Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties which artists and art teachers meet with in the present day arises from the popular view of art as something separate from, if not altogether opposed to, practical use. Any student of art will soon realise that this is entirely contrary to all the teaching of art tradition and history, but nevertheless it is one which has a firm hold upon public opinion; especially in Europe where within the last two centuries the old artistic traditions have been superseded by a new order of things, which has not yet had time to adjust itself to national needs.
In India, too, under the British administration this idea has taken firm root, and its influence is conspicuous in most of the institutions, educational and administrative, which India has borrowed from Europe. Indian Universities, faithfully imitating their European models, exclude art from their curriculum, treating it as a non-essential factor in national culture. The place of the Indian architects—whose forefathers, it must be remembered, built not only the Taj, the exquisite palaces of the Moguls and splendid shrines of religion, but great irrigation works, bridges and public buildings—is everywhere being filled by engineers whose practical knowledge is supposed to more than compensate for the want of artistic training. Indian art has come to be regarded either as a beautiful relic of antiquity for which no place can be found in modern life, or as a curiosity made chiefly for the delectation of our cold-weather visitors from Europe.
Particularly in Bengal, where we nearly always import our art ready-made from Europe, or manufacture it locally from European patterns, it plays a very small part, both in private and in public affairs. It is one of these superfluities which we never consider essential either for our spiritual or material well-being; but when it does come into our life, it is only when we have satisfied what we are pleased to consider our practical requirements. In other words, art is regarded as something essentially ornamental, rather than useful.
If it be true that art has really, in the present day, entered upon a new phase in which it ceases to play an essential part in our national life, it must inevitably follow that art, as we take it, must sooner or later cease to exist; for there is no natural law more sure in its working than the one which ordains the extinction of everything which no longer serves its intended use in the cosmos. A muscle in our bodies which is never exercised soon becomes atrophied and incapable of use. Creatures which are deprived of light soon become blind. An intellectual faculty which is never exerted is soon deprived of the power of exertion. Modern science is sometimes inclined to boast of its power of controlling nature, but we must never forget that we only control nature through natural laws and cannot infringe them in the smallest degree without suffering the penalties which nature imposes. The laws of art, like most others that regulate human affairs, are founded upon nature’s laws.
In considering, therefore, the proper relation of art to the necessities of human life it is better to go straight to nature and study the principles we find there, rather than to rely only upon the precedents of history. And if there is one principle which is more conspicuous than another throughout the whole domain of nature, it is the intimate association of beauty with use. The desire for beauty shows itself in the whole order of the universe, from the tiniest atom in the earth under our feet, to the magnificent phenomena of the sky and atmosphere above and around us. Man as the highest product of creation, asserts the right of considering himself at once the most beautiful and the most useful, and I am not going to say anything in dispute of that claim. But you will find the same principle manifesting itself in endless variations in the beasts, birds, fishes and insects and in every living thing; in every leaf and flower that grows, and further down in the scale, in metals, rocks and stones,, and even in things animate and inanimate too minute for the unaided eye to see.
And as you examine this universal principle more closely you will never find that the beauty is something apart from usefulness, a thing which can be substracted or left out. In nature beauty and usefulness are inseparable. It is only in man’s crude and imperfect work that usefulness is so often associated with ugliness. Art in nature is the joy of the Creator in perfecting His handiwork. Art in man’s work is but the faint echo of the divine on earth repeating the joy of the Creator. Art, then, is in a special sense a form of worship, and you will observe that the finest art in all countries has nearly always been produced in the service of religion. But whether the art was applied to religious purposes, to works of public utility or to common domestic needs, you will find one spirit in all good art in all countries and in all epochs the—same spirit as you see in nature’s work—the striving to make the work fit for the purpose for which it was intended. Art, in the abstract, thus becomes the striving to do things well. There is no question of separating utility and beauty—the joy of perfecting the use, consciously or unconsciously, creates the beauty.
Some will perhaps argue that the ugliness generally conspicuous in modern engineering works, railways, bridges, motor-cars and other things undeniably useful, is a proof that use and beauty are often incompatible. But I maintain that the ugliness of these things is not a necessity, but only conclusive evidence of their imperfection. You must remember that the application of iron to building purposes and its use in relation to, steam and electric power are but things of yesterday. The beautiful forms which art has created in olden times from the use of brick, stone, wood, and other materials were slowly evolved in thousands of years by the experience and practice of hundreds of generations of craftsmen. There is every reason, therefore, to believe that as our engineers gain more experience and skill in the use of new materials, and in the manifold applications of the new forces now brought into the service of mankind, they will gradually produce more and more beautiful forms and learn the lesson which nature teaches—perfect fitness is perfect beauty. In fact, the finest works of modern engineering are by no means without a beauty of their own.
But you may auk, is there not art for art’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake? Yes, surely there is, just as there! is mind and body, spirit and matter. Yet, as Emerson says, as soon as beauty is sought after, not for religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker. The motive of the artist is writ large in every work of his hand and brain. If the motive is base, the art will be tainted with that baseness. Why is it that so much of our modern painting and sculpture is small and petty compared with even the average productions of ancient Greece, the works of medieval times, or of the sixteenth century? It is because the artists of the past employed their genius in the service of religion and of the state. They worked for God and for humanity. Our modern art is mostly for private vanity and amusement. Pictures and statues are goods and chatels to be bought and sold. The man in the street thinks he is entitled to get the art he wants merely because he pays for it, and the artist is more often anxious to gratify the man who pays than to consider what he owes to art and to himself. No longer intimately associated with the service of church and state, art has become a society toy and a mere item of merchandise in the catalogues of modern commerce. The common trade expressions of art-furniture art-wood-work, art-metal-work, reflect the popular sentiment towards all art. Plain, ordinary furniture and metal-work, such as an honest workman will produce without any pretence at being artistic, are believed to be necessarily ugly. If you want to be fashionably artistic you must pay something extra and call in the artist, who will make your things beautiful, but you must be prepared to sacrifice something of utility.
In former days in Europe trade was to a very large extent controlled by artists, through the great art-guilds, and the craftsman and the artist were one and the same person; or at least the artist was always one who had served a thorough apprenticeship in his craft—just as your Indian artists generally are even in the present day. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest artists Europe ever produced, was the greatest engineer of his time. Refaelle and Michelangelo, and many of the great masters of the Renaissance, designed the buildings for which their paintings and sculpture were intended; and the men who built them were only inferior artists to themselves. In modern European buildings the architect is often only a draftsman who for want of architectural knowledge imitates the design of some ancient buildings intended for totally different purposes, the builder is a contractor who employs men to copy mechanically the architect’s archælogical essays: his first aim is to make as much profit as he can, and his art consists in putting bad ornament to conceal the faults of the design and construction.
The general inferiority of modern art thus merely reflects the narrowness of the utilitarianism and commercialism of the present age. Art, in all countries, always reflects the varying phases of national sentiment. You may trace a nation’s intellectual and moral progress, or decay, much more clearly and convincingly through its art than through its written history; for art is a record which seldom lies. A vigorous and healthy national art connotes a vigorous and healthy nation. The nations with the greatest art have always been the leaders in the world’s progress. Japan, which has suddenly sprung to the front rank of nations, is the most artistic nation of the present day. I venture to 1 think that if the younger students who make use of the Chaitanya Library devoted more time to the study of art and art history they would gain a clearer insight into the moral, intellectual, and material growth of nations than they get now from their University text-books.
The present University system entirely excludes art from its scope, and this, I venture to say, is one of the principal reasons why, as a scheme of national culture, it has completely failed to satisfy India’s needs. The vitalising influence in true national culture is the artistic sense, and there must be something fundamentally unsound in the University system which leads the educated classes to prefer tawdry commercialism, which generally represents European art in India, to the real art of their own country, and, instead of broadening the basis of culture drives the artists of the country to seek employment in office clerkships.
A system of education which excludes both art and religion can never succeed because it shuts out the two great influences which mould the national character. There are obvious difficulties in a state-aided University identifying itself with religious teaching, but art is neutral ground upon which all creeds and schools of thought can meet. Until educationists in India recognise that the artistic sense is as necessary in the training of men of letters, of scientists, and of engineers, as it is in that of artists, no reforms in mere methods of teaching or examination systems will place higher education on the right road.
When Greece was conquered by Rome, Greek art and Greek culture were transplanted to Italy, where they grew and flourished exceedingly for many centuries afterwards. When the Moguls conquered Hindustan Indian art commenced one of its most glorious epochs. Why is it that in spite of our honest endeavours to improve Indian art we have only succeeded in bringing bad European art to India and bad Indian art to Europe? You will find the answer in those two wonderful ruined cities of Italy and Northern India—Pompei and Fatehpur Sikri. In Pompei you will see Greek art in the forutn, in the streets, in the shops, in the frescoes on the walls of the villas, in the furniture, and even in the cooking pots which are left in the fireplaces. At Fatehpur Sikri you will see Indian art in Akbar’s palace, in his office, in his baths and in his stables, in all the public buildings and in the houses of his nobles. Everywhere in Pompei and in Fatehpur Sikri you will find art brought into practical use.
It was a great misfortune for Indian art that at the time when European institutions began to be introduced into India all the old artistic traditions of Europe had been swept away by the social and industrial revolution, which began in the eighteenth century, and that the art of building had come to mean only the art of applying certain rigid archæological formula called “styles” to the superficial embellishment of the construction. If Europe could have sent to India a practical tradition of art, as it was practised in Europe down to the eighteenth century, Indian art would not have suffered but would have gained immensely by the stimulus of fresh ideas and varied experiences just as Greek art was stimulated in the days of the Roman Empire and Indian art in the time of the Moguls. But Europe had now no living artistic traditions to offer you. We have only the feeble imitation of extinct styles, or the painful efforts of individualists struggling to work out, each one for himself, a new foundation for art to rest upon. In India you have in your living traditional art a sure and solid foundation, the only one on which art has really flourished in any country.
Within the last fifty years, there has been in England and in many countries in Europe, a remarkable development of art which has to some extent revived the artistic sense of the people, and brought about at least a partial return to those methods and principles without which no real art can exist. But from this great movement art in India has as yet received no benefit, and Indian art continues to decay, because it is regarded by Europeans, and by most Indians with European education, as made for nothing but curiosities. Let us therefore examine more closely the popular theory which has done, and is still doing, so much harm to art in India, that Indian art is no longer of practical use.
Akbar, one of the greatest and must far-seeing of Indian statesmen fully recognised the political uses of art. You cannot expect to guage the profounder depths of a people’s sentiments if you do not understand their art. This wonderful artistic sympathy and understanding were inherited by his son and grandson—Jahangir and Shah Jahan—with Aurangzib, who had neither artistic sympathy nor understanding, began the decline of the Mogul Empire. I will not however, pursue this point further. I would only observe that one of the most distinguished of English politicians the other day remarked that if he and his friends, who call themselves Unionist Free-Traders, found there was no standing room between the existing political parties, they would give up politics altogether and devote themselves to art and literature. This is one of the uses of art which is open to politicians of all parties. I would especially commend it to the school-boy politicians of Bengal.
One of the most important of the civic and domestic uses of art in all countries is to provide houses for the people to live in, and public buildings in which to conduct the affairs of state. From the latter of these uses Indian art has been almost completely excluded in modern times, and Indian builders have been taught to imitate the modern eclectic styles of Europe in the belief that these only are suitable for modern practical requirements. It. would be most extraordinary if the hereditary builders of India, who for untold centuries have kept alive the traditions of their art, and adapted them time after, time to the changes of fashion which one conquering race after another has brought into India, should now be found really incapable of meeting the very elementary practical requirements of modern public and private buildings. I venture to say that there is not a single modern building in India, the construction of which presents engineering difficulties at all to be compared with those which have been successfully met by Indian builders in former times.
Stability and durability are surely essentials of a practical kind in public buildings, places of worship and other architectural works of a governing race which has faith in the greatness of its mission and in the permanence of its rule. In these respects it can hardly be disputed that Indian builders who have been true to their old traditions have always worked on sounder principles than those which have been observed in modern Indian architecture. The great monuments of Hindu and Mahomedan rule all over India which have stood for centuries exposed to all the fierce destructive influences of the Indian climate, the iconoclasm of invaders and the vandalism of philistines are incontrovertible evidence of the fact.
Fergusson, the greatest authority on Indian architecture, ancient and modern, gives an instance of the constructive skill and fine workmanship of Indian builders directed by their own architects. The terraced roof of the great mosque at Kalburgah, one of the finest monuments of Pathan rule in the Deccan, covering an area of 33,000 square feet, was in his time in seemingly good repair after four centuries of comparative neglect, although any crack or settlement would have been fatal to the whole building. I think it would be difficult to find large modern public buildings in India without cracks or leaks, and most of them would be in ruins before many years of the neglect to which the majority of Indian buildings have been exposed for centuries. In the more difficult problems of roof-construction, Indian architects have far surpassed all Europeans. The Bijapur architects invented the ingenious and beautiful method of balancing the weight of a dome inside the building instead of the more clumsy and ugly expedient of throwing it outside. The most remarkable example of this, the dome of the tomb of Mahmud at Bijapur is larger than the famous masterpiece of Roman architecture, the Pantheon at Rome. Fergusson has described it as a wonder of constructive skill. The same authority in speaking of one of the finest churches in London by the great English architect Sir Christopher Wren says:— “It would have been greatly improved had its resemblance to a Hindu porch been more complete. The necessity of confining the dome within four walls greatly injures the effect compared with the Indian examples. Even the Indian plan of roofing might be used in such a building with much less expense and constructive danger than in a Gothic vault of the same extent.”
The descendants of the architects who showed such remarkable constructive invention and skill still practise their art in Rajputana, the Punjab and the United Provinces, and are only prevented from rivalling the great achievements of their ancestors because they are allowed no opportunity of doing so, except in a few of the native states in which the blind imitation of debased European art has not yet become fashionable. Fergusson admitted that he had learnt more from these men of the principles of architecture as practised by the great architects of medieval Europe than he had gained from all the books he had read. Yet these are the men who are ignored by Indian Universities, excluded from the system of Public Works and neglected by their own countrymen, because they are supposed to be deficient in practical knowledge.
It will not be necessary to quote more instances of the kind if you will only reflect that a living national art is always essentially a common sense art, because it is created by popular needs and adapted to the country which produces it. You would then realise the wrong you do to Indian art and to yourselves by following imported fashions, which even if they truly represented the best European culture and civilisation, can never be really suited to your requirements. These fashions do not, in fact, represent the best that Europe can produce, but only an effete and corrupt classicism now gradually being superseded by stronger and healthier art impulses.
The architecture which India is substituting for its own living styles is the very negation of practical common sense. It is what Fergusson calls “an art which is not conducted on truthful or constructive principles, hut on imitative attempts to produce something which has no affinity with the building in hand—an art whose utterances, whether classic or Gothic, are the products of the leisure of single minds, not always of the highest class;” while your own living Indian art is “the result of the earnest thinking of thousands of minds spread over hundreds years, and acting in unison with the national voice which called it into existence.”
If there are any students of engineering among the members of this society, I would advise them that they will become better engineers the more they study art, and especially the more they study the art shown in Indian architecture. But let their art be in their engineering and not something outside of it. Most of modern buildings in India would be better if they were divested of the ornament which has been applied in the belief that art begins and ends with ornament. I would ask them above all to remember Fergusson’s dictum that architecture is not archæology. Certainly it is a great thing that all Indians should learn to love and venerate the great monuments of their forefathers, but it is of greater—far—greater moment that they should strive to hand on to their children those traditions which bring into the living present India’s history, her culture and her art.
Greatly, as I venerate the splendid achievements of Indian art in bygone days, I would see without a pang the Taj, the palaces of the Moguls and the other great relics of antiquity, crumbling into dust, if by their ruin India could be brought to realise the priceless value of the true living art which is part of India’s spiritual heritage from her glorious past.
I will pass over another of the important uses of art, that of providing clothes for the people to wear, because, in the first place, it is a subject on which my views are already very well known, and secondly, because, though from an artistic point of view it is most desirable that you should retain your own artistic dress, it is of much more importance that you should learn to live and think artistically. Eleven years ago Sir Alexander Miller, formerly legal member of the Viceroy’s Council, in addressing this society on Representative Government, reminded you that in the endeavour to reach the blessings of good government national character is of infinitely greater importance than any institutions, representative or otherwise. The most important of the uses of art, of the real living art, is its influence on national character. You will see it in the character of that great nation, the Japanese. What do you think inspired the magnanimity, humanity, devotion and self-control which they have shown in this great crisis of their history, but the innate and supreme artistic sense of the people?
I will give you an instance of the same true artistic spirit which may be found also in India at the present day. Not so far from Calcutta, at Jajpur, the ancient capital of Orissa, the splendid art of stone-carving which flourished there in former days still lingers in obscurity. For the last 20 or 30 years a few of your real Indian artists have been devotedly working on a pittance of four annas a day carving decoration, more beautiful than any to be found in this city of palaces, for the temple of Biroja in that town. Their wages are paid by a sadhu, a religious mendicant, who has spent his whole life in begging for funds for this purpose. That is the spirit in which all true art is produced. It is the spirit with which the glorious Gothic cathedrals of mediaeval Europe were built. It is the moving spirit in everything great and noble that ever art creates. Let such devotion, reverence and love permeate your Universities, your public and private life and everything which you undertake, you need not then clamour for political privileges, for there is no power on earth that could deny you them.
If you would see that true artistic spirit once more grow and spread, art must be ever present in your daily lives. The art you merely imitate cannot give it to you. It must come out from yourselves. It must not be only a thing you go to see in art galleries and museums. It must be something for daily use—something you see in the life which is round about you, in the streets and in your houses, in the trees and in the flowers, in the fields and in the sky—and something of the divine nature that is within you revealing to you thoughts divine. You must regard the books which you read only as commentaries on the great book of nature. You must go, as your Rishis did of old, and learn from nature herself. Nature will teach you many things which are not to be found in text-books nor within the dingy walls of your college class-rooms.
Indian art will then again become a great intellectual and moral force which will stimulate every form of activity. It will relight the lamp of Indian learning, revive your architecture, your industries and your commerce, and give a higher motive for every work you find to do. Your art, thus ennobled, will not fail to ennoble yourselves.
[Lecture given on the Anniversary meeting of the Chaitanya Library, Calcutta, December, 1905.]