Frieze nineteen inches wide is a variation in the Ajanta style (as this indigenous art may be termed) of the methods used in the ceiling border. The Gods whose pictures form the centre of each of the four sections, are Ganesha with the Elephant’s head and having his constant companion the rat at his feet; Brahma, with the three faces (his fourth is not visible); Shiva (the Destroyer) with the crescent moon in his hair, seated on his tiger skin, and Vishnu (the Preserver) with the disc.
Better known in Bombay as “Ganpati” 1 is immensely popular in South Western India. He is the God of Wisdom and Good Fortune and is always invoked at the beginning of any important undertaking. The story of how Ganpati came by the elephant’s head is variously told, but the one most often narrated is the following:— Ganpati was the son of Shiva and Parvati. One day when his Mother was bathing, she stationed her son to guard the door and the privacy of her apartment. But Shiva desiring to enter, and being refused admittance, cut off the head of his son. Parvati’s grief however moved him to regret his hasty action and he called for the first head that could be found. This, which happened to be that of an elephant, he placed upon the body, which he then restored to life. In Bombay “Ganpati” is usually delineated or modelled with a head that has certain human resemblances, such as the flesh colour of the face, or the hair, or eyes. But in other parts of India he is usually shown with the true elephant’s head.
Who occupies the centre of another section of the Frieze, is the Father of the Gods, the most exalted figure in the Hindu Pantheon. He is said to have created his four faces in order to be able to gaze upon his bride Satarapa when she sought this way and that to glide out of the way of his ardent glances. He is here painted with the conventional emblems, and in his usual pose seated on the lotus (Kamala).
Whose image also adorns the frieze is the Destroying Deity. He is “represented in human form, living in the Himalayas along with Parvati, sometimes in the act of trampling or destroying demons, wearing around his black neck a serpent, and a necklace of skulls, and furnished with a whole apparatus of external emblems, such as a white bull on which he rides, a trident, tiger’s skin, elephant’s skin, rattle, noose, etc. He has three eyes, one being in his forehead, in allusion either to the three Vedas (Sacred Books) or time past, present and future. He has a crescent on his forehead, the moon having been given to him as his share of the products of the churning of the ocean.” In this picture the River Ganges is depicted as taking its rise from among his hair. This, perhaps the most famous river in the world, of inestimable sanctity to the Hindus, was brought down from Heaven to Earth by King Bhagiratha owing to the austerity of his penances. The occurrence was in this wise. What men term the Milky Way in the Heavens is said to be the celestial Ganges, which sprang from the feet of the Great God Vishnu. When for several years there was no rain upon the Earth, the Holy King Bhagiratha besought Vishnu to send him the water he required wherewith to perform the needful ceremonies in honour of fifty of his deceased ancestors. Vishnu thereupon told Ganga the River Goddess, that she must go upon Earth and relieve with her flood the King’s distress. She flew into a great rage, refused to comply, and when compelled to do so in spite of her tears and entreaties, hit upon an objection which she thought sufficient. Who, she asked, would receive her overwhelming flood which would infallibly deluge the whole Earth? Vishnu in this dilemma asked Bhagiratha to approach Shiva and request him to be the inductor of Ganga to Earth, and he promised to receive her in his hair. Enraged with fury at his audacity Ganga decided to hurl herself upon Shiva and destroy him. But he stood upon the Himalayas and spreading out every individual hair, he caught and held the furious torrent as it came down. Not a drop escaped from the hair of the God; so that King Bhagiratha still distressed, appealed to Shiva, telling him that though Ganga had come to Earth she remained enclosed in his hair. Then parting his hairs the God permitted the waters to pour forth in three mighty rivers, which are the Ganges, Indus, and Jumna. The three together are termed “Trijrathaga” which signifies “going in three directions.”
The last of the three great Gods represented on the Frieze (in whose august company Ganpati has been placed by the students of the School of Art for the sake of his auspicious influence) is Vishnu the Preserver as Shiva is the Destroyer. The Mahabarata (the greatest of Indian epics) tells us:— “On a seat glorious as the meridian sun, sitting on white lotuses is Vishnu, and on his right hand is Lakshmi (his Consort) who shines like a continued blaze of lightning and, from whose body the fragrance of the lotus extends 800 miles.”
THE WALL PANELS.
A first glance at the seven panels upon the walls in their frames of carved teak can hardly fail to suggest a certain incongruity, and one is conscious of the fact that all the panels are different in feeling, and that only one or two of them correspond with the general style of the frieze and the spirit of the decorations. The ceiling, though the differences are not quite so marked, might also be exposed to criticism if harmony of style were the prime object aimed at by the School of Art. But the Indian Room is designed quite as much with a view of showing the versatility of young Indian artists as with the object of displaying distinctive characteristics of Indian decorative art.
The students were therefore left free to show their individual notions and methods of filling the wall spaces allotted to them. Their differences in manner and method are wide, and open up an absorbing field of promise and speculation. “Music” on the one hand, and “Piety” on the other, mark striking antithises of style. The former clearly adheres to the “Ajanta” tradition, and bears the Hall Mark of the type of Art that would universally be recognised as “Indian.” Yet both are by Brahmin students, and both these students are intensely Indian in their convictions. Of the two Mr, L.N. Joshi, the painter of “Piety,” is perhaps the more National in his artistic point of view, though his panel suggests so-called “Western” influences to the observer. But it is as essentially Indian as the frieze or the ceiling border. Its subject is Indian; it is painted by an Indian; and because the young artist has followed nature and shown an appreciation of tone values, and subtle gradations of colour, besides the forms of nature, it is none the less a natural art product of the country whose artistic expression—far from being as stereotyped as is often supposed—has varieties as numerous as her races, costumes, and creeds. The art of India must not and cannot be limited to-day to any one style, or mannerism.
GANPATI PROCESSION, BOMBAY.
The long-shaped central panel (6 ft. by 3 ft.) on the wall is the work of Mr. A.A. Bhonsale, a Hindu of the Saraswat caste. For this work the young artist was in December 1923 awarded a special Gold Medal, the gift of His Excellency Sir George Lloyd, the late Governor of Bopibay. Its subject is a very familiar one to dwellers in the “Second City of the Empire.”
The 4th day of the Hindu month Bhadrapada is the festival of Ganpati, and continues to be observed for five or ten days, while images of the God are carried forth from the houses by the people in processions and immersed in sea, or river, or well. They are then brought back to their places among the household Gods. While on the way to the place of immersion the crowds chant sacred hymns in praise of the Giver of Good Fortune. This famous holiday is always a great occasion of rejoicing for Hindus, especially in the Maharatta country. Bombay is then thronged with vast crowds moving by various routes to the wide semicircle of sand at the foot of Malabar Hill that is called “Chowpati.” The sands themselves are ablaze with the “saris” of the women who accompany the men, and sing hymns before the images. The thrumming of the tom-toms and the rhythmic music of stringed instruments falls intermittently upon the ear, and the whole city is given over to the worship of the genial God of Intelligence. Before returning from the sea the devotees take the sand from the locality where they have dipped the images to spread in their houses as a charm against evil influences.
In Mr. Bhonsale’s panel we have a decorative but highly characteristic rendering of this festival. The charming little maiden in the foreground carrying the incense sticks, the man pouring oil upon his torch, the painted image of Ganpati, the man blowing the conch, etc., are all truly rendered, and show the student’s powers of observation and of poetising in paint.
Close to the Ganpati Procession, to the left of the spectator is Mr. N L. Joshi’s “Piety” which measures four feet five and a half inches by two feet three inches, as do all the six upright panels. This painting gained the Special Silver Medal for the Mural Paintings presented by Sir George Lloyd on December 1st, 1923. It gives a truthful and sympathetic rendering of that well known type of the Bombay Bazaar, the Mahomedan Fakir. He stands wrapt in contemplation with henna-stained beard (the mark of the Hajji or pilgrim from Mecca) and with strings of beads and prayer cases encircling his neck. Over his arm is slung the box with which he solicits alms from the charitably-inclined, and he leans upon a bundle of staves of different shapes and sizes. At his feet, (and the swollen ankles are faithfully rendered), in its little reading-stand is his copy of the Holy Koran. There is a felicitous simplicity and withal a dignified note of reverence about this subject which are distinguishing marks of the work of this young Gujerati Brahmin.
To the spectator’s right on the same wall is the Panel entitled “Industry” by Mr. A. Kamadolli, a Mahomedan student from Hubli in the Dharwar District. The stalwart figure of the cotton spinner was also studied from the life, and will convey some idea of the excellent physique of the Maharatta workman. He is a scion of the great fighting stock that successfully resisted the grand Mogul and his hosts, and did such yeoman service in the great war. The “Charka” or spinning wheel shown in this picture is still widely used in humble homes in many parts of South Western India.
Next comes “Painting,” a picture of a young Maharatta lady illuminating with her brush a metal plate by Mr. B.A. Apte, a Brahmin. She wears the “sari” the most typical garment of all India. It is a robe of very ancient type which is wrapped round the body and firmly adjusted without the help of any pin or other fastening. A sari measures nine yards in length, and if trailing folds are desired, as much as ten yards. The colours and embroidered borders of these garments are of great variety and beauty, and the splendid bearing of most of the humblest wearers, as with pitcher or basket on head they thread the crowded streets, is one of the first and most lasting impressions of India that the stranger experiences after landing in Bombay.
The vest or “choli “which this girl is wearing may also be of the most various colours. The young artist’s rendering may not be perfect, but the “choli “is in reality chosen with an unerring colour-sense which—wonderful phenomenon—even the poorest cooly woman of India possesses!
A completely different method of painting marks the panel entitled “Sculpture.” But the style of which this panel is an example, more than two thousand years of age, is still the one which seems to be most popular among Indian Mural Painters. This however does not mean that figures are always to be seen on the walls of Indian houses. Unfortunately the decline of Patronage for indigenous art has led to the disappearance of the Peris and Apsaras whose images still brighten the age-old walls of the Ajanta caves. But the flat and ornamental convention of which this subject furnishes an example, is still frequently found in many modern Indian houses in Hyderabad, Mysore, and South Western India. Figures such as these are simply a revival which comes naturally enough to those who are accustomed to look at Mural Decoration from this especial Indian standpoint. Mr. A. Sami Khan, the painter of this work, is also the chief Illustrator of this volume.
The vivid panel representing “Agriculture” is a bit of bravura in which its painter Mr. S. Fernandes (an Indian Christian from Malvan in the Ratnagiri District), has treated the subject with a free symbolism that revels in colour, and wealth of ornament, and disregards restrictions as to costume, period or style. It is painted from the life, and while the head-dress and coiffure of the girl at least are from Kashmir, the magnificent drapery is a “Rupeta” from the Bazaars of Benares.
Most Indian of all these Indian single-figure panels in the sense that it adheres most closely to traditional methods, “Music” by Mr. G.H. Nagarkar possesses many points of interest. The young artist (a Brahmin from Central Provinces) is also responsible for the centre panel of the Sun God on the ceiling. The influence of the Ajanta Caves is strongly marked in this painting; not that it is not therefore original, but because this student sees things in the same way that the Ajanta painters saw them. The flowing outline, the single stroke of the eye-brows and eye-lids, the craftsmanship displayed in the treatment of the girl’s ornaments, and the sittar which she is playing; the peculiarly characteristic fingers with their aspiring tips, together with the flat convention with which the subject is treated, are all intensely Indian in feeling. Had all the panels been painted in this style, they would have been more in keeping with their surroundings. That course, however, would have meant to sacrifice, for the sake of the effect of the whole, the opportunity of showing the Public the different methods of painting of different students, all original, and all in the widest and tiniest sense Indian.
- 1. Pronounced “Gunputty.”