Which Way Indian Art?

— Mukul Dey

Dr. Abanindranath Tagore with his first batch of students. These were the founder students of Bengal School of Painting. Photograph taken at Govt. School of Art, Calcutta. Sarada Ukil standing on the right and Nandalal Bose sitting fourth from the left. Also present are Asit Kumar Haldar, Samarendranth Gupta, Shailendranath Dey, K. Venkatappa, Kshitindranath Majumdar and Shami-us Zama of Lucknow amongst others.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
An extremely important article, ‘Which Way Indian Art?’ by Mukul Dey, is reproduced below from the CENTENARY volume of the Govt. College of Art & Craft, Calcutta; published in 1966- Ed.

Bengal — Hundred Years Ago

About a century ago it was decided by the British Raj that modern education should be given to us through the medium of the English language. The younger generation in Bengal gradually got rid of their superstitions and prejudices, and broadened their minds by coming into contact with a virile literature. They were, for at least fifty years, completely overcome by British influence. Many at that time even tried to forget Bengali to learn English. Many even embraced Christianity mainly for the sake of its prestige, and young Bengal in general tended to look down upon anything, which had the slightest Indian flavour in it.

Indigenous literature and art found a precarious refuge in Bat Tala and Kalighat while the educated classes wore frock- coats, furnished their homes with plush furniture from European shops and gratified their artistic cravings with nude marble statues bought from undertakers, garnishing their conversation and letters with fluent quotations from Shakespeare, Milton and Byron.

Thoughtful Englishmen in India were, however, horrified to see themselves thus caricatured by the young Bengalis of the day, and their ill-disguised contempt for these outcasts from their own traditions proved eventually to be their own salvation. Educated Bengalis soon came to realise that unless they laid a solid foundation of Indian culture underneath the European culture which they were striving so hard to imbibe, it would lead them nowhere, but merely make them the laughing stock of thinking Englishmen and Indians alike.

Baboo Jabberjee, cartoon of Bengali “bhadralok”, Punch 1895.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The result was a quickening of the national pulse in every field of life, followed by what may be called the birth of Modern Indian culture. The Anglo-Indian school of thought and learning, however, prevailed throughout the 19th Century in large parts of the country.

Revival of Indian Art in 1900 A.D.

Kakuzo Okakura, a famous Japanese art critic and a master of the then modern Japanese art, and many other Japanese artists (e.g., Yokoyama Taikan, Shunso Hishida, Shokin Katsuta, Kampo Arai etc. Ed.) came to Calcutta and following the ancient Indian technique painted pictures of Indian subjects and gave demonstrations in right lines in Calcutta from 1900 A.D. They warned the Bengali artists against cheap imitations of the West and advised them to follow their own old traditions.

Gagonendranath and his younger brother Abanindranath were thus inspired. The Japanese Masters actually demonstrated how to draw and paint on paper and silk in the technique of Ajanta and Bagh paintings.

Indeed, India has yet to make due acknowledgement of the debt that she owes to these pioneer pilgrims of art and culture from a friendly foreign land, who opened the eyes of contemporary leaders of thought in Eastern India. Their successors still continue their interest in old Indian art, without being given due recognition for such keen interest. Indeed, there are no visible signs of any desire on the part of India to benefit by the goodwill and expert knowledge in fine arts and crafts of such friendly people.

Incidentally, it would be of interest to know that a school of Japanese Art still continue to paint in ancient Indian technique (including similar colour) of Wall-paintings. Japan is the only country where this old technique is still alive today.

Chaitanya Dev Seeking Farewell from His Mother, water-colour wash painting by Gagonendranath Tagore.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The Society of Oriental Art, in 1907 

Bengal started taking the lead from appreciative Englishmen who respected the new art movement and started “The Indian Society of Oriental Art” in Calcutta which was then the capital of India and the centre of Indian art movements. Lord Kitchner of the Fort William, Calcutta became the first President of this Society in 1907.

Havell and Tagore

About 70 years ago Mr. E. B. Havell was the Principal of the Government School of Art in Calcutta. He was one of those Europeans who believed that the salvation of Indian Art could only be achieved by the Indian artists going back to their own traditions. Mr. Havell however, met with much adverse criticism from the Press and the public, but he had an infinite capacity for taking pains.

In the Government School of Art he had Dr. Abanindranath Tagore as Vice-Principal to whom Havell confided his dreams about the future of Indian art. Abanindranath himself had some years previous to this, finished with his experiments in following the European style. He seized this opportunity to abandon the teaching of imitation European art in his classes, and to take steps to bring out the latent talents of the pupils themselves.

Havell and Tagore cleared the Art Gallery attached to the School of its copies of third or fourth-rate European pictures and worthless plaster casts of Greek models, and began to collect in their place real Indian art objects to serve as inspiration and not as models for imitation.

Birth of Krishna by Abanindranath Tagore. In his early works Abanindranath borrowed heavily from Pahari miniatures.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
At first only four or five enthusiastic students joined Tagore’s new Indian painting class, the rest remaining indifferent to his call. But the result showed that these pioneers alone were able to rise to the height of their inborn talents, while the other students remained buried in oblivion. Of these successful pioneers a few are now dead but all of them proved to be efficient heads of Government Art Schools in different provinces of India during the British period.

Bengal School of Art (1900 to 1940 A.D.)

From this humble beginning Tagore and his pupils brought into being what is known as the Bengal School of Art. They began to send their work to various exhibitions and drew the admiration of all true art-lovers. Soon Abanindranath began to attract more and more students to his classes and their constant attempts at original self-expression gave the impetus to do likewise to many a young artist in other parts of India.

In 1910 Lady Herringham came out to India on behalf of the ‘India Society’ in London, to copy the frescoes of Ajanta. She applied to Abanindranath Tagore to supply her with artists to assist her in this work. He deputed his pupils who acquitted themselves so well that, when Lady Herringham returned to England, English art-lovers and art-critics at once began to take notice of the Bengal School.

Abanindranath himself obtained recognition with a C.I.E. from Government, and with the degree of Doctor of Literature conferred by Calcutta University. When, however, Mr. Havell retired from the Government School of Art an Englishman was chosen to be the Principal and with the consequent resignation of Tagore in 1915 the Indian Art Department was practically abolished from the Government Art School, Calcutta.

Rabindranath Tagore as Baul in Phalguni, 1916. Painting by Abanindranath Tagore.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Fortunately, however, this did not give any setback to the Bengal art movement. Art students flocked round Tagore’s own studio in his Jorasanko house where they were always welcome and where they learnt all Tagore had to teach without having to bear the expenses of their education.

Characteristics of Bengal School

One has to guard a movement with great care, when it is in its infancy so that it may not be damaged by adverse outside influence. Abanindranath Tagore and his disciples had to nurse their school of art like a hot house plant. They drew their inspiration from Indian mythology and tradition including by-gone Indian history, and their paintings at first were mainly confined to subjects derived therefrom.

They were in the beginning somewhat afraid of modern life, lest they should be drawn merely into imitative representation. This led them to avoid landscapes or portraits, the representation of present day objects or events, so their work remained somewhat artificial, in the sense that it was not the outcome of their own actual experiences, but rather of a dreamland which they made real by giving it colour and form for those who had the eyes to see, and the hearts to feel with them.

Painting was found to be the best medium for expressing this dream life of theirs, and so the first group of Abanindranath’s disciples completely neglected other mediums of art such as sculpture, architecture, or means of reproduction like Lithography, Woodcut, Etching, etc. Oil paintings were also disliked as being too decidedly European.

On the Ganges, Calcutta, 1917. One of the early etchings of Mukul Dey.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
After some years this strict following of mythological, allegorical or old historical subjects was felt monotonous. One of these artists started experimenting with the drawings and paintings of local river scenes and subjects from modern rural life, not neglecting certain aspects of Indian life to be found in the nooks and corners of the city of Calcutta.

This young man was at once marked down as a rebel by Abanindranath Tagore’s pupils. But Abanindranath himself encouraged the young artist’s enterprise, contenting himself by giving proper direction to his activities whenever occasion arose. This sympathy from the master helped other younger artists to branch out into their own expressions of actual life and experience.

Beginning of the New Spirit

Later on some of these artists went over to England after being firmly grounded on the bed-rock of Indian tradition. There they acquired a wider experience of life and considerable skill in the different mediums of artistic representation. And, because of their Indian grounding, they succeeded in assimilating much that is sound in European artistic culture, so that, in whatever medium they chose for expression, their work became more universal in its appeal without losing its distinctive Indian quality.

When these artists returned to India, they infused a new spirit into Indian Art. They were not afraid of looking at life as it is. Nevertheless, they avoided the vulgar and the sordid for the simple reason that their higher training enabled them to see all the more clearly that true art cannot abide in what is not true and beautiful. Thus the hot-house plant of the Bengal Art School developed into a splendid tree growing outside in the sun and air.

Cotton Street, Burrabazar, Calcutta, 1917. Early etching by Mukul Dey.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Woodcuts, Lithographs, Etchings, Sculpture have now come to be regarded as legitimate products of Indian Art and have got a firm footing in the Bengal School. Even Commercial Art, comprising book illustrations, posters and other forms of propaganda art, which had so long been regarded as products of European Art, has gained exponents among Indian artists and the Commercial Art Department was started in the Government Art School, Calcutta, in 1925.

Additions and Progress in the Art School

In 1941 the then Principal of the Government School of Art helped to start the “Art in Industry” Society and first held separate exhibitions of commercial art in the Art School premises. Prior to this he also founded the “Women’s Department” at this School, which was inaugurated by Lord Brabourne, the then Governor of Bengal, and Lady Brabourne. He also organised about twenty different Art Exhibitions in the School premises (e.g., Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy Ed.) for the benefit of the public and the students for which he bore all the expenses himself in between 1928-1942.

Schools of Thought in Art

There are in India at present three types of thought — one would have everything European bodily transplanted into India; another would have nothing to do with anything that savours of Europe. The third is not afraid to engraft the best from foreign sources for the enrichment of the indigenous stock. These types of thought are reflected in various exhibitions held in India.

Modern Art Movement of Today

I am not sure whether today a large amount of money and energy is being usefully utilised in the promotion of genuine Indian art and culture. Indeed, at least some of what passes for Indian art at the present moment, may not be altogether free from the charge of vulgarity, being somewhat grotesque and repulsive in approach and execution. It seems to me that there may be artists and art critics in India today whose interest in Indian art is shallow and lacks depth.

There are well-placed foreigners who are genuinely interested in Indian art, and wonder why Indian artists of today seem to follow slavishly the vulgar type of art productions that one sometimes finds in modern Europe or America?

Imported vulgarism has no true link with Indian traditions. I am afraid the mind of the interested Indian public as well as the younger generation are being bewildered day by day by insidious propaganda.

I take the liberty of mentioning the purport of a talk which I was privileged to have with an eminent personage not very long ago, in the course of which he expressed his view that the highest authorities do not know exactly whether the traditional art or the post-independence art of India is more suitable for shaping the cultural trend of our country. He added that the rival schools of thought should be given equal chance to express themselves in their own way, it being left to the people themselves ultimately to accept whichever deserved to survive.

In effect, however the dice appears to be heavily loaded in favour of the so-called modern art, so far at least as official encouragement is concerned. 

As a humble citizen, I hate to think that in such an important issue, the authorities may choose to follow a policy of drift and not continue the recognition that was given by British intellectuals to the genuine Indian art movement which thrived from 1900 to 1940 A.D.

Graphic art class at the Government School of Art, Calcutta during Mukul Dey’s tenure.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
As a token of recognition of the merit of Indian art I should like to make a prominent mention of the exhibition of “Modern Indian Art” that was held in the Royal Academy, London in December 1934. I make no apology for reminding the Indian public today of certain observations made by the Marquess of Zetland on that occasion. He said:

Indian art had certainly been affected by contact with the Art of Europe — more so in the East — and there had been occasions on which it had been in danger of becoming little more than imitative; but when such a tendency had shown itself the movement had always languished.

Recent art in India remained true to what, broadly spoken, might be said to have been throughout the centuries the distinguishing characteristic of Hindu as compared with European art, namely this, that the artist had aimed at giving expression to mental concepts rather than at reproducing the objects of the external world around him.

The main impulse behind the art movement set on foot at the beginning of the present century, particularly in Bengal, was the outcome of a growing realization that not politically only, but in the matter of culture also, the peoples of India had fallen under the domination of an alien ideal.

It was the same spirit of revolt against the westernization of India which had been playing so large a part in the Nationalist movement that inspired the little circle of men, headed by two nephews of Sir Rabindranath Tagore, who brought into being the new school of painting in Bengal. The work shown in the exhibition was a thing of the spirit and was therefore of high significance”.

Indian Talent Survives (1934) 
Sir William Llewellyn, President of the Royal Academy, London, said on the same occasion:

Particularly all over India the native talent familiar to us in work of the past survives and is well worth cultivating. The tendency today was to universalize everything and art had not escaped. They hoped that in India they would always find work entirely characteristic of that country and not what was characteristic of Western countries. The works of Bengali artists predominate in the gallery allotted to Delhi, Punjab and Central Provinces.”

Commercial Art class at the Government School of Art during Mukul Dey’s tenure.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Traditions — A Great National Asset

We have a tradition of which any nation in the world might legitimately be proud. In our utter ignorance and often misled by the glamour of novelty we are ruthlessly treading upon our priceless inheritance in art and culture. The time has now come for us to fall back upon these traditions for inspiration and guidance, to dive deep into them for light and leading in our path of progress particularly in the realm of art and culture. Unless we do so further progress may well be impossible of attainment.

There are still so much of art tradition left in our country, that we can easily work further for the betterment from these legacies of Indian art for many centuries yet. I would like to remind to the present day students of the College of Art and Craft, Calcutta, that this College once produced a good number of powerful artists some of whom are still producing standard works of art without seeking recognition.

In conclusion I would like to remind my young friends that theirs is a very responsible duty and the nation is expecting again that they would really re-establish the prestige of true Indian art by following in the footsteps of the masters who made Indian art immortal.

Mukul Dey

Retired Principal, Government School of Art, Calcutta
National Gallery of Modern Art,  New Delhi

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