Art and Nationalism in India

Art in India
The art of India is a vital cultural expression of India. It is intertwined with assertions of nationalism, the equation of modernisation and westernisation, and a desire to preserve the cultural heritage of India.

'One of the most intriguing yet least explored aspects of western impact on traditional Asian societies in the modern or colonial period, has been the traditional artist's response to European representational art. Unlike the more obvious impact of western technology in these societies, the reception of European art has been less even in countries such as India, oscillating from an enthusiastic and wholehearted acceptance of western art to a strong resistance to it, reflecting the change from an initial period of unquestioned westernisation to the growth of national consciousness. The benefits of adopting superior technology are somewhat easier to demonstrate. In the case of art, which involves judgments of taste that are by their very nature not so absolute, the consequences are more elusive and problematic.

Although as early as the Sixteenth Century, Mughal artists had learned a great deal about western art from Jesuit missionaries and European travellers to India and had applied this knowledge to their own art, the first deliberate and conscious introduction of western art conventions in India came as part of a package, when in the Nineteenth Century the British rulers opted for the wholesale western education of the emerging Indian elite provided a new class of artists from their ranks, who were taught systematically in art schools, modelled on English establishments, such devices as linear perspective and chiaroscuro, employed since the Renaissance to create a faithful likeness of the subject. Significantly, along with these devices came European romanticism, the sentimental and literary subject matter of academic painting, in fact the whole ideological underpinning of nineteenth-century academic art: for it is not easy to import a style and leave out its intellectual and cultural assumptions.

The next phase in the reception of western art coincides with the gathering momentum of a new national consciousness at the turn of this century, when Indian civilisation was rediscovered by Indians and their western allies. For the Indian artists of this generation, their alienation from European art was not confined to form alone, but represented a whole new Weltanschauung , based on a nostalgic recollection of past, disappearing values. The conflict between the two world-views, one archaic and the other modern, represented by what could be called westernisers and orientalists, made the task of choosing a style all the more difficult for the artist during the first four decades of this century down to 1947, the year of Indian independence.

The extraordinary life of this debate paralleled developments in the nationalist movement. The late Nineteenth Century saw the split between the moderate politicians in favour of power sharing with the rulers, and the extremists who increasingly articulated the call for total independence through their slogan, swaraj (self-rule). But as Mahatma Gandhi was to enunciate so eloquently in the 1920s, swaraj not only implied self-government by Indians, it also meant evolving a truly indigenous culture, stripped of its western moorings. The great art critic, Ananda Coomaraswamy, chided the nationalists in 1910 for their use of the concept of swaraj solely as a political weapon, failing to recognise the importance of culture in national regeneration. Artistic revival in turn had to break itself free from European art and culture, as inculcated in Indian art schools, if it were to serve nationalist ends. Not only Coomaraswamy, but the extremist political leader, Aurobindo Ghosh, deemed art important enough to be brought into his political programme. Whilst these developments affected a large part of India, I shall concentrate on Bengal, the main theatre of stylistic war.

By the Nineteenth Century, the decline of the imperial Mughal dynasty and other local courts had led to the loss of patronage for the traditional artist. The British who now ruled India, were able to stem this decline for a while by employing artists to execute portraits, picturesque views, ethnographic and natural history themes. The short-lived school of Company painting, which combined English water colour and Indian miniature styles, however, merely postponed the approaching end of traditional art, rather than averting it altogether. Art resurfaced in the 1850s in an entirely different context, as a new class of artists stepped into the vacuum left by the demise of the traditional ones. The restoration of art was due in part to the western art schools in the three Presidency capitals, Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, founded privately to train artisans but soon taken over by the government, following the accusation by William Morris, Owen Jones, George Birdwood and other champions of art manufactures, that government neglect had caused the decline of Indian applied arts. The background to their criticism was the Great Exhibition of 1851, in London, which had revealed the strength of traditional Indian manufacture inasmuch as it had exposed the undistinguished quality of English industrial arts such as carpets, wallpapers and furniture.

The government acted on the advice of the Department of Science and Art in South Kensington, that Indian craftsmen had little to learn from Europe in matters of taste, but needed instructions in western drawing, because 'sculpture and painting as fine arts did not exist in India.' Several factors doomed from the outset the government resolve to resuscitate the moribund crafts through art school teaching. First, the policy introduced an artificial dichotomy in these schools by asking students to emulate Indian decoration, while ignoring sculpture and painting. Second, it demanded that drawing be taught strictly for industrial ends, but must not lead on to the fine arts, an impossible task, soon quietly ignored by art teachers, particularly Henry Locke in Calcutta. He was not only able to establish an unusual rapport with students, but built up a carefully graded and integrated fine arts course. Some early students like Annada Bagchi became competent book- illustrators; others as portrait painters met an increasing demand for portraits among leading Calcutta families. Additional employment opportunities opened up when elementary drawing entered the school curriculum.

The government, moreover, failed to recruit enough artisan children because of their poverty and illiteracy. The trickle of artisans was soon swept away by the swelling flood of sons of the elite, who took to western art with enthusiasm, became inspired by the European Romantic image of the artist struggling against the philistine world. This shift in class composition of the artist bred a new, self-conscious, literary attitude to art, combining posturing with genuine idealism. Rajani Kanta Nag and Sashi Hesh, two early students, endured great hardships to make their pilgrimage to Italy in order to learn at the very fountainhead of western art.

The most powerful example before the westernisers was the unprecedented, almost overnight success of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) of Kerala, the first professional artist from the Indian upper strata, whose legendary career did much to elevate this lowly profession. He himself straddled two worlds, modern western and old Hindu, modelling his career on professional European painters, being on familiar terms with the rulers, representing India at the great exhibitions in Vienna in 1873 and Chicago in 1893, yet refusing to go abroad for fear of losing caste. Varma, who learned his craft from watching the English painters, Theodore Jensen and Frank Brooks at work, as well as studying European paintings in reproduction, began his career as a highly competent academic portrait painter. But his universal popularity rests on his narration of Hindu Puranic mythology in the language of western illusionist art, a popularity largely owed to the progressive westernisation of Indian taste in the Nineteenth Century.

At the time of his death, Varma was hailed by the leading nationalist periodical, The Modern Review , as the greatest modern Indian painter and nation-builder. Yet, within a decade, his works were branded un-Indian and undignified. By this time, art had been elevated to a high moral, Ruskinian level. No doubt, the sheer quantity of his works reproduced in cheap prints made them both accessible and debased, as in the case of Landseer. But there were deeper reasons for his spectacular fall.

During the initial era of westernisation under the Raj, the Indian elite had suffered a severe crisis of intellectual confidence, bruised by Macaulay's famous Minute on Education , fames Mill's strictures on Indian society and Evangelical castigation of Hinduism. Two developments helped their recovery: first, modern Bengali language and literature serving as a vehicle of nationalist aspirations, initial Bengali aspirations flowing into larger Indian ones; second, Hinduism receiving a boost with Theosophists presenting it as a spiritual alternative to the materialist west. Ernest Binfield Havell's disillusion with Renaissance art as a symbol of the materialist west was almost as intense as Annie Besant's disenchantment with European society. As the principal of Calcutta Art School in 1896, Havell engaged in wresting 'just' recognition for Indian art in the west on the one hand, and in encouraging a 'genuine' contemporary Indian art among students on the other, for he believed that the two went together. Paradoxically, his two measures, the removal of classical antiques from classrooms end replacing European paintings in the Gallery with fine Mughal art, met with hostility from the students within the school, and by the nationalist press without so deep had western taste penetrated Bengal. The surprising fact is that the British Viceroy Lord Curzon, otherwise known for his pronounced antipathy to Bengal nationalism, wholly supported Havell in his measures.

What changed the course of art in India was Havell's meeting the young Bengali painter, Abanindranath (1871-1951), a nephew of the poet Tagore, and an illustrator of Tagore's experimental poems in the vernacular. With his 'Krishna Lila' series, Abanindranath was already moving towards a more indigenous expression, because he considered his own western training unfulfilling. This series, les,' distinguished for either line or colour than for its new ideal of emaciated beauty, disconcerted the Bengal intelligentsia, more used to Varma's opulent women. Although he had become disillusioned with European art, Abanindranath's discovery of the delicacy of Mughal art was through Havell. The two, the older man, an English art teacher, the younger man, an Indian artist, joined forces to create the first modern art movement in India, later to be known as the new Bengal School.

The first landmark in this revival was Abanindranath's 'The Last Hours of Shah Jahan', an amalgam of Mughal and Western styles and ideas, which won a prize at the Delhi Exhibition of 1902/3, the exhibition which marked the occasion of the Durbar. Havell had already given publicity to the new art movement in the journal The Studio in 1902 and 1905. A further triumph was Abanindranath's appointment as his deputy at the Art School, when he engaged, with the first generation of students, in restoring 'the lost language of Indian art', by' choosing themes of past glories from Indian history. Abanindranath's symbiotic relationship with pupils, his stress on imagination, free creativity and experimentation, all helped to dilute the School's earlier paternalism, the view that taste can be created by means of enlightened government policy. This atmosphere encouraged the most able students - though the less independent floundered.

Havell's illness, leading to his abrupt departure, ended this historic era, with western influence regaining much of its lost ground. Abanindranath's resignation followed the rise to power of his cousin, the landscape painter, Jamini Ganguly, but all was not lost. Meanwhile in Britain, through Havell's unceasing activities, the India Society was formed in London in 1910 to encourage the study of Indian art. The Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta soon followed with official patronage, to act as the centre for Indian art, with Abanindranath in charge as art teacher. This had the effect of drawing students away from the Art School.

Temperamentally unsuited to the elaboration of a rigid doctrine of revival, Abanindranath moved away, very early on, from a Mughal manner to the Japanese wash technique, which he found more congenial. This 'elective affinity' with Japanese art was no mere stylistic preference, but reflected the conviction that the new nationalist art movement in India needed to draw nourishment not only from past Indian traditions, but from the best in oriental art. The orientalism of Bengal reflected the emerging national consciousness among Asian intellectuals, led by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and the Japanese intellectual Okakura Kakuzo, who sought to create an ideal of Asian unity, in response to the growing challenge of western dominance, holding up Asian 'spirituality' against the 'materialism' of the modern west. Okakura, the main architect of Japanese cultural revival, made several visits to Calcutta between 1901 and 1903, and completed his seminal Ideals of the East while staying with the Tagores. It was here that he met Havell and other westerners sympathetic to the new orientalist ideal. Later, he sent two of his finest pupils, Yokoyama Taikwan and Shunsho Hishida, to learn with Abanindranath. The cross-fertilisation of Indian and Japanese cultures had a radical effect on Abanindranath's own work and some of his finest atmospheric paintings were done after this encounter with Far Eastern art.

By around 1910, Abanindranath had become the acclaimed, if somewhat reluctant leader of the new movement; he had also made an overt political gesture with his politically charged painting, Bharat Mata (Mother India). The battle for the recognition of the oriental style in opposition to the more established western academic tradition, was fought not merely with the brush but the pen as well, in contemporary journals, The Madern Review in English, and Prabasi in Bengali. In an essentially Pan-Asian vein, Abanindranath in his essay on Six Limbs of Painting (1910), sought to demonstrate the resemblance between the ideas contained in an ancient Sanskrit verse on aesthetics and the six canons of the Chinese painter, Hsieh Ho. But it was not only Far Eastern art that engaged his attention; his anti-Renaissance stance drew further inspiration from western anti-classicists and his own writings expounded an essentially Platonic view of art, distinguishing between the intrinsic and the visual forms of objects. His insistence on his 'inner eye' to depict subjects made him give up life drawing at an early stage, which fact was ridiculed in a famous cartoon by the Bengali cartoonist, Jatin Sen.

The orientalists were not only able to overcome opposition at home, but soon carried their message across India, Abanindranath's pupils running art schools in Lucknow, Lahore, Delhi and Jaipur. Bombay was the sole exception and remained, under Gladstone Solomon, an out-and-out western school, and an implacable enemy of Havell and orientalism. However, one of the students, R.M. Raval, after leaving Bombay School of Art, returned to Ahmedabad to set up an art school under Bengal's inspiration, spreading at the same time orientalist ideas through his journal, Kumar, closely modelled on Prabasi. Fyzee Rahamin, a Jew from Bombay and trained by the Edwardian portrait painter, John Singer Sargent, renounced his western portraiture in the 1920s in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi's nationalist movement. He converted to Islam after his marriage to the singer, Atiya Begum, and began producing works in the orientalist manner. The highest accolade for orientalism was won when Nandalal Bose and his pupils at Santiniketan were selected by Gandhi to decorate the Haripura Congress marquee in 1937. The orientalists, thanks to their allies in the West, won recognition abroad, with exhibitions in Paris in 1914, Berlin in 1923 and London in 1914 and 1924. A critic at the 1924 exhibition at Wembley went so far as to extol 'the Indian artist's mission to the world'.

The Germans, whose previous Romantic attachment to India and their defeat in the 1914-18 war made them more sympathetic to such concepts, considered the movement a powerful cultural struggle for redemption. As European critics perceptively remarked, the most noticeable aspect of the movement was a self-conscious attempt, despite Abanindranath's latitude to his pupils, to merge individual differences and devise a common vocabulary. Aerial and Far Eastern perspective were preferred; colours in deference to Far Eastern art, muted. On the other hand, a clear Victorian outlook was expressed in the choice of themes from the past, embodying lofty sentiments and deep pathos. Abanindranath himself searched for ways to depict 'feeling' or 'mood' in his paintings. Whilst the finer works of the school were to maintain a precarious balance between sensibility and sentimentality, lesser ones degenerated into kitsch and bathos.

The opponents of orientalists were less organised, trying to keep up resistance in the first two decades of this century in the Bengali periodical, Sahitya , upholding an extreme form of western naturalism and parodying orientalists mercilessly. Sahitya was followed by several art journals, brought out by two leading academic painters, the portrait painter Atul Bose, and Hemen Majumdar, well-known for mildly erotic paintings of Bengali women. In these publications they defended as well as expounded their stand on swaraj and the creation of an indigenous style (Szoadeshi ). On being accused of painting in a foreign mode which did violence to Indian sensibility, they retorted by alleging that orientalists were unable to draw properly. Their general defense was that it was the subject that mattered, not its treatment.

The importance of journals such as Sahitya and Prabasi lay in their crucial role in forming public taste through high quality reproductions of European and Indian art; they also provided an outlet for the growing art of political and social cartooning. Cartoons and caricature had their inception in the Nineteenth Century in popular Kalighat paintings and in works like Atkinson's Curry and Rice . The Hindi Punch paid a clear homage to its English progenitor, while the Bengali Vasantak continued the tradition, but was more virulent in its denunciation of westernised, upper-class Bengalis. In the Twentieth Century, more imaginative were the cartoons of Gaganendranath (1867-1938), a brother of Abanindranath, whose grotesque characters and the use of large flat areas of black, white and greys, remind us of cartoons in the German satirical magazine, Simplicissimus . Typical Bengali in character were the cartoons of Jatin Sen in Prabasi and Bharat Varsha , exposing pretensions, parodying sartorial affectations, in general offering this highly self-conscious and divided society a weapon to mock themselves. Women's emancipation also came under attack, the cartoonist, as elsewhere, playing on the collective male fear of being emasculated.

By the 1920s, both westernisers and orientalists were overtaken by events abroad. Pan-Asianism was on the wane, as conflicts of interests between different Eastern countries surfaced, for instance, Tagore and the Chinese writer Lu Xhun taking antithetical position. As news about the avant garde western art movements reached India, the Bengal School further weakened, the whole reaching a crescendo in 1922 with a major exhibition in Calcutta of the works of Klee, Kandinsky and German Expressionists. A peripatetic polymath, Benoy Sarkar, lent valuable support to the avant garde with his controversial manifesto, The Futurism of Young Asia , condemning orientalism as parochial, and urging Indian painters to embrace the 'truly international' modern style, of art.

The two closest members of Abanindranath's family, the poet Rabindranath (1861-1941), and his brother Gagenendranath, had quietly and resolutely ignored his movement from the start. The former had constructed a disturbing private world peopled by birds, women and monsters, which had stylistic affinities with Holzel, Eckmann and others of the German Jugendstil movement. The latter had borrowed freely from Cubism to construct another private fairy-tale world, with such theme, as 'The Poet in the Island of the Birds', His works reached an unusual intensity with his use of patterns based on kaleidoscope images. Tagore's literary reputation may have contributed to the great success his paintings had in the West, but the sheer power of his radical imagination could not fail to appeal to Europeans, already attuned to the poetic license of Paul Klee and Max Ernst.

The Bengal School encountered growing hostility in the 1930s, including that of Amrita Sher Gil (1913-1941), a remarkable woman painter from the Punjab, full of verve and imagination, whose complex personality has lately been recounted by Malcolm Muggeridge in his memoirs. Before the Swadeshi art movement had spent its creative force, it had been successful in leaving a lasting mark on the artistic map of India. As with all movements, it had its moments of inspiration, its inevitable absurdities, its strengths and weaknesses.

The old debate between westernisers and orientalists continued, giving rise to a very individual artist of the pre-Independence generation. Trained in Calcutta Art School, Jamini Roy (1887-1972) went through an academic phase, followed by an orientalist reaction, as was the case with many sensitive young men of the period. He then experimented with a series of eastern and western styles, creating pastiches, parodying them, whilst seeking to learn from them in order to create an indigenous style. Neither pastiche nor revival was able to satisfy him for long, and it was to the simple, folk art of his village that he ultimately turned. Folk art had begun to enjoy a vogue among the intelligentsia around the 1920s. Roy however went further and began to use traditional organic substances and earth pigments in lieu of western commercial paints, because he believed that an indigenous artistic expression required its very own medium. Roy perfected in his mature style a ruthlessly simplified form through a slow process of elimination, concentrating on a few bold lines and primary colours. At the end of an exciting intellectual journey, his paintings attained a fine balance between tradition and modernity, between the west and the east, turning to contemporary village art, instead of the romantic past, for inspiration.

By Partha Mitter

Ravi Varma
The Maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother welcoming Richard Temple-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Governor-General of Madras, on his official visit to Trivandrum in 1880 by Ravi Varma
Art and India
Portraying India
Company School Paintings
Further Reading
India and modern art
by W. G Archer

The Emergence of Indian Nationalism: Competition and Collaboration in the Later Nineteenth Century (Political change in modern South Asia)
by Anil Seal

Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth-Century Bengal
by John Hindle Broomfield


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe