BY KANAIYALAL H. VAKIL, B.A., LL.B.
This an attempt to examine, outline and suggest very briefly and broadly the future possibilities and lines of development of the Sir J. J. School of Art, Bombay, as a central institute influencing the art-crafts of the Presidency. It is evidently futile however to trace the possibilities without reference to the causes which prompted the origin of the school and have directly or indirectly guided its activities and career. The School of Art, it is well known, came into being as a tangible result of the keen popular interest in artistic goods aroused at the time of the Great International Exhibition in London in 1851. That was the time when the School of Design, the present Royal College of Art (established some years ago as the outcome of the first governmental inquiry in 1835 into the conditions of the artistic manufactures in England) recognising the necessity of more comprehensive and systematic efforts, reorganised and extended its scope of work. The schools of art were not unknown at the time of the governmental inquiry of 1835. But it was due to the foundation of the then School of Design and the Government grant in 1840 of 10,000 for the equipment and formation of schools of design (particularly in large manufacturing towns) that attempts were, for the first time probably, made to define their position and work. After a period of over a decade another impetus for a fresh review of the work done by the schools was supplied by the International Exhibition of 1851.
Craft work was at this time introduced in the Royal College of Art, then known as the School of Design, and was afterwards taken up by other schools. The first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Society in 1888, the formation of the Design and Industries Association in 1915, of the British Institute of Industrial Art in 1920, and, very recently of a new scheme of encouragement in the form of competitions, prizes, diplomas and Scholarships framed by the Royal Society of Arts guided by competent committees, mark some of the distinctive phases of progress in the educative measures adopted for the development of the art-crafts in England. Those have been supplemented, no doubt, by the various instructive reports on the subject published since 1835 by Government; by various efforts towards educational reform examplified in its latest form by contributions from men like Mr. H. Wilson in the New Ideals in Education Conference; by sociologists of the scholarship and eminence of Professor Patrick Geddes and Mr. Victor Branford, by the philosophers represented by Mr. Bertrand Russell and Mr. Edward Carpenter or by Mr. Havelock Ellis and Mr. J.A. Thompson and finally by those represented by Mr. C. Ashbee, the architect-craftsman. It is not possible nor is it intended to review here all these efforts. Those who are anxious to evolve methods and institutions more actively pledged to exert the influence of art in nation-wide movements cannot and should not neglect the invaluable guidance offered by tfie experience and suggestions embodied in this considerable field of literature. If they study it closely and analyse it impartially it will not be long before they will be convinced that it contains more than enough evidence to prove the truth of the statements that the arts and crafts movement, although its necessity has been universally recognised, “has had little influence upon raising the general level of design of ordinary commercial goods” and that the attitude of the English manufacturer toward art training has generally been one of “indifference and, at its worst, one of open hostility”. These are not random deductions. The statements quoted are contained in an extremely useful, suggestive and authoritative report of an Industrial Art Survey published last year by the National Society for Vocational Education, and the Department of Education of the State of New York. It is an invaluable document containing a dispassionate survey of the methods and history of art institutions throughout Europe and America. The comparative failure of Educative efforts; and the general indifference towards art training are therefore aspects of the question that deserve the closest attention, scrutiny and study by those seriously engaged in planning schemes of educational reform. If they could, from the guidance available, approximately estimate the true causes of the general indifference and the failure of educative efforts they would certainly be brought nearer to the necessary remedies. It is, therefore, with a view to assist the discovery of the remedies that the causes of the disease are very briefly summarised here.
The causes here ennumerated could be easily found in the evidence afforded by the literature referred to above. The chief causes for the comparative failure of the reformers and the general indifference are: false economic conceptions, mistaken aims and ideals of Schools of Art and similar art institutions, the practical dominance and dictatorship of Industry, the misleading distinctions between “Fine” and “Applied” arts, the vague and unrelated efforts of the strictly technical vocational institutions on the one hand and the Museums on the other, the tacit acknowledgment of the inferiority of the latter, and consequent segregation of the arts and the perfunctory attention paid to art training, in the elementary school.
The economics which sacrificed quality for quantity, the school and institutions which were controlled by, and managed for Industry, could not and have not accepted art whether as an ultimate or even as a main aim. The convenient distinction between “Fine” and “Applied” arts relegated the former to the position of an avoidable luxury for the rich and the latter to that of an insignificant subsidiary branch of Industry. Art has been either the unwanted guest of the rich or the servile beneficiary of Industry has seldom been recognised as competent to claim an independent status. Art rarely occupies, therefore, an integral position in the educational curriculum. These conclusions, derived from a survey of educational art activities in Western countries, do not vary materially from those one arrives at from a dispassionate survey of similar institutions in India; because these have until very recently merely followed in the footsteps of their overseas exemplars. So that the causes in India that have contributed towards the general indifference of the public and the failure of the educative efforts are practically the same causes that have affected the destinies of the art-crafts in England, Only here, on account of an absolutely different environment and of conditions and traditions widely divergent from those of England, defective aims and methods have wrought, naturally greater, and deeper havoc. The story of the decline and fall of the arts and crafts in India, despite the modern art institutions, can be read in innumerable surveys and observations by Sir George Birdwood. The first important thing, therefore, is to benefit by the mistake admitted by the West. Our second task should be to study local conditions and requirements. We must accept the independent, if not the sovereign, status of art. We must rediscover the points of contact between the “Fine” and the “Applied” arts. And, finally we must establish harmonious relations with the strictly technical institutions on the one hand and the Museums and other educational institutions on the other. If that could be done it would not be very difficult to achieve before long the position for the Bombay School of Art of a central institute actively directing the development of the art-crafts in the Presidency. The Presidency covers a vast area of provinces most of them still possessing art-crafts distinctly expressive of their own region. The Exhibition of Arts and Crafts organised by the Bombay Students’ Brotherhood, probably the first venture of the kind in the city, the recent exhibitions at Baroda and Bhavnagar and the forth-coming exhibition arranged by the Gujarat Kala Pravartak Mandal at Ahmedabad along with many minor exhibitions in the Presidency merely indicate the general awakening marked by similar exhibitions in Calcutta, Madras, Simla and Aligarh. The desire is there. It needs guidance. And, the guidance can and should be provided by the Bombay School of Art. It is true that before the School can take up its destined work it will have to consider several problems of practical importance. But is there any doubt that the time is arrived when the School must afford the inspiring environment that contact with the highest and noblest efforts in art alone can provide as an impetus to the still surviving priceless art-crafts of the Bombay Presidency? Is there any doubt that it must now begin to contemplate the scheme that would ensure the necessary environment? If there is any doubt it should be removed by the mural paintings and the craft work of the students of the School and by the persistent clamour for art expressed by the increasing public interest in exhibitions. If the School bases its work on local conditions and requirements, if it dispenses with rigid distinctions between the arts and the crafts, if it can establish a definite and hanhonious relation with the museums and other educational and strictly technical institutions, if it accepts the independent Status of art and caters for quality, (that is to say the highest standards of workmanship) rather than for quantity there cannot be the slightest doubt about its future as a central institute directing the development of the art-crafts of the Presidency. There are dangers common both to the West and the East. Both must therefore guard against them. There are things that the East can borrow from the West as there are things that the West can borrow from the East. The art-crafts that modern conditions have evolved, such as process work and similar peculiarly modern applications may without restraint be taken from the West. The West may in its turn learn (as it is beginning to learn) something from the patterns that the East so lavishly offers to it by means of its known textiles, metal work, ivory, wood and other innumerable handicrafts. But each must maintain its individuality. The rich diversity which locality (that is to say the genius of different regions) imparts to the art-crafts is an indispensable asset for the artistic wealth of the world. The dangers common to the East as well as to the West are deliberately emphasised here because until we have removed these we shall be merely repeating the mistakes we have been committing ever since 1835. The removal of the common dangers is besides the speediest method of arriving at a definite basis of reconstruction. That basis can be easily formulated on the local conditions and requirements. These can as easily be ascertained. There is already ample material available for the purpose. But all efforts for reform and advancement would be practically futile if those entrusted with the work do not benefit by the guidance afforded by the mistakes of the past.