The convention demands prior to a discussion on anything, it has to be defined, which, I think, is the most difficult task. The very first stumbling block.
In the history of art, drawing has been defined in so many ways by so many artists and art-theoreticians, both in the East and the West, that an attempt in that direction may run into volumes and yet not be exhaustive. Besides, I am miserably ill-equipped for that kind of high adventure.
Most of the definitions, however, ultimately stand on the subsequent descriptive analyses of what a drawing does in the context of its own pictorial space. And there has been a fascinating series of shifts over the centuries in the meaning of a drawing. The shifts reflect the art traditions and practices of the periods, their socio-religious compulsions, the prevalent scientific world views, that is, a highly complex and multivalent working milieu for the artists, which we may term as the ‘culture’ of a period, for the sake of convenience.
Yet, perhaps a drawing can be, or should be, differentiated from what we call a sketch. A sketch awaits its transformation into a finished picture or painting, serving more like the hastily jotted down notes on the possible positioning of objects in relation to the frame the artist has in mind, and short-hand indications of the light-and-shade areas. Sometimes a sketch becomes a drawing, an independent art work, when it goes on changing with the artist’s shifting focus on the multiple significance of the object or the scene, and stops at a point which the artist thinks as the most expressive.
I shall confine myself to the drawing that can be considered a finished work and which can survive on the same plane on which we appreciate the artist’s other finished works. A drawing may light up the inner working of the artist’s mind, along with the ‘culture’ of the period I mentioned above.
The kind of drawing we inherited from our colonial past in the art schools founded under the British patronage had its roots in the 15th century. This, however, must not carry any stigma just because it came from the West at a time when we were a subject people. We were the same subject people when ‘Modernism’ reached the Indian shores in the forties. The much-maligned ‘academic drawing’ disintegrated beyond recognition in the later part of the 19th century and early 20th century in the hands of the Expressionists and Cubists.
It may sound strange and unreal to many of my readers if I tell them that the kind of drawing, which now stands utterly discredited, once contributed to the development of ‘descriptive sciences’ in the pre-Galiliean Europe, as much as the first telescope and microscope did in the following centuries. This is particularly true to the science of anatomy and study of other objects in nature, and to the art and science of architecture.
It was the artists of the 14th-15th century Italy who created a new science - the science of perspective - and the related methods of drawing three-dimensional objects to scale, in ‘objective’comparison, proportion and projection in a ‘new’ pictorial space. The historians of science usually credit Fillippo Bruncelleschi (1377-1446) with this new science.
Drawing at that time expressed the ‘culture’ of the period, the culture of exploring the world of objects and the human body.
Searching lines explored the roundness of forms in relation to the new-found geometry of projecting visual depth on a flat surface, and charcoal shading or bistre-wash accentuated the roundness and spread of volumes in space in terms of light and shadow.
This is not to say that the old and medieval ‘cultures’ in the East and West did not have the perception of the three-dimensional space or the that the artists of those cultures did not notice that particular viewpoints and distances change the size and shape of objects they saw and used everyday. They did. Only they did not think such perspective was necessary for their artistic expression. Their shifts in their significance of representation was different.
Giorgio de Santillana noted with humorous poignancy: “It had been three-dimensional for everybody all along, even for the most medieval artists; we do not hear of their bumping heads into corners for lack of space perception.” Drawing was once a means of transmitting observations which no amount of learned words could achieve in many fields of enquiry and expression.
In the old Sino-Japanese traditions, since it was the ‘brush’ with which they both wrote and painted, the moving point of the brush made the linear movement the most important element in artistic expression. The primary concern was to express the movement of bodies and the organic growth - the invisible ‘Life’ that permeated everything in terms of linear rhythm. Their drawings opened up pictorial space of their cultures, with a philosophical world-view which was germane to what we had done much earlier in India. The linear flow and discontinuities sometimes suggested lyrical mood, sometimes enormous expanse of spatial breath, - very unlike the European space, but not certainly less ‘real’.
There is an invisible bond that runs through the linear drawing-base of Indian miniatures, back into the drawing-base of the splendid cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora, and then into the pulsating continuum of life we wonder at in the finely carved panel at Sanchi, Bharhut and Amravati. Not that we did not perceive the roundness of forms in three-dimensional space. We did, our glorious sculptural past testifies to that. But the genesis of pictorial forms was essentially linear. In the Vishnudharmottara we find a paean of the supremacy of the line or drawing as a means of artistic expression. The line drawing, firmly and gracefully drawn, was considered the highest achievement by masters. The best picture was with the minimum of drawing: ‘Api laghu likhetiyam drishyate purnamurtih’.The immediate charm of colours catered only to the less cultivated taste.
The almost magical power of line-drawing to suggest roundness, to open up pictorial space and to grasp the essentials of the form and its inner being, drove Jamini Roy to Kalighat Pats and Puri paintings. Reacting to the hiatus in the indigenous art tradition, which was caused by the long foreign rule, Abanindranath Tagore, and later Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee, had to re-learn this life emitting properties of line-drawings, the linear flow and controlled discontinuities, from the Japanese artists like Yokoyama Taikan and Arai Kempo. If we care to back particularly to the drawings of Nandalal and Benode Behari we will see what we had lost during the long colonial period.
But during the centuries that followed the High Renaissance, the inspired draftsmanship of closed, well defined forms went on changing. In fact, the change was always there, we noticed the change onlywhen its pace grew faster and faster with the frequent shifts in what the artists wanted to express in their drawings. Drawing changed in the hand of Eugene Delacroix, for instance, who wanted the expressiveness of music and poetry in pictorial art, and his painterly drawings in pen-and-ink and brush sought emancipation from the rigour of Neo-Classicist linearity. Claude Lorraine, in his brush drawings of landscapes created diagrams as the underlying structural guide. Nearly two hundred years later, Cezanne and Lionel Feininger evolved similar landscape structures.
The major breakdown in drawing came with the modernists. The focus was no longer on representation but on the inner being of the form -- which could have been human figures or the urban structure -- and on the anguished dialectics between the form and its social milieu. The focus of some drawings was on the disintegrating and decomposing contemporary society, and the form broke down in shambles, expressing the ‘culture’ of the period. The drawings of the Expressionists argued: “If society is dehumanized, why depict people as recognizable human beings?” They wanted to free contemporary art of the deadweight of academic training.
Apart from Edvard Munch and Vicent van Gogh,’Die Brucke’ (1905) artists and the ‘Blaue Reiter’ group (1911) showed little interest in their contemporaries. They sought for new vocabulary in the unrealistic figuration of the medieval masters, in the art of the primitive peoples and in the remote folk traditions. In their quest, they revived the graphic arts, particularly the woodcut and linocut.
This phase of quest for more and more expressive form, more relevant to the times, we find repeated in the drawings of modern Indian artists, beginning in the late thirties and forties and the thrilling story of this search is still continuing.
 The ‘Role of Art in the Scientific Renaissance’, Georgio de Santillana, The Rise of Sciences in Relation to Society, (Ed: Leonard M Marsak), macmillan
 ‘Modernism’, Ch.4, Our Age: the Generation That made Post-War Britain, Neol Annan, Fontana
 ‘The Mind of Modernism’, James McFarlane, Modernism, (Ed: Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane), Penguin Books
 The Flowering of Indian Art, Radhakamal Mukherjee, Asia Publishing House.
 Maurya and Post-Maurya Art, Niharranjan Ray, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi.
 The Chinese Theory of Art, Lin Yutang, Panther Arts
Published in the catalogue ‘Drawing ‘94’ by Gallery Espace, 1994