Indian Art: Yesterday and Today



I HAVE heard it said that modern Indian art is neither modern nor Indian. That, of course, is an exaggeration, and yet it causes one to pause momentarily and cast a backward glance over the centuries. Let us look back first of all, almost two thousand years, to the world-famous caves of Ajanta, situated in what is now Hyderabad State, not far inland from Bombay.

The paintings at Ajanta depict the life of the Lord Buddha and the legends of his previous incarnations. Pious monarchs and ministers of state, hoping to win religious merit, gave of their bounty that these dwellings where the Buddha was worshiped might be beautified. The painters of these frescoes were for the most part guild craftsmen, perfect in the technique of flowing line and plasticity. They were devoted solely to their art, well-versed in Buddhist lore, and dominated by the belief that only the worship of the Almighty could enable the cunning in their hands to create loveliness. At the same time they saw the cultured and luxurious life of that period all around them, and mirrored it on the plastered walls. They were alive to their times and also to the beauty of birds, flowers, hillsides, forests — in fact all nature. The beautiful, soft-limbed women with deerlike eyes, and coiffures that would be the envy of Paris and New York, were not creatures of their imagination. Literary evidence establishes that they were the prototypes of princesses, ladies of genteel birth, maidservants and the hetaerae of that age.

The sculpture of the period vied with the painting. Great Buddhas in stone seemed to be dreaming their eternal dreams, and the powerful deities of the Hindu pantheon warred against demons, or meditated on the heights of Mount Kailas — the Olympus of the gods. Here the urge was purely religious. Yet these early Indian sculptors possessed an innate genius for simplifying forms. In this they were aided by the well-known aesthetic principle of that age — namely that the gods, though anthropomorphic in shape, were not to be cast in the mere image of man.

If the work of the first great period in Indian art (A.D. 1-700) was largely monumental in scale, that of the next significant period was predominantly miniature. Over the years the style of Indian painting gradually became highly formal, and from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries it reached a peak in the small illustrations for religious books of the Jains and Hindus. These illustrations, despite such crudities as beaklike noses and projecting eyes, are quaint and colorful. More than one modern Indian painter has felt their attraction but has failed to realize that their peculiarities were symptomatic of degeneration in hieratic art and that the attempt to transpose that degeneration into the world of today was meaningless.

The Mogul emperors reigned in the sixteenth century and a brilliant school of miniature painting grew up under their patronage. It was a court art par excellence — authentic portraits, court scenes, hunting scenes, and animal and bird studies, all meticulously drawn and superbly colored. It was not meant for the vulgar gaze, but for the edification of an urbane aristocracy. It had no roots in religion, and technical skill was at a premium. In course of time the influence of Mogul miniature painting spread all over the country and two great schools came into existence — one in Rajputana and the other in the Hills of the Punjab. Though these two schools owed much to Mogul painting, their outlook was vastly different. Their inspiration was largely drawn from that most beautiful of legends, the story of the cowherd god Gopala Krishna. It is not too much to say that the worship of Krishna was the mainspring of art and literature in India during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The blue god, born in a royal family but brought up by foster parents as a cowherd, became as famous for his amours as for his destruction of the forces of evil. The passion-torn maidens who longed for him corresponded to the human soul longing for God. So simple a creed was bound to have a tremendous appeal and soon all classes of society evinced a passionate devotion to the god who played his flute, drawing all to him like the Pied Piper, regardless of moral obligations to hearth and home. For two centuries and more this miniature art of Rajputana and of the Hills flourished — sometimes wildly passionate with hot coloring, and sometimes gentle and refined. Though not a folk art it breathed the spirit and religion of the times and was not aloof like the Mogul school.

Sculpture also took a different course after the eighth century. It became decorative and architectonic. An amazing array of figures, animals, and floral motifs crowded the walls of Hindu shrines. But the craftsmanship was of a high order and many individual figures disclosed a well-developed plastic sense. The theme that loomed large was woman — her beauty, her grace, her sensuousness, her charm. In her image were cast the goddesses and heavenly nymphs who lived unseen in the skies. Then came another change, mainly in South India. Temple sculpture became bizarre—rearing monsters, fiery horses, great pillared halls teeming with sculptures. The final effect was overpowering and fantastic, yet magnificent. Such was the heritage of many, many centuries.


WE come now to the period of British domination. English rule in India was not without merits but it certainly did a grievous wrong to the country’s artistic heritage. Art schools were opened at important centers and Victorian ideas on art became the order of the day. With little encouragement, and declining court patronage, the hereditary painters and sculptors had to give up their professions. India was introduced to the Greek ideal in art as understood by the English, and this understanding was none too perfect. One Raja Ravi Varma began to paint Indian mythological subjects. Save for the fact that their themes were Indian, his works were photographic, sentimental, and devoid of all aesthetic sensibilities. Nevertheless he received much praise in his day.

This state of affairs would have continued but for the wisdom and vision of the late E. B. Havell, principal of the School of Art at Calcutta. Havell realized that India had a heritage in sculpture and painting so glorious that it was sheer ignorance, if not presumption, for the English rulers of the land to foist their cramped notions of art on the populace. His encouragement led to a revivalist movement which in course of time came to be known as the Bengal school of modern Indian painting. Its leader was the late Abunindranath Tagore, brother of the famous poet. The school turned for its inspiration to Ajanta and to Mogul and Rajput miniature painting. Though it missed the true spirit of these ancient masterpieces, at least it succeeded in focusing attention on something really worthwhile. What the Bengal school never realized was that Ajanta was a product of its own age and intimately related to the life, religion, and outlook of those times. The Bengal artists copied Ajanta superficially but they never assimilated the principles underlying it. Each age necessarily creates its own art and it is folly to transplant the art of forgotten centuries into the present. Bengal of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century had nothing in common with the Gupta age, nor even with the social set-up of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the cult of god-love dominated the life of the people. Moreover the Bengal painters, in search of Oriental flavor, introduced decorative influences from Chinese and Japanese art. The result was an eclectic school, the work of which was pleasing at times but rarely invigorating. The pioneers were genuine and sincere people and some of them such as Nandalal Bose, Gogenendranath Tagore, and Venkatappa were good artists. But this school soon became a spent force because it lacked appreciation of the fact that even a revivalist movement cannot be divorced from the present. It was a fashionable school and all and sundry desired to paint in the Bengal style. But it held no hope for those of genius.

When the young Sikh girl Amrita Sher-Gil returned to India from the academies of Paris in the ‘thirties of this century she instantly realized that to enter the portals of the Bengal school would amount to aesthetic annihilation. Modern French painting had influenced her greatly but she knew that it would never do to ape Cézanne, Gauguin, and Modigliani. So she also went to Ajanta, to the Rajput miniature schools, and to early Indian sculpture for her inspiration. But she avoided the errors into which the Bengal school artists had fallen. Hers was a search for the fundamental principles underlying the masterpieces of ancient Indian art. She was no revivalist. Using these principles she sought a vision of life through the men and women around her and the stark misery and frustration in many forms which stalked the land. Her art had no background of religion and yet she possessed the fervor of the Italian primitives. Neglected in her lifetime, she became a legend after her tragic death at the early age of twenty-nine, and is unquestionably the greatest painter that modern India has produced.

Today there is a spirit of striving among living painters and sculptors to produce something that is worthwhile. There is a sincere appreciation of the fact that the search for truth is a long and difficult one and that success in the salesrooms is not a criterion of worth. Humility has crept into modern Indian painting and hence there is hope. Experiments are no longer mistaken for achievement, but at the same time an intelligent approach to experimentation is often lacking. One sees too many thinly disguised imitations of the eccentricities which prevail in Paris, clothed in an Indian garb. Revivalist tendencies are on the wane. But there is a danger of replacing them with an undigested appreciation of the folk art of the country.


JAMINI ROY of Calcutta, the most talked-of painter in India today, is an exponent of the folk tradition in Indian art, and particularly that of Bengal. It is debatable whether he is an artist of genius or one who has captured the imagination of the art-loving public by his naïve and novel forms of expression. Sometimes he tends towards mass production, but his best work, even if not great, possesses the true joyous appeal of folk art.

Rasik Raval is a young Bombay painter who has come to the fore in recent years. He appears to be greatly interested in surface textures and decorative figures. One danger that lies in the way of his future development is that he may tend to perpetuate clichés.

Hebbar of Bombay is constantly experimenting in an effort to find himself. He was greatly under the influence of Sher-Gil at one period, but has recently tried to deal with archaic forms. He has a sound academic training and fortunately is not given to sensationalism.

Hussein is another Bombay artist with a large following. He has been greatly influenced by the modern movements in Europe and is attempting to interpret Indian men and women in an almost bizarre manner which at times requires more control. But there is no doubt he is gifted.

Mookherjee is a Bengali who may go far. He has the true artist’s vision and his handling of form and color is always interesting even if it is not fully satisfying.

Bendre is also a Bombay artist and one of the best landscapists among modern Indian painters. His brushwork is always delightful and of late his figure studies have been full of vitality. Good landscapists among modern Indian painters are rare. In ancient Indian art the concept of landscape painting was a very limited one.

There are many other painters in India who have come under the influence of the so-called modern movement. At times they are bewildered and seem to stand at the crossroads. So many vague theories are afloat. There are those who still glorify the revivalist efforts of the Bengal school; and those who still decry Amrita Sher-Gil. Some critics regard all modern European painting as anathema, and would revive the traditions of academic Victorianism. Others again see no hope of progress unless the modern Indian artist fuses the best of the East and the West.

I for my part welcome all the experiments which are taking place today. Though it cannot be said that modern Indian painters, except perhaps Amrita Sher-Gil, have achieved anything truly great, I do believe that the possibility of real achievement exists. The best of critics can at most offer guidance. He cannot create great artists. Sculpture, save for the work of a few, is at a low ebb, but the country is brimful of painters of promise. Judged within their limitations they have produced a body of agreeable work, though they still have a long way to go. The struggle for political freedom has brought forth no artistic genius and India may have to wait for an intense religious revival to create an art at all comparable with that of the unknown masters of a bygone age. Yet the younger artists now know that they will never be creative if their goal is only to paint in an Ajantaesque style or to adapt the methods of the miniaturists to some modern theme. But it is not easy to be creative, and often the effort peters out by merely being quaint. Ibis tendency is on the increase particularly where the artist has been influenced by some unusual form of ancient art.

On the other hand, there is a growing understanding of sculptural forms and the painter is making an effort to discover the qualities in the old stone carvings which can be utilized for enhancing his powers of expression with brush and color. The result of this new attitude has led to a considerable simplification in forms and an attempt to convey the sense of mass and volume. Thus modern art in India reveres its ancient heritage, but instead of imitation it now seeks its guidance in order to fulfill the role of interpreting a different world and different ideals and different emotional conflicts. Still one specter haunts the scene. There is not sufficient seriousness of purpose. As an old guild craftsman once said, “When my mind wanders, my hand strays.”