BEFORE entering upon practical details, I want to make clear my position on the theory of art, and I would ask my readers always to keep this clearly in mind. In the present age, artistic principles are often confused by the use of worn out shibboleths, and artistic practice falsified by the application of empiric prescriptions. Nowhere does art suffer more from charlatanism than in India. Let me give some illustrations of false art. There is no respect for art in the millionaire who invests his surplus wealth in pictures and the costliest furniture so that his taste may be admired, or his wealth envied, by his poorer brethren. There is none in the man who decorates his house in a style archæologically correct, or dresses himself in the latest foreign fashion, so that he may be considered ‘up-to-date’ by his fellows. There is none in the engineer who having made some hideous construction seeks to beautify it by covering it with meaningless ornament. But there is true art instinct in the humble peasant who takes the choicest flowers he can find and with patience and skill weaves them into a garland for the village shrine. And so there is in the craftsman or labourer who, rejoicing in the cunning of his hand and with no thought of extra profit for himself, puts into his work the best that his knowledge and skill can produce.
Art is not meant to be a speciality reserved for the enjoyment of the rich, nor is its scope restricted to the special walks in life to which the artist and art workman devote themselves. Neither are the perception and realisation of art only intended, as is so often supposed, to add to the pleasures of life. This is the mistaken idea of the ascetic, or puritan, who condemns music and the higher forms of artistic effort, as an unworthy indulgence of the senses. Art, properly employed, is, as the great Akbar said, an aid to the understanding of the divine nature; its proper use is to fulfil the divine purpose in the intellectual and spiritual evolution of the perfect human state. Every faculty and every sense may be put to immoral uses. The artistic faculty is often abused; therefore it is important to understand the right use of art, not to stand aloof from it and regard it as irreligious.
Another equally mistaken notion is that which regards the artistic faculty as a peculiar one which is outside the scope of general education. So far from this being the case, it is the essential quality which distinguishes good education, from bad. Art is a universal faculty. It is the ideal, or creative sense, which leads to the highest achievements in every walk of life. If this higher faculty is neglected, as is often the case in modem bookish education, the so-called educated man tends to become an intellectual automaton which can only record the mental impressions of school and university life, and is quite incapable of helping forward humanity by adding to the sum of human knowledge and experience, as every educated man should do.
It is because the Anglo-Indian educational system has no ideal, beyond that of imparting to Indian students the intellectual impressions of Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen and London, that it has failed to stimulate a real intellectual life in Indian Universities. I think, therefore, that the Government would be well-advised to encourage to the utmost the movement for a national scheme of education which has been lately started in Bengal; but the leaders of this movement, in taking this great responsibility upon their shoulders, should beware lest they fall into the same pit as those who have directed the official system for the last fifty years. They may hold up a higher ideal in endeavouring to create an educational system more closely related to Indian life than that of modern Indian Universities, but in the understanding of the educational uses of art, and in the appreciation of the vast importance for India of keeping alive its old artistic traditions, I have not noticed that this embryonic scheme of national education as yet shows signs of being superior to the Anglo-Indian one.
Art in relation to industry, or the practical concerns of life, is the influence which ennobles human labour and helps us to realise the identity of the laws of man’s living with those of the universal life. For, the harmony which art, justly applied, brings into human life, is truly an echo of that eternal harmony which sustains the universe. Reduced to abstract terms, art applied to industrial purposes may be represented by the triple combination or formula. Fitness—Beauty, or Rhythm—Love, or Worship. Fitness for the use to which a thing is to be applied; Beauty growing spontaneously from the perfect fitness (for man does not live by bread alone); Love, the source of highest inspiration, proceeding from the understanding of the identity of a perfect life with the perfect harmony of divine laws.
In every age and every part of the world, when the progress of national development has reached its highest point, intellectually and spiritually, art combines all three qualities and the absence of any one of them is a symptom of the degradation of art and of national character. An art which is produced entirely by machinery, as much of the art of the present day is produced, must obviously lack the quality of love, which no machine can feel; and art thereby becomes a sham and make-believe. Bat even in an age of great artistic achievement, like that of the Italian Renaissance, one can detect the signs of coming degeneration in the divorce of art from utility and from religion. Then art was produced, not for love and worship, but to gratify a passion for show and pleasure. The decadence quickly followed, and European art has hardly yet begun to regain its ennobling influence on national life. The splendid art of the Mogul period in India is a parallel instance. The high purpose of art was then also debased for the pleasure and distraction of the Court. There is love and beauty to be found in that art, but not the universal love; only a selfish and personal kind of love. Here is one of the chief clues to the degeneration which is visible in modem Indian art.
An art which is truly great strikes deep down into national life, and permeates the whole national character. It does not appear only at Court shows and festivals. Art has its real beginnings in elemental ideas of cleanliness, decency, and order. It is only in a corrupt and effete state of society that artistic ideas are associated with dilapidation, dirt and inutility. If social reformers in India would realise this, they would understand that their best hopes lie in a true renaissance of art in India, for the highest art is the art of good living.