Artists: Notes on Art Making

It is just twenty-eight years since I listened to an eloquent address on the subject of Indian art by Sir George Birdwood. While Sir George gave a full recognition to the beauty of Indian craftsmanship, of which he was an ardent and scholarly interpreter, like John Ruskin, he denied any fine art to India. Times have changed; there is a growing appreciation of the great contribution India has made to painting and sculpture; but even today the exalted place given to the art of China and Japan is scarcely extended to Indian art; yet in Hindu sculpture, apart from its spiritual and symbolical character, there are certain plastic qualities, of breadth, volume and poise which seem to me to be unique. Today when sculptors use chisel and mallet in preference to the modeling tool, one may expect a closer understanding of these qualities.

In Sir George Birdwood’s day Greek sculpture was looked on as the be-all and end-all of ideal art. Certain aspects of Indian art repelled the Western mind; the elephant-headed Ganesa, the many armed Durga, the three-headed Brahma, the monkey-god and the incarnations of Shiva and Vishnu seemed to outrage all the accepted canons of beauty. Today the art of Greece is still reverenced, but the Greeks, while they showed a rare sense of beauty in their single figures, were less activity creative. Their religious imagination was restricted to the heroic human figure.

No people have been as profusely inventive as the Indian people. Their iconography is, I suppose, the richest, the most exuberant ever evolved from the human brain. They peopled their vast heaven with an incredible number of gods, for all of which they invented forms, attributes and attitudes by which they could be recognized.

There is a tendency to pass too lightly over this prolific creation of forms, of gestures and attitudes perfected by the Indian genius, forms, gestures and attitudes which were adopted and taken over in all their completeness when Buddhism spread to the Far East. Surely this teeming, creative fertility is in itself an astonishing, a supreme achievement, the more so since they showed, in the forms they conceived for their gods, an equally abundant plastic inventiveness.

Much has been written of the spiritual character of Indian art; a striking quality certainly of the painting and sculpture. A similar spirit is apparent in the work of early Italian, French and English painters and sculptures; indeed, alike in Indian and European art, marked spiritual qualities have gone hand in hand with a profound interpretation of form. How far the Indian artist was himself other-worldly no one can know. No more do we know the religious feelings of the monkish illustrators who painted the masterpieces in the books of Kells or the Winchester bible, or the carvers and painters who filled our cathedrals and churches with noble carvings and paintings.

I think too much has been made by students of Indian art of the canons laid down by the Silpasastras. It is doubtful whether literary men understood the artist’s mind better in ancient times than they do today. Nor are archbishops or bishops the best judges of religious as differentiated from ecclesiastical craftsmanship. That the priestly authorities thought it essential to lay down rules for artists to follow is in itself significant.

The Indian craftsmen shared the faith, common among all artists, that by subjecting his will to the discipline of appearance, something of the unknown reality of which appearance is the symbol may enter into his handiwork. For is not form itself the visible discipline imposed upon the vital energy of matter and spirit by the cosmic laws?

The Indian craftsmen served a long succession of priestly masters, steeped in a complex transcendental ritualism, while at the same time aware of an essential unity, of spirit and of matter.

I hope to show, from the examples on the screen, that however transcendental and cosmic the subject, its formal expression is no less striking. For nowhere have the plastic qualities of the human form, both male and female, been better understood and rendered than by Indian sculptors. These qualities are early apparent in the heavy Mauryan figures, and again in the reliefs at Bharhut and Sanchi. In all these we see the subtle use the Indian carvers have made of jewellery and ornament, which in contrast to their rigidity gave a quality of radiant breadth and smooth roundness to the nude form. This sense of the part which jewelled ornamentation can play is apparent in every phase of Indian art, Buddhist, Brahminic and medieval. I have in mind the enthusiasm of Degas and Rodin when I showed them, late in their lives, photographs of the great Mathura figures. Here was an art which was the reverse of spiritual. Never has the radiance, the unity of form, been better expressed in sculpture than in thee strangely fascinating, sensual figures. Here indeed one gets the sense of volume, so often referred to by writers on art today, but volume combined with grace.

The early carvings of Bharhut and Sanchi, flatter in relief than the Mathura figures though many of them are, show a similar sense of volume. Buddhist art was concerned less in its earlier phases with philosophical conceptions than with episodes of the life and legendary existences of the Buddha. But already in Buddhist art appear the Ariel-like Apsaras, at the same time so delicately spiritual and sensuous, which appear throughout Indian art. In the Apsaras figures the artist was able to express the grace of the feminine spirit detached from the homestead or household. The Apsaras take an equally important place in the Buddhist, Brahminist and Jaina carvings. A conception so racial was not to be changed with the forms of religious dogma.

The figures of the two dryads at Sanchi show a truer relationship to the Greek spirit than any of the Gandharva carvings. And what a superb architectural frame the great Stupa rails and gateways provided for the carvings, which illustrated the Jataka stories, surely amongst the most impressive and original conceptions of men. The noble construction of the great rails and gates at Sanchi are well-known, but how many people among the hundreds who pass up and down the steps of the British Museum realize that the carvings attached to the walls of the main staircase belong to a similar but still more magnificent ambulatory. I always regret the absence of a plan or drawing to explain the original place and purpose of the Amravati carvings. No wonder people believe Indian sculpture to be over-complicated. The Amravati slabs, like those of Sanchi, were enrichments of an austere construction designed with noble simplicity. Placed close to one another as they are, with no indication of their place in a great architectural scheme, they naturally appear confused. I am surprised that English sculptors have been so little impressed by these roundels. As compositions they showanintensityand passion, more usual in painting than in sculpture, while the forms and poses of individual figures which we usually associate with the modern outlook might have inspired Blake, Degas or Rodin.

The Gandhara carvings, with their marked Hellenistic features, have always attracted and fascinated Western scholars. No wonder; for the penetration of Alexander with his armies into so remote a clime is one of the romances of history. None the less, the Greek spirit was, plastically, far less vital than the indigenous one which, for a time, it overlaid. It is indeed unlikely that the adventurous craftsmen who accompanied the armies were other than pedestrian artists. The best of the Gandhara figures seem dull and lifeless, in spite of the classic features, beside the vigorous representation of the Mathura Buddha.

If the Gupta carvings show less profound sense of form than we see in the figures from Mathura, they have a peculiar refinement. The quiet grace and subtle charm which they give to the figures, standing or seated, of the Buddha, had a permanent influence on the Buddhist art of Java and the further East. The male torso in the Victoria and Albert Museum is a characteristic example of later Gupta art, and it was the fine workmanship shown in Gupta architectural ornament that made the pillars, capitals and doorways of the caves and temples of Udayagiri and elsewhere among the most important monuments in India. After the refined art of the Gupta period, a refinement which often accompanies the later stages of a once powerful movement, there was now to arise, with the return of Brahmanism, a vigorous religious impulse, which finally drove Buddhism from the continent of India, to find a permanent refuge in Ceylon and to flourish anew in Java, Cambodia and Angkor.

The story telling of Sanchi and Bharhut, the subtle and complex spirit of Amravati and Sarnath, are now to give place to a new dynamic conception of the universe. The range and audacity of this movement in sculpture, consequent on the return of the older religion, is astonishing, if ever there was meaning in the legend that images lie hidden in blocks of stone awaiting only the blows of the sculptor’s mallet to be set free, then the cave carvings of Elephanta and Ellora show the truest form of sculpture. Not from single blocks of stone or marble, but from solid hillsides complete temples were hewn. Elsewhere, figures have been applied to building. In India the entire fabric, with its halls and courts, its roofs and supporting shafts, its sculptured figures and enrichments, was conceived and produced from the womb of the earth itself. There are many of these rock-hewn temples in India; not the least impressive is that of Elephanta, close to Bombay. Here is the great brooding Trimurti, one of the masterpieces of Indian art, side by side with the epic figures of Siva and Vishnu. Perhaps the most impressive of the traditional figures is that of Siva, representing the powerful yet disciplined forces of the universe, of succeeding creation and of destruction, and, as the divine dancer, symbolizing the unending movement of the spheres, surely one of the most powerful conceptions of the human intellect.

Were today a great expressive art within our compass, there would be no fitter interpretation of our present atomic conception of matter and energy than these carvings of Elephanta and Ellora.

The Indian craftsmen served many masters, giving permanent form to what was fluid and transient. The same genius which perfected the rapt contemplative repose of the Buddha who evolved the symbol of perpetual movement. These two inventions, with their many variations, have formed the body and spirit of Far Eastern art. Not the least original of these forms were conceived when Tantric ideas were giving a new shape to Hinduism. In the medieval temples the Apsaras become as almost to overwhelm the gods and goddesses they serve. To me, the mastery displayed in these stone carvings which, on account of their number, must have been executed by ordinary craftsmen, is astonishing. In each of these figures, playing in and out of the light and shadow of the mouldings, there is unfailing plastic beauty, a strange, somewhat disquieting sensuous energy and subtlety of movement; while the sense of design and rhythm concentrated in each of the hundreds of figures used to enrich mouldings, plinths, capitals and door jams in a single temple is unfailing. Some of these single figures, with their heavy breasts and swaying hips, delicately poised on slender feet, can be seen in the Vitoria and Albert Museum. The medieval temples of which they formed a part were designed with noble simplicity, built of ribbed stone-work, beautifully constructed and articulated, not unlike the structure of a corn-cob. With its homogenous carvings, an Indian temple may be likened to a chestnut tree in spring time. So I thought at Bhuvaneswar and Khajuraho, where I first saw these temples, which seemed to make the solid stone work quiver with their movement, so vigorously alive did they appear.

Nor must I forget the great medieval temple at Konarak near Puri, with its superbly designed chariot wheels and its groups of figures and animals thrown out like powerful bastions. Some of the subjects carved thereon, as at Khajuraho, show marked erotic features. We are told that, to the Hindu mind, the act of union between man and woman symbolizes the absorption of man’s spirit into the Divine. This erotic element is absent from western religious art, but is not unknown among the mystical writers. Both in India and Europe this symbolism comes at a late period, when religious ecstasy was given to extreme expression.

Apart from this erotic tendency, this later Hindu art has much in common with our own medieval sculpture; indeed we ask ourselves too, who were the craftsmen who carved the noble figures at Chartres, and Amiens, and Wales?

Not having visited the South of India, I know Southern Indian sculpture only from photographs. These are impressive indeed, especially those of Mamallapuram. The great rock carving, known as Arjuna’s Penance, is to my mind one of the most vital performances ever conceived and carried out by sculptor’s hand and brain. Nor must I forget the exquisite Southern Indian bronzes. Two figures stand out as rare artistic conceptions -- the Nataraja and the figure of Sundaramurti Swami. The figure of the Nataraja being four-armed; but the four arms add to the sense of rhythm in the delicately poised figure, and in their way are no more unnatural than the convention of the wing we accept in the angels of Christian art. Incidentally, the Indian angels, the apsaras, when shown in flight, are wingless.

The second figure, that of Sundaramurti Swami, an equally triumphant invention, represents a state of ecstasy, again with a beauty of poise which, to my mind, makes it is masterpiece among the many beautiful Southernbronzes.Thisquality of poise is peculiar to Indian sculpture. I think the reason is largely because the attitudes on which the figures themselves are based are usual ones throughout India. In farther-eastern art these attitudes become stiff and hieratic, for the reason that they do not come naturally to the Chinese.

In their secular art we get another kind of grace, natural to the people themselves, exquisitely interpreted.

If I have dealt with a great subject in a summary manner only, I hope others will follow to treat it more fully and more efficiently. My excuse as an unlearned artist merely, is a lifelong enthusiasm for a great artistic culture, which has not received the full recognition which I believe to be its due.

(The Sir John Birdwood Lecture, delivered at the Royal Society of Arts, on 25 February, 1938)

Published in The Visvabharati Quarterly, Vol XXV NOS 3 & 4
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