WHAT is the lapse of a few centuries in the lifetime of a nation that has to its credit thousands of years of artistic effort? Since the old Buddhist artists vanished from the land, probably no paintings quite so entrancingly beautiful as theirs have adorned the walls of Indian buildings. But the art of Mural Painting continued under the Mughal and Rajput princes; and that wall decorators laboured throughout this period is indicated by still surviving works. Up to the present time the art of wall painting has been practised in one form or another, and a glimpse at the bazaars of any South Indian City is enough to prove that the Indian artist—though, alas, no longer the protegé of Emperors or Kings! —still revels in this great traditional form of artistic expression. It is true that the ferocious tigers, the battling elephants, the many-handed Gods, the frightful looking demons which startle one by their sudden appearance on wayside shrines or whitewashed chawls, impress us often as the scribblings of amateurs rather than as the works of serious artists. Still they are there, and that they are there, is significant of the universal craving for art expression which has an unique character in India and which undoubtedly finds its most popular outlet in the art of painting. In a country where we find a wealth of lore accumulated, transmitted, purged and distilled through the Alembic of centuries, it is not strange that the art student should naturally be susceptible to an uncommon degree to the influences of encouragement. Students destitute of education (as such is generally understood in the West) are yet possessed of what is probably the most magnificent equipment of spiritual and imaginative gifts with which any country has endowed her sons. Students of very poor circumstances (and Poverty in India is even leaner than she is in Europe) who are unable to speak English and whose “Education” stopped short at the 3rd Standard, will frequently be found to possess a general knowledge of Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati, and even some other language. To these languages the poorest Brahmin student adds Sanskrit. They will be found to be deeply steeped in their great Mythological Romances, which, though comparable in their effect on ardent juvenile imaginations to that of the epics of Homer upon the minds of Young England, are a more vitalising force since the Indians are still believers in them.
The Indian student can usually tell you at a glance that the Goddess Saraswati must not be shown without her peacock at her side; that Shiva must sit upon his tiger’s skin; how many hands the least known Deity can boast; whether an emerald should hang upon Radha’s fair brow or be grafted upon her coral ear. He can thread his way with the certitude of joyous ease among a mass of conventions that would as certainly cramp his Western brother’s powers as did the iron Cage of Tamerlaine the unhappy Sultan Barjazet. He can deal with a mystifying mass of essential minutiae and, through an unprecedented litter of details, can fix a lucid and candid result upon his canvas.
With students such as these to his hand, the sympathetic European professor is indeed a man to be envied, for he can reckon upon enthusiasm to support genius. In India, the question of the revival of Painting resolves itself in fact into one of organisation in Art Education, the bestowal upon the students of facilities for study, and, above all, opportunity for production. Art is a thing that can be helped or hindered by individuals and by Schools of Art; and since that is so, all lovers of India, and believers in her unique beauty, must admit the need of helping on in the race the eager competitors who are straining forward upon the starting line. The Bombay School of Art as a focus for national impulses naturally offers full scope for the work of beginning to stimulate Indian art, and when in 1919-20 a start was made by the students to decorate the walls of the School of Art, it marked a very real and definite step on the part of the Educational Department towards realising its Ideal of Trusteeship for National Genius. When on December 14th 1920, His Excellency Sir George Lloyd, the Governor of Bombay, unveiled in the School of Art, the first of the Mural Paintings which his personal patronage had called into being, the action was interpreted by the spectators in the crowded hall as one of those momentous gestures which can sometimes define the principles of National Progress more sharply than can words. That scene indeed awakened glowing reminiscences and brighter hopes for the restoration in the School of Art of that atmosphere of fervent endeavour in the artist, and of help, appreciation and recognition in his Patron, which if not the only atmosphere in which the flower of Art can flourish, is at any rate the one that has produced the finest blooms. The students of the School having whetted their desire to achieve good work upon the decorations of their own walls, and encouraged under the eye of a leader whom they respected for his exalted position, and loved for his artistic taste and interest in their welfare, were not to be denied—responsive as they are to personal aid and encouragement; so that the task of improving the School of Art which the Government of Bombay had resolved to take in hand, came to be recognised as the particular care of the Governor himself. In England where Schools of Art are rarely visited by the high and powerful of the land, it may be thought strange that an Institution meant for the production of artists, should admit such considerable indebtedness for inspiration to the direct power of influential patronage. But for an analogy to the undoubted impetus which the Indian students have derived from this policy—of influential encouragement—we need but consult the pages of the history of France, of Italy, and of our own country.1 In the West the Patron has not in modern times bulked as large in the lives of artists as he did formerly. The Ruler who wishes personally for the expansion of the artistic talents of his people, and who views this not as a fancy but as a necessity for the successful progress of the nation, can now in a manner delegate this duty to an Academy of Fine Arts. But in India there are no Academies, no Salons, no centres of Art Control, except the few Art Schools. The Art Societies, which are run mostly by amateurs, are very few and not powerful.2 The position of Art in India is considerably worse than the situation of Art in Italy before Cosimo de Medici concentrated in his own munificent person the rejuvenating power of Patronage, and re-estabished that exquisite chain of fealty and devotion which can attach the young artist to the monarch. The broken links of this chain can certainly be restored in a country where discipleship is still understood, and where respect for the teacher is only next in importance to reverence for parents.3
The policy adopted by the Government of Bombay since it gave the sum of Rs. 5,000 for the embellishing of the walls of the School of Art with paintings, is one which is directed towards genuinely accelerating the revival of Indian painting, which no observer can doubt has already begun. For India is not one of those countries where as art is a matter of artificial importation rather than part of the National “Faith” the soil has to be prepared and the seed has to be sown before the plant can begin to grow. All that is required in India is to water the parched earth.
The rapidity with which the public mind has received and approved of the idea innate in the Indian Art revival as advocated by the School of Art, is so strong in its significance that no review of the recent work of the School, however brief, can ignore it. The interest of the Governor was instantly responded to and understood as a serious factor in Indian Art Education by a very great body of public opinion. Indians of both sexes naturally enjoy pictures. To realize this truth it is only necessary to enter the Picture Galleries of the new Prince of Wales’ Museum in Bombay on any public holiday when they are thronged with the picturesque if poverty-stricken people of the city, with their wives and children. Even the baby is perforce transported to this temple of Saraswati. As to whether many of the untutored visitors to Bombay’s Picture Galleries and Art Schools really understand the full significance of the works they look at, is not so important as the fact that they find pleasure in looking at them. Thousands of people visited the first display of Mural Painting in the School of Art. This and other extraordinary and increasing ebullitions of public interest has been sympathetically assisted by the brilliant championship of Mr. Marmaduke Pickthall, Editor of the Nationalist Journal, The Bombay Chronicle, and his confrères. That Journal though frequently in opposition has warmly supported the efforts of Government to help the School of Art and has helped to mould a very large section of public opinion of all creeds. The unity and weight of public approval must not be belittled merely because hitherto a comparatively limited number of individuals willing to employ the students in decorating their walls have come forward. India is a country that loves a leader. There is sufficient cause for the fact that this new cultural revival cannot expect to be fully patronised by the wealthy classes until it has unmistakeably recieved the Hall Mark of the approval of High Authority. Men of wealth in Bombay who have long been accustomed to look doubtfully upon pictures which are so easily accessible as their Indian ones, will require a little time to get used to the novelty of patronising once more as in bygone times the art of their own country. But this fact cannot be set in the scales against the great weight of popular opinion, which is welcoming the movement of the last five years as part of a widespread and genuine rebirih of National ideals and imagination.
The Indian School of Art is broad-based upon the fast foundations of the hearts of the Indian people. Fabrics thus founded do not easily crumble. Erected on any support less stable no Institution that guards and fosters a National cause could hope to make itself heard by Indians at large. For the part that official patronage can play as an aid to Art must not be over-estimated==though for India it would indeed be difficult to do so.
The matter was well stated by Sir George Lloyd in his speech on the occasion of the unveiling of the first Mural Paintings at the School of Art. His Excellency said:— “From the time of Plato onwards it has been recognised that the state cannot afford to neglect the aesthetic environment of its citizens. In practice, however, it is considerably handicapped in doing what it would like for Art, because there are constantly more strictly utilitarian objects which seem to have first claim on public funds.
What Government can do is to provide opportunities of obtaining elementary instruction in technique. We can also follow this up by seeing that the best ideals of Art are presented for study in order to build up a good tradition; but such a tradition must always depend to a large extent on the individuality of the students, their power to assimilate the best elsewhere, and to adapt its expression to the national genius. This is the true function of the School of Art. Given the opportunity and stimulus, the rest depends upon individual effort, backed up by the patronage of the public, and historically this is the way in which modern Art is developed”
“I painting proudly with his treath on me.
All his court round him, seeing with his eyes.
Such frank French eyes, and such a fire of souls.
Profuse, my hand kept plying by those hearts.”
—Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto.”
- 2. No slight is here intended to those officials and other gentlemen who give so much of their time to the Art Societies. But facts are here stated because no fair sketch of the situation of Modern Indian Art can ignore them.
- 3. In India the “Guru” or Teacher has a place of honour which can hardly be realised by those who have not seen him. For any Western comparison we will have to look back into Ancient Greece and see the young Alexander learning at the feet of Aristotle.