Old Indian Art


The amazing expansion of Indian culture and art to other countries has led to some of the finest expressions of this art being found outside India. Unfortunately many of our old monuments and sculptures, especially in northern India, have been destroyed in the course of ages. ‘To know Indian art in India alone,’ says Sir John Marshall, ‘is to know but half its story. To apprehend it to the full, we must follow it in the wake of Buddhism, to central Asia, China, and Japan; we must watch it assuming new forms and breaking into new beauties as it spreads over Tibet and Burma and Siam; we must gaze in awe at the unexampled grandeur of its creations in Cambodia and Java. In each of these countries, Indian art encounters a different racial genius, a different local environment, and under their modifying influence it takes on a different garb.

Indian art is so intimately associated with Indian religion and philosophy that it is difficult to appreciate it fully unless one has some knowledge of the ideals that governed the Indian mind. In art, as in music, there is a gulf which separates eastern from western conceptions. Probably the great artists and builders of the middle ages in Europe would have felt more in tune with Indian art and sculpture than modern European artists who derive part of their inspiration at least from the Renaissance period and after. For in Indian art there is always a religious urge, a looking beyond, such as probably inspired the builders of the great cathedrals of Europe. Beauty is conceived as subjective, not objective; it is a thing of the spirit, though it may also take lovely shape in form or matter. The Greeks loved beauty for its .own sake and found not only joy but truth in it; the ancient Indians loved beauty also but always they sought to put some deeper significance in their work, some vision of the inner truth as they saw it. In the supreme examples of their creative work they extort admiration, even though one may not understand what they were aiming at or the ideas that governed them. In lesser example::, this lack of understanding, of not being in tune with the artist’s mind, becomes a bar to appreciation. There is a vague feeling of discomfort, even of irritation, at something one cannot grasp, and this leads to the conclusion that the artist did not know his job and has failed. Sometimes there is even a feeling of repulsion.

I know nothing about art, eastern or western, and am not competent to say anything about it. I react to it as any untutored layman might do. Some painting or sculpture or building fills me with delight, or moves me and makes me feel a strange emotion; or it just pleases me a little; or it does not affect me at all and I pass it by almost unnoticed; or it repels me. I cannot explain these reactions or speak learnedly about the merits or demerits of works of art. The Buddha statue at Anuradhapura in Ceylon moved me greatly and a picture of it has been my companion for many years. On the other hand some famous temples in South India, heavy with carving and detail, disturb me and fill me with unease.

Europeans, trained in the Greek tradition, at first examined Indian art from the Grecian point of view. They recognized something they knew in the Graeco-Buddhist art of Gandhara and the Frontier and considered other forms in India as degraded types of this. Gradually a new approach was made and it was pointed out that Indian art was something original and vital and in no way derived from this Graeco-Buddhist art, which was a pale reflection of it. This new approach came more from the Continent of Europe than from England. It is curious that Indian art, and this applies to Sanskrit literature also, has been more appreciated on the Continent than in England. I have often wondered how far this has been conditioned by the unfortunate political relationship existing between India and England. Probably there is something in that, though there must be other and more basic causes of difference also. There are of course many Englishmen, artists and scholars and others, who have come near to the spirit and outlook of India and helped to discover our old treasures and interpret them to the world. There are many also to whom India is grateful for their warm friendship and service. Yet the fact remains that there is a gulf, and an ever-widening gulf, between Indians and Englishmen. On the Indian side this is easier to understand, at any rate for me, for a great deal has happened in recent years that has cut deep into our souls. On the other side perhaps some similar reactions have taken place for different reasons; among them, anger at being put in the wrong before the world when, according to them, the fault was not theirs. But the feeling is deeper than politics and it comes out unawares, and most of all it seems to affect English intellectuals. The Indian, to them, appears to be a special manifestation of original sin and all his works bear this mark. A popular English author, though hardly representative of English thought or intelligence, has recently written a book which is full of a malicious hatred and disgust for almost everything Indian. A more eminent and representative English author, Mr. Osbert Sitwell says in his book ‘Escape With Me’ (1941) that ‘the idea of India, despite its manifold and diverse marvels, continued to be repellent.’ He refers also to ‘that repulsive, greasy quality that so often mars Hindu works of art.

Mr. Sitwell is perfectly justified in holding those opinions about Indian art or India generally. I am sure he feels that way. I am myself repelled by much in India but I do not feel that way about India as a whole. Naturally, for I am an Indian and I cannot easily hate myself, however unworthy I may be. But it is not a question of opinions or views on art; it is much more a conscious and subconscious dislike and unfriendliness to a whole people. Is it true that those whom we have injured, we dislike and hate?

Among the Englishmen who have appreciated Indian art and applied new standards of judgment to it have been Lawrence Binyon and E. B. Havell. Havell is particularly enthusiastic about the ideals of Indian art and the spirit underlying them. He emphasizes that a great national art affords an intimate revelation of national thought and character, but it is only to be appreciated if the ideals behind it are understood. An alien governing race misapprehending and depreciating those ideals sows the seeds of intellectual antipathy. Indian art, he says, was not addressed to a narrow coterie of literati. Its intention was to make the central ideas of religion and philosophy intelligible to the masses. ‘That Hindu art was successful in its educational purpose may be inferred from the fact, known to all who have intimate acquaintance with Indian life, that the Indian peasantry, though illiterate in the western sense, are among the most cultured of their class anywhere in the world.

In art, as in Sanskrit poetry and Indian music, the artist was supposed to identify himself with nature in all her moods, to express the essential harmony .of man with nature and the universe. That has been the keynote of all Asiatic art and it is because of this that there is a certain unity about the art of Asia, in spite of its great variety and the national differences that are so evident. There is not much of old painting in India, except for the lovely frescoes of Ajanta. Perhaps much of it has perished. It was in her sculpture and architecture that India stood out, just as China and Japan excelled in painting.

Indian music, which is so different from European music, was highly developed in its own way and India stood out in this respect and influenced Asiatic music considerably, except for China and the Far East. Music thus became another link with Persia, Afghanistan, Arabia, Turkestan and, to some extent, in other areas where Arab civilization flourished, for instance, North Africa. Indian classical music will probably be appreciated in all these countries.

An important influence in the development of art in India, as elsewhere in Asia, was the religious prejudice against graven images. The Vedas were against image worship and it was only at a comparatively late period in Buddhism that Buddha’s person was represented in sculpture and painting. In the Mathura museum there is a huge stone figure of the Bodhisattva which is full of strength and power. This belongs to the Kushan period about the beginning of the Christian era.

The early period of Indian art is full of a naturalism which may partly be due to Chinese influences. Chinese influence is visible at various stages of Indian art history, chiefly in the development of this naturalism, just as Indian idealism went to China and Japan and powerfully influenced them during some of their great periods.

During the Gupta period, fourth to sixth centuries A.C., the Golden Age of India as it is called, the caves of Ajanta were dug out and the frescoes painted. Bagh and Badami are also of this period. The Ajanta frescoes, very beautiful though they are, have, ever since their discovery, exercised a powerful influence on our present-day artists, who have turned away from life and sought to model their style on that of Ajanta, with unhappy results.

Ajanta takes one back into some distant dream-like and yet very real world. These frescoes were painted by the Buddhist monks. Keep away from women, do not even look at them, for they are dangerous, has said their Master long ago. And yet we have here women in plenty, beautiful women, princesses, singers, dancers, seated and standing, beautifying themselves, or in procession. The women of Ajanta had become famous. How well those painter-monks must have known the world and the moving drama of life, how lovingly they have painted it, just as they have painted the Boddhisattva in his calm and other-worldly majesty.

In the seventh and eighth centuries the mighty caves of Ellora were carved out of solid rock with the stupendous Kailasa temple in the centre; it is difficult to imagine how human being conceived this or, having conceived it, gave body and shape to their conception. The caves of Elephanta, with the powerful and subtle Trimurti, date also from this period. Also the group of monuments at Mamallapuram in South India.

In the Elephanta caves there is a broken statue of Shiva Nataraja, Shiva dancing. Even in its mutilated condition, Havell says that it is a majestic conception and an embodiment of titanic power. ‘Though the rock itself seems to vibrate with the rhythmic movement of the dance, the noble head bears the same look of serene calm and dispassion which illuminate the face of the Buddha.

There is another Shiva Nataraja in the British Museum and of this Epstein has written:

Shiva dances, creating the world and destroying it, his large rhythms conjure up vast aeons of time, and his movements have a relentless magical power of incantation. A small group of the British Museum is the most tragic summing up of the death in love motive ever seen, and it epitomises, as no other work, the fatal element in human passion. Our European allegories are banal and pointless by comparison with these profound works, devoid of the trappings of symbolism, concentrating on the essential, the essentially plastic.

There is a head of a Bodhisattva from Borobudur in Java which has been taken to the Glyptotek in Copenhagen. It is beautiful, in the sense of formal beauty, but, as Havell says, there is something deeper in it revealing, as in a mirror, the pure soul of the Bodhisattva. ‘It is a face which incarnates the stillness of the depths of the ocean; the serenity of an azure, cloudless sky; a beatitude beyond moral ken.

Indian art in Java,’ adds Havell, ‘has a character of its own which distinguishes it from that of the continent from whence it came. There runs through both the same strain of deep serenity, but in the divine ideal of Java we lose the austere feeling which characterises the Hindu sculpture of Elephanta and Mamallapuram. There is more of human contentment and joy in Indo-Javanese art, an expression of that peaceful security which the Indian colonists enjoyed in their happy island home, after the centuries of storm and struggle which their forefathers had experienced on the mainland.’!

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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