WHEN the cultured Indian woman begins, as I suggested in my last chapter, to resume her traditional artistic vocation in the household, not for any pecuniary profit, but for love of India, and with enthusiasm for her high spiritual mission, she will find ready at hand practically all the material she needs to work with, without any foreign importations. For the adornment of the Indian home the Indian artists and craftsmen she would wish to employ need no technical education and no examples other than the great achievements of their ancestors; their tools and processes differ little from those of artists and first class craftsmen in modern Europe. The implements of Indian arts and crafts have by many centuries of practice been brought to a high pitch of perfection for purely artistic purposes, and Europe has very little to teach India in this respect. In fact, when artistic quality only is sought for, Europe even now is not above learning technique from the oriental craftsman. The best carpets and brocades in Europe are still made on the same loom and by the same method as the Indian weaver uses, but not even the best skill of Europe has ever rivalled the masterpieces which the cunning fingers of the Oriental has woven, and could again weave were the opportunity given. Similarly the best cotton prints in Europe are printed by hand-blocks, just as they have always been printed by the Indian cotton printer. The most artistic bronzes are cast by the same process as the Indian metal-worker uses.
Not even the wealthiest in Europe can command such abundant service of skilled craftsmen as the well-to-do Indian housewife can command, if she will. It is the psychological impulse, not education or mechanical improvements, that is needed for the revival of Indian craft in the Indian home. When the psychological impulse comes the verandahs and courtyards of Indian palaces and mansions will again be thronged with busy Indian craftsmen, as they were in the palmy days of Indian art; the broken threads which bound the artistic castes to the other members of the Hindu family will be mended, and the web of Indian life, losing the drab dullness of modern materialism, will shine again with all the beauty of colour and broidery which higher spiritual and intellectual ideals will work into it.
But the mission of Indian womanhood covers a yet wider sphere: it extends to every Indian household, and is not confined to the palaces and mansions of the high-born and wealthy. With their own fingers, Indian women of high and low degree must spin and weave to revive the artistic power of the Indian race, to make that power part of their own and their children’s physical and mental being, and thus recharge the whole psychological atmosphere of their homes with creative energy.
In this noble task which must begin with the re-birth of Indian art and craftsmanship, the mechanical inventions of modern Europe will be more often a hindrance than a help. Art is created by the human mind and body, not by a machine. Mechanical apparatus in art and the higher crafts is only an artificial means of applying the psychical and physical power of the human being: it can never add to it or be a substitute for it. The household loom used by many European ladies in the present day is not one of the latest mechanical inventions, but the common loom of two hundred years ago, and on such ordinary looms many ladies in Europe now weave their own dress material, as was the custom in the middle ages, and even carpets for their own drawing-rooms. The technical traditions of the Indian weaver supply all that India requires for this purpose, though in the preparation of the thread for the loom some of the tedium of old Indian methods may be lessened by European appliances. It is of vital importance for Swadeshi reformers to understand the ethics of machinery and their application to India’s industrial problem. This is a point on which there is a great deal of wrong thinking and wrong doing, even on the part of many self-constituted art experts, especially those who regard art as only a by-study in modern experimental science. Art is a science the greatest of all sciences but its theoretical principles, unlike many of those of modern experimental science, are fundamental and unchangeable. Art aims at perfection, and so does science, properly applied. But modern commercialism has not properly applied modern scientific and mechanical inventions. It has used them not for perfecting the products of human industry or for promoting the social and intellectual advancement of the human race, but as instruments for bringing down quality to the lowest possible level which will both satisfy uneducated tastes and add to the profits of the manufacturer.
A very large part of the most ingenious machinery used in modern manufacture is not for the purpose of making a thing better than it was made before, but for the purpose of making it appear better than it is. According to the ethics of art a dye is applied to textile fabrics to add the charm of beautiful colour to the beauty of good material. But according to the ethics of modern manufacturing science it is added to conceal the badness of the material. Similarly in good weaving, according to artistic principles a fabric is finished when it leaves the loom; but in modern textile manufacture a new department of industry has been created, called ( finishing/ in which the most ingenious machinery is used to give a superficial appearance of finish to material which when it leaves the loom is unsaleable the 'finish' conceals the inferiority of the fabric.
Good handicraft educates public taste and morals: modern manufacturing processes debase them. The handicraftsman works for an educated public which prefers one good thing to two inferior. Machinery in art manufacture supplies the demand of a public which ignorantly exchanges old lamps for new, only craving for novelty and not knowing what is good and what is bad. A great deal of what is called progress in European industry is only a return to old principles which are still practised by the best Indian craftsmen; for instance, in the masterpieces of ancient weaving, pottery, stained glass, etc., which are stored in European art museums for the education of the public, much of the beauty of colour is owing to irregularities produced in the process of hand manufacture. A good oriental carpet is beautiful because each colour is not uniform throughout, as in a machine-made carpet, but varied in different parts, the variation being produced by the absence of uniformity in the dyeing of the wool. The latter is dyed in small quantities at a time, each dyeing producing some slight variation in colour. Similarly in ancient stained glass manufacture the colouring-matter was, by the hand process, not evenly distributed throughout the material, and the irregularities thus produced in the sheets of glass gave the wonderful jewel-like quality to the windows of mediaeval Gothic Cathedrals.
Modern European commercialism, only intent on cheapness, eliminated these irregularities, which from an artistic point of view are priceless, in order to reduce the cost of manufacture: for an ordinary machine cannot reproduce irregularities absolute uniformity is the normal product of a good machine. It does not pay a modern manufacturer, working for an uneducated public, to prepare the dyes in small quantities for each carpet he makes. He must manufacture things by hundreds and thousands, all exactly uniform in colour and material. The uneducated masses, both in Europe and India, prefer a carpet which is perfectly even and monotonous in colour: they dislike any thing uneven or irregular, and the greater beauty of good hand-work does not appeal to them. But since a regular system of national art training has been established by European Governments, through hundreds of art and technical schools connected with art museums in which the great works of ancient and mediaeval handicraft are stored, manufacturers have now to provide for a considerable section of the public whose taste is better educated. These people demand more artistic work and since they are prepared to pay for it, many of the best European manufacturers have returned partially or wholly to the old hand processes which are practically the same as those of the best Indian craftsmen of the present day. Even the machine manufacturers now begin to imitate hand productions by using machines in which the irregularities of hand manufacture are ingeniously imitated. These imitations no more deceive an educated eye than a gramophone or pianola deceive an educated ear, but many people, only half-educated in art, are satisfied with these imitations just as they are satisfied with gramophones and pianolas.
There exist in Europe at the present day three grades of art maufacturers:
I. The highest grade, which has returned, wholly or partially, to the principles of oriental art industry, formerly practised in Europe.
II. The mechanical manufacturer who imitates the productions of the first grade by means of machinery.
III. The mechanical manufacturer who works for the least educated masses, whose ideals are only novelty and cheapness.
The essential method of these two lower grades may be described in Dr. Coomaraswamy’s words. It is:
To create a want in order to have the opportunity of profiting by the filling of it. Under the commercial system, it is no longer demand that regulates supply, but production that 'forces a market'. Machinery has enabled the capitalist to do this to the fullest extent. The promise of labour-saving machinery was a millennium for the worker, shorter hours and easier work; its results have been merely increased production, increased profit to the capitalist, and not less work, but less intelligent work for the producer. Not merely is the workman, through division of labour, no longer able to make any whole thing; not only is he confined to making small parts of things; but it is impossible for him to improve his position, or to win reward for excellence in the craft itself. Under guild conditions, it was possible and usual for the apprentice to rise through all the grades of knowledge and experience to the position of a master-craftsman. But take any such trade as carpet-making under modern conditions by power-looms. The operator has no longer to design or to weave in and out the threads with his own fingers. He is employed in reality not as a carpet weaver, but as the tender of a machine. He may rise to a higher place it is true but it is to the place of a man responsible for the successful running of many machines by many men. That craft is for him destroyed as a means of culture, and the community has lost one more man’s intelligence for it is obviously futile to attempt to build up by evening classes and free libraries what the whole of a man’s work is forever breaking down. It is no longer possible for culture and refinement to come to the craftsman through his work: he must seek them in the brief hours snatched from rest and sleep, at the expense of life itself. It is not strange that he does not seek them, nor that the expression is lacking in his woi’k. He has not even the capacity for idling, but must continually seek amusement and excitement. There can be no quality of leisure in his work. In short, commercial production absolutely forbids a union of art with labour. It is instructive to compare the still living, but fast disappearing relics of this union in the Bast with the results of western endeavours through education and free libraries, to restore that general culture which cannot under commercialism exist; not there does the ploughman speak as elegantly as the courtier, not there are riches little valued; nor can these things be where life is lived, not as an art, but as a wild beast fight.
But in Europe, as civilisation and artistic culture slowly but surely become deeper and more widely diffused among the masses, the tendency is towards an increase in the highest grades of art manufacturers and a diminution in the lower grades. No one can dispute that this is a healthy and right tendency. In India, there is just the opposite tendency, which is encouraged both officially and by Swadeshi reformers. In India the highest grade of art manufacture, which is represented by the millions of handicraftsmen belonging to the traditional artistic castes, is comparatively much more common than it is in Europe. As the skill of the trained handicraftsman is of a much higher order than the skill of the factory hand who only looks after the working of a machine, India can command in almost every important branch of art manufacture a much higher average of technical skill than is to be found in any branch of European art manufacture. The difficulty of the situation in India is that the handicraftsman is artistically much better educated than the so-called ‘educated‘ classes to which he must look for employment. The Indian handicraftsman represents an older and higher state of national artistic culture, which is rapidly being degraded by the denationalising process now called education. Surely, the right policy in India, then, is to bring education up to the same level as that of the handicraftsman; to throw wide open the doors of the University to art, and to use all the influence of the State to encourage the highest class of art manufacture, and to improve the social condition of the art workman.
The official policy, and that of most Swadeshi reformers, has been just the reverse of this and diametrically opposed to what is now recognised to be sound artistic policy in Europe. Art administration in India is and has been for the last fifty years, little better than waste of public money. The art interests of India represent a far larger economic value than that of the whole of the present educational system, yet these interests are supposed to be sufficiently safeguarded by one school in a province larger than Great Britain, which has its hundreds of art schools and thousands of art classes. The head of this one school is often not a trained art expert; but if that were otherwise his authority is so small that in the last twenty-five years, as I can testify from personal experience, the only experts whose advice has been listened to departmentally, are scientists who through artistic ignorance, or half-knowledge, bring all the influence of the State to make the Indian handicraftsman the tool of self-seeking capitalists, and to drag down the standard of art manufacture to the level of second-and-third-rate European manufacturers. Most Indian Swadeshi reformers are foolish enough to follow this lead, not seeing that by so doing they are only playing the game of European commercialism and hastening the denationalisation which is the degradation of Indian art and industry.
Lord Curzon was voicing the opinions of his departmental scientific advisers when he declared at the Delhi Durbar that it was inevitable that the hand-loom should be superseded by the power-loom, just as the hand-punkah was being superseded by the electric fan. This is a totally false analogy. No artistic operation will ever be entirely accomplished by mechanical means. Even plain weaving is to a great extent an artistic operation, and will remain so to the end of time. The extent to which weaving will continue to be an artistic operation depends locally upon the degree of artistic culture, or civilisation, reached by the community which uses the process. It cannot be the assumption of any civilised Government that India must inevitably be deprived of all artistic culture, and thus have no further need for the hand-loom.
The question which has to be answered is whether the Indian hand-weaver can supply the wants of the uneducated masses, or of those people who require good and cheap clothing, but have not reached a sufficiently high state of culture to appreciate artistic quality. If he cannot, then hand-weaving in India will be limited to meeting the demands of the richer and more cultivated classes. If he can, it will be so much the better for the poorer and less educated classes that they are clothed with more artistic material than the power-loom can supply, and very much better for the whole community that the skilled handicraftsman is not degraded into a factory workman minding a machine.
For answering this question, it is necessary to realise whether weaving is one of those operations in which steam or electric power has an inherent superiority over hand labour. There are many operations in which the superiority of the former is incontestable, such as the lifting or dragging of heavy weights, or working with masses of material too large, too heavy, or too intractable for a single man to deal with, also in work where extreme regularity, uniformity and mechanical precision are indispensable. When a huge mass of iron has to be welded into shape it is easy to understand that a steam hammer, in which the force of a hundred blacksmiths’ arms are concentrated is a more effective tool than the human. Railway engines, steamships, steam or hydraulic cranes, and hundreds of similar things, unnecessary to particularise, are examples in which mechanical power has an inherent superiority over manual labour. But a loom is a machine in which the force required to work it does not usually exceed the strength of one man, and any excess of the force required absolutely prevents good weaving. In all countries where skilled manual labour is plentiful and cheap the power-loom has no inherent superiority over the hand-loom, provided that the latter is made as mechanically perfect as the former, so that the working power of the hand-weaver is not wasted. The only question is, whether the unit of mechanical power can be produced at a cheaper rate than the average cost of manual power.