In West Bengal artists seem to be confronted with the need of making an important choice. Perhaps their problem is the same as that of their fellow artists elsewhere in India. Will they turn to the West or carry on with traditional patterns, variously modified by their predecessors and still capable of modifications? Many artists of the younger generation do not seem yet to know the answer and we find them changing over from one to the other technique in a mood of wasteful vacillation. Virtuosity which often results in the process is not the road to the temple of fame. If talent does not find the right means of self-expression the individual and the national loss will be great. Experiments are welcome but if continued too long, they become a serious deterrent to self-discovery. The warning is scarcely necessary that too frequent changes of style suggest an underdeveloped personality on the part of the artist - an inability to get much farther than the surface texture of his medium.
If the question had been one of simple, straightforward choice, the answer might not have seemed difficult. There are things in Western art that we need for our development. We cannot go our own way ignoring what has already been done. The artistic problem is sometimes like a scientific problem, capable of international solution. So Herbert Read has said: “for a painter to ignore the discoveries of a Cezanne or a Picasso is equivalent to a scientist ignoring the discoveries of an Einstein or a Freud.” The issue seems to be to discover in foreign influences something having the potency of a drug that may be injected into the artist to provide a temporary stimulus for the purpose of restoring the body to health.
In European art most of the necessary guidance had come to the artist from Italy and since the latter half of the seventeenth century, leadership in the field has passed onto Paris which still retains it. This does not of course mean that Western countries produce just one kind of work. Each nation there follows different traditions but a common stream of development flows through them all and a unity of artistic purpose seems to gather them to one fold. In European art, whether under Italian, Dutch, Spanish, German or French influence, we discover a kinship of spirit in spite of differences of a minor order, and an alternation between classical and Romantic views of life.
Art in the East does not follow any progressive technique with the consistency seen in the West, which enables a work of art produced on the European soil to be dated within ten years of its origin. But there is nevertheless certain family likeness and Eric Newton has very ably stated its quality in the following terms: “The oriental mind’s eye does not snatch greedily at what the physical eye offers it. It digests it calmly, and a curious refinement and sensitiveness of line, and especially of spacing result, which make almost any European painting look rough and clumsy by comparison. Even the most controlled and ascetic of European painters - even a Mantegna or an Ingres - seems uncouth by contrast”. What our tradition is will not be adequately stated by stressing Ajanta, Rajput or Moghul paintings. We shall not discover it by amalgamating and mixing the schools. We shall see it much better if we try to form a clear notion of the mind’s eye that does not snatch greedily at what the physical eye offers it. We have in this country studied European art fairly long. Its advantages have been undeniable but it is perhaps also true that artists have to some extent been estranged from the traditional approach which might have been more fruitfully exploited. The tendency of Indian art has been abstract, two dimensional. The artist of olden days did not copy nature. He made it conform to his internal vision, declaring thereby his independence of the forms and colours belonging to the world of physical reality. The point of view may be made more clear by reference to an observation which Delacroix often made. Nature, he used to declare, is no more than a dictionary. We go to nature because we wish to ascertain a particular tone or a particular form as we consult a dictionary to ascertain the meaning of a word or its spelling but nobody takes the dictionary as a model of literary composition to be copied nor shall we take nature as the painter’s model. He will seek suggestion in nature but the harmony he will achieve will owe entirely to his imagination.
Whatever aid Delacroix found in this view of the artist’s relationship to the external world for the explanation of his own special mode of representation, there is no doubt that Indian art of past times will gain a new significance for us if looked at in the light of these observations.
The bondage to the visible world is, therefore, no part of our tradition. To imitate Ajanta or the art subsequently developed on Indian soil will be derivative, uninspired art, fit for the schools but incapable of providing a true vocation to the artist. If there is a need of revival, it is not a revival of the form and technique but rather of the artistic power, the gaiety, the serenity and the vision, which is our desideratum. Our traditional art illustrates a creative freedom from nature. Nature’s rule is the strongest, and if our ancestors could set it aside so that they could contemplate their vision of beauty and celebrate their sense of glory as fully as possible, they certainly did not plan to forge fetters for the imagination of their posterity. They seem to tell us more vigorously by their example than any percept can do that freedom is of the essence of all creative activity and that artists should develop their inner vision instead of surrendering themselves to the guidance of any external rules.
Our art today does not show any distinctive awareness of our heritage. Excellent work has been done by many but we have not yet found a supreme master in the rank of the artists. Let us be quite definite that tinkering with tradition is not enlarging it - the old forms are dead. We cannot give them a fress lease of life. If they are revived, they will seem strangely out of place. Our world is changed. This fact we can hardly afford to forget. If Shakespeare returns to us, he will not write his Macbeths and Hamlets. He will have the same magnificent power but in reflecting the stresses and conflicts of modern society, he will speak with accents more suited to our times. The problem of the artist in India who is to choose well is to capture a spirit rather than master some formal rules. Once we find this spirit embodied in forms, we shall recognize it as the genuine thing, as being in a continuous line of descent from the work of our old masters. Herbert Read has quoted the famous lines of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ in illustration of what he thinks to be the nearest expression in the whole range of Western culture of the spirit of Eastern Art -
A sense sublime
Ofsomething far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things.
It seems to me as a layman interested in art of this country that until we return to this metaphysical approach, we shall drift from our fundamental tradition into profitless experiment and imitation and shall fail to produce anything of abiding value.
Published in Academy of Fine Arts, Indian Museum, Calcutta, 1952