INDIAN Art when seen in its full perspective discloses so vast a panorama that it is easy to lose one’s sense of proportion. Like the view from the summit of the Jungfrau, misty and uncertain on account of the great height of the spectator, or like the first glimpses of Montblanc over the Mountain Railway on the approach to Chamonix, range after range of dim peak and vale, of vaporous torrent, or gliding glacier. It is better to take one’s stand on some lowly green Alp and survey the humbler heights before one; for as the Scientist can reconstruct from a single bone the whole skeleton of the antediluvian monster, we shall glean from a survey of the one promontory an inkling of virgin and inaccessible peaks beyond.
Such a promontory in the fields of art is the School of Art of Bombay, representing as it does in miniature the simulacrum of grander forms.
Art in Europe is often a thing which one can localise, classify, and define. It can sometimes be enclosed in a catalogue, and appraised on the walls of public galleries. It has its; acknowledged discreet limits, and need not intrude its existence upon the busy, or polite domains of life, except as a dinner companion—a sort of “Man from Blankleys”—to help out the conversation. In India Art is a limitless thing. It cannot be imprisoned within circumscribing walls; nor left behind us when we reclaim our umbrellas at the exit of the Museum. It is around us; it pervades—it perfumes the air we breathe; it haunts our waking hours; it spangles with a thousand stars our drab and weary dreams. It is an Idea blazoned everywhere in potent pigments, made manifest everywhere through vehicles of flesh and fabric.
This mysterious impression of unfathomable Beauty emanates like an exhalation from Bombay itself in spite of all architectural lapses, of commercial adulation, of the sacrifice of Civic glory on the altars of a pitiful opportunism. The most fevered efforts of Reinforced Concrete, of gaudy brick, and mortar have not and cannot destroy the Beauty of Bombay. Seas, and Skies; Palms and Mountains, Beaches, Islands, and Lagoons combining together for one gesture of immutable defiance have frustrated the Philistines. Like Bhanavar the Beautiful, Bombay possesses the secret talisman for the constant renewal of her charms, and rallying from every fresh degradation can clothe herself with a new fairness.
So Bombay remains still a Queen. So the traveller who has known the most world reputed cities, must yet feel his heart throb when for the first time he finds himself on her most famous view point. None of the World’s great city views can excel by much that which Bombay has to offer of herself when seen from the Hanging Gardens near the Hindu Temple as she lies drowsing in the tranquil light of a late afternoon.
It is but natural that in such a city the School of Art—like another House of the Interpreter—should be a place for “Signs and Wonders”; that among its 400 students should be pilgrims from such divergent and distant States as Bengal, Burma, the United Provinces, Central India, Indore, the Central Provinces, the Nizam’s Dominions, Madras, Cochin, Travancore, and Kashmir.
But to understand the “Indian Room” which has been made and decorated by these students for the British Empire Exhibition, some attempt should first be made to understand the environment in which this work was done; and to realise the fusion of aesthetic influences for which the School is a point of focus. The Fort, as the District where the School of Art stands, is called, is but the shell that encloses the fruit, and this is so truly Indian that even the Western buildings in which the different departments of the School are housed almost seem, to knowledgeable eyes, to have been draped by the hands of their Indian students with invisible “saris”1. The students do not leave the Bazaar behind them when they enter the school’s gates. It is doubtful if many of them are aware of this daily transition. In the depths of their dark eyes are the fires of enlightenment, but it is a Secret of their own Country that they are engaged in unravelling in the School of Art. This secret, for which they cheerfully give up so much (as the World reckons it) cannot in its entirety be transmitted to a Western ear—still less to a Western hand.
What is this hidden lore? It is partly shared by all the teeming millions of Southern India; so that the poorest Indian girl never errs when she chooses the colours of her “Choli “or “Sari”; so that on days of Festival the Mahratta maidens go dressed in tints so mingled and yet harmonised that their robes seem plumed from the wings of angels. The students, clothed in their white “Dhoties”, shirts, and little caps, or coloured turbans; many of them dressed in the plain Kaddar that comes from the hand-looms of the villages, and wearing sandals that fortunately still refuse to give the wall to Civilisation, appear as the most appropriate figures that any School of Art ever had for its denizens. A glimpse at these students at work would be the best antidote for the Western pessimist about Indian Art. He cannot as he views this concourse of picturesque persons, fiery souls, and gifted hands, doubt the appropriateness of these students to their high calling, nor question the probability of an elusive Goddess permitting her graces to be once more recaptured by such as these. Indian Art is usually spoken of in the Preterite tense. One does not know why she should be regarded as a lady of a certain age. To the artists she appears as a damsel who being of the race of the Peris is endowed with perennial youth.
And in that spirit they have constructed and decorated their Indian Room. The work has taken nine months of an effort, to which all departments of the School sent recruits; modellers, painters, designers, potters, silversmiths, enamellers, carpet-weavers, shape-makers, iron-workers, carpenters, woodcarvers, decorators, and engravers—all having heard the “still small voice”(to Indian ears louder than the trumpet’s call) that summoned them to make their sacrifice at the altar of Beauty.
And cheerfully they made it; responding to an inward urging, which always exacts more obedience from the Indian than the command of man, or money, the urging to go and create something beautiful. Once they began the work they were absorbed in the task, an absorption which could only end when the task itself was completed, a spell of thought and industry quite as binding as the thraldom of Hercules to Omphale. Just as the Hero went clad in women’s garments, and gave his Club and lion skin into the keeping of her whose eyes enslaved his mighty soul, which henceforth lived for them alone, so the Indian Art student surrenders himself to the grip of his compelling task. Hour after hour he will sit in front of his panel, drawing with a brush scarcely less sure in its purpose than that historic pencil which traced Giotto’s famous O. We watch him start his work in the morning; and vaguely conscious all day of the fact of his presence meet him in the evening once again. He is on his way home, and we overtake him on the path to the Gate, reddened by the evening sun as it slants through the luxurious cocoa palms and banyan trees of the School’s celebrated Compound. With his umbrella in one hand, some small twining flower in the other, and eyes that still seem to ignore realities and to be fixed in retrospect upon those marvellous monkeys, elephants, buffaloes, or birds that he has been engaged all day in weaving into his delightful designs, he goes on his way humming an Indian air, carrying with him to his scanty board and simple blanket the burden of that lofty thraldom which is his joy. And when his work is at last completed, and the finished panel has been fitted2 to its place on the wall or ceiling—then he is most likely to be found lurking in unlikely corners—or wandering anxiously in the halls and corridors of the School. The strained expression in his eyes is the look of the seeker. The new task must be taken in hand before those traces of the anxieties and worries of freedom can be dispelled.
The Indian Room, its paintings, and statuettes is the work of students. It would be wrong to approach it as one might the work of the artist who has his finished story to unfold.
The Room is the work of young men who have not as yet learned to measure either their own limitations or capacities. It is as it were a welter of early potentialities; it is the citadel of Hope; not the temple of Victory. It is full of unfinished hints and the thin ends of wedges. But the art loving visitor will read in this exhibit a message from far off India that could not be conveyed in terms of print; one that speaks of a land where the Worlds of Reality and of Fancy are still united; where the oracles are not yet stilled; and where under the Palms and the Moon-flowers the Peris and Apsaras still dance out their immortal dances. A land of warm enthusiasms and warmer hearts; a land whose young men have given of their best to this work as their tribute to the Idea inherent in the Mighty Empire of which they are such gifted and interesting citizens.