IT is probable that of the large number of visitors who go to Bombay during that cool and beautiful season between November and March, a great many are ignorant of the existence of the School of Art; and many others who are aware that such an institution exists do not know its whereabouts. A stranger from overseas proceeding along the busy thoroughfares of Hornby Road would not, as he passes by the attractive garden which in that dusty section of the city naturally arrests the eye, suspect that the buildings which he glimpses between the palms are those of the Art School; accustomed as he perhaps may be to the gloomy corridors and grim exteriors of many of the European Schools of Art. The School of Art of Bombay and its environment are the survivals of a period, now remote, before the teeming streets of the Fort had encroached on the open spaces. It is difficult to realize that the area was once an extensive Maidan and the School of Art one of several handsome buildings placed in favourable isolation. Founded as far back as 1854 by Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy who offered Rs. 100,000 for the endowment of the institution, the existing School of Art is the growth that was grafted upon a very slender stem. Some Drawing Classes formed the nucleus and these were held for a few hours daily in the Elphinstone Institute. But it is significant that even in the first dawning of the idea of a National Art School, in Bombay a start was made with the elements of that branch of art which though naturally associated with the Idea of an European School of Art, by no means invariably forms part of an Indian one.
Tracing the progress of the School through its consecutive stages, when the hours of study were increased, when professors were brought out from England, when workshops and studios became essential requirements, we shall find that its growth was fairly continuous until 1865. In this year the School of Art was still being partly carried on in the old premises, but as extensions were required a larger site was obtained, and some temporary buildings were erected very near to the position of the present School of Art. The classes in drawing, modelling, painting and metalwork were then in the hands of Mr. Lockwood Kipling, Mr. Griffiths, and Mr. Higgins. The Modelling Classes were accommodated in the present compound. Mr. Lockwood Kipling’s house stood on the site of the present Principal’s dwelling, and it was here that his distinguished son, Mr. Rudyard Kipling, first saw the light—a fact that has recently been commemorated by a bronze tablet. In 1869 the Drawing Classes were united with the other departments in the School compound, which were still being carried on under separate management. Mr. Terry was apparently the first to take charge of the augmented departments combined as one institution in the present building which constitutes the main section of the existing School. The latter is one of the most solidly built and handsomely finished buildings of a period when well-built edifices were well known in Bombay. It was not completed until 1878. Almost immediately afterwards Mr. Lockwood Kipling went to found at Lahore the present School of Art, where the story of his enthusiastic and inspiring labours is to-day a deeply cherished memory. Shortly after this Mr. Terry retired from the post of Superintendent of the School of Art but for a long time after his retirement, the beautiful pottery which he continued to produce in the School compound was widely popular both in India and Europe, and his potteries were the foundation of the present School of Pottery, which has been largely increased of late years. It would perhaps weary the reader whose interest in the School of Art of Bombay is based, not upon a past acquaintance with that city, but on a view of its students’ work, to dwell at length on the story of the ups and downs of the School through the years of its youth and adolescence. By the time Lord Reay, (then Governor of Bombay) brought about the erection of the Applied Art Section known as the Reay Art Workshops in 1891, the School of Art had attained to maturity. From the modest wood engravers’ classes in Shaik Abul Rehmin Street, the School had grown by degrees into a great and comprehensive institution, and though Mr. Lockwood Kipling had transferred the energy and genius which had infused life into the School in its youthful struggles to another field, Mr. Griffiths, an enthusiast oil the subject of Indian Art, was a worthy successor.
The work by which Mr. Griffiths is best known, is his compendious monograph on the Ajanta Caves. These two fine volumes form perhaps the most useful introduction to the study of Indian Art that the seeker after knowledge could desire. The compilation of this book was the labour of many years during which many of the students were absorbed in assisting the Principal in his task. The story of these years, when the students of the School of Art emigrated from Bombay and took up their quarters in the valley where the Ajanta Caves are situated, forms one of the most romantic episodes in the history of any School of Art in the World. In these days the Principal divided his time between his students in their hut at Ajanta and those in the parent building in Bombay. Those who have not visited the historic caves, will find it difficult to realize the important part which this episode has played in the history of the School of Art.
The Cave Temples of Ajanta are situated in a gorge of Trossachs-like grandeur some 300 miles distant from Bombay in the Dominions of H.E.H. The Nizam of Hyderabad. The approach to the Caves is from the Railway Station of Pahur whence a drive of 10 miles in a bullock cart or a small tonga (if the traveller is lucky) will take him in about two hours time to the hamlet of Fardepur four miles distant from the Shrines.
It was here that Mr. Griffiths took up his quarters; and the site of the hut that was erected for his students, may be seen on a little knoll near the entrance to the gorge overlooking the stream known as the Waghura. The latter was the bathing place for the students; and some of the most juvenile and still surviving members of the expedition can yet recall the occasion when the bathers were startled by the sudden appearance of a panther who joined the party, seating himself placidly on a flat stone by the water with the most engaging friendliness.1
The expeditionary party was usually in charge of Mr. Pestonjee Bomanjee, now the Doyen of Bombay Artists. For a period extending over 12 years, Mr. Bomanjee and other students worked in the shadow of one of the grandest monuments of art that the world can show. In the early morning they would start to make their way through a jungle starred with gorgeous tropical flowers, and illuminated by blossoming trees and creepers—overtopped by crags that in their stark austerity seem to spurn the fairness at their feet. At last they reach the vast semicircle that encloses the head of the valley, where the path begins to meander upwards. The humming of the multicoloured insects, or the flute-like notes of wild birds is here lost in the lilt of the cascade that falls musically into the valley from its high but unseen source.
Still they ascend the path, progressing carefully along the edge of the precipice till they reach the threshold of the famous Sanctuary which Buddhist excavators hewed out of the solid rock more than 2,000 centuries ago. A little flight of steps here leads downwards to the great gallery that skirts a portion of the cliff in one gigantic curve three quarters of a mile in length. From this point the students can scan the scene of their labours.
The twenty-seven temples and monasteries which range side by side along the galleries in their scarcely marred beauty of sculptured portals and graceful arches, though divested of their garment of colour, still remain to witness silently of the genius and flawless patience of the Indian artists of those times.
The beautiful adornments of the porticos to the caves, so finely carved that their interfacings seem to transform the basalt rock itself into a series of leafy arbours were not however the chief objects for which the students of the School of Art were searching. Still that incomparably noble approach must have moved these ardent young hearts to passionate resolves of emulation. No one who has visited the Ajanta caves can for a moment doubt the value of their perennially fresh appeal. The spell they can throw over Western minds must be intensified in its effect upon Indian Artists. It held Mr. Griffiths and his students in its grip for years and when released, they left Ajanta as captives still to the unseen Deity whose mysterious presence broods feelingly throughout the Sanctuary.
The influences of the frescoes which cover the walls (which the students were daily copying) must have been tremendous; the glow of naive and limpid colouring; the frank and enthusiastic rendering of form; the bewitching fantasy arid alertness of all-conquering line! The young artists who participated in this adventure would never, one may be sure, forget it. Released from their apprenticeship, long or short as the case might be, none of the students who accompanied their Principal in his quest in search of the artistic secrets that lurk in that famous valley failed to show in after life the benefit of the rare experience. It is interesting to notice here that Mr. Pestonjee Bomanjee is a veteran whose works have long been recognised; and have lately been purchased for the Prince of Wales’ Museum in his own City; and that Mr. M. V. Dhurandhar, who at that time was the youngest of the band, is still discharging his duties of high trust as Head Master of the School of Art. Mr. Jugganath Anant and Mr. Narayan Kushaba though they have, in common with most of their comrades, gone on to seek another and a higher Sanctuary, were noted for the artistic vigour which infused their work.
In addition to the numerous copies executed by the School of Art Students, which unfortunately were mostly destroyed by fire, photographs of the frescoes taken by the late Mr. Shivashankar are still preserved in the library of the School of Art.
It may here be mentioned that it was in the time of Mr. Griffiths that India’s Senior Art Society came into existence in 1888. The Bombay Art Society was founded with the object of helping artists and particularly of encouraging the students of the School of Art. During its novitiate the Society was chiefly a vehicle for the works of European Amateurs from all over India. The successful carrying off of a prize for black and white in 1892 by an Indian student, Mr. M. V. Dhurandhar, encouraged his fellow students of the School of Art to try their luck; and it was Mr. Griffiths’ aim to show the best productions of his students every year as an incitement to artists to go to Nature for their inspiration. The impetus that was thus given, resulted so effectively that sister organisations came into being; and during the present time of revival new Art Societies are springing up all over the South West. Of the one hundred and ninety-two artists who exhibited in the Annual Exhibition of the Bombay Art Society in December 1923, one hundred and thirty-six were Indians, of whom thirty-six were ladies. The European Exhibitors were only twenty in all.2