Since the late 18th century ‘traditional’ Indian art, whether Mughal or Rajput, Bengali-Oriya or South Indian, steadily degenerated and was superseded by a transition period experimenting with ‘improvements’ of the inherited style, by means of new foreign techniques; respectively with an adaptation of that foreign art to Indian conditions, then by a grand style attempt at reviving the traditions of the past in an up-to-date garb. This latter, however, was at last challenged by a far-going switch-over to the international style which had developed during the last half-century, entering into a new synthesis, not so much with the ancient Indian art preferred as ‘classical’ by the revival movement as with the still living folk art or a free interpretation of various medieval styles.
This whole switch-over still is explosively controversial. But this cannot be otherwise as long as this country is in the throes of a total political, economic, social and cultural revolution, the end of which is not yet in sight. For this revolution, the end of which is not yet in sight. For this revolution has ceased to be a national affair. It has been reduced to a regional aspect of an unheard-of cultural crisis upsetting the whole of mankind. Our loyalties, our emotions are bound to one or the other side, and we are apt to praise what is congenial to us and to condemn what goes against our convictions. However, we should never forget that art is a product of its time and milieu. The standards of quality may be eternal, but the ways of expression, of imagery, form, structure, rhythm, colour reaction, sensitiveness are incessantly changing. We may have personal predilections and antipathies. We should, however, not judge the past from the pedestal of our own ideals, now demand that the present conform to the ideals of the past. It is just the beauty of life that there are so many possibilities, so many successful solutions; it is eternal stimulus to our creative urges that in every aspect of life we are always confronted with the challenge of new problems. But it is not less true that all final solutions need for their maturing a long experimentation, an incessant improvement of tentative solutions. New creation and evolution on the foundation of the tradition, thus established, are complimentary.
Art, as the expression of ideals, the dreams and aesthetic reactions of a time, is bound to change with it, to be traditional in periods of quiet evolution, to be traditional in periods of quiet evolution, to be upset when the foundations of society are shaken. Those latter, however, crack when basic factors, especially the interrelation between the density of the population and the opportunities for its sustenance, the technical resources available for this purpose and their social organisation, the actually explored picture of the world and the already existing ideas about it lose their balance. Then the whole superstructure collapses, however perfect it may appear in other respects. And it has to crash from time to time, because any tradition, once established, tends to perfect, but not to adjust itself to the shifts in the foundations on which it has been erected. Such an alternation between evolution and revolution is one of the most common patterns of human history and civilization. But it is not realised by most people, because even minor such like cataclysms fall due only in intervals of several hundred years, and major ones only in terms of millennia. Thus, the major cultural revolutions seem to belong to a too distant historical past, as likely to repeat themselves, and the minor ones are soon glossed over.
Also in Indian history such revolutions have happened time and again, utterly upsetting her cultural development. The Aryan invasion, the intrusions of the Greeks, Scythians and Huns, the Muslim conquest today are well-known to us. Yet even they had been glossed over for a long time to such an extent that the Hindu cultural tradition appeared to be uninterrupted since the days of the Gods and rishis. Nevertheless, Hindu thought has been aware of these revolutions as is proved by the dogmas of successive creations and destructions of the world, of alternating good and bad ages, of the periodical salvation of the universe by the avataras and murtis of God. Thus the age of Buddhism and of the Graeco-Scythian invasions had, later on, been equated to the disastrous Kali Yuga. But the correct interpretation of these cataclysms has changed in the course of time, has been given a nationalistic or orthodox explanation, instead of what they really have been and are, crises of human civilization, whenever and wherever the spark of divine inspiration is lost in mechanical routine, narrow egoism, moral indifference and dissipation.
The crisis which permitted a handful of Englishmen to conquer and rule India with the help of Indian soldiers, officials agents and allies, has been no more than another of these cataclysms, and the culture of that period has to be interpreted in terms of such a collapse and of a slow and painful groping towards readjustment to a world situation with which contact had been lost. It had set in long before, early in the 17th century, when the efforts made from both Hindu and Muslim side to reintegrate Indian civilization in a new creative impulse, fizzled out. With the death of Akbar, Ibrahim II ‘Adilshah and Ibrahim Qutbshah inspired statesmanship came to an end. With Jahangir and Shahjahan, Muhammad ‘Adilshah and Muhammad Quli Qutbshah, the Nayaks of Tanjore and Madurai also the creative impulse in the courtly luxury arts and literary production died. Thereafter politics became a naked struggle for power, inspired by communal Hindu or Muslim sentiments, without the complement of an efficient administration, without consideration for the welfare of the people. There have been individual great rulers, just administrators, religious and cultural reformers, and sensitive artists and poets also thereafter, but the general trends of the time undid their individual, often heroic efforts. The nemesis of the political game left them no choice, or the prejudices of the time drove them into abortive reforms, or weak successors ruined whatever they had built up. The oases of well-administered, rich and happy provinces and districts shrank, and the desert of ruined and depopulated land spread and spread. And the hopelessness of the times in its turn drove the weaker characters into a flight from the terrible realities of the age into religious asceticism, the dissipation of the senses or the dreamworld of an artificial art. Symptoms likewise of the great European crisis about 1520-1660 (religious wars, counter-reformation and mannerism) and not less in our age of the atom bomb and the intercontinental missile (T. S. Eliot, T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, abstract art, the “dream factory” of the film, etc.).
The wholesale condemnation of 18thandearly 19th century Indian art which had been prevalent for so long, is not wholly justified. It must be conceded that much of the work of this period, executed by poorly paid artisans for uncultured adventurers, or by starving bazar workers in the hope for naked survival, is crude. It must be conceded that also qualified work was, on the whole, not original, that it was nervous and highly artificial, often even neurasthenic and sex-obsessed. However, for the very same reasons its mastery of the traditional language of types and forms was facile, its sense of perfect form and colour highly dynamic, its taste sure, its feeling highly sensitive wherever conditions were favourable. Like the Hindu art of the late Middle Ages (11th - 13th centuries) it knew how to evoke a dreamworld, be it of worldly elegance and erotic enchantment, or the ecstasies of mystic yearning and union. The reasons could be very different. The foundation of the various successor states of the Mughal empire aroused new political hopes and aspirations, and inspired the building of new capitals, with all their needs for a representative art. Both in the Faizabad of Shuja-ud-Daula of Oudh and the Haidarabad of Nizam-ul-Mulk, we find an attempt at a renaissance of Mughal art, on a lesser scale in Lucknow under Asaf-ud-Daula an in Murshidabad under Alivardi Khan. A similar phenomenon we witness in the Rajput states, under Anup Singh of Bikaner, Ajit and Abhai Singh of Jodhpur, Raj Singh II and Amar Singh II - of Udaipur. Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur, Govardhan Chand of Guler, Sansar Chand II of ‘Kangra’ (Tira-Sujanpur) when the Mughal yoke was thrown off, and not less at the Jat court at Dig. Some of these rulers had been highly educated, and thus we occasionally meet similar cultured maecenas, also without the background of such political hopes, e.g. Gaj Singh of Bikaner or Balwant Singh of Jammu. Bhakti mysticism combined with such cultural qualities stood behind the art interests of Savant Singh Nagari Das, the deposed ruler of Kishangarh. Mysticism combined, or alternating, with gross eroticism, was responsible for the hothouse art under the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, under Bijai Singh and Man Singh of Jodhpur or Sawai Pratap Singh of Jaipur. In all these cases the artists were encouraged by the rulers or at least by influential persons in their entourage (maharanis, concubines, retired princes, ministers), were decently treated and inspired by some ideal of perfect secular life, romantic dreams, female beauty and love, or religious devotion. But all these recoveries were shortlived and never had a more than local or provincial character. When their encouragement and inspiration had disappeared, the technique, the formal tradition were preserved for some time by the still surviving masters and handed on to their pupils. But the spirit evanesced, the artists relapsed first into a respectable correctness, then into a dull ornateness, and at last thei work degenerated into a lame imitation of the inherited models, even by means of stencils: in the best cases tolerable pastiches, but generally badly composed and designed, of gaudy colours and crude expression. Architecture of that type is but too common, e.g. the general design of Safdarjung’s mausoleum at Delhi, numerous palaces, mosques and temples, heavy brick constructions with gaudily painted stucco decorations. Likewise the overwhelming majority of later Rajasthani miniatures and even many in the degenerated ‘early Rajasthani’ style, surviving, as house-book illustrations for minor provincial Thakurs; into, the middle 19th century. And also Pahari-Rajput art since the victories of the Gurkhas and Sikhs. Further south the art of the Marathas never developed beyond a fusion of mediaeval Hindu, Mughal and Rajput elements, rather boorishly imitated. In that of Mysore a completely degenerated Mughal tradition was superseded by experiments with a new style, based on contemporaneous South Arabic and French inspirations. The Hindu temples of Mysore and the Tamilnad continue the Nayak traditions, not less richly elaborated than the late Mughal style of Northern India and nor less beautiful as a mere decoration, but petty and lifeless whenever, one goes into the details.
When the Pax Britannica was imposed on the exhausted country, the visible shell of national art still was in existence: Maecenas, architects, sculptors, painters and artisans; techniques, formal traditions.
And with the economic recovery it, too, seemed to come alive. Everywhere an extraordinary activity set in. innumerable palaces, mansions and temples were erected. In sheer quality the monuments of this ‘renaissance’ are more numerous and much more lavishly decorated than the whole surviving production of the 18th century. There was an immense demand for temple sculptures in the South, in the Maratha States and in Bengal, and an even vaster demand for religious and erotic pictures, to some degree also for portraits, especially in the North.
However, the spirit of art was flickering out. For the character of the Maecenas and the status of the artists degenerated under British rule. Hitherto the most important employers of the artists had been the princes and the aristocracy. Under the traditional political system the powers of the rulers had been practically unlimited; the theoretical checks were such that they could always be set aside. But this very position of the rulers had been the princes and the aristocracy. Under the traditional political system the powers of the rulers had been practically unlimited; the theoretical checks were such that they could always be set aside. But this very position of the ruler above the law was also the mightiest de facto check on his power. Within his own class he was outside the law. Every other ruler was duty-bound to subdue or overthrow him, every noble to aspire to his throne. He could maintain himself only by a strong personality inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty and by utter vigilance and acumen. But such personalities, whether de jure de facto rulers, had to impress their spirit on art, in selecting the best masters, criticizing their creations, and rewarding them according to their merits. They would accept the traditional forms of art, in most cases could not even conceive of other possibilities; but they would enforce its vitality, its elegance, its incessant development.
But under British rule this most important stimulant disappeared. There was now only a limited scope to imports from England, their great opportunity had come. But without the aesthetic lead of the courts, the art financed by them had likewise to sink into dull mass production.
The new ruling class, finally, could not assume the role of Maecenas of Indian art. Officers, officials and merchants, the British in India were not the type of people who develop an independent aesthetic judgment.Indianart was utterly strange to their whole background, was collected, if at all, without understanding of its forms, its spirit its subjects, collected not so much for its intrinsic beauty then as souvenirs of a career which they sentimentally loved because of its wealth, or quaint ‘exotic’ experiences, bought at the price of many sacrifices and hardships. But as long as they were in India, they would rigorously avoid anything that might efface their identity, keeping their houses as “English” as the social rituals which at home were a matter of convenience and comfort, here a distinction of caste. When they really needed art, they ordered it from ‘home’ or employed artist who had come thence. To them Indian art was a bazar bargain for the moment of returning home, no more.
Thus the status of the artist declined quickly. Like elsewhere in the world, the artists have always lived on several social levels, that of the better class artisan, that of the highly esteemed expert and that of the pampered star. The position of the first was subject to the laws of demand and supply. Well-to-do in good times, he was the first to starve in a crisis, though even then his lot was not so bad as that of the peasant, because he could find the attention of the ruling class. The mass production e.g. of the 14th century sculptures at Dilwara, Mt. Abu, probably had been not less the work of well trained artists, fallen on bad days, than much of the rich decoration of 18th and early 19th century buildings. Above these artisans were the experts, the great architects and qualified sculptors and painters. In Hindu times the first (sthapatis, sutragrahins) generally had high priestly rank, in Muslim times the great engineer-architects (Ma’mur) ranked with the nobility and sometimes were even elevated to high administrative positions. The mediaeval Hindu sculptors and painters were endowed bombastic titles. The Muslim artists (ustad) ranked with clergy or the lower nobility (Mir, Mirza, Khan); most of them were palae domestics (khanazad, shbhanda); their Hindu contemporaries were likewise palace servants, sometimes small jagirdars (e.g. Molaram). Some received honorific titles (Nadir-az-Zaman, Shirin-Qalam, etc.) and extra remuneration; but normally only musicians (e.g. Tan Sen), singers and dancing girls, who could directly appeal to human emotions, drew salaries comparable to those of modern film stars.
Since Aurangzeb’s puritan discouragement of the arts, and the subsequent bankruptcy of the war-torn empire, the status of the artists declined incessantly. Fida’i Khan, the architect of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore and owner of the Pinjaur garden, probably was the last grand-style master. By and by most Mughal artists were forced to emigrate to Rajasthan and the Panjab Himalaya, whereas, later, Rajput artists sought work with the Marathas and in Nepal. Soon dancing girls and musicians could maintain themselves, but only by catering to the low instincts of their employers, sinking down to prostitutes and procurers (in those times a not so disreputable position). Such a fall was not unique. Always the position of artists and intellectuals has been ambiguous: priests and inspirers when able to appeal to the best in mankind, charlatans and prostitutes when they had to appeal to its worst. As a matter of fact, the problem arises even in our time, though glossed over ‘by high-sounding jargon. The other artists, however, were reduced to underpaid artisans, at the best to palace servants. Some also discovered a chance of painting portraits of European visitors and producing such souvenirs as the foreigners wanted, copies of older miniatures, conventional portraits of the Mughal emperors, representations of the principal Hindu gods, views of the monuments of Delhi, Lucknow, etc., folk types wedding scenes, satis, etc. for this purpose work with stencils became quite common.
Even that modest status, however, was more and more lost, in the measure in which foreign taste infiltrated. The artists ended in the bazar. The masons still built modest private houses. The Jaipur sculptors and painters maintained themselves by organising an export of marble idols, stencilled Ragmala sets, etc. The Udaipur painters superseded - probably as journeymen - the extinct minor studios in Rajasthan or worked for the pilgrims visiting Nathdvara, Kankroli, etc., or decorated houses with crude murals. Those of Bengal and Orissa catered for the visitor to Kalighat, Puri, etc. More and more switched over to other professions. In the late 19th century Indian art was in danger of dying out. Only in the South, in the Tamil NADU, Mysore and Kerala, it still maintained itself, sacred in a ritualistic sense, but otherwise dull and utterly philistine. Only here and there some artists still were conscious of the sacredness of their art and handling it on scrupulously, though no more able to use it with the creative vision of their ancestors. The temples, once so beautifully immersed in the surrounding nature, had completely lost contact with it since the 17th century. The images of the Gods, once grandiose symbols of the universe, say of something unutterably greater, had been dragged down to homely familiarity, mirroring the commonplace mind of a middle-class ensconced in a very narrow though, within those limits, still meaningful world.
But what power of resistance had such an art! It had become a routine, done because it had always been done like that, unquestioned, an integral part of a social system which was already crackling up under the impact of new techniques and a new imagery, the taste of the public lost its sureness. For all great art, because it aspires at expressing more than the obvious, stylises, eliminates the inessential and emphasises whatever can suggest the spiritual movement (rhythm, colour harmonies, symbols, etc.). but in a society which had become philistine - mass production of Western industrialism, the obvious had to be victorious. And after the artists had been forced to make concessions, strike compromises, the identity of their art was bound soon to be lost. Thus traditional art could survive, ossified, only where the old society still resisted, i.e. further and further away from the new developments in the country, the normal end of dying civilisations.
In evaluating this decline, we have to repeat that it recurs at varying times in all civilisations. Europe had passed through a similar one during the ‘Wars of Religion’ in the late 16th and 17th centuries and, on a lesser scale, during the French Revolution. Since then, Western art had been in a perpetual crisis, its tradition upset, developing in a series of technical experiments and renaissances. And if the symptoms are not deceptive, its greatest crisis is ahead still.
The effects of British rule on India have to be seen inthelight of this permanent revolution of European civilization. The people who started, almost involuntarily, on the conquest of India, were of a type very different from those who consciously envisaged her transformation into a colony, and again different from the cautious politicians of post- ‘Mutiny’ times, and again from those bureaucrats who tried to retain their hold over the country, entrenched behind successive facades of ‘empire’ and ‘democracy’. To the first their role as vassals of the Grand Mughal came very natural. In England there ruled the Tory aristocracy, the tenants of the great landowners were exploited almost as much as the Indian weavers. The Indian aristocracy was accepted as a counterpart of the English. Corruption and extortion were regarded as normal aspects of life. European art of the time, in its basic attitudes, its involved ornateness and its grandiloquence, was not too different from the later Mughal taste.
But during the Regency a change set in which found its formulation in the Whig Reforms of 1832 and the Indian policy proclaimed in 1834-36. The new upper class smugly prided themselves to be the champions of Progress and Christianity, by means of conquest, industrialization and missionary conversion, accepting the destruction of the ‘backward’ older forms of life as an unavoidable temporary evil on the road to the Golden Age to come. Their own art was merely a rehash of Graeco-Roman, Renaissance and Mediaeval reminiscences in improved techniques, but of weakened sensitiveness; however, they were convinced of its superiority over all the other ‘barbarian’ creations of mankind.
The third set of British rulers had become more cautious. They still believed in the victory of Western civilization, but by means of a slow transformation of Indian life and institutions. Like the Indian Empire which was, at least as a façade, a copy of the Mughal empire, with the British in the role of the Mughals. Indian art, too, was accepted and adapted, the ancient Indian monuments were rediscovered, Mughal-Rajput architecture was revived and adapted to the needs of modern life, and the dying crafts were boosted by art schools and museums - without success. For at the same time the railways penetrated the country and the imports of European goods ruined the old crafts in a grand style. But the British were hardly aware of this contradiction, because it was an integral part also of their own life. Whereas the factories turned out locomotives, guns, dreadnaughts, and practically every imaginable type of ugly consumer goods, the owners of those industries built for themselves palaces in the Mediaeval or Renaissance art, went to fancy dress parties of the same type, wrote poems in the same old-style manner. Even the re-enthroned of classical Indian art by E. B. Havell was no more than the last logical inference of this attitude, i.e. the transfer of the Romantic ideology resumed by the pre-Raphaelite painters, from Mediaeval European to Indian art.
During the last half century of British rule the colonial regime tried increasingly to hide behind an elaborate indigenous administration, though still retaining all the key positions of political and economic power. This policy corresponded to an acknowledgment in the West of the cultural equality, even superiority, at least in the past, of the Asiatic and North African civilisations, the elaboration of an aesthetic theory applicable to all the arts of mankind and the evolution of a new art representing a far-going break with the hitherto valid European tradition. During this phase the emergence of a national Indian art was encouraged, at least within the limits of colonial power politics.
If one keeps in mind the difficulties of communications before the opening of the Suez Canal, the construction of railways and telegraphs, the first impact of English - and also French - art on India was surprisingly intensive, though limited for a few ports and capital cities and their next neighbourhood. But those very difficulties forced the diminutive European ruling class to make India their temporary home. Imports of goods from Europe were fantastically expensive, and, as far as possible, the Europeans had to get their houses, furniture and utensils of daily life made in the country. On the other hand, social relations with the Indian aristocracy were, on the whole, good. Many Europeans took to innovations, though perhaps no more seriously than do Western collectors today in looking at Asiatic art. Soon a mixed style developed, in which Mughal forms were transformed under the influence of the Louis XVI Regency and Classicist taste, or where buildings of the latter type became semi-Mughal. That style, of course could penetrate into the interior only along the coasts or the big rivers, especially the Ganges, Gumti and Yamuna. We find it in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, but also at Baroda, Hyderabad, Seringapatam, Vellore, Arcot, Murshidabad, Patna, Lucknow, Delhi, even Jaipur and Bhopal. European painters got orders at the princely courts, European prints were imported and copied by painters in Bihar, Oudh, Maharashtra and by Bombay Chinese and their Indian pupils. Glass chandeliers and big mirrors were in thigh fashion and found their way even into the Panjab. New textiles came into vogue - velvet, gold applique embroidery, tinsel and lacework.
But in the measure in which the British felt stronger and isolated themselves from the now despised ‘natives’, European influence ceased. The Western creations of this period were by the British, and for the British, by British architects and engineers, as far as possible equipped with British furniture and knick-knack. During this period traditional Indian art experienced its last renaissance, though often curiously transformed under European influence of which, however, neither employers nor artists seem to have been conscious. In architecture there was an adaptation to the European way of life, with tables and chairs, resulting in an alteration of the proportions of the, otherwise, late Mughal or mixed European Mughal buildings. In sculpture there appeared a new realism. On the temple walls of Rajasthan and of the Maratha States dvarpalas were represented as contemporary court officials, the heavenly nymphs as Delhi dancing girls and musicians. In Rajasthan even the gods were clad in contemporary court dresses.
After 1857-58, but especially after the foundation of the Indian Empire of queen Victoria, European influence again became felt, at least in the palaces of Maharajas and Nawabs, and in the mansions of rich nobles and merchant princes, to some degree even in Jain temples. Now, however, it was no more a give and take, but a slavish copying of European models and collecting of European junk, whether sculptures or paintings, chiming clocks, ‘magic mirrors’ or other similar ‘curios’. For Indians could not have a critical judgement of European art, andEuropeansgenerally were but too glad to palm off on their blind admirers whatever had proved unsaleable in the West. But this was European, not British art. For at that time British art had, on the whole, degenerated to a rather second-rate branch of the international European style dominated mainly by Paris. This art, which was officially sponsored in the later 19th century, was no art at all in the sense in which we understand it today. Technically it was very competent. But otherwise it was a conglomeration of all the styles of the world and of the past then known, culled from art-historical books, ornament repertories and museums, and superficially adapted to all imaginable uses, meretriculously catering for the ostentation and lasciviousness of a new class of rich politicians, bankers and industrialists. The artists whom today we accept as the real great masters of that time, were ridiculed or condemned by their contemporaries as madmen. As far, however, as this art was taught in Indian art schools, it lacked even the technical competence then common in Europe.
In reaction, Indian art life began to stir again. It was not yet the beginning of a new national art, but at least an interpretation of Indian life and vision through Indian eyes. The champion of this first renaissance was Raja Ravi Varma. His paintings once enjoyed an immense popularity and, in bad oil prints, still are the favourite decoration of a good part of the Hindu lower middle class. They provoked attention even in international exhibitions in Vienna and Chicago. But during the last half century they have been not less bitterly condemned. To do justice to this prolific master, we should not forget that in the days of his greatest success (ca 1880-90) traditional Indian art was practically dead and officially approved European art had reached its lowest ebb, and that then such horrors like the Vicotria Terminus in Bombay, (1888) and the Jain Temples in the Badridas Gardens at Calcutta, were built, which, however, until recently, have been praised as ‘most handsome’, ‘one of the prettiest spots in the whole of Calcutta’ (even in government-sponsored tourist guide books). Ravi Varma, moreover, was an autodidact whose draftsmanship often leaves much to be desired, though he had a good sense of colour and could be poetic in a quiet way. He has done good and could be poetic in a quiet way. He has done good portraits. But his fame - or notoriety - rests on his mythological and epic paintings. The claim that the European style is unsuitable for such subjects, is absurd. The manner e.g. of an El Greco, Tintoretto, Delacroix or Turner would easily have lent itself to an absolutely convincing rendering of the visions of the Hindu havens. But Ravi Varma knew only the most conventional, tete-a-terre European manner, and his feudal bourgeois temperament lacked all visionary elan. His heroes are little bourgeois good-for-nothings, his princes dotards, his gods badly dressed-up yatra actors, and Parsi females, his lovers are hopelessly sentimental, his tragic scenes without the dignified self-restraint of genuine heroes. But the very fact that these pictures became so popular, shows how much they reflected the sentimental religiosity and ideals of his time. nevertheless, it will always stand to his credit that he re-introduced India subjects, not as exotic curiosities seen by foreigners, but as sacred national ideals and visions, at a time when the Indian upperclass aped the West to the point of having themselves portrayed even in Scotch kilts. If Ravi Varma failed as an artist, the work of other, less ambitious painters, such as Bomanji or Antonio Trindade, still is enjoyable in its own modest way.
The next step forward, from National themes to a national style proved much more difficult. Its pre-requisite was a knowledge of former national artistic achievements. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, traditional Indian architecture had been well re-established; Mughal miniatures just began to be appreciated, a decade later to be followed by Rajput (i.e. mainly Pahari) miniatures; the Ajanta murals, hitherto known only in a few very poor drawings, were at last published in a fairly satisfactory manner and aroused a storm of enthusiasm. This was the achievement of the Bombay School of Arts under J. Grifiths. Its next principal, Gladstone Solomon, tried to introduce also an Indian figure style; unfortunately it never succeeded in catching the characteristic movements and impressions of Indian people, not to mention the spirit of India, A parallel effort was made in the Calcutta School of Arts by E.B. }lava, the great propagandist and first ideologist of Indian art. He tried to encourage a new national art, Without, however,, imposing a special style. Nevertheless, his aesthetic and ideological background, English pre-Raphaelism with its archaism, .mysticism and sentimentality then already out of fashion in the British isles-has left a much stronger impact on the first phases of modern Indian painting than is generally realised. For its retrospective mysticism suited but too well the Indian intelligentsia of that time, excluded from all nation-building tasks and thus the mere dreaming of its great past. For such opportunities were first discovered by the Swadeshi movement and then to some degree also conceded by the British bureaucracy.
The first two masters to try their hands at the new experiment were Fyzee Rahamin (S. Samuel) in Bombay and Abanindranath Tagore in Calcutta. Fyzee Rahamin had acquired a good pictorial training under Sargent in Lon-don, but after his conversion to Islam and his marriage to the musician Atiya Begam, he switched over to imitations of Mughal and Rajput miniatures. But these water-colours, temperas and murals formerly in the New Delhi Secretariat) are of an anaemic, sentimentality. This is also the characteristic of the copious work of his successor, M. A. Chughtai, which, however, developed a beautiful rhythm (reminiscent of Burne-Jones, Crane, Morris and Beardsley) and a pellucid colour. Today they both belong to Pakistan. Abanindranath Tagore's interest in art had begun with English pre-Raphaelism and its early Italian inspirations; but, under the influence of Havell, he switched over to Indian art. His early water-colours, pastiches of Mughal and Rajput miniatures in a pre-Raphaelite spirit, are vague and misty, full of a feminine tenderness and sympathetic love for all his national background, its rituals, symbols and myths. It is (not a great art, but rather) the dreams of a leisured aristocrat, noble and highly cultured, but far from the hardships and maddening struggles of real life.
However modest those first achievements had been, we can never over-rate them enough. For today it is r cult to realize what overwhelming odds then had been marshalled against those first pioneers. The average public, whether Indian or European, was utterlyindifferentor hostile, dismissing their efforts as mere oddities. Havell, who encouraged them, was, for a long time, a crier in the wilderness. Only when starling artists and connoisseurs in Europe, Auguste Rodin, Rothenstein etc., became interested, this attitude began to change. Its strongest support, however, became the mounty national movement. As a matter of fact, the Tagore was amongst the champions of the Swadeshi movement, its aspects: a national style of life, the encouragement of a. national art, the revival of the national crafts and industries.
Later, Abanindranath's artistic outlook widened, and he experimented also with Chinese and Japanese inspirations. But especially Ajanta proved a revelation. Like the European classicists a century earlier, he tried to distil from those murals the formula for an authoritative, always valid and thus unsurpassable national style, even working out detailed model books for every part of the body, every position, every angle of vision. He supported his ideas with references from the Sanskrit treatises of the late Gupta period and of the Middle Ages. And he doted on Mughal miniatures. Thus he became the father of a national art revival and art ideology and educated a vast following of enthusiastic and gifted disciples. His most important successor was Nandalal Bose who, as a member of Lady Herringham's team of copyists, in 1909-12, had become intimately acquainted with the technique and expression of the Ajanta murals. Later on, Nandalal Bose was to become the principal of the art school of Rabindranath's Santiniketan. What Abanindranath had proclaimed, he achieved. But he went further, starting on an intensive study also of folk art. His creations are vigorous and interesting, but when compared with the ancient originals, they often look simply absurd. For ancient Indian art was based on nature, though it never tried crudely to imitate it; and its conscious stylization was the final result of a long development from very naive renderings. Ancient Indian art, therefore, had been immensely alive, just because it intensified and trans-figured reality. And it lost contact with that latter only in its last decadence. But in those years the art of the past was not yet sufficiently known as that people could distinguish between the genuine and the derivative; and its then current interpretations, though they did justice to its contents, completely misunderstood its formal foundations.
Abanindranath and his successors have exercised an immense influence for the better and for the worse. They soon dominated all the teaching of art in the
country. An immense output, mainly Of paintings, was produced in the new "national" style and almost swept away Western influence. Charming and poetic works of great linear beauty were, and are, created by some sincere painters with a capacity for sensitive empathy. But the overwhelming majority of pictures be-came a mass production `composed' (i.e. pieced together) in imitation of a standard recipe based on one single aspect of classic art, viz. its decadence, distorting the pronounced mannerisms of that latter into grotesque caricatures, and ignoring all the other masterpieces of the past. They made use of a standard stock of costumes, hair-dos, jewellery, etc., generally out of tune with most of the mythological, epic and historical subjects depicted. As such they lacked vision and intensity of feeling, sentimentality being used as a substitute for spirituality. Much later there followed also sculptures, mainly slick renderings of popular religious themes, and at last even architecture which, being applied to quite different purposes, failed to understand the functional character of the traditional forms (e.g. sikharas, being transformed into cupolas) and even more their function of expression of a time whose leisurely life rhythm had been very different from our age of the motor car and aircraft.
Thus the Bengal School became the medium of expression of the mass mentality and the nationalist successor to the role which Ravi Varma's pictures had played during the dominance of British rule. For millions of people it still fulfils this role and will do so as long as that mentality will persist. For, in a way, both are similar, i.e. they are romantic-retrospective, and the Bengal School even more than Ravi Varma. For if Rat Varma had dressed the Gods and heroes of the past in costumes of his own time and placed them in surroundings such as were familiar to the people, the Bengal masters created an artificial mi-lieu and only, where they depicted village life they approached reality to some degree. But they romanticized it likewise, painting a world of sweetness, song, love and devotion, but suppressing all its less pleasant aspects, all its bitter struggle for survival, except where this could be exploited for a sentimental appeal. In all these respects the Bengal School repeats the characteristics of European art in the early 19th century, putting Gupta classicism in the place of Graeco-Roman, Mughal-Rajput romance in that
Of Gothic-Renaissance, Hindu or Muslim devotion in that of Christian and lndian 'drawing room' peasants in that of Tyroleans, Bretons, Dutch fishermen and Italian Lazaroni and brigands.
However, this was not the result of imitation; for the Bengal painters were not acquainted with all those aspects of European art. It was rather the product of a similar socio-economic situation. Progressive economic and political liberation could not bring a return to the past, but just the opposite, a quicker and quicker growth into the modern technocratic world. For in our hard age the course of a nation is determined by the needs of survival vis-a-vis a rapidly growing population to be nourished, an overwhelming economic competition in the international field, in and a race of armaments of not less gigantic dimensions. Whoever ignores this, is lost. Thus the India of the past is more and more disappearing, and even whatever survives, undergoes incisive changes. But man cannot so easily adapt himself to a new world beyond his imagination and yearns for the 'good old times' of the past which he is losing, yet also forgetting which hardships since he has been spared. Art has to fill this gap, to create a dreamworld in order to satisfy those yearnings. As thanks to the successive Five-Year Plans this cultural revolution is gathering momentum and will not be over for decades to come, the psychological needs for such an art will continue to exist though during the last half century the ancient sources of inspiration have multiplied, Pallava, Chola, Pala, Vijayanagar, etc. on one; hand, on the other varieties over varieties of folk art, from Assam and Orissa to Rajasthan, Maharashtra and South India, and many have not yet been tapped at all.
Thus, also the Bengal School represents not modern Indian art, but another step in its direction, and even animportant one. Ithas become the first genuine national style, it has rediscovered composition, linear beauty and occasionally heights of idealism and spirituality forgotten since the ebbing away of Krishna mysticism. But its very success was its undoing. It ended in cheap mass production a second hand technical routine and cheap sentimentality, and never came really to grips with modern India.
The best artists soon started again on their quest for true art, ix. a medium of expression evolved not from a superficial imitation of the past, but from an understanding of the basic principles underlying all genuine creations, yet formulated in many different ways, because each time, each country, each personality has to select and to balance those aspects which express its own mentality, its own life-rhythm, its own moods and dreams. The art of other times or of other countries, therefore, cannot serve as models, but merely as signposts for our own discovery of those basic principles. Already, two other members of the Tagore family followed their own vision, Gaganendranath, experimenting with linear patterns and chiaroscuro effects, and the poet Rabindranath, creating a visionary world of his own, to some degree reminding us of, but independent from the work of Odilon Redon.
In the meantime the impact of cultural changes in the outside world made itself increasingly felt. Since 1860 a revolution of Western art had set in under the influence of Japan. Though the ‘Japonneries’ were soon discarded, they had set in motion a brand of experimentation with new techniques, first angles of view, composition, light and colour, then with the intensification of expression through line, movement and light, the emotional value of colour and decorative pattern and of objects reduced to symbols, at last with the very structure of objects and texture of materials in their relation to their various functions. Between 1890 and the First World War the first phase of this revolution asserted itself, between the two world wars the second, and since then the third. And with each new stage European art progressively lost its European character, became an international medium wherever the earlier forms of art decomposed under the impact of technocratic civilization.
The most prominent representative of the first impact on India has been Amrita Sher-Gil whose style evolved from the succession of Gauguin and Modigliani by absorbing more and more Indian traits. On the early work under Italian and Paris influence there followed an intensive preoccupation with folk life and folk psychology in the Simla Hills and Uttar Pradesh, then the emergence of a very personal style, almost sophisticatedly simple and monumental, and yet so delicate and expressive, in subdued and yet glowing colours, incorporating the best Of ancient Indian and Rajput painting and of the great Japanese masters of the lacquer screen. Ridiculed in her life time, her work has not been surpassed by any later artist. For she had not only a background much broader than most of them, but above all an overwhelming devotion, though she used to conceal this, her secret, behind a mask of fashionable worldliness.
Since then modern Indian art has become a vortex of new currents and cross currents, because the whole mental atmosphere of the country is changing. The past has become less interesting than the present. The dreams of an ideal world, in mythic or historical times, are being superseded by the concrete plans for the future. Practically every possible art movement in the outside world is taken up and enters into the most multifarious combinations and blends with all possible inspirations inside the country: Is it already new snit! Most artists now build up their work from the basic elements. And there is now sufficient self-induction inside the country as to reduce outside influences to stimulants which can no more seriously affect the growth of a national art. But, on the other hand, no tangible new trend has emerged, and the themes of the artists still are predominantly inspired by the world of yesterday, though now this is the world of the village and the jungle, real, alive, but nevertheless a world doomed to disappear under the impact of modern life. But, in this respect, modern Indian art is merely a step behind world trends. It has not yet reached that last stage of disillusion which retreats into the timeless beauty of abstract art. But neither do we encounter at present a new imagery of our future world. It is bound to come, as it has happened before in all similar crises. The old national art is dead, but a new national art has grown up. All its successive phases since the middle of the last century have been stages of its growth, stages also of learning from its ancestors as well as from its modern teachers. The next decades may witness its final growth of maturity, and then we shall discover its new personality.
Reprint from the first number of Lalit Kala Contemporary 1, 2004