Art History

Published in Journal of Indian Society of Oriental Art, Vol. 4 No. 2, 1936, pp. 126-129.

Indian art is only one aspect of the whole problem of our present cultural expression. It cannot be treated apart from our general problems of life and society.

The revival of Indian arts and crafts was brought about by the genius of one man, Abanindranath Tagore, who with his chief disciple, Nandalal Bose, supplied the initiative and drive to the new movement. For more than two decades these two masters struggled to build up a school of art, fully alive to our old artistic tradition in painting, and, secondarily, in sculpture. Both of these masters, rich in thought-content as well as in technique, were successful, in course of time, in rearing a band of artists who, taking opportunity of the chances offered to them, spread over the whole of India, carrying the teaching of the Bengal school to the other centres of art in India. A modern Indian school of painting has thus gradually come into existence. These artists in their turn are training another band of students who are only remotely related to the two original masters, Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose, through their immediate 'gurus’. The Bengal school has now seen the third generation, of its followers and adherents. We are now in a position to have a whole view of the march of the revival and evaluate its contents.

Abanindranath and Nandalal and possibly about half-a-dozen of their immediate followers claim to communicate the essence or rhythm of movement in compositions of line and colour, and not the story on the surface, the thought- reaction to a given subject, not the subject itself. To this end they employ a technique which stresses precision of drawing, proportion or harmony of the parts to one another and to the whole, and illumination or clarity including intelligibility as essential conditions of beauty.

The second and third generations of the new movement are gradually falling out and deviating from the path initiated by Abanindranath, Gaganendranath and Nandalal. These masters appealed to subjectivism ; they emphasised the content of thought and ideas in a work of art more than the pure grammar of it; but their followers lacked the intellectual background of their masters, which they wanted to shield by imitating well-known masterpieces either by translating them wholesale in different colours or altered compositions, or by taking a piece from here and adding another from there, specially by adopting subjects with well-known historical or mythological associations that have by themselves an appeal to the Indian mind.

The emphasis of the masters on subjectivism and thought-content seem to have offered to the disciples an excuse for retreat from the initial schooling of drawing and composition. A few of the artists of the third generation however are showing signs of escape or emergence from the rut. The rumblings of the new life and thought around us seem to knock at the gates of their mind; they seem slowly but gradually to react, but with a mind perplexed they draw their lines that falter in their feebleness. New designs, new colours, new perspectives and their significance seem gradually to show a new consciousness, but they are not as yet certain of themselves. Old historical and mythological subjects which are losing some of their drive and import for the modern mind still persist, but in their treatment a fresh interpretation sometimes makes itself felt. Paintings in miniature are still largely in practice and even large-scale wall-paintings are often but miniatures transferred on to the walls.

But all visual art is largely moulded by an understanding public. What have we done as members of the public, and what is our duty? The present situation in our country, the intellectual groove into which we have sunk, excludes even the possibility of intelligent understanding and helpful criticism. The meaningless jargon and phrases, always revealing the sentimentality that sees in a work of art an essentially exhibitionist performance, that monthly and periodically flood our magazines are neither criticism nor appreciation. We have not yet been able to appraise our old masters, not to speak of Abanindranath, Gaganendranath or Nandalal, because we have no point of view of our own.

Most critics are not aware of the mal-adjustment between the tradition of Indian art and present-day society. A mere aestheticism also does not promote the understanding nor is the craftsman helped if the “decorative” quality of his work is praised.

The different tendencies that are now at work at the studios of Bengali artists range from one of an idealistic and partly sentimental approach which is evident not only in the subject matter but in the technique as well, to one which loves to dwell chiefly on the planes of actuality and lands the artists on a more or less complex compositional experiment. Intermediate between these two, lies a purely decorative one more or less in a conventional manner akin to that of Rajput miniatures. Of course there are gradations of kind and degree, and experiments in permutations and combinations, but nevertheless all these are reducible to the three tendencies just noted.

The first tendency is historically the earliest and perhaps the most effective of the Bengal school of artists, and this is why it persists to this day in all its charm, and finds its warmest adherent in Abanindranath Tagore who was also its originator and most ardent advocate. But while Abanindranath clung tenaciously to it and gave, as a result, some of his best creations, Nandalal never ceases to experiment on new lines which open before him varied channels of expression. In some of his recent works, he treats traditional subject-matter frankly in a decorative and conventional manner, not altogether unknown to Indian pictorial tradition.

Abanindranath’s attitude is evident in "Surrender (das-khat)" where by means of his deft colour-washes he achieves a misty softness to the point almost of evaporation. The emotional import of the subject helps this achievement; and though the well-known Mughal and Rajput atmosphere is apparent, the miniature travels a long way from the purely linear compositional scheme of the older masters. The attitude of the artist is purely subjective; trees and background intensify the mystic emotionalism that is in the subject itself.

Recently a new experience seems to be disturbing the younger group of artists. A purely subjective as much as a traditional approach seems to leave them in discontent, and they are, as it were, fumbling to seek a new angle of vision. Little by little they seem to respond to the social contents and environs of our times, the murmurs of a life in conflict and incongruities seem to disturb them and they are about to re-act. See, for example, the representation by a young artist of a street scene fromnorthernCalcuttawherecolourandcrowd jostle in a most disorderly fashion with seeming disregard of all traffic signals and mutual convenience. The attitude is objective, no attempt at interpretation is either aimed or achieved, and a faithfulness to the contents of the artist’s subject matter is more than evident. Essentials and non-essentials receive the same amount of consideration.

The painting however is not merely representational, and it goes beyond illustration. Composition (the diagonal movement and its counter-movement; moreover the angle of movement on the left) spontaneously results even if the drawing of some of the figures is feeble and faltering. The naive representation of the actual, the recent attitude of some of our painters, is still in an initial and promising stage.

Published in Journal of Indian Society of Oriental Art, Vol. 4 No. 2, 1936, pp. 126-129.

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