It cannot be said that the time is yet ripe for making a proper estimate of the varied contributions Rabindranath Tagore has made to the world of art and culture, not only because the poet is still as mentally active as ever before, full of enough energy for sustained intellectual work, but also because his world-famous institution, Visva-Bharati, through which he works out his unique ideas about education and art, is always growing in scope and usefulness, making gradually but steadily its way to the achievement of great and yet greater possibilities. There is there-fore the difficulty of forming any definite opinion on any of the various activities of that institution. But a short description of the work so far done by it towards the revival of the arts and crafts may not be quite unjustifiable, considering that the work of such a nature can be demonstrated by the actual practical progress made in each of the various branches without any direct reference to their theoretical basis which might provide the common factor in the general scheme of things.
In the present economic condition of India, the need is being increasingly felt by all those who have the country's welfare at heart that village life must immediately be restored to its proper function in the life of the nation; and one of the most effective ways of achieving that end is to revive the arts and crafts, for which the Poet founded over a decade ago his Institute of Rural Reconstruction-a department of Visva-Bharati-with the express object of bringing life in its completeness into the villages. He also did perfectly realise that the essential condition of such a consummation must be, as it has always been in the past when the villages were the vital centre of our national greatness, that the simple industries which reflected the refined artistic powers of rural artisans should be brought into a state of livingness, and their social and economic values re-established in all the spheres of village life.
It was a significant coincidence that the year in which the Poet founded Sriniketan-for that is the name of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction-should also find the group of artists who were then working at Santiniketan with Dr. Abanindranath Tagore as their leader, seriously contemplating to resort to the practice of crafts by which they thought they would be able to give a new expression to their artistic talents as well as to get some pecuniary relief which they badly needed, as their art was not always rewarded by patronage in the form of substantial com-missions. They also were not blind to the economic possibilities of a step like that; but it was mainly lack of active public interest in their art which compelled them to think of such a move. They had long been waiting in vain for response from interested lovers of art; but whatever of it they received was too meagre to be counted upon. And it was their unfortunate experience that good taste for art, real sympathy for the artists and sound financial condition did not go together. The other reason of public apathy towards their art might be traced to the degeneration of the outlook of their countrymen caused by various exotic influences. There was therefore no other alternative for them than to be serious about the problem, with the result that they had at last to decide to take up the study and practice of the crafts. They drew up a plan of work, submitted it for the consideration of the Poet, who was highly delighted and accorded his hearty support to it, providing all possible facilities for their work in that direction.
Out of such humble beginnings grew definite and systematic attempts at resuscitating the arts and crafts of India, until to-day Visva-Bharati is in a position to deserve the credit of being a great centre, where not only systematic training is available in the crafts, but also articles are being produced on a commercial basis with the help of the artisans of the surrounding villages.
Before we start to give a short account of the crafts as evolved in Visva-Bharati, it will, we think, be necessary to take a brief notice of the present stage of the school of painting that has been evolved there with its aims and characteristics clearly defined in the works of its sponsors. Dr. Abanindranath Tagore founded the new Indian School of Painting. He gathered round him a group of gifted artists, one of whom was Shilpacharyya Nandalal Basu, who is now the master and soul of the Visva-Bharati School of Painting which owed -its descent to Dr. Tagore, but has continued for a long time to its present stage in which signs are unmistakable of distinctive achievements that are wholly its own. The obsession of antiquated standards and conventions is gone, giving place to a bold and courageous attitude on the part of the artist, who draws his inspiration mainly through his contact with the events of daily life, and through his commonplace experiences. He begins therefore to discover the hidden meaning in the life, character and nature of every-thing in the midst of which he may happen to live and move, keeping the doors of his mind open for new ideas from outside to come in, the ideas that he assimilates and makes part of his own being. This transformation of the mental make-up of the artist from its regional to human and therefore, universal character is slowly effected mainly by the Poet's personal and artistic influence, and by the dynamic quality of the creative ideal of Visva-Bharati, which is the living embodiment of his earnest endeavours towards the cause of international fellowship, broad-based on the inner cultural oneness of the human race ; as well as by intimate appreciation of the mind and ideas, which the artists here are privileged to have, of renowned savants and artists and kindred persons from distant countries who come and stay here for study and similar pursuits. Technique in art is important in that it helps the art-form to produce its desired effect; and without the proper exercise of the power of observation a true technique cannot be mastered. The artist of Santiniketan realised this and started doing his work on that line. He also believes that the true artist has also to make a disciplined use of his imaginative and intuitive faculties, so that he may penetrate beyond the outer vesture and get deeper into the very spirit of the object or idea he wants to reproduce in terms of his art. The 'phenomenon' has meaning for him so long as he observes it to understand its extrinsic implications, but the `phenomenon' must be revealed to him, so that he might vivify the form of his art with the necessary suffusion of aesthetic idealism. The Visva-Bharati School has been evolved under these principles, adhering to no established technique, but to the deeper spirit of the efforts for artistic creation of the devoted band of artists, whose contributions to the world of art are invaluable.
With this school of painting as nucleus began to develop the arts and crafts which have invariably received their glow and character from the masters whose paintings have won them the best of praise from eminent art-critics all over the world. The association of these artists with crafts helped to remove the wrong notion entertained by many that crafts could possibly have no value other than the utilitarian. Any good work of art, never mind what purpose it serves, must be admired. As Dr. Abanindranath Tagore once said, "a fine Damascus blade may be as beautiful as a statue of Venus." The forms of crafts which they first tried at Santiniketan were litho-printing, wood-cut, decorating of earthen pots, embroidery, lacquer work and jewellery. These crafts have since been developed in lines of their high possibilities, and now attract artists of different temperaments who devote exclusive attention to their respective subject, each making it his only aim to work for its improvement both in its artistic and economic values. In course of time new ideas came to the artists and also new suggestions, of which they readily availed themselves much to the success of their new venture.
In a seat of culture, which Visva-Bharati undoubtedly is, it is only in the fitness of things that the good effect of fine paintings should be made available to a wider circle of spectators, by decorating the walls with suitable pictorial representations, whose educative value cannot be over-estimated. So the artists started drawing pictures on the walls of the various buildings of the institution, first with gum and starch as the medium, then eggs, but none of these ensured the desired permanency for the pictures, though the egg tempera was more successful than the gum and starch and the rice-water medium, the latter also being tried in certain cases.
Mrs. Pratima Tagore in the course of her travels in Europe was impressed by the fresco buno method of painting then practised in France, and acquired a thorough knowledge of it. She introduced this technique at Santiniketan, which was adopted by the artists there, who worked at a group of paintings quite successfully by that process, which is very simple. The pictures are to be drawn on the wall, which is to be plastered with sand, marble dust and lime, using as little quantity of water as possible. The artist must be careful to finish the work before the plaster begins to dry. But the most difficult of fresco works that have been tried with success at Santiniketan has been by the adoption of Indian technique with the help of some artists of Jaipur, in which the essential factor is the polishing of the wall after the colour-plastering is made, to ensure a shining surface. Many hundreds of square feet of wall area of the different buildings of the Ashrama have been decorated by these different varieties of mural paintings at very moderate cost. These decorations are, most of them, designed by Shilpacharyya Nandalal Basu; hence their excellence need not be emphasised.
Clay-modelling, which began to be practised almost with the art of painting, did not attract serious students until its sculptural value was realised. Interest in it is however growing now and its possibilities are being gradually recognised by the students of art as well as by the public. Terra-cotta was once a flourishing art of the district of Birbhum. Abundant relics are available there of this popular form of architectural decoration. Systematic courses of training in it have been arranged here and of the expert students of this craft, some are working here, and some have moved out to different places where they have opened studios for continuing work on this craft. Wood-carving, to some extent allied to day-modelling, is also practised here, though not so widely. Wood-cut and lino-cuts appeal to the students very much. The artists find in them enough freedom to represent plain facts of life and nature un-encumbered by the gaudy and somewhat excessive ornamentations in which mythological events require to be expressed. The Visva-Bharati School of Painting, as we have said before, shows its marked difference from its contemporary schools through its freedom and boldness of style. Wood-cut appealed to the artists here, as it offers enough scope for true and vigorous expression. A very sharp and clear effect is secured by the display in black and white of common scenes and events in a very simple decorative scheme. A significant and remarkable improvement has recently been made on this craft by Mr. Visvarup Basu, son of Shilpacharyya Nandalal Basu, who had his full course of training in Japan in the Japanese process of wood-cut block making and colour printing in which the most striking feature is that pictures when printed in that process will lose very little of their original beauty; and even the glossy tone of half-tone pictures is not visible in them. A gifted artist, Mr. Basu has mastered this art thoroughly, and his work in Japan was highly appreciated by distinguished art-connoisseurs. His work at Santiniketan on this craft is full of promise. Mr. Basu has also devised a very cheap and easy method of preparing paint-brushes in India. Etching is an interesting art in which Mr. Mukul Dey received training in England. He helped to develop this at Santiniketan where the studio is now equipped with an Etching Press. But interest in it does not seem to be so keen owing, perhaps, to want of patronage to its products. A reference may be made to the work so far done here with regard to the revival of Indian Architecture. Crafts cannot thrive if architecture, which is the synthesis of arts and crafts, is neglected. The Poet was fully conscious of it, and used often to discuss with the artists the need and possibilities of reviving the Indian constructional science, making it suitable to modern conditions. Encouraged by his illuminating suggestions, Mr. Surendranath Kar, the Assistant Director of the Kala-Bhavana of Visva-Bharati, took intensively to this art, with the result that he is to-day an expert in that line, honoured with huge commissions from many well-known wealthy persons and public institutions of India. His designs have won him praise from eminent art-critics. The Poet's house at Santiniketan is an exquisite work of architecture-a creation of his.
The forms of crafts such as Leather work, Batik, Lacquer work, Spray work, etc., were originally started at Santiniketan; but were subsequently transferred to Sriniketan where extensive work on these crafts is being done in industrial scale with the help of rural artisans. Leather craft is an important end useful branch of applied arts which has been practised with great success at Santiniketan for the last six years, and its possibilities have been widely recognised. While in England in 1928 recouping his health, Mr. Rathindranath Tagore chanced to get to this craft as a pastime, and soon mastered it with great enthusiasm. Returning home the same year, he introduced it at Santiniketan, and himself gave instructions to a number of students from different parts of India. It is interesting that leather craft, as developed at Santiniketan, has acquired a distinct character mainly through its decorative aspect. Students of Santiniketan are at present doing splendid work as teachers of this craft in Art Schools of Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Lucknow, etc. Varieties of useful articles are being manufactured on commercial basis. It may be mentioned that country-tanned leather is used for this work, and that the simple tools are also manufactured here according to requirements. Book-binding in leather is also tried in improving style with the help of this craft.
Batik is a craft which impressed the Poet very much when he was in Java. Mr. Surendranath Kar who was with the Poet there learnt its technique, and on his return, introduced it at Santiniketan. Beautiful designs are done on the cotton or silk texture with the help of liquefied gas; and for each colour, the cloth is to be dipped into the dye-vat after waxing. Fine crackling gives the whole thing a soft effect which no mechanical process can secure. Indigenous colours, which are fairly fast, are used; and the appliances are very simple. Embroidery is a rural handicraft which has been widely revived. Village women show much interest in it. Attractive designs have invested it with a new value. Birbhum was famous for her silk industry, which is yet alive, though much deteriorated. It has been reclaimed and the village weavers are active once again. Durry, a very useful form of weaving industry, is also practised. Here also the design and the strong texture make the products very attractive.
Lacquer work is a local industry which originated in Birbhum, and was about to die when a new life was given to it. The services of the old village craftsmen were requisitioned, and it is now restored to its commercial possibilities. Jewellery work in filigree, enamelling and all varieties of gold-smithy craft are done with gold and silver as the base metals. Carpentry and metal work are there doing their share, the former towards the construction of furniture, and the latter, of simple articles of household use.
Thus, a new life has been installed into the old industries of the village; and fresh energy does again pulsate in the life of the artisans who feel encouraged at being employed after many years to serve for the revival of their caste crafts. The weaver is again seen cheerfully at his loom; the cobbler turns a new leaf in the leather craft; the goldsmith is amazed by the designs that are brought to him; the lacquer worker finds delightful job in the new venture; the carpenter most gladly adopts the truly Indian style in his work; and the village women are busy again with their needle. But providing of employment is not the aim of the organisation at Sriniketan. Attempts are regularly made to help these village artisans to improve and develop their crafts, and many of them are working independently.
It will be evident from the foregoing resume of the activities of Visva-Bharati towards the recovery of the glorious traditions of India's arts and crafts that the Poet was fully alive to the real need in the rural life of India, and did the right thing in the right direction, to the abiding enrichment of the myriad of his contributions to the uplift of his motherland, though in his own way, a poet that he is.
Published in The Four Arts Annual, Visva-Bharati School of Arts and Crafts, 1935