IT may, perhaps, be considered inconsistent of one, who like myself is continually bewailing the decay of Indian art, to say that conditions for an artistic revival are much more favourable in India than they are in Europe. It is true that in India there are no Royal Academies, few Schools of Art and Museums, and that art is more or less ignored in the whole educational system. But it is equally true that art in India has even now a much greater hold upon national life than it has in England, and that those conditions which all serious art and social reformers in Europe are now trying to revive conditions which had always existed in every great art epoch in the West as well as in the East are still surviving in India to a much larger extent than they are in any European country at the present time. These are conditions which make art a part of life and work, not merely an amusement and a luxury; and without such conditions, art may justly be regarded with indifference by all who have to deal with the serious affairs of life.
It is not true that because in Europe many wonderful inventions of machinery (and many very foolish ones) have been made, that these conditions have been fundamentally altered, that art is revolutionised and has to surrender to the dictates of modern scientific ideas. But it is just as foolish for the artist to ignore modern science as it is for the scientist to ignore Indian art. All knowledge is given to man for its proper use, and there is no antagonism between real science and real art. Dr. Coomaraswamy says:
The machine has come to stay and, rightly used, may be transformed from a curse into a blessing. The problem is not how to abolish machinery, but how so to regulate it that it shall serve without enslaving man; how to stop competition between machine and hand-work, by defining and delimiting intelligently the proper spheres of each. The community cannot afford to dispense with the intellectual and imaginative forces, the educational and ethical factors, which go with the existence of skilled craftsmen and small workshops.
The greatest mistake that Anglo-Indian administrators have made is in ignoring these educational and ethical factors. If the sole duty of the Indian Government in relation to art and industry lies in the ideal put forward by Professor Lees Smith, the commercial expert to make India take its place among the great industrial nations of the world then there would be nothing wrong in ignoring, as Anglo-Indian administrators have always ignored, the educational and ethical factors represented by the existence of ten million Indian hereditary craftsmen. It is doubtless the easier way for Indians to throw aside all their artistic traditions as obsolete, to accept blindly the teaching of European commercial experts, to multiply factories and to join in the mad scramble for markets which Europe calls civilisation. But is this the ideal which will satisfy the Swadeshi reformer who is proud of India’s past traditions, and of the intellectual and spiritual heritage which has been bequeathed to him? Is it the ideal of the nationalist who aims at achieving India’s political freedom? Will India be freer, happier and wiser when, instead of lacs of village craftsmen, it has crores of millowners, mill-hands and shopkeepers, when the sound of the Swadeshi gramophone is heard in every village, when every town has its Swadeshi cotton-mills and shoddy-mills and also the Swadeshi music-halls and gin-palaces which are the inevitable accompaniments of these symbols of civilisation among the great industrial nations of Europe? If this be their Ideal, then Heaven save India from Swadeshi reformers!
You may say that this is not your ideal; but that, in present circumstances, it is necessary to compromise; that India is a poor country, and we must find the shortest and quickest way to provide subsistence for its poverty-stricken population that is precisely the attitude of the Anglo-Indian who can only appreciate art in terms of rupees, annas and pies; not for an Indian who calls himself a Swadeshi reformer. It is an utterly false and insincere position. You cannot serve two masters you must choose between God and Mammon. I do not mean by this that India is doomed to remain poverty-stricken while Europe waxes fatter and more prosperous, that her people must renounce all prospects of worldly wealth for the intellectual and spiritual life, but that the only sure way to national prosperity lies in clinging always to the highest intellectual and moral ideals. No nation has ever grown to greatness by compromising. India has sunk in the scale of nations because she has been false to her highest ideals, and India will only rise again when she holds up for herself and for humanity higher ones than modern Europe now brings her.
Those Swadeshi reformers who welcome the spread of European commercialism in India as a sign of India’s coming regeneration, must be completely blind to its ultimate effects. Nowhere in India not even in the direst time of famine and pestilence is there such utter depravity, such hopeless physical, moral and spiritual degradation as that which exists in the great commercial cities of Europe, and directly brought about by modern industrial methods. When one takes into account the life of those who are only struggling to become rich, and the misery caused by the methods of modern commercialism, it is folly to suppose that India will find the remedy for her present suffering in becoming a competitor with western nations for the markets of the world. India can and no doubt will eventually regain her place among the great industrial nations, but if Swadeshi reformers wish to spare her industrial population the cruel experience of the nineteenth century in Europe, they must evolve a better system than that which many of them are attempting now to reproduce.
All the efforts of artistic and industrial reformers in Europe have been for many years directed towards the working out of a better system than that which is so foolishly held up as a pattern for India to follow. The results have not hitherto been so striking as to compel the attention of the man in the street, but nevertheless they afford the best object lesson for the Swadeshi reformer which European art and science can give him. It cannot be too often impressed upon Indian reformers, whose experience of Europe dates from thirty or forty years ago, that what we call progress in Europe now is something quite different to the ideas prevalent at that time. Anyone who attempts to follow the more recent developments of art and industry in Europe cannot fail to be impressed by the fact that the very methods which scientific and technical experts in India so often condemn as obsolete and useless, are just the methods to which the greatest attention is devoted here. Europe, in fact, has been for years deeply engaged in exploiting the knowledge of Indian handicraftsmen for the benefit of her own industries, while Indian industrial reformers as well as Anglo-Indian administrators can only think of importing from Europe those mechanical processes which kill all art in industry.
I will give an example which will apply particularly to the Madras Presidency, for it relates to an industry which was formerly a very great one there. Some years ago I had an official correspondence with some industrial experts in Holland who desired information regarding the Indian processes of dye-painting on silk and cotton cloth, analogous to those which are still practised by the native art workmen in the Dutch colony of Java. Subsequently, I learnt that a Dutch expert was sent out to India and Java to collect information on the spot. Recently, while on a visit to Holland, I observed the results of all this activity in the development of a new Dutch industry at Haarlem and elsewhere: very artistic hand-painted handkerchiefs, neckties, screen-cloths, etc., were being made by the old Indian and Javanese processes, which were followed in every detail even the apparatus for the waxing process had been imported from Java. Later on, I discovered that the same processes were being adopted in technical schools in Germany and Italy. But in London I have been told by a well-known Madrasi merchant that he was quite unable to get what he wanted, Masulipatam hand-dyed cloths made by exactly the same processes, to meet the demand in Europe. He could easily take, he told me, Rs. 20,000 worth more, annually, if the workmen would only improve not their process but the artistic quality of their work, which had so much degenerated in the last fifty years.
Now I have often heard scientific experts in India, who believe themselves very much up-to-date in educational methods, condemn these same processes as stupid and old-fashioned, and advise the importation of European machinery as the only means of reviving this once flourishing Indian industry. But the fact that a scientific country like Germany interests itself in introducing these obsolete processes into her technical schools, ought to convince them that there are still possibilities in Indian handicraft which they have overlooked.
The moral I wish to draw is not that India is neglecting opportunities for developing export trade to Europe, but that she. is allowing the most valuable industrial asset she possesses the skill of her handicraftsmen to degenerate, while European countries are spending great sums in endeavouring to regain that skill in handicraft which the abuse of mechanical appliances inevitably destroys.
What Europe is trying to regain by a costly system of industrial schools, India still possesses; for India is even now a great industrial country and possesses traditional schools of handicraft in every village workshop.
It is of vital importance for India to retain all this accumulated skill of hand and eye; the problem for India is how to use labour-saving appliances not as a substitute for, but as an auxiliary to handicraft so that handicraft may be developed instead of being crushed out by the inventions of modern science. India will be the loser in every way if the further introduction of European inventions completes the destruction of her traditional handicraft; for India will then have to begin, as Europe has now begun, by a costly and tedious process, to recover that skill in handicraft which is just as essential to the progress of humanity as the development of mechanical science.
Before we can come to a rational conclusion as to what will be likely to improve the condition of Indian art and industry, we must thoroughly investigate the reasons which have led to their present state of stagnation and degeneration. The reasons are of various kinds, moral, intellectual and practical; but of these the moral and intellectual are very much the most important. India has lost self-respect and self-reliance; pride in her own artistic culture and faith in her spiritual mission. She hankers after the fleshpots of Egypt, and barters her birthright for a mess of pottage. Her young men, trained in Anglo-Indian schools and colleges, go to Europe with their artistic powers totally undeveloped, and, mostly in the squalid atmosphere of London boarding houses, obtain there a superficial knowledge of art, regarded only as a society amusement, not as the foundation of good living. They remain in total ignorance of those deeper undercurrents of artistic thought which make for true progress in Europe. They come back to India steeped in the decadent ideas of European materialism; with judgment warped and taste perverted, they are unable to understand either European art or Indian, and their only anxiety is to be considered fashionable and up-to-date. The fashions they follow are the fashions of decadent Europe the common commercial art of the European shopkeeper. Art for them is even less real than it is for ordinary European society; it brings no beauty into their lives, and has no spiritual influence on their souls. Yet they have been the leaders of Indian artistic thought and in their hands lies the future of Indian art.
When, therefore, yon ask me what can be done for Indian art I must tell you first you must learn to know what art is; and unless you know your own art all that it has been for India, and all that it means you will never know any art. Leave off asking Government to revive your art and industries: all that is worth having you must and can do for yourselves; and when you have achieved all that you can do, no Government would refuse to grant you the political rights you desire, for the development of your artistic faculties will give back to India the creative force her people have lost. It will infuse into all your undertakings the practical sense and power of organisation which are now so often wanting.
But you cannot know art truly by books or by any written word. All that I or any one else, can do for you is to advise you what are true artistic principles and what are false, and leave you to work out your own salvation; for men’s creative powers of thought are only developed by thought and work, not by learning words by heart. Ruskin says: “ The arts, as regards teachableness, differ from the sciences in this, that their power is founded not merely on facts which can be communicated, but on dispositions which require to be created.” That disposition of thought which creates great art does not come by reasoning, but by intuition by the power of the Spirit. All who love India must pray that the new spirit of which we hear so much may be that which inspires true art. If it be so, Indian art will become even greater and stronger than it ever was; for Indian art is not yet a withered tree. Its roots are still alive and healthy, and if those who care for it learn to do their duty to India, the sap may again be made to flow vigorously through its branches; the tree will revive and put forth its leaves and flowers with greater abundance than before.
Learn to know your own art before you seek to know what Europe thinks and does; let your own artists and craftsmen those who have not forsaken the traditions of Indian art be your artistic gurus, and when you have learnt all that they can teach you, you will find much that has been forgotten in your ancient literature and ancient monuments which will help both you and them to understand it better: for even your artists and craftsmen have much to learn of their own art. Their traditions are often corrupted, and you must go back to the purer sources of Sanskrit learning to really understand what they mean.
One of the characteristics of the true artistic spirit is that it makes those whom it inspires take delight in sharing with others the pleasure which art gives them. When you feel deeply that some thing is beautiful, you instinctively ask your neighbour to come and see it, and try to create in him the sense of the beauty you feel yourself, for the fellow-feeling in him adds to your own delight. The artistic spirit therefore is essentially a sociable one, and helps to develop the civic consciousness; and as I have said before, an art which is truly great strikes deep down into national life and has its roots in elemental ideas of order, decency and cleanliness. If therefore the new spirit is truly artistic, I should expect to find it manifesting itself not only in a desire to learn the meaning of Indian art, and what it has been in the past, but in the earnest endeavour to make others feel what art means and to share the gladness it brings with your fellow-creatures. A great art can only flourish when the people are glad, when they rejoice in their strength and can feel the beauty of life. And before India can feel glad again, the spirit of self-indulgence and distrust must give way to the spirit of mutual love and helpfulness; the people must set to work to put their houses in order, to help to cleanse their towns and villages and free the country from the curse . of plague and malaria, to plant again the sacred trees as your religion bids you to do, and to purify and restore the tanks and wells which have been polluted or have fallen into decay. Art must become a part of your life and religion, as it has been before; and in this work European science can give you help but that science must be made Indian, and a part of Indian religion, before it can fulfil its artistic purpose and make the people glad. Working towards this end science and art become one, for both will be inspired by an expression of that divine love which is the source of our being and the motive power of the Universe.