to establish institutions in India in the presidency towns for teaching the youth of the country minor arts and crafts based on scientific methods. The objective was limited to the training of personnel to man the various services and surveys for which the administration required draughtsmen, decorators, lithographers, photographers, sign writers etc. The children of artisan class were encouraged to learn and continue with their hereditary trade like smithy, carpentry, lacquer turning, enamelling, with more up-to-date skill and sophistication.

The first such school was founded in Calcutta in 1834 which was handed over to the Government in 1864. It is interesting to note that the purpose of the institution was primarily to give “the native youth of India an idea of man and things in Europe both present and past, not that they might learn to produce feeble imitations of European art, but rather beauty, architectural monuments, ethnic varieties and national costumes in their own country.” This I quote for the assessment and appraisal of the then established art schools anywhere in India. It must be kept in mind that to begin with the British raj initiated a system by which the Indian students were to look and understand their own artistic and cultural heritage through European eyes which in practice came to copying and imitating Greco-Roman plaster casts and mid-Victorian styles of English academic painting.

The sorry plight was realized and fought idealistically by Havel and Abanindranath by introducing an element of indigenous quality in the methodology of instruction. It is said that EB Havell was so scandalised with the prevalent system that he collected all the imported classical Greco-Roman plaster casts and had dropped them in the adjacent pond of the Government School of Art in Chowringhee and submitted the models with Indian bronzes and stone images. The story I believe is not entirely true, for, in the early twenties when I was a student at the Chowringhee School there were the dead plaster of casts of Apollo, David, the Discus thrower, the Fighting gladiator, Venus de Milo and busts of Voltaire, Socrates and young Napolean. None of the Indian bronzes or stone carving were there for us to make drawings from.

The innovation brought about by the vision of Havell and Abanindranath impelled a batch of talented students to look within for inspiration and look out at the imported art style of the time with fresh look. In course of time a school of painting developed which reflected the emergent aspirations of the national ethos: so much so that the most of the art schools in India came to be headed by one or the other of the stalwarts. Though it did not bring revolutionary changes in the system, yet all the official art schools introduced a course in ‘Indian Art’ to meet the vogue and sentiment of the period.

Percy Brown who took over the principalship of the Calcutta Government School of Art (1909-1927) was himself an accomplished and water colourist in the best English tradition. Mr. Brown laid emphasis on the academic form of instructions based on European principles but took intelligent interest, from the point of view of research, in the indigenous style, forma and technique of Indian paintings and sculpture. Though Abanindranath Tagore had resigned in 1915, the cultural awareness he had regenerated in the Government School of Art had not died out totally. The flame still flickered in the Indian art section of the school under the tutorial guidance of Iswari Prasad Varma of Patna and his son Mahavir Prasad. Havell and Tagore took the initiative to install Varma who was a hereditary traditionalist painter and TA Achary from Andhra Pradesh, a traditional woodcarver with a flair for ornamental work. Between them, an element of miniature painting, fresco and gesso process were taught to a small section of students who opted for the course. Percy Brown held sympathetic views towards the teaching of the so-called Indian art but the mood was not there in the institution to study the subject in depth. I do not think this art had its basis in research temperament and knowledge but was rooted in sentimental effervescence.

Even so, it aroused some interest and curiosity in the minds of a few to see, know and learn about the overall nature of Indian art, a treasure of which was on display next door at the Indian museum. The principal of art school was also the keeper of the section of Indian painting, miniatures, frescoes and bronzes. Therefore visual acquaintance with this wealth should not have been a far cry. Unfortunately for the masses as well as the average educated Indian the museums still remained the storehouse of exotic curios and the antique but mysterious objects from an unrelated past.

While in the official art schools the onslaught of the academic West virtually set the norm of art education, a parallel art institution in Calcutta boldly attested its native identity in the shape of “The Indian Society of Oriental Art” inspired and patronised by the Tagores and having as its propagandists in savants and scholars, like Ananda Coomaraswamy, OC Gangoly and James Cousins. It was an art school with a difference in that it had a relaxed atmosphere like that of the artists’ guild where the teachers and the taught shared a philosophy and outlook akin to a creed. The number of pupils and were few and the Guru and disciple relationship was more meaningful. The Tagore brothers -- Abanindranath, Gaganendranath and Samarendranath were the principal actors in the drama and. They experimented in Japanese techniques, analysed Persian miniature, adopted the methodology of Bagh and Ajanta and added their own temperament of rising nationalism. The resultant style of painting came to be known as the Bengal School.

The star performers of this art movement were Nandalal Bose, Kshitij Mazumdar, Asit Haldar, Mukul dey, Venkatappa, Abdur Rahim Chughtai, Surendranath Kar -- to name a few.

The other more organized institution of like-minds was established at Santiniketan - Poet Rabindranath’s Centre for experimental education at Bolepur - named Kala Bhavan. Kala Bhavan institutionalized the new concept of art education that originated in Calcutta but kept the doors open for individual experimentation for more noted art idioms. Under the able guidance of the noted artist Nandalal Bose the school flourished. Some conspicuous names belonging to the Bhavan in the contemporary art scene I wish to mention. They are Binode Behari Mukherjee, Ramen Chakravarty, Ram Kinkar, Dinkar Kaushik, Sudhir Khastgir, Dhiren Dev Varman, Jaya Appasamy, Mosoji, Sankho Chaudhuri.

The movement as well as its influence, on the subsequent trends in Indian art and art education, by and large, withered and waned but it did leave behind a challenge and desire for anew generation of artists and art students to make bold experiments and face for its visual and plastic values independent and so-called Indian-ness. The sentiments for national art remained a waning influence.

While the modernity of contemporary Indiana art was more a result of drive and initiative on the part of individuals the system of art education in the established teaching institution hardly overtook any new innovations.

The two official art schools in Lucknow and Lahore in pre-independence India followed the same pattern, primarily based on two sections, art and craft. The stress was rather more on traditional crafts practiced in the region with certain innovations to design suited to the taste of the time. In painting and modeling academic exercises were the order of the day. In Lucknow Asit Halder - brought about certain changes in the outlook oriented towards Indianism. He had with him at the time some well-known names in Indian art - like Hiranmoy Roy Chowdhury, - in sculpture, Bireshwar Sen nd LM Sen, in painting.

Sculpture, then largely meant clay modeling and plaster casting and painting consisted in still-life, landscape and portraiture. Bireswar Sen was an exponent of miniature water colour landscapes and lyrical compositions. He was in England for some time and was one of the four Indian painters selected for the decoration of India House in London. The school in Lucknow was one of the important Indian art institutes. Principal Haldar and sculpture Hironmoy were teaching at the Jaipur School of Art before they came to Lucknow.

It may be mentioned here that a few of the native states had also set up art schools, for the training of children of their subjects in the regional art and crafts, Jaipur, Srinagar, and Travancore School mwere fairly well known.

The Mayo School of Art in Lahore with which I was associated for seven years, 1927 to 1936, was not dissimilar in approach to the art school at Lucknow. The Punjab had a rich and flourishing tradition in artistic handicrafts. The hereditary artisans handed down their inherited skill and craftsmanship in lacquer turning, ivory inlay, enamelling and jewellery, smithy and woodwork. With the advent of machine and advanced technology and it felt was necessary that the upcoming generation and of craftsmen be introduced to more up-to-date organized methods and processes of using tools and design and thus transcend the repeated monotony. The School at Lahore had a strong section in crafts and excellent craftsmen as teachers. The craftsmanship was near perfect but hybridization of designs was often evident. Students at the crafts section were mostly boys from artisan families but soon ladies from the upper strata of society were encouraged to join as casual students and learn to make their own jewellery.

The painting department had a limited objective. The department provided instructions in decorative design, a bit of calligraphy, lettering and lithography. Students in this section were also required to design and prepare lamp shades as well as simple posters. In course of time the section was developed into a full-fledged fine arts department.

The School had the advantage to be located adjacent to the Museum and the Principal of the School was ex-officio Keeper of the Art section of the museum. Ironically, even though next door there was the finest collection of Kangra and Mughal miniatures, it exerted very little influence in the make-up of the art students.

However, the Principal of the School then, Lionel Heath was himself a miniaturist in the English tradition. After him, the first Indian Principal, Samarendranath Gupta was well known exponent of the Bengal school. Gupta was able to bring in good deal of improvement in the outlook of design and making of artifacts in the various branches of the crafts section. He was also an efficient etcher and graphic artist.

The curriculum of the school provided for the practice of elementary clay modeling and plaster-casting. Primarily the lessons were confined to the level of house decoration, studies of floral and foliage motifs, ornamental ceiling in plaster etc. However, the elementary outlook of clay modeling was gradually guided towards more advanced sculptural concepts.

It may be of some interest to know that Rudyard Kipling’s father, a sculptor was, I believe, the first Principal of the Mayo School of Art. A few specimens of his art in the shape of terracotta busts of a postman and a peon were kept in the modeling class.

Boy Kipling, I was told, used to play with and ride the historic ‘Zum-Zamma’ brass cannon installed near the Mayo school of art buildings.

The Mayo School of art did not exercise any great influence on the citizenry towards the appreciation of contemporary art and but certainly helped to create good taste in the selection of furniture, functional artistic household objects, tapestry and textiles, last but not the least, fashionable Indian jewellery and hand printed saris for the society ladies.

New Delhi, as I knew in the pre-partition days was virtually a desert culturally, though the old walled city of Delhi enjoyed an age old cultural tradition. New Delhi was brand new but culture and its manifestations take breeding time and suitable stimulus.

In this un-inspiring environment it was a bold effort on the part of late Sarada Ukil, to establish his atelier and teaching workshop in New Delhi.

Sarada Ukil was an exponent of the neo-Indian art movement and was, soon able to gather round him a number of apprentices and thus laid the foundation for an art school in New Delhi which came to be known as ‘Sarada Ukil School of Art.” Their imagination and energy did not rest at that. The Ukils sponsored an adjunct of the School of Art - “The All-India Fine Arts and Craft Society.”

Sarada Ukil School of art became a centre in Northern India for promoting a variant of the prevalent cult of the new found national art with an accent on the mannerism as practiced and pronounced by Sarada Ukil himself.

Ukil and his disciples in the School developed a technique conspicuous for its sensitive and wash finish, soft colouring, fine calligraphic lines. The school had pronounced preference for mythology and idealized rendering of the common man’s life.

The School outlived its function in terms of time and temperament. In its attempt to bring it in line and with modern concept of art education, I am not sure if it has achieved the desired result.

In the early forties, not long before the partition of India there was some re-thinking in the educational pattern which determined the balancing of science and humanities in higher education. This resulted in the founding of polytechnics which would cater for the teaching of Engineering, Commerce, Textile, Architecture and Art under the overall tutelage of technical education. Thus the teaching of fine art like painting, sculpture and graphics came to be consideredas technical education.

The Government of India at the Delhi Polytechnic in Delhi, this time set up a Department of Art. It was indeed a modest beginning in comparison to the other sister departments. Ill-equipped, ill-accommodated, under-staffed, the art department conducted assorted part-time and full-time courses. Ultimately the Art Department of the Polytechnic adopted 5 years full-time and 7 years part-time courses in Fine Art, Sculpture and Applied Art, leading to the National Diploma.

For a brief period of 7 years I had the privilege of conducting the affairs of this institution in Delhi from 1953 to 1960.

I would say it was an excellent idea to have the institute of art in a composite polytechnic where it should have been possible to have various aspects of modern technology tempered by social sciences and humanities. But the idealistic integration in practice did not take place because of bureaucratic reservations, departmental hegemonism, resultant suspicion and inter-departmental rivalry.

The art department stood to gain immensely if it could freely borrow the available technology for its courses in ceramics and pottery, bronze casting, welded sculpture, tapestry and wall hangings, structural murals and other experimental projects. But alas! The borrower and the lender could not come to terms. The opportunity for inter-disciplinary studies and the integration of mind and matter was lost.

Today the department stands transferred as the College of Art affiliated to the Delhi University.

In West India, Sir Jijibhoy School of Art in Bombay occupied the pride of place in art education. The school has celebrated it centenary as has the Government School of Art (now college of art and craft) Calcutta. J.J. School shared the general concept of art education in India with regional variation. It had the crafts workshop attached to it, as a different branch of study primarily meant for the training of artisans.

Painting and sculpture heavily borrowed from the British tradition of R.A. and P.R.A blended with the Indianism of Raja Ravi Varma and Dharandhar.

In sculpture - Mahhtre, Wagh, Karmakar set the standard of realistic statue making tradition. J.J. also had its own brand of Indian painting section. Ahlivasi of Banaras was the principal exponent of the School. Ajanta was not far from the Maharashtra coast and Griffith, an earlier principal of the School had published a notable volume on the frescoes - and this exercised an understandable influence on the temperament of the Indian art Section.

Gladstone Solomon and later Gerard did much to enhance the prestige of the school as did their Indian juniors like Deuskar, Achrekar and Adarkar.

It was a happy idea that in the newly launched public School system teaching of art found a place for refinement of taste of the scholars, I recall the good work done by art masters like Sudhir Khastgir, Paritosh Sen, Bhabani Guin and Kanwal Krishna at the Doon School, Dally College, Mayo College and the Modern School respectively.

The School of art in the Presidency town of Madras similarly provided for the requirements of the Southern Zone in the training of painters, decorators, modellers, draftsmen and craftsmen. The School was well equipped with workshops for artisans to practise their crafts with added facilities for technical innovation.

But South India had its splendid endowment of rich and varied crafts which were still a live tradition integrated with the life style of the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada speaking people and so attempts at modernisation of art education hardly made a dent to temple architecture, stone carving, bronze casting, wood work or weaving, leave alone in painting and sculpture. The Sthapati School of architecture and carving etc. at Mahaballipuram has done much more research and preservation of old values in Indian plastic and visual art which the art schools of the Establishment perhaps unwittingly destroyed.

Later Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury took over the administration and guidance of the Government School of Arts and Crafts at Madras some time about 1927 or 1928. Roy Chowdhury began as a painter of the Bengal School of Oriental painting and ended as a reputed sculptor of the Neo-Rodin romantic style. He did a great deal to build up the reputation of the school with the introduction of more contemporary elements in painting and sculpture by persuasion and self-example. His successor and pupil, late K.C.S. Panikar was further able to consolidate the progress in keeping with the artistic demands of the time.

In the narration above, I have briefly touched the happenings in the sphere of professional training of the artists, primarily in the pre-independence of British India. It will be seen that in the educational frame work for the training of the artists there was no clarity nor a philosophy for inspiration and guidance. It did not lead to the cultivation of an enquiring mind nor to aesthetic research for the art students of the time. Undoubtedly there were a few enlightened Englishmen teachers and Indian leaders of though who kindled the light of knowledge and curiosity in the minds of a few who made a mark notwithstanding the system on the strength of their personal talent and will.

In the post-independence India no perceptible change took place for a long while. It takes a long time to shake off the habit of dependence of the mind on values of the imposed alien rulers to serve vested interests. We found it easier to remain in the valley of “Status quo” than make an attempt to remove the lethargy of the mind and spirit which seemed to have lodged itself in the national struggle for independence.

However, the new thing that happened was that the higher seats of learning like Universities thought fit to accommodate as a discipline of learning the education of the artists within its fold. There were studies of Aesthetics, Appreciation and Art History in the Calcutta University on postgraduate levels but it was for the first time that the University of Baroda opened its doors to the professional training and education of art; integrating knowledge of the history of art and aesthetics in its faculty of Fine Art.

We in the department of the Delhi Polytechnic felt the urgency of inter-disciplinary contacts in the courses designed for different branches of art subjects and recast the syllabus of courses aiming to round off the personality of the trainee in experiencing by practice in varieties of media and methods, as well as basic knowledge of the history of art.

But anomalies persist in variation, duration, objectives and value judgements of courses and their end products in the overall art education system of India.

Since our system of education is basically job oriented there is a craze now amongst art students for University Degrees rather than professional Diplomas for the purpose of seeking employment. It seems some of the Universities are in a hurry,under pressure of agitation, to extend affiliations even to accommodate sketchy studies of art as one of the subjects for graduation. Even post-graduate degrees and the Doctorate in art are offered without the candidate having to undergo the rigours and discipline of sustained professional exercises.

These problems have to be sorted out on a national level to promote clarity in values and objectives.

To my mind our existing system of art education is already worn out and out-moded.

Do we have a vision of the nature of things to come in not so remote a future? In spite of the nagging political uncertainty, lack of principled leadership, the consensus by and large is towards adopting a secular socialistic welfare pattern of society. In such a circumstance the development of industry and agriculture at various levels will brook no delay. No Government can risk ignoring the basic ideology of development and equi-distribution of national wealth.

What may be the role the artist in a democracy based on socialism? How will the industrial growth affect the nature of contemporary Indian art? What steps are we contemplating for our plastic and visual arts to catch up with the fast moving technological development? Does not the situation envisage a compelling urgency to renovate and remove the weakness of present day art education? Do we not realise the democratised role of the artist in the contemporary society of our vision shall put its stamp on every aspect of our cultural life - the theatre, cinema, television, people’s parks for recreation. It should bring grace to the objects for every-day use. The artist of tomorrow will have to meet new demands made on his talent.

I do not believe distinctions will remain between the industrial artist, commercial artist and the practitioner of fine art. Artist of the future must develop his total artistic personality. The modern artist will cease to be the traditional painter sculptor, but has to emerge as a technological man with creative vision. Visual communication in modern society anywhere in the world will be dynamic rather than esoteric. It is important therefore to resolve the contradictions in the philosophy and content of our art education today.

But who will bell the cat?

Obviously the authorities high up are far too pre-occupied with the problems of stability at the seat of power and other problems of the State. If any thought has been given we have seen no indication of it. To move the Governmental machinery and bring about changes in the art institutions of the establishment is a ponderous process and time consuming exercise. I had therefore hoped that the National Academy of Art, Lalit Kala Akademi, a body consisting of artists, art teachers, art historians and critics, an autonomous organisation in the role of a Government agency, could measure up to the expectation of fulfilling its constitutional obligation in solving the problem.

The Akademi had very wisely set up a Studio-Workshop Complex at Garhi Village on the outskirts of Delhi provided with maximum upto-date facilities in painting, sculpture, graphics ceramics, for the benefit of professional artists.

At the inauguration of the studies in 1976 I had said that in the concept of the functioning of the centre and foundation for the proposed Institute for Advanced Studies in Fine Art was well laid. Briefly, the idea of the Institute was to offer an open educative framework in which to discover the main forms of artistic interests and aptitudes of the apprentice artists, to provide further opportunities to carefully recruited young artists who had already acquired training in recognised institutions and shown a marked degree of promise and competence. The Institution was meant to provide facilities for research and experiment in traditional techniques and art forms as well as in new materials offered by the latest technological developments.

Student artists thus brought together for advanced studies should imbibe fresh vision, master latest techniques and should gain integrated discipline in art forms. With planned exposure to the work environment where experts are functioning and professionals are engaged in exploring and experimenting in new creative aspects of visual and plastic art, the young artist would be well conditioned to meet the needs of the changing situation of our cultural life.

The institute would provide an environment suitable for personalised training in an informal atmosphere through workshops, seminars and other such programmes. In such conditions the work attitude of the student would extend far beyond formal work hours and a genuine involvement brought about. Self-discipline would stem in the process, live experience in the freedom of choice and action would be the main feature of the new art school providing for personal fulfilment of the individual artist.

This kind of training is also meant to act as a significant factor in developing a co-ordination of attitudes on a national scale, transcending regional reservations.

This is an idea that should not be confined and bound down by words, rules and codes of conduct, but with faith, straightaway put into practice, guided and supervised by imagination, experience and unfaltering vision.

But alas! The idea went over the heads of the Akademicians and did not find the least response from the Lalit Kala Akademi’s policy-making body, the General Council.

Published in Roopa Lekha, Vol 53, 1982, p. 60-69
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