THE stagnation of the creative faculties which is the root-cause of the decline of Indian art and industry is, as I have suggested, not only due to the limitation of foreign fashions and taste by the English-educated classes in India, though the same tendency in modem times has operated to the detriment of indigenous art and handicrafts in all Asiatic countries, and has affected all classes of people. The administrative system in India, more especially that of Public Works, has aggravated the evil greatly by ignoring indigenous art, but even this is only a contributory cause, not the paramount one. The fact that Public Works and other European fashions have had such a bad influence upon Indian art is only one of the symptoms of the disease, not the root-cause of it. And the rude shock which contact with western materialism has given to Indian thought and Indian institutions may, in the end, prove the salvation of Indian art by helping it to slough off all the evil influences which have been sapping its vitality for several centuries.
But the only way this can be brought about lies in giving back to Indian art its old place in Indian life and Indian religion: in adapting it to the new conditions and the new mode of life. Art must always be moving with the times, for real art is the expression of the thought of the times. There is no finality in art in any age; it always needs the stimulus of new ideas to keep it healthy, just as the human body constantly requires fresh blood to be moving in the veins. An art which becomes merely imitative, instead of creative, necessarily decays because it lacks the stimulus of new thought. Indian art must be stimulated with new thought; but this cannot take place as long as educated India is content to be merely imitative.
Anglo-Indian education being merely imitative, cannot be of any use to Indian art. The fact that Indian art has been entirely ignored in the Anglo-Indian scheme of education has tended to hasten its decay only, because it has on that account led English-educated Indians to regard it with indifference or contempt. But even this neglect of art by the Universities may, in the end, prove an advantage by keeping Indian artists and craftsmen from being as much Anglicised and imitative as the Indians who have joined the literary, legal or scientific professions —provided that the awakening of the national consciousness which is now taking place makes India realise, before it is too late, all that she has to lose by the obliteration of her old artistic traditions.
It would be a fatal error to assume that Indian art traditions are now too old and worn out to be capable of adaptation to modern life and ways of thought. That would be a confession of intellectual and moral ineptitude which a self-respecting Indian should be ashamed to make. India has before experienced intellectual, political and social changes as great as those which have been brought about by the advent of western ideas and western Government. Indian art has never failed before to adapt itself to new conditions and even to acquire fresh vigour by the change of ideas; and India stands now in a better position than any European country for reconciling modern scientific ideas with ancient or modem art. The tendencies which have injured Indian art are those which must ultimately destroy all art, eastern or western; for they only go to substitute a sham art for a real one. If India, instead of merely imitating modern Europe, would set up for herself that higher ideal of science and art towards which the best thought of Europe is aiming, she would value her old artistic traditions far too highly to wish to throw them away.
Granted that in some ways Indian art has lost touch with modem life—the task which Indian reformers have to undertake is to teach their own artists and craftsmen to adapt their art to the new conditions… Take, for instance, the matter of dress—it may be that the old Indian costumes are not always suitable for modem Indian modes of life, but is that a reason why educated Indians should substitute for it the most unbecoming and undignified costumes which Europeans have ever adopted? Are Indians really incapable of evolving a becoming and dignified dress, which shall be distinctively Indian, and at the same time suitable for modem ways of life? I am addressing myself more especially to the younger generation in this matter; for it is easy to understand that habits of life which have the sanction of several generations are not easily thrown aside even for the sake of a higher ideal, by those who are advanced in years. No Indian young man who acts up to Swaḍeshi principles should ever appear in any other than a distinctively Indian dress, at least as long as he is on Indian soil. It is to the younger generation that we must look for the active stimulus which Indian art is in want of; though their elders may do much by their sympathy and encouragement.
In a thoughtful article on ‘The Artistic Aspects of Dress’ published in the Ceylon National Review for January, 1907, Mr. Henry Holiday says:
In making a plea for greater beauty in our dress, I am pleading really for a greater spiritual beauty in our lives. As I have already said, we cannot separate Spirit from matter. A mind perpetually fed upon squalid forms, and gloomy, or gaudy colour, is a less beautiful mind than one that has been healthily nourished. Happily, we all have one antidote to the too-prevailing poison—we have Nature, we have blue sky, green trees and many coloured flowers. Our aim then must be to carry this beauty which surrounds us in Nature into our personal relations. Matter acts upon Spirit, and Spirit upon matter. A weary or diseased body will render the mind feeble and morbid; anxiety and failure tell upon our physical capacities. In like manner we cannot separate our inner life from its external manifestations. A low aim, a life spent in struggle for gain, will betray itself in an unlovely outside, and the cheerless, sunless surroundings with which we environ ourselves, will in their turn re-act upon our spirits and tend to remove us still further from healthy thought and emotions.
The West has done much that is noble. Its plastic arts, its music, its poetry and other literature stand at a very high level. Its science also has advanced in the last century as it never advanced before, but unfortunately its applied science, its mechanical progress, has been seized upon by money-makers and devoted to sordid ends, and before the baneful energy of this greedy horde the arts of daily life have gone down, giving place to gloom, monotony, clumsy formlessness and all that is hateful to lovers of beauty. We may in time alter this system which is fraught with such evil, and beauty may have a new birth in the West. Meantime we look to the East for that which we have lost.
Will the light of the East altogether fail us now, and will new India be content to run madly after the money bags of the West? If so, then assuredly India will not rise again in the scale of nations, except, after many more years of suffering and bitter experience, her people turn away in disgust from those who blindly and recklessly lead them astray.
It will be a hopeful sign for Indian art and Indian nationality when all young Indians take a pride in the beauty and dignity of their national dress. I believe that even in the few years since I left India there has been a considerable change for the better in this respect, which all Europeans who appreciate true culture must be glad to notice. Indians will certainly gain immensely, not only morally and intellectually, but even politically, by ceasing to imitate European fashions indiscriminately, for this very lack of discrimination which educated Indians have shown discredits them greatly in the eyes of Europe. Only when Indians can make Europe feel that they have as much to teach Europe as they have to learn from her, will they fully justify their claim for the same political rights as Europeans enjoy. As long as their chief ambition is to become successful imitators of what Europe does, they will remain in a state of political inferiority—and rightly so, for indiscriminate imitation is an admission of inferiority which inevitably depreciates the power of initiative and prevents the development of all the creative faculties.
To restore, then, the constructive powers of the Indian mind to their full capacity should be the first and chief aim of all Indian reformers and politicians. This aim, I must constantly repeat, can be attained much more effectively and quickly through the revival of national art and culture than by agitation for political rights. The experience and knowledge gained in constructive work of this kind will help mach more than political agitation to develop those powers of mind which all men require for the due exercise of political rights when they are attained. Every Swadeshi politician should therefore begin by making his own home and his own village the exercising ground for his powers of constructive statesmanship, and thereby add not only to his own qualifications for Swaḍeshi citizenship, but increase both his own political influence and the political strength of the particular home and village to which he may belong.
Of all branches of art, that of architecture is the one which gives occasion for the exercise of the highest constructive powers, and in the revival of Indian domestic architecture there is a magnificent field open for the energy of the Swaḍeshi reformer, and the very best opportunity for giving a great stimulus to Indian art craft. Nowhere is it more true than in India that architecture is the mother of all the arts, and the neglect of Indian architectural traditions by Indian leaders of public opinion, has been one of the principal causes of the deterioration of Indian art.
It may be that English educated Indians find the old Indian style of house irksome and incompatible with their ideas of comfort. But why, instead of showing the Indian traditional builder how to adapt his design to new requirements, do they make him a bad imitator of inferior European architecture or employ Europeans to do that for them? If they act thus with the idea that they are emulating the best achievements of Europe, they deceive themselves entirely, for no European house or palace yet built in this style would be considered as first-rate architecture in Europe, even compared with the best modem buildings. If they do so from a want of faith in Indian artistic capacity, it is a confession of impotence and failure, which is painful evidence of Indian intellectual degeneration, for never at any previous period of Indian history have Indian architects and craftsmen shown such incapacity.
It is only from ignorance of Indian architectural science that Anglo-Indians have assumed that it is not adaptable to the requirements of Anglo-Indian administration. Ignorance of things Indian is much less excusable in Indians than it is in Europeans. European experts like Fergusson, who have devoted themselves to the study of Indian architecture, acknowledge that the science of building has been developed by Indian architects to a point fully as high as, and in some instances higher than the best achievements of Europe. Fergusson further declared that if Indians could only be persuaded to take a pride in their own architecture, there could be no doubt that the master-builders of the present day who carry on the traditions of Indian architecture, might even now excel the great works of their ancestors, for he had learnt more of the real science of architecture, as practised by the great master builders of Europe, by observing Indian master-builders at their work than he had learnt from all the works he had read. It is this want of pride and want of faith in their own traditional culture on the part of the upper classes of India, which has been mach more destructive to Indian art than the ignorance or indifference of Europeans. That the decline of Indian art has not gone further than it has done is due chiefly to the spirituality of Indian women and the strong religious feeling of the ‘uneducated’ classes. Those who had always upheld the national artistic traditions as a part of their ḍharma, they constitute the true Swaḍeshi party.
If Indian art is to survive, it must always go hand in hand with religion. But I do not mean by this that Indians should do as Europeans often do when they attempt to adapt Indian art to practical uses, and borrow the forms of religious buildings for conversion to secular purposes. That is an offence against that sense of fitness which, as I explained in my first chapter, is one of the first principles of all applied art. The form of a house and of every part of it, must be prescribed by the use for which it is intended, as well as by the environment in which it is placed. If the forms prescribed by the old Indian architectural traditions are not suitable for modem uses, they must be altered, and you will find it will be much easier for an Indian builder to adapt his art to India than it is for a European builder to produce good art for you, for, as Fergusson said, the living Indian architectural traditions “are the result of the earnest thinking of thousands of minds spread over hundreds of years, and acting in unison with the national voice which called them into existence”—while architecture in Europe “is now little more than a dead corpse galvanised into life by a few selected practitioners for the amusement and delight of a small section of the specially educated classes. It is an art which is not conducted in truthful or constructive principle, but an imitative attempt to reproduce something which has no affinity with the building in hand.” “Since the beginning of the sixteenth century,” he said, “ architects in Europe forsook the principles on which architecture and all other cognate arts had been practised from the beginning of time; they pursued common sense and common prudence, not in the hope of attaining greater convenience or greater effect, more easily or with less means, but in order to produce certain associations with which education had made them familiar.” That is exactly what English-educated Indians have been doing when they have tried to build their houses and palaces on European models. But they have far less excuse for producing bad architecture than we have in Europe, where the sound architectural traditions of the Middle Ages and splendid craftsmanship have become almost will, to acquire the sense of fitness and the sense of beauty which will enable you to exercise wisely your judgments in artistic matters. Nor should you depend entirely upon your own individual judgment, but rather let national artistic tradition be your guide, for national tradition represents the ripened judgment and experience of many generations, and is not to be thrown aside at the mere caprice of individual taste, from the desire of novelty, or at the dictates of fashions foreign to your country and ways of life. Study carefully your old traditions and try to understand the reason for them, for they are nearly always founded on reason and common sense. Perhaps in some cases the conditions which give rise to them may have altered, and the reasons which formerly existed are no longer applicable. But even in such cases it is better to rely upon the trained experience of the craftsman to make the necessary alterations, rather than to impose your own judgment upon him.
I would strongly advise you in this connection, to study carefully a little book on the Indian craftsman, by Dr. Coomaraswamy, with an introduction by Mr. C.B. Ashbee, a well-known architect who has been the moving spirit in the work of the Guild of Handicraft at Campden. Mr. Ashbee says:
It is a curious and suggestive thought that the spiritual reawakening in England, which goes now by the name of the higher culture, now by the name of Socialism, which has been voiced in our time by Ruskin and Morris, which has expressed itself in movements like the Arts and Crafts, or is revealed in the inspired paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, demands just such a condition as in India our commercialisation is destroying. The spiritual reawakening in the West is appealing for a social condition in which each man shall have not only an economic but a spiritual status in the society in which he lives, or as some of us would prefer to put it, he shall have a stable economic status in order that he may have a spiritual status as well. It is such a condition which still exists in India, where Society is organised, as Dr. Coomaraswamy shows, upon a basis of “personal responsibility and co-operation” instead of, as with us, upon a basis of contract and competition. Even if we admit that the change of the Aryan in the West from one basis to the other has been necessary to produce the conditions of modem progress, the scientific results of our civilisation … it may yet be that the spiritual reawakening that is beginning to stir the dry bones of western materialism may yet leave the East fundamentally unchanged, and bring us again into some kindred condition through our contact with her.
Here you can observe again the anxiety of social reformers in Europe to preserve and revive the very economic conditions which have survived much more largely in the East than in the West; those which many so-called Swaḍeshi reformers in India are now using their influence to replace by a further extension of European commercialism. Says Mr. Ashbee:
“There has come over our western civilisation,” “in the last twenty-five years, a green-sickness, a nausea, an unrest; it is not despondency, for in the finer minds it takes the form of an intense spiritual hopefulness; but it takes the form also of a profound disbelief in the value of the material conditions of modem progress, a longing to sort the wheat from the chaffy the serviceable from the useless, a desire to return from mechanical industry and its wastefulness, and to look once more to the human hand, to be once again with Mother Earth”
It makes me almost despair of Indian spirituality to find so many of the leaders of new India actively propagating the extension of the modern factory system in India, instead of devoting all their energies to reorganising and developing the industrial side of Indian communal life in an Indian way. Dr. Coomaraswamy says:
“Certain short-sighted Swaḍeshists desire an increase of production in Indian industries, at whatever cost of reckless exploitation of the worker’s forces. But the exploitation of the physique and life of the Indian people for a temporary trade advantage is a mistaken policy; and Indians must demand and obtain a regulation of the conditions of labour on this account, quite apart from the fact that English manufacturers may be acting from motives of quite a different character.”
It is on this point especially that new India requires clearer thinking and a deeper insight into those movements in Europe which are making for true progress. If all the misplaced energy which has been devoted, especially in Bengal, to the establishment of ‘Swaḍeshi’ cotton mills had been directed towards the revival of village industry and Indian domestic architecture, the Swaḍeshi movement would have benefited India much more than it has done. For, as Mr. Ashbee truly says, the Indian craftsmen and the Indian village community have a definite and necessary place, not only in the Indian order of things, not only in the culture of the East, but in the world.
Here once more we are learning from the East. The English craftsmen and the English village are passing, or have passed away; and it is only in quite recent times that we have discovered that they, too, are counterparts one of the other. Industrial machinery, blindly misdirected, has destroyed them both, and recent English land-legislation has been trying, with allotment and small-holdings acts, to re-establish the broken village life. Those of us, however, who have studied the arts and crafts, in their town and country conditions, are convinced that the small-holding problem is possible of solution only by some system of co-operation, and if some forms of craftsmanship are simultaneously revived and added to it. “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee;” that is an old lesson, and it is true not only of England, but of all western countries that have been touched by the green-sickness of industrial machinery. With us in the West it is the newest of new ideas that the arts and crafts and the revival of agriculture are the corollary of one another. In India they always appear to have thought this, and to have held by the truth.
Let new India learn all that the old India has to teach before it attempts to profit by the wisdom of the West.