“WHAT is chiefly to be dreaded is the general introduction of machinery into India. We are just beginning in Europe to understand what things may be done by machinery, and what must be done by hand-work, if art is of the slightest consideration in the matter.
“But if, owing to the operation of certain economic causes, machinery were to be gradually introduced into India for the manufacture of its great traditional handicrafts, there would ensue an industrial revolution which, if not directed by an intelligent and instructed public opinion and the general prevalence of refined taste, would inevitably throw the traditional arts of the country into the same confusion of principles, and of their practical application to the objects of daily necessity, which has for three generations been the destruction of decorative art and of middle-class taste in England and North-Western Europe, and the United States of America.
“The social and moral evils of the introduction of machinery into India are likely to be still greater. At present the industries of India are carried on all over the country, although hand-weaving is everywhere languishing in the unequal competition with Manchester and the Presidency Mills. But in every Indian village all the traditional handicrafts are still to be found at work.
“Outside the entrance of the single village street, on an exposed rise of ground, the hereditary potter sits by his wheel moulding the swift revolving clay by the natural curves of his hands. At the back of the houses, which form the low, irregular street, there are two or three looms at work in blue, and scarlet, and gold, the frames hanging between the accacia trees, the yellow flowers of which drop fast on the webs as they are being woven.
“In the street, the brass and coppersmiths are hammering away at their pots and pans, and further down, in the verandah of the rich man’s house, is the jeweller working rupees and gold mohrs into fair jewellery, gold and silver ear-rings, and round tires like the moon, bracelets, and tablets, and nose-rings, and tinkling ornaments for the feet, taking his designs from the fruit and flowers around him, or from the traditional form represented in the paintings and carvings of the great temple, which rises over the grove of mangoes and palms at the end of the street above the lotus-covered village tank.
“At half-past three or four in the afternoon the whole street is lighted up by the moving robes of the women going down to draw water from the tank, each with two or three water-jars on her head; and so, while they are going and returning in single file, the scene glows like Titian’s canvas, and moves like the stately procession of the Panathenaic frieze.
“Later, the men drive in the mild grey kine from the moaning plain, the looms are folded up, the coppersmiths are silent, the elders gather in the gate, the lights begin to glimmer in the fast-falling darkness, the feasting and the music are heard on every side, and late into the night the songs are sung from the Ramayana or Mahābharata.
“The next morning with sunrise, after the simple oblations and adorations performed in the open air before the houses, the same day begins again. This is the daily life going on all over Western India in the village communities of the Dekhan, among a people happy in their simple manners and frugal way of life, and in the culture derived from the grand epics of a religion in which they live and move, and have their daily being, and in which the highest expression of their literature, art, and civilization has been stereotyped for 3,000 years.
“But of late these handicraftsmen, for the sake of whose works the whole world has been ceaselessly pouring its bullion for 3,000 years into India, and who, for all the marvellous tissue and embroidery they have wrought, have polluted no rivers, deformed no pleasing prospects, nor poisoned any air; whose skill and individuality the training of countless generations has developed to the highest perfection, these hereditary handicraftsmen are being everywhere gathered from their democratic village communities in hundreds and thousands into colossal mills of Bombay, to drudge in gangs for tempting wages, at manufacturing piece goods, in competition with Manchester, in the production of which they are no more intellectually and morally concerned than the grinder of a barrel organ in the tunes turned out from it.
“I do not mean to depreciate the proper functions of machines in modern civilization, but machinery should be the servant and never the master of men. It cannot minister to the beauty and pleasure of life, it can only be the slave of life’s drudgery; and it should be kept rigorously in its place—in India as well as in England.
“When in England machinery is, by the force of cultivated taste and opinion, no longer allowed to intrude into the domain of art manufactures which belongs exclusively to the trained mind and hand of individual workmen, wealth will become more equally diffused throughout society, and the working classes, through the elevating influence of their daily work, and the growing respect for their talent, and skill, and culture will rise at once in social, civil and political position, raising the whole country to the highest classes with them; and Europe will learn to taste of some of that content and happiness in life which is to be still found in the Pagan East, as it was once found in Pagan Greece and Rome.”1
- 1. SIR GEORGE BIRDWOOD (‘Industrial Arts of India,’ 1880.)