One of the greatest of Greek philosophers in a few memorable sentences has indicated the proper place of art in an ideal educational system:
To use the beauties of earth as steps along which he mounts upwards, going from one to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair actions, and from fair actions to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.
The Greeks, whose religious and philosophical ideas were founded on the closest observation of Nature, were deeply impressed by the invariable correlation between perfect beauty and perfect fitness, which is found in all of Nature’s handiwork. The study of this universal law led them to regard the æsthetic faculty as part of that divine nature which lifts mankind above the brute creation, and must be cherished as the most precious endowment. Art, or the science of the beautiful, was to them a second religion; it became the daily bread of their intellectual life. To respect art was a national as well as an individual duty, because its influence tends to develop the best moral virtues in a citizen. It teaches patience and honesty, for no good art is produced without them. It teaches reverence, for admiration of the beautiful is the mainspring of the æsthetic faculty. It begets unselfishness, for æsthetic enjoyment is not obtained, like so many other of men’s pleasures, at other people’s expense, and it is increased when others share in it. It tends to elevate the mind and to create a dislike for all that is mean, dirty, and sordid.
English higher education in the nineteenth century was based theoretically on Greek traditions. But if one seeks in the national life for the effect of so-called classic education the difference between theory and practice can be seen too plainly. If the poetical inspiration of Shakespeare and Milton is often a hidden mystery to the Indian student who knows all his text and notes by heart, just as often the English schoolboy, who pores over his Greek idioms and syntax, remains in sublime ignorance of the ideas and impulses which brought the Greek nation to the highest summit of civilisation. The classic ideal in the modern English educational system lost the quickening influence it possessed in the sixteenth century, not because Greek literature and art are any less fresh and beautiful, but because the system ignored the motives and ideas, contained in Greek civilisation, of which Greek literature and art were the expression. The sixteenth century, when the influence of Greek literature and art was so powerfully felt in Europe, was the crest of a great intellectual and artistic wave which passed over the whole civilised world, affecting India, Persia, China, and Japan, almost as much as it did Italy and other European countries. Even in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the literature and art of Greece were an influence only, not the source of inspiration. They were the quickening influence in the Renaissance in Italy, because the intellectual and social conditions of the time were in many ways analogous to those which had given them birth in ancient Greece, not from an inherent creative power contained in themselves, as modern pedagogy would have us believe. But the educational traditions of the pseudo-classic school have still many followers, and the English public-school boy is too often fed on the husks of Greek literature, in the belief that style is the only end of literary expression. The usual art teaching in English public schools is just as remote from the spirit of Greek philosophy. Art, according to modern pedagogy, is merely a fashionable taste for water-colour landscape painting, and with more or less skill in this elegant accomplishment most Englishmen are ready to decide all artistic questions. In the schoolboy’s after-life this rigid adherence to forms without principles, and fashions without motives, degraded nineteenth-century art as much as it degraded social life. The training of the artist and architect was based on a slavish imitation of effete schools and defunct styles. The living art of the Greeks applied to practical life the principles of perfect order, perfect arrangement, perfect workmanship, and perfect fitness for use, which are always found in Nature’s work and regulate all healthy styles of art. Beauty was sought after not merely for its own sake, but because to the Greeks absolute beauty was absolute perfection. But the nineteenth century forsook the cult of the beautiful for the cult of the golden calf. So much of the art of the greater part of the nineteenth century as really entered into the life of the nation, and was not relegated to museums and picture galleries, was generally devoid of reality and life; it was vulgar ostentation when it was not rampant ugliness, insipidity and inanity when it was not a cloak for stupid construction or dishonest workmanship.
It is the supreme merit of the new movement in art (by which I do not mean any particular sect or clique, but the general revolt against dead academic formulae) that, in spite of the eccentricities and extravagances which attend all great transitions, it has brought life and sincerity into the teaching and practice of art. It has taught that style in art is the exoteric expression of an esoteric meaning, and that to separate the one from the other is to divorce the body from the soul. It has taught that neither the Greeks nor the Romans nor the master-minds of the Middle Ages have exhausted all the resources of art, which must always seek the form of expression best adapted to the thoughts and necessities of the times. And, above all, it has taught that art is not a curiosity for museums, but a beneficent influence in public and private life; not a fashion but a faculty; not the privilege of a caste, but a divine gift to humanity.
India, unfortunately, affords another example of the difference between theory and practice, for the conditions which exist in India are in every way favourable for putting into practice the theories of Greek philosophy which English higher education professes to take for its gospel. India is the only part of the British Empire where the æsthetic sense of the people, in spite of all that British philistinism has done to suppress it, strongly influences their every day life. It is pitiful to find, even in semi-European cities like Bombay and Calcutta—where nine out of ten of the imposing public buildings built for the official administration flaunt before the native gaze the banalities and vulgarities of the worst English nineteenth-century architecture—that one may go into a back slum and see a modern Mahomedan mosque or Hindu temple, in which the native workman, in naive admiration, has borrowed the details from these Gothic or Classic atrocities, and contrived by the unconscious exercise of his inner æsthetic consciousness to build something which defies all the musty canons of scholastic architectural law, but yet reveals something of that essential spirit of beauty which all living art possesses. In places more remote from European influence, the houses, mosques and temples built by native workmen of the present day, who have had no other education than the traditions of their fathers, are hardly less eloquent than the nobler monuments of the past in their silent protest against the stupid materialism and the false classicism with which the art of the West would instruct the art of the East.
Perhaps the greatest fault to be found with our educational methods in India is in their lack of imagination. Following the traditions of the English Public School we have always regarded the schoolboy as an animal in which the imaginative faculties should be sternly repressed. Build a barrack in the heart of a dirty, overcrowded city, pack it with students—that is a college. Cram the students with Shakespeare and Milton before they can express their own ideas in tolerable modern English—that is culture. It would appear from the evidence given before Lord Curzon’s Universities Commission that there are still many exponents of this kind of education flourishing under the shelter of our Indian Universities. Greatly concerned for the lack of moral principle in the generation newly fledged under their own protection, some Indian educational authorities have for many years been seeking a moral text-book as a remedy for the evil. They are still vainly looking for that text-book, though India has a very old one and a very good one, which has served the world for many ages. Plato found it twenty-three centuries ago ‘To use the beauties of earth as steps along which he mounts upwards.’ Our forefathers knew it when they built the most famous of our seats of learning and joined the resources of art to the richest of Nature’s endowments. Darwin, in the nineteenth century, proclaimed the scientific truth contained in it, when he taught the influnce of environment upon the development of species.
It is not perhaps astonishing to find that many educationists in India, both native and European, have not risen higher in their conception of education than the routine of instruction which for many generations has been considered the only one suitable for an English gentleman. We have taught English to the Indian schoolboy just as Greek is taught to the English schoolboy. All the accidence, prosody and etymology, which to the average English schoolmaster represent Greek literature and thought, stand for Shakespeare’s ‘native wood-notes wild’ in the mind of the average Indian teacher. And the attitude of Indian educationists towards art only reflects the universal ideas of the greater part of the nineteenth century not only in England but in the greater part of Europe. Bat the vital difference between the conditions prevailing in Europe and in India make the consequences of our educational deficiencies and mistakes far more serious to the Indian social system than they are to our own. The Englishman’s school career is only one of the many influences which help to form his character and mental development. He has endless opportunities—both during his schooldays and afterwards—of supplying for himself the wants of his individual aptitudes and tendencies which his school-training leaves unsatisfied. The public-school system, with all its shortcomings, at least leaves him with a mens sana in corpore sano, free and eager to fight the battle of life. The same cannot always be said for higher education in India. The ordinary Indian schoolboy, directly he leaves his vernacular studies and enters upon his University course, finds himself in an entirely artificial environment of ideas in which even his teachers are often helpless to guide him. Certainly there is a small proportion of students whose families for several generations have lived in close intercourse with European society and have adopted more or less English ways of living. Such students begin their regular English studies under much more favourable conditions, for they have learnt to speak English and to imbibe English ideas almost from childhood. But the great majority of Indian students have little or nothing outside the four walls of their Schoolhouse or College to aid them in finding their way along the bewildering paths of European thought. Less resourceful and less active than their English fellows, as Indian schoolboys generally are, it, is not surprising, when they discover so little food for their reflective and imaginative faculties in the mental fare provided for them, that they should be quite content to let the most precious part of their intellectual possessions lie fallow and only cultivate that which promises the surest and easiest way of obtaining their academic diplomas—namely, a retentive memory. Spending the best part of their schooldays in dingy and dirty class-rooms and in the squalor of even dingier and dirtier lodgings, with little or nothing of the distractions which help to make the English boy’s schooldays the happiest time of his life, their brains constantly racked in the endeavour to assimilate what the incompetence or indifference of their teachers often reduces to a meaningless jargon of words, there need be little wonder that so many finish their school career with no other ambition and no other hope than to find at last some comfortable harbour for cerebral inertia in a Government or private office.
Yet, however much some of our educational methods may be open to criticism, it must always be allowed that in the introduction of a system of higher education, based upon the teaching of a language and ideas entirely foreign to the people, there have been extraordinary difficulties. The intellectual gifts which make a really great teacher are as rare as a four-leaved shamrock, and it is hardly the fault of the Indian Education Department, with its huge organisation, that it has not been able to grow enough for its requirements. Its weakest points, perhaps, have been those which are the common failings of all Government Departments—too great reliance on cut and dried systems and too little attention to the quality and training of its Executive officers. But I fear that history will not judge the treatment of the artistic side of education in India with the same indulgence, for on the one hand we have neglected the most magnificent opportunity, and on the other hand countenanced and encouraged the most ruthless barbarity. Even the Goths and Vandals in their most ferocious iconoclasm did less injury to art than that which we have done and continue to do in the name of European civilisation. If the Goths and Vandals destroyed, they brought with them the genius to reconstruct. But we, a nation whose æsthetic understanding has been deadened by generations of pedantry and false teaching, have done all that indifference and active philistinism could do to suppress the lively inborn artistic sense of the Indian peoples. All that recent Indian administrations have done to support and encourage art is but a feather in the scale against the destructive counter-influences, originating in times less sympathetic to Indian art which have been allowed to continue under their authority.
Schools of Art have been established in the four chief Presidency Cities, but they have been left so much to their own devices that for thirty years the teaching in two of them ignored the very existence of any indigenous art. For several years past one of the largest has devoted itself almost entirely to the manufacture of aluminium cooking-vessels, and this year another new enterprise in the application of art to modern life evoked from the controlling authority of this school the expression of a pious doubt as to whether experimenting in aero-motors was the proper function of a School of Art!
Government subsidies have been given to Art Exhibitions, but with so little discrimination or definite purpose that, instead of encouraging the highest possible standard of design and workmanship—the only justification of State aid—they have helped to degrade Indian art, and in the long run to injure it commercially, by advertising the inferior productions manufactured only for the European and American markets. Though large sums have been spent in building and maintaining them, there is hardly an Art Museum in India which has had qualified artistic advice in the purchase of its collections. These, however, are merely ordinary symptoms of nineteenth-century incapacity to deal seriously and sanely with art questions; and however well managed they might be, four Schools of Art, a half dozen Museums, and an occasional Exhibition could not affect very deeply the artistic sense of three hundred million people. If art had ever been considered of sufficient importance in India to engage the serious attention of responsible administrators, we should never have placed any great reliance upon the artificial stimulants which the low vitality of our æsthetic constitutions renders necessary in Europe. For the one conspicuous fact which must force itself upon the attention of any one who seriously studies the artistic condition of India is that in the real India, which exists outside the semi-Europeanised society we have created, art belongs as much to the everyday-life of the people as it did in ancient Greece. In Europe we play with art as a child plays with a toy, not knowing its use except as a plaything. The artist is a specialist who is called in by those who can afford to pay for the amusement; but art is always more or less a frivolity which serious and sensible people dispense with as much as possible, except when it happens to be fashionable. In the Hindu social organisation there are no Schools of Art, no Art Museums, but art lives and is felt as much by the ryot as by the maharajah. In the typical Hindu village every carpenter, mason, potter, blacksmith, brass-smith, and weaver is an artist, and the making of cooking-pots is as much an artistic and religious work as the building of the village temple. So throughout our vast Indian Empire there is a most marvellous store of artistic material available for educational and economic purposes, such as exists nowhere in Europe.
How have we used this extraordinary opportunity for restoring the real classic ideal of education which the youth of England fondly regard as their own? The answer given by the schools, public buildings and streets of Anglo-Indian towns and cities should make us ashamed of nineteenth-century civilisation.
The great national educator in art, that which brings art home to us and makes it live with us —namely, the architecture of the country—we have practically converted in India into a Government monopoly. Thus, for the last fifty years at least, we have had at hand a really effective instrument by which, without spending an extra rupee, without Schools of Art, without Art Museums, and without Exhibitions, we could have stimulated the whole artistic intelligence of the people and brought prosperity to the principal art industries. This instrument we have deliberately thrown away. Let us examine this point carefully. In European architecture of the last few centuries there has gradually grown up a hard and fast distinction between architecture and building—the same false distinction which is commonly made between artistic work and useful work. The natural consequence was that the builder became less and less an architect, and the architect less and less a builder. Gradually the builder became an unintelligent tool in the hands of the architect, and the architect, instead of evolving artistic ideas from structural necessities, came to regard his art either as a screen for concealing the ugliness of construction or as a means of forcing construction into certain conventional moulds which he wrongly called ‘styles.’ With the total loss of artistic expression in building which we reached in the middle of the nineteenth century, European architecture degenerated into a confused jumble of archæological ideas borrowed from the buildings of former times. In India, on the other hand, architecture has continued to be a living art down to the present day, because there building and architecture are always one. The master-mason is both builder and architect, just as he was in Europe in the Middle Ages. Over a great part of Northern India there still exist descendants of the master-builders of the Mogul period, practising their art as it was practised in the days of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. If they do not now produce anything to compare with the masterpieces of those days, how could it be expected under the conditions which our shortsighted policy imposes upon them? For ever since we have created a Government monopoly in architecture, we have totally ignored these men, who could teach us more of the art of building than we could teach them; we have boycotted them and the art industries dependent upon them, and have foisted upon India the falsest of. our nineteenth-century art, which means nothing and teaches nothing, and is utterly unworthy of the dignity and intelligence of the English nation.
What Fergusson wrote nearly thirty years ago in his History of Indian and Eastern Architecture is almost as true now as it was then:
Architecture in India is still a living art, practised on the principles which caused its wonderful development in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and there consequently and there alone, the student of architecture has a chance of seeing the real principles of the art, in action. In Europe, at the present day,, architecture is practised in a manner so anomalous and so abnormal that few, if any, have hitherto been able to shake off the influence of a false system and see that the art of ornamental building can be based on principles of common sense, and that when so practisd the result not only is, but must be, satisfactory.
What a tremendous impetus we should have given to Indian art had we only made a sensible use of the men who thus carry on the living traditions of architecture when we spent the many crores of rupees which have been sunk in the so-called imposing public buildings of Bombay and Calcutta! What an object-lesson those cities might have been both to ourselves and to the rest of the Empire! Are these indigenous styles of India all unsuitable for our requirements in building? No one will imagine that who tries to appreciate the essential difference between a living and an academic style of architecture. The modern European architect, when he is designing holds up to his mind, either consciously or unconsciously, some ancient building or buildings as patterns to imitate. This is why we so often see theatres like Greek temples, hospitals like churches, and suburban villas like mediaeval castles. The original designers of these pattern buildings very rarely thought of imitating any thing else. They were taught now to build and having learnt, they made their buildings suitable for the purposes for which they were intended, without any thought of the buildings their ancestors had made for their own purposes. It is exactly the same with the modern Indian architect. It is unreasonable to suppose that such past masters in the art of building as the Moguls showed, themselves to be, could not have designed a hospital, police station, railway station, or any other accessory of modern life, as well as they built a palace, mosque, or mausoleum. No one can suppose that they would have been so stupid as we are and make a hospital like a mosque or a town-hall like a mausoleum. Neither is it reasonable to assume that that the descendants of these men, who still carry on their traditions, could not understand our requirements if we attempted to teach them or give them the opportunity of learning. But the Indian Public Works engineers, with a few exceptions, have never attempted to study the architecture of the country and have always worked on the blind assumption that the native architects have only built temples and mosques, forgetting that we ourselves have destroyed, or allowed to decay, most of the civil buildings which the Mogul and other Indian architects constructed.
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But how, it may be asked, does this architectural question affect the problem of general education? Because, until the art education of India is put upon a sane and practical basis, art can never take the place it ought to take in a thorough system of general education. As long as the great Government building department in India uses its whole influence to stifle the artistic sentiments of the people, it. sultifies all that is being done or might be done educationally in a different direction. For every one who knows India is aware what a powerful influence Government initiative has upon popular feeling. In England, if the Government were to adopt ancient Egyptian or Babylonian architectural ideas in the designs of public offices, it is highly improbable that the Royal Institute of British Architects would make the practice of these styles compulsory on its members, or that the general public would follow official example. But in India official authority controls the fashion in architecture, as in many other things, especially in the more advanced or more Europeanised provinces. The Engineering Colleges in India follow the example of Cooper’s Hill in teaching only European styles, and even European architects who are not in Government service are obliged by force of circumstances to adopt the official fashion. So the native hereditary builder has been deprived of all official and a great deal of non-official patronage unless he has forsaken the art of his forefathers and blindly followed his blind European leaders. Consequently also the wood-carvers, stone-carvers, painters, and all the other craftsmen connected directly or indirectly with architecture (a category which includes nearly all the industrial arts) find the principle source of employment cut off from them. Thus do we, in the name of European culture and civilisation, crush out the artistic feeling of the Indian peoples.
What then are the necessary steps to take in order to put the Indian educational system on a better footing with regard to art teaching? For, if we really believe in the teaching of Greek philosophy and Greek civilisation we must be convinced that it is no real education which does not help to develop all the higher imaginative faculties. First, we must accept the principle which the Greeks acted upon, that which has been acknowledged more or less in every country, though in the nineteenth century we tried to ignore it—namely, the influence of environment on the development of mind and character. The greatness or meanness of men’s motives is reflected in the surroundings they make for themselves; and inversely, if we educate young India to mean and ignoble surroundings we must not expect great things from them, either respect for us or respect for themselves. We can doubt that the situation of Eton College, with all its noble surroundings in that lovely part of the Thames Valley which is the delight of every artist, has had a great influence for good—not the less profound because it cannot be gauged by examinations—on the mind and character of those who have had the advantage of learning in the most famous of English schools! Eton is not an isolated example; most of the old English Schools and Colleges are distinguished both by architectural beauty and by the beauty of their surroundings. Though it cannot be stated in definite terms or calculated by statistics, the whole English nation benefits spiritually, morally, and intellectually by the wisdom and loving care of our forefathers when they built the old Schools and Colleges of which we are justly proud. If we had shown more of the same wisdom and care in our educational efforts in India, the feeble shoot of Western culture which we have been trying to graft upon the ancient civilisation of the country might by now have been a more vigorous branch. There are many Colleges and Schools connected with Indian Universities in which the most ordinary necessities and decencies of school-life are hardly attended to. A short time ago the Vice-Chancellor of the Bombay University referred in a lecture to certain schools in Upper India m which, he said, everything was fitted to depress the minds of the students: the rooms that were there were destitute of proper light, destitute of every kind of reasonable appliances, and yet these institutions rejoiced in a high-sounding title and were recognised by the University. I think every one will agree with the Vice-Chancellor’s view that it would be better to conduct a High School under the shadow of a banyan tree than in such places as these, for much of the ancient culture of India has grown up under banyan trees. Such cases as these may be extreme, but hardly anywhere in India—certainly not in Bengal—has it yet been accepted as an axiom that education has a great concern in choosing or arranging harmonious surroundings for Schools and Colleges.
When we have attended to the surroundings of schools, let us turn our attention to the buildings and try to free our minds from the popular fallacy that art is an expensive luxury. Art is a luxury with us, only because we in our foolishness have made it so. In India art is no luxury; it is the common property of the poorest and the richest. The art of the peasant is just as real and just as true as the art of the greatest maharajah. We practise no economy, but the most reckless wastefulness, when we check the natural development of Indian art and architecture and surround Indian students with all the ugliness Europe produced in the nineteenth century. Set Indian art free to follow its natural channel, remove the impediments we have placed in its course, and it can minister to the spiritual and intellectual needs of India and at the same time increase the prosperity of the people and add to the resources of the State. And when we have provided Indian students with an environment which will help to elevate their moral and intellectual faculties, let us try in every way to stimulate their love for what is beautiful in nature and in art. The Government of India and some of the Local Governments publish from time to time many excellent illustrations of Indian art and architecture, which in India, at least, serve no other purpose than to help to fill the almirahs of Government Offices. Such illustrations might be used to brighten the class-rooms and corridors of Indian Schools and Colleges, and to accustom the eyes of students to beautiful things. Let us get rid of that false culture which reduces education to a dull system of mental gymnastics, which crams an Indian undergraduate with Shakespeare’s plays, but leaves him ignorant of everything in heaven and earth that Shakespeare included in his philosophy. It is not education, but the most pernicious pedantry, which uses Western culture to blind the eyes and stop the ears of Indian youth to all that the nature, the art, and the culture of their own country have to teach them.
With regard to methods of direct art teaching, an intelligent system of instruction in Drawing should not only develop the powers of observation but teach students to appreciate beauty of form and line. We should by all means avoid in India the mistake so frequently made in English public schools through which art education comes to mean amateur picture-painting. Picture-painting holds precisely the same place in art that novel-writing and poetry hold in literature. I imagine that no serious educationist would ever propose to make practice in writing novels or poems the principal part of literary exercise in public schools. The increase in the number of minor novelists and minor poets which such a system would produce is too alarming to contemplate. It is only another proof of the incapacity of our generation to take art seriously that we should have ever adopted such a method of art-teaching as a part of a general education.
When students have been taught to observe and their hands have been practised in Drawing, I know of no better way of developing their artistic perception than the practice of elementary design. Design is the foundation of all art practice, and, properly taught, it is not only a very fascinating study, but it tends to healthier and wider views of art than sketching in oils and water-colours.
The Indian student has a great natural aptitude for ornamental design which can be easily developed, I have always made a point of including elementary design in the course for the native Drawing teachers trained under me in the Madras and Calcutta Schools of Art, and I have seen some excellent work done by the pupils of these teachers in some of the Madras Colleges.
I believe that work of this kind is educationally valuable, even though the students after vocation may be only to fill up official forms or to write objection statements. To understand beauty, to enjoy it and feel that it is necessary for us, is surely not merely idle gratification. The whole history of mankind shows how generation after generation of every race strives, consciously or unconsciously, to understand beauty. It is a struggle to lift ourselves into a higher plane of intelligence, to obtain in this life some dim knowledge of one of the eternal laws on which the universe is constructed, a presentiment of that Nirvana of perfect beauty of which Plato wrote, on which all the hopes of humanity are fixed.—Nineteenth Century and After, February, 1903.
The educational branch of the Indian administration has not, on the whole, been conspicuous for its successes. After many experiments and failures, it may be said to be adapting itself gradually to the peculiar and diverse conditions of the country, but it has hardly yet passed through the experimental stage, and many of the mistakes of its first organisation have yet to be remedied. For years England herself lagged far behind many European nations in educational matters, and it was only human, therefore, that Indian administrators, overburdened with all the complicated and delicate problems connected with the government of the Empire, should fail to achieve a conspicuous success in a question the mother-country had so much neglected. But there is this peculiarity about art-education in India, that whereas, in every other department of the service, profit has been derived from failures and progress evolved from mistakes, this one alone seems to be always enveloped in difficulty and doubt, without a prospect of enlightenment, and always the subject of discussions ending in the most lame and impotent conclusions. This is the more extraordinary, since in India the general conditions are altogether favourable for art progress. Ever since the dawn of history, India has been known as the nursery of art and, before the British rule was established, the artistic instincts of the people have never been suppressed. Every religious sect—Brahmin, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh or Mahomedan—have left their mark on the art of the country; all the conquering hordes, which, century after century, swept down from the North and ravaged the country, have brought art in their train and written the history of their times in masterpieces which will ever remain the admiration of the world. We have established a peace such as India has never known before Liberty of the subject, law and order, material progress, in fact, all the first conditions favourable to the development of art, among a people whose traditions and instincts are always artistic—all these we have established in the India of to-day; why is it, then, that the last half century, so far from being a great art epoch, finds Indian art year by year becoming more corrupt and degraded?
No one who knows India well can fail to see how the taste of the native aristocracy and plutocracy has been utterly vitiated; how indigenous architecture has become almost extinct; how the art handicrafts of the country are only exploited for the sake of gain by the Philistine dealer, whose standard of taste is regulated by the demands of tourists and curiosity-hunters. Indian art has fallen into such disrepute among the natives themselves that everything which does not come straight from Europe is looked upon as something inferior. The native nobility affect a taste for the Brummagem art we have introduced into the country, and a sentimental passion for spurious Old Masters supplied to them at fancy prices by unscrupulous agents and picture dealers. What remains to-day of the real, living art of India must be looked for in out of the way places, and is regarded by the natives as old fashioned and behind the times. Even the curiosity dealer finds his business not what it used to be. The not too discriminating taste of the globe-trotter is getting rather nauseated with the commonplace birc-à-brac which is palmed off upon him as Indian art, and even the glamour of the gorgeous East hardly spreads a halo of romance over the crude and tasteless ornament manufactured for the European and American market. The painful fact must be admitted, that, whatever the cause may be, since our rule has been established, the old art of India has been almost killed; the taste of the people, formerly led into safe paths by the traditions of Indian handicraftsmen, has been changed and corrupted, while we have given nothing from our own national art to compensate India for what has been lost.
This is not an exaggerated picture of the present state of art in India. The facts have been more or less fully realised by the Indian Government for some time past. The causes which have produced such a state of things have been far less perfectly understood. Generally the question has been treated more from the standpoint of a municipal council than as a matter of great imperial concern, and though it has been dealt with in innumerable despatches, resolutions, reports of committees and other documents, hardly anything but vague suggestions and rhetorical platitudes have ever come out of them. Of late years the general drift of policy has been to treat Indian art as something too abstruse and mysterious to be interfered with, even for saving it from annihilation. But as a scape-goat must always be found, when the wheels of official administration do not run smoothly, the Indian Schools of Art have most unjustly been held responsible for a state of things which they could never, under the most favourable conditions, have prevented. For how could four Schools of Art, separated from each other by many hundreds of miles and under different Administrations, which have never yet been able to decide a definite and continuous policy for the development of art education, be expected to effect a revolution in the art feeling of 350,000,000 people, or to influence, to any appreciable extent, those adverse conditions which in the nature of things must have been very deep-seated and wide-spreading to have produced such disastrous effects on the art of the whole country? Whether the Schools of Art have been as successful as they might have been is quite beside the question. Certainly, within the scope which has been allowed them and in spite of many disadvantages, they have accomplished a great deal of solid, useful work, but no reasonable being, acquainted with the real condition of things in India, would ever believe for a moment that the salvation of Indian art depended solely on the efficiency or inefficiency of the Schools of Art at present existing.
Indian art was certainly in a state of decadence before the British ascendancy, but we need hardly look for any other explanation of this than in the political unrest, internal disorganisation, disorder and misgovernment which accompanied the dissolution of the Mogul Empire. When these causes were removed, one would naturally expect that art would have revived under the benign influence of the “pax Brittanica.” No doubt there were some influences, originating with the very foundations of our Indian rule and long before we had any pretence of a policy in art education, which, the more British influence predominated, acted more and more injuriously on art in India. One of these was the circumstance that Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, the centres from which the ascendancy of our rule radiated over the whole of India, were not centres of Indian art. The early settlers of the old John Company were in no way concerned, as is the Government of India to-day, in the administration of a great Empire. They were hard-headed merchants absorbed in their own affairs, which were the development of the Company’s trade and the protection of their lands and factories. There were no reasons of State why they should concern themselves with the influence their example might have on Indian art. It pleased their national pride and kept alive home memories to retain the architectural style then fashionable in the country mansions, public offices and churches of England, and to imitate, as far as conditions of climate would permit, the life of the old country. When our influence became paramount in India, the style and standard of taste thus created in the capital cities became the model for all the native aristocracy under our protection. With the native princes it became the mark of modern culture and a sign of sympathy with the British domination to build and furnish their palaces in the same style. This was the beginning of the degradation of Indian art, for nothing more hopelessly irreconcilable with Oriental ideas of art could ever have been adopted than the cold, formal classicism then fashionable in England. It was the greatest misfortune for India that, at the time when the foundations of our Indian administration were laid, the national taste in England had sunk to the lowest depths. It was the time when Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s were being filled with those horrors in marble, intended to glorify the deeds of the great departed, which still disfigure those two noble monuments of English art; when the old art handicrafts of the country were being almost extinguished by the crushing competition of machine-made products, and when all individuality in architecture and the fine arts was drowned in a vapid affectation of classic taste.
It may be doubted, however, whether, even if art taste in England at that time had been better than it was, we should ever have arrived immediately at the right appreciation of the policy required for the development of art in India. It is one of our national prejudices that what is good enough for the Anglo-Saxon is good enough for the rest of the world, if not too good. That was the keynote of our policy in educational matters in India, as well as in many other things.
However indifferent to the true interests of the country the Honorable East India Company may have been in their artistic ideas, the old Anglo-Indian architecture had at least this merit—it was the best that England could produce at that time and, in spite of their monotony and baldness, the houses, churches and other buildings of fifty years ago and older are not without a certain grim solemnity and dignity, in keeping with the prim fashions of the time and suggestive of the character of their occupants, while the honesty of purpose of the builders is shown by the strict regard to comfort and adaptability to the climate with which all the old buildings were designed. Very few modern Anglo-Indian buildings are equal to the old ones in these respects.
Since the Crown assumed the responsibilities of imperial rule, it must be admitted that some progress has been made in art education, though very little has been done to repair the injuries unconsciously inflicted on Indian art by the early settlers of the East India Company. It is a great step gained that in educational matters generally, it is now being recognised that India is a country with an ancient civilisation, literature and art, containing within itself the means of development and requiring different methods of administration to primitive colonies like Australia, New Zealand or “Darkest Africa.” The Schools of Art have generally improved upon the crude systems of art education imported from England when they were first instituted, about 50 years ago, but Indian art on the whole still goes on the downward path. The measures which have been devised or proposed to arrest its decay amount to very little. Though Indian statesmen are always deploring the decline of native industries, it has never yet occurred to them that the degradation of popular sentiment in art may be an important factor in this great question. As long as art is regarded only as a hobby, a means of distraction from the worries of serious official duties, but not a subject of sufficient importance for the close personal attention of those who have the heavy care of Government on their shoulders, so long will Indian art continue to decay. The practical British mind looks to railways, canals, roads, bridges, famine prevention, sanitation and police, and the development of mills, factories and warehouses as the chief means of India’s regeneration. Art is a mere question of sentiment which may be left for a more convenient question. Perhaps the artists of the nineteenth century are themselves greatly to blame for the attitude which the British public has taken in regarding art as only a subject for society functions and drawing-room conversation, to be put aside in the serious work of every-day life. Art in the present century has been too much of a sham, and the general public, seeing the deception, have fallen back on pure utilitarianism, preferring honest ugliness to pretentious art. If art in England during the last quarter of a century has begun to assert itself again, to some extent, as an essential part of our national life, it is only because the better education of our artists and art workers of all classes has begun to convince the public that the elementary basis and justification of all technic art lies in the ultimate perfection of utility, and that even the highest forms of art gain in dignity from being associated with a utilitarian purpose.
Modern Indian art is corrupt and decaying, because for the ‘most part it has lost hold of the sentiment of the people of the country. It is like English art of fifty (years ago, affected and insincere. No art can ever flourish if the national sentiment is not in it. To find the causes which have led to the decay of Indian art we must, therefore, first investigate the reasons for this degradation of popular sentiment. At first thought any one who is not closely acquainted with Indian affairs might imagine that the explanation is easily to be found in the changed political conditions of the country. It might be argued plausibly that, as the art of every country has its periods of rise and decay, so India under the domination of the practical and unsentimental Anglo-Saxon now turns its attention to purely industrial pursuits and looks less to the imaginative and spiritual side of life. Against this argument we have the indisputable facts, which Indian statesmen are always deploring, that the proportion of the artisan to the rest of the population is either stationary or steadily diminishing, and that the native capitalist is even now very shy of any industrial undertaking, preferring to invest his money in landed property or in usury. Further more Indian art in all times before the British rule has always shown a wonderful power of assimilating foreign influences, whether drawn from Europe or Asia. What then is the reason for the apparent blighting influence of the last fifty years on the art of India?
The history of the art of every country is contained in the history of its architecture, at least in countries where architecture has reached the dignity of an art. Every national movement in art has first formed expression in building. A decline in architecture means a decline in national taste, and thus when architecture decays the rest of the arts suffer with it. The general truth of this proposition every student of art will admit. Architecture has given birth to all the arts of the painter and sculptor, the carver and inlayer of wood and stone, the glass painter, the plasterer, the gesso, or lacquer worker, and other minor arts, while it has exercised an enormous influence on the development of other arts, such as those of the weaver, potter and workers in iron, bronze, brass and other metals
When, therefore, we begin to enquire into the causes of the decay of Indian art, the first and most important question to be asked is—how has British rule affected the architecture of the country? The answer to this question is the key to the whole difficulty. It is astonishing that in all the official enquiries which have been held this point has been hardly alluded to. Committees and Commissions innumerable have been appointed to enquire into mere side issues, such as the working of the Schools of Art, and for some years past the whole discussion has been centred upon the merits or demerits of these four institutions. It is not surprising therefore that such beating about the bush has ended in nothing save an accumulation of paper in Government offices. The Secretary of State, in despair, once proposed to abolish the schools altogether, or, what would have been worse, to place them under municipal control, thus practically washing his hands of the whole affair and leaving Indian art severely alone.
It, has been pointed out above how, even in the early days of the John Company, Anglo-Indian taste or want of taste in architecture had set an evil influence over Indian art. But the evil was perpetuated and intensified a hundredfold when, on the formation of the Department of Public Works, the Government instituted what was practically a monopoly of the whole civil architecture of the country. That in itself might have done no harm if those who organised the Department had reflected that by this monopoly the Government practically took into their own hands the future of Indian art. But so little were the interests of art understood or cared for, so little were Indian administrators then concerned with the most obvious teachings of art history, that in organising the department practically no provision was made for training any of its officers as architects. Architecture, in the Indian Public Works system, has always been treated as a minor branch of Civil Engineering; it could not be otherwise in a course of training, only of 3 or 4 years’ duration, combining both engineering and architecture. Indian styles are not recognised as architecture at all. Even in European styles the mere smattering of architectural grammar, such as committing to memory the five classic orders and the forms of Gothic mouldings, which is the most the Public Works officer acquires at College, is worse than useless to him, for it leads him off the path he ought to go when he comes to India. The inevitable result of this system of training is that minor architectural works, which the young officer has to supervise when he first comes to India, are regulated by a sealed-pattern, machine-made, departmental style, which has been evolved out of a long series of departmental mistakes, leaving as little as possible to the discretion or indiscretion of the officer. The more important architectural works, such as are found in the large towns, are handed over to any senior engineer, either one who has had special opportunities or has shown a predilection for architectural design, improved and developed by a course of experimenting on Government buildings. The horrors which have been perpetrated in the name of architecture under this happy-go-lucky system it is needless to particularise. They offend the eye and haunt the imagination in every station of India from Simla, Calcutta and Bombay down to the smallest mofussil town. Of course, there have been exceptional men, self-taught, architecturally speaking, who have overcome the disadvantages and difficulties in which they are placed by the departmental system, but even these, as a rule, have only striven to excel in architectural design as it was understood in England before the present revival in art began, and have failed entirely to appreciate the immense resources, now going to waste, which India places in the hands of architects and designers who know and are willing to make use of them.
It is no disparagement of the splendid and devoted services done for India by the Public Works engineers in their own special branch to say that this treatment of the noblest of all the arts is unworthy of England’s reputation as a great civilising power, and unworthy of the great mission she has set herself to achieve in India. It is the ruin of Indian art and a source of great material loss to the country, which can and should be avoided. We give with one hand and take away with the other. We build splendid railways, roads and bridges, we dig canals and irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres, prevent famines or strive to alleviate suffering when they occur, but on the other hand we corrupt the artistic sentiment of the people, and by so doing cause the ruin of the ancient handicrafts which have always been the pride of India. Fortunately for art, in some parts of India, notably in Rajputana, Central India and the Punjab, the natives have shown themselves more independent and less imitative of European fashions than in Bengal, Madras and other more modernised provinces. Generally speaking, with the “educated” or English speaking natives, art is not an individual feeling—it is merely a fashion, and when the fashion they imitate is only that set by the Public Works engineers, it is easy to understand that the hopes of raising the standard of their taste are not promising.
Most of the Princes and rich men of India, when they require a new palace or mansion, requisition the services of a Public Works officer, who designs a pretentious edifice in the Anglo-Indian style. So instead of affording occupation to a small army of the hereditary art workmen of India—wood carvers, stone carvers, fresco painters, inlayers of wood and stone, potters and others innumerable—each of these buildings is handed over to a set of workmen trained in the traditions of the Public Works Department to copy mechanically from working drawings things without beauty, and to pile up a mass of brick or stone, without any sort of artistic expression, testifying only in size and empty display to the vanity of its occupier. The furnishing of the building must follow the same style; the walls must be hung with European pictures and the rooms upholstered with European carpets and furniture by the most fashionable European firms. This is typical of what has been going on ever since our rule was established in India. Is it a wonder that Indian art decays, and that the old handicraftsmen are driven to agriculture for an occupation? The whole system strikes at the very foundation of art, and unless it is altered the entire ruin of Indian art is inevitable.
Some people suppose, when they see the considerable trade in bric-à-brac and so-called curiosities, which has resulted from the Great International Exhibitions in Europe and America, that Indian art has found a new market abroad to compensate for the loss of the old one at home. Bat can any one imagine for a moment that arts which have been created by the spontaneous sentiment of a people, finding its first and chief expression in architecture, can ever thrive and develop by the manufacture of cheap curiosities for foreign export?
The first condition for the healthy development of art is its sincerity. Sincerity, as Lord Leighton said at the first meeting of the Society for the Encouragement and Preservation of Indian art in 1891, is the true element of life in art. In these Indian curiosities there is no sincerity; for the workmen who manufacture them on contract they have no meaning; nor the purchasers they are only curiosities. Those who have been able to compare the standard of design and workmanship in all branches of Indian art exhibited at the great Exhibition of 1851, with recent exhibitions know well how great the falling off has been. Quite apart from any question of artistic merit or sentiment, the new export markets which have been opened for the Indian workman are not a hundredth part of the home market which has been for the most part closed to him. It is futile to argue that the splendid engineering works of the Public Works Department more than compensate for the injuries done to Indian art. That is quite beside the question. The fault is that we impose upon the Public Works engineers a double responsibility and only train them for a single one.
It is necessary to point out why, from an artistic point of view, the preservation of the living styles of Indian architecture is necessary for the preservation of a healthy and vigorous life in Indian art. Many of the art workmen of India who have not been driven to agriculture for a livelihood, or have not been converted into ignorant copyists of Public Works patterns, exist chiefly by the manufacture of bric-à-brac for the European market. Let us consider for a moment the conditions under which they work. They make tea tables, tea trays and table covers, chairs, brackets, vases and “curiosities,” on contract with the dealers in such wares. The dealers care nothing for the artistic excellence of what they sell; whatever will catch the popular taste is to them the most desirable, and it is hardly necessary to say that the contract system as worked by them is not conducive to high artistic effort. The workmen are mere drudges; their commercial instincts and not their artistic faculties are developed by the work they are compelled to do. How different it was when the architecture which created their art afforded it nourishment and support. They worked in a congenial atmosphere and were continually spurred to higher efforts by a spirit of artistic emulation. Their work was not something which was shipped off to Europe and never seen again. If a man did a fine piece of carving it was discussed and criticised by his fellow-workmen, it became the talk of the bazaar and one of the sights of the town, and remained for succeeding generations to admire and imitate. If a private house or palace was to be decorated the owner took a personal interest in the work and encouraged the workmen, for he felt a pride in the adornment of his home and the home of his family. An exact illustration is given in a report by Mr. J. L. Kipling on the Punjab Exhibition of 1881-82. He says:—“In building a house, for example, the work people are all paid wages more or less regularly, but for any extra spurt or during the execution of delicate or difficult details they are often liberally treated with sweetmeats, tobacco, sharbat, etc. In some districts when a carpenter has made a carven chaukut for door or window he takes a holiday to exhibit it, and spreading a sheet on the ground lays it down in front of the house it is to adorn, and sits there to receive the congratulations and gifts of his admiring townsmen. As much as Rs. 100 have in one day, been thrown to the carver of a particularly good piece of work.” By such means the artistic sense both of the people and of the workmen was kept alive. The present Public Works system dries up the springs of artistic sentiment and checks their flow at the very source. It does not require a very strong imagination to understand that the one system develops the artistic sense of the people and creates a class of good art workmen, and the other turns all artisans into mechanical drudges.
The question often arises—is it not an artistic anomaly to introduce Indian styles into European purposes, in the semi-European cities of India? This is one of those peculiar archæological scruples of the modern art critic which artists and architects of all periods previous to the nineteenth century have resolutely ignored, and surely the artistic and architectural achievements of the nineteenth century are not so great as to justify it in setting up any new canons or principles of taste. One of the most striking characteristics of a healthy and vigorous style of art or architecture has always been its readiness, even anxiety to adopt and assimilate new ideas, and perhaps nothing is more characteristic of the weakness and degeneracy of modern European building styles than the perpetual anxiety of architects over historical correctness. The Renaissance style, which is the style most affected by Anglo-Indians, is in itself a remarkable instance of the contempt with which all the great architects have treated the archæological scruples which so trouble the minds of modern critics, for what more glaring anomaly could be imagined than to take the style of pagan Roman and Greek temples as a model for the Christian churches and palaces of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? If art criticism in those days had taken the lines which we generally follow now, the Renaissance style would never have been created. For my part I cannot see why it should be less appropriate to adapt living Indian styles of architecture to our requirements in India than to make a Bombay railway station a grotesque imitation of a Gothic cathedral, or to take Italian palaces as models for the public buildings of Calcutta.
There are many who, while admitting the deficiencies of the present system, argue that this system has been forced upon us by economical necessities. Half a loaf, they say, is better than no bread: the Public Works Department has given India more than half the loaf, The state cannot afford to employ all these art handicraftsmen in its public works; the country wants plain, economical court houses, hospitals, post offices, police stations and similar works of utility, in which there is no room for art. That art in India cannot be reconciled with economy is the fault of the Public Works Department, not of art. “Ugly is only half way to a thing,” says Meredith’s “Old Buccaneer” in one of his wise maxims. The Indian Public Works Department believes the other half unattainable because it does not know how to get it. The engineer, as a rule, regards art as synonymous with ornament, to be added more or less lavishly, according to the means at his disposal, when he has finished with his engineering. He has no knowledge of constructive design in architecture, or believes it to be only a matter of calculation, like the thickness of an iron girder. But if the untrained peasant in Italy, and many other parts of the world, can evolve from his inner consciousness, in the infrequent intervals of repose from the labours of cultivation, a style of architecture at once practical, economical, comfortable and pleasing to the eye, into which no vestige of ornament enters, it ought not to be impossible in India to adapt architectural design to the capacity of the public purse. For in India there still exists, unrecognised by the Public Works Department, a class of native workmen, passing rich on fifteen rupees a month, who are at the same time most skilful builders, decorators and architects. These men are exactly of the same class as the master-builders of the middle ages, to whom we owe the great masterpieces of Gothic architecture; they inherit all the traditions of Indian architecture, they can draw, design, build, carve and decorate, in good taste and with understanding of constructive principles, but they know nothing of Public Works formulae and therefore are held of no account. All this artistic and architectural wealth goes to waste in India because the Public Works Department does not know how to make use of it.
There have been one or two distinguished exceptions of men, like Colonel Jacob at Jeypore, with artistic instincts which have revolted against departmental traditions, who have, by a study and practice of native architecture, done splendid services to Indian art, but individuals do not count, for much in India against the established rules of a great Government department. The ordinary Public Works officer ignores altogether the art of the country, and borrows his art and architecture from European professional periodicals, trade catalogues or illustrated works. A typical example will show the injustice done to Indian art in this way. Not many years ago, a number of important buildings were being erected in Calcutta, and for their external decoration terra-cotta to the value of a lakh of rupees was obtained from England. This terracotta was not of exceptional artistic merit, to set an example to the Bengalee artisan, but the ordinary commercial ornament which is sold by the square yard by European manufacturers. Now Bengal is a great brick-making country, and there once existed a beautiful art in moulded brick-work, still to be seen in old buildings in many parts of the Province. If a lakh of rupees had been spent in reviving this decayed art, public buildings in Calcutta would have hud far better ornament and an old industry might have been revived.
In the same way, through the influence of Anglo-Indian taste, the old process of fresco decoration, in which some of the finest examples of Indian art have been executed during the last 1,000 years, will soon be a lost art, replaced by less sanitary, less durable, and less artistic European wall-papers and hangings. For adapting architectural design to local art it only requires officers with a proper architectural and artistic training. Which is the most economical and statesmanlike policy, to continue to crush out the artistic sentiment of a people by a badly thought out system of department organisation, or to reform that system so as to allow Indian art and industry the scope it had in former times?
What reforms are needed? First, it must be the declared policy of the different Governments to adopt indigenous styles of architecture, as far as possible, in all public buildings. Only to employ professional architects in place of Public Works engineers would not meet the case at all. That has been tried occasionally, and has failed simply because the ordinary European architect in India is too much prejudiced by the pedantries of modern European eclectic architecture to strike out a new path by devoting himself to a study of living Oriental styles. Neither would an improved style of European architecture benefit Indian art, because the average Indian, like the average European, is quite incapable of distinguishing good architecture from bad. What is wanted is a revival of Indian architecture to give an outlet for the hereditary art instincts of Indian handicraftsmen. Oriental architecture should be made a special branch of the Public Works Department. We have established in India schools of medicine, law, agriculture, forestry, engineering and art; why not also architecture? If it were notified that special advantage in pay and promotion would be given to officers of the Public Works Department possessing a diploma in both engineering and architecture, competition for Government appointments is so keen in India that there would be no lack of students. To afford facilities for study, and as a means of instructing the public, museums of architecture should be established in connection with the Colleges of Engineering. The example public buildings might then present would be of far more value to India than the actual monetary aid given to native art in the building of them. When once the native Princes and aristocracy saw that the seal and sign of official approval had.been set on Indian architecture, an immense step would be gained. The native mistri, or hereditary master-builder, would find that his services were once more sought after; every rich man’s mansion or Rajah’s palace which was built would afford employment for hundreds of Indian art workmen; art industry restored to its legitimate place would lift up its head again, and art as a whole would prosper and develop, because its foundations rested, not on an obsequious imitation of official styles and fashions, but on the artistic instincts of the people. Art education in India would then at last stand on a firm and rational basis.
It is not to be expected that this consummation would be reached immediately. The mistakes of fifty years cannot be put right in a day, nor is it practicable to pull down and rebuild all the official edifices in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, which tend to mislead native taste in architecture. But every student of art history, indeed every man of any artistic knowledge, must admit that Indian art would gain more by the restoration of indigenous architecture to its proper position than by any other possible administrative reform. There have no doubt been other and quite different causes which have led to the decay of particular art industries, especially the great weaving industry, but the gradual extinction of native architecture is the great avoidable cause of the degeneration of Indian art. Schools of Art may be developed, art museums may be established, exhibitions may be subsidised, Indian art may be advertised in Europe and America, these are merely as props to a fabric whose foundations are crumbling away.
From a political standpoint it is not a small thing that the artistic sentiment of the Indian peoples is being extinguished under our rule. A people devoted to art are a happy and contented people. A people without art are restless and unhappy. Mrs. Besant in her crusade for promoting religious education among the Hindus has received official countenance and support, because Indian statesmen recognise that the decline of religious belief is a danger to the Empire. The decay of art sentiment is also a danger, for art, if not a part of religion, is a door leading to it. From a commercial standpoint India suffers a heavy loss by the ruin of her art industries. Every ruler who has earned from posterity the title of Great or Wise has spent the resources of the state in encouraging the industrial arts, and money so spent has been well invested, for many states have risen to prosperity and power through the skill of their art handicraftsmen. Art in India, though corrupt and decaying, is still more a part of national life than it is in any European country to-day. Is it not a duty we owe India to preserve for her, while we can, what remains of a splendid inheritance?—Calcutta Review, January, 1901.