Yokoyama Taikan: As I Knew Him

— Mukul Dey

 Pen-n-ink sketch ofYokoyama Taikan by Mukul Dey, Japan 1916
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
This three-page, typed and unpublished article, entitled ‘Yokoyama Taikan: As I Knew Him’ by Mukul Dey was found in two parts: The first two pages being found in May 1996 and the rest in December 2000 among Dey’s papers in Santiniketan. The article  was dated May 19, 1958, the year Yokoyama Taikan passed away.

As a young artist pupil of the Tagore family I was so fortunate as to be invited to join Gurudev’s party on his lecture tour to America in 1916. On the way we decided to visit Japan in order to meet again the famous Japanese artist Yokoyama Taikan, who had been to India soon after 1900.

Having no other contacts in Japan we were delighted to be met at the very moment of our arrival at Kobe by Yokoyama Taikan himself. He immediately offered us the hospitality of his country, and was our constant companion, entertaining us first in Osaka, in the garden-house of the very rich proprietor, Mr. Murayama, of (the) Asahi Simbun newspaper, where we were introduced by his charming daughter to the famous Japanese tea ceremony.

From there, after seeing Kobe and the neighborhood, our host took us by the day train to Tokyo so that we could see the scenery and, above all, Mt. Fujiyama, getting to the capital by late evening. To our astonishment, for we did not know that our host had sent word of our arrival before hand, we found the station thronged and decorated, while a flight of aeroplanes made welcoming sounds overhead. Gurudev Tagore was then awarded the signal honour of being driven in a regal open coach drawn by six grey horses to Yokoyama Taikan’s house near Ueno Park through crowds that lined the streets shouting “Banzai Banzai”!

Monochrome reproduction of landscape with Mount Fuji and rising sun by Yokoyama Taikan
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
This house was to be our headquarters for over a month and from it friends took us to see as much as we might of the cultural life of Japan — its pictures, its theatre, its ancient architecture and its incomparable landscape gardens. In the mornings and towards the end of the day there would be interesting discussions with university professors and other prominent people.

While discoursing in his house on various topics, Yokoyama Taikan had shown his dismay at the way in which his country was becoming westernised. For instance, while talking of the railways, he was firm in thinking that the carriages should be furnished in Japanese style, that is to say with the thickly woven paddy-straw matting known as tatami on the floor with fine grass matting over it and that the passenger’s shoes should be left with the attendant at the entrance lobby and that they themselves should be seated on the floor with a cushion at their back and a low table at their side so that they might feel comfortable and at home.

Needless to say he himself lived in the best Japanese traditional style and was all in for the old-fashioned good manners and ways of living.

Rabindranath Tagore’s reception at Ueno Park, Tokyo, June 1916
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Yokoyama Taikan’s famous paintings were distributed amongst his friends and admirers, where they were exhibited as the custom was, singly on the wall of a particular room.

Being a young art student I was eager to grasp the opportunity of taking lessons from Yokoyama Taikan and of studying his methods of painting. When left to his own devices he enjoyed nothing as much as studying nature and of watching the insects and fish in the little garden pond attached to his studio building.

I was inspired by his admonition not to copy nature slavishly, but to try to observe deeply so as to feel and understand the essential spirit behind nature at large, trying thereafter to express what I had felt in my painting and eliminating all unnecessary details.

Detail of the above photograph showing Tagore, William Winstanley Pearson and Mukul Dey wearing a turban, along with Japanese dignitaries
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
He himself demonstrated to me his way of painting bamboos, landscapes at early dawn, Japanese village scenes and the river, mountains and seas of his native land. Mt. Fujiyama in all her moods was one of his favourite and most sacred subjects and the one upon which his fame mainly rested.

Apart from teaching, it was his habit to travel about the countryside in a rickshaw, studying nature and gaining inspiration for his next big picture for the annual exhibition at Nippon Bijutsu-in. He was so unique and outstanding an artist that he would limit himself to one masterpiece per year in painting a large folding screen of many sections.

When his annual painting was on view the whole of the art-loving public would crowd to see it. Everyone was keen to absorb the latest artistic ideas of this great artist, and the sum paid for this annual picture was not only always readily forthcoming, but was sufficient to keep him in comfort for the next twelve months.

His works commanded so high a price indeed that he once suggested to me that to keep us both for a year he would paint a large picture for himself and a small one for me.

Unfortunately, being attached to Gurudev Tagore’ group, and being then en-route for America I could not stay with him for any length of time, nor could I accept his further help and hospitality.

Tagore at his writing desk, at Sankeien 1916
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Regarding his large pictures, the screen would be of silk overlaid with gold, which was either spread over it or applied in the form of gold leaf. There were times when after some months of working on a particular design he would become dissatisfied and would destroy the whole thing to start all over again on a freshly prepared gold screen.

I watched him painting one of his large yearly screens. First, for instance, he would paint a big tree with branches and leaves with light Chinese ink and brush very slowly and carefully, each leaf by leaf, with slow, snail-like movements. Gradually he would build-up with stronger tones of ink. In this way, and only when the composition was completed would he begin to use colour over the Chinese ink and in the same process he would complete the painting.

In the final picture the tree would be the dominating feature in the composition which consisted of a horse in a stable, with the farmer bringing grass to the waiting horse.

Being with this great leader of Japanese artists of his time, gave me an insight into the traditional cultural atmosphere of Japan which embraces all the ways of life, manners, thought, music, poetry, architecture, pottery, dress, dolls, flower arrangement, tea ceremonies, dancing and indeed everything.

So absorbing was his love of nature that Yokoyama Taikan would spend hours studying the formation of weeds, lichens, moss, the very many fungi on the pine trees and would draw them with utmost care and infinite love in his note books. He would go out from his village inn on his rickshaw and go slowly along meditating and observing the birds, mountains, waterfalls, clouds, the moon and the sun and studying the different phases of nature such as morning mists, moonrise, little rivulets and Mt. Fujiyama at different seasons, and in all her moods.

He painted such superb work that no other artist could touch him in his time and he was always regarded in his country as the finest one in Japan.

Wherever he stayed the hotel proprietors made no charge for his room or his meals, but it was understood that he would present them with one of his larger paintings in scrolls or makimonos, which they naturally preferred to cash payments, for they felt honoured that the great artist should stay in their premises. The proprietors would hang these paintings on special occasions for the enjoyment of distinguished visitors.

In one or two such hotels I was taken to see Yokoyama Taikan’s paintings and I was always thrilled at the sight of them, as they were superb pieces. One large painting reminded me of the beautiful girls of life-size - with flower hair dressing of the type of Ajanta cave paintings.

Japanese brushes and ink-stones or Suzuri used by Mukul Dey
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Watching his painting technique I realised that it resembled that which was employed in our ancient wall paintings of Ajanta, Bagh and other places. As, for example, the palette of colours prepared from selected coloured stones finely powdered. The medium being refined fish glue applied with his brush to the silk screen.

The brushes were very finely made of strong and seasoned bamboo reeds and selected hairs. The Chinese ink (known also as Indian ink) was made from pure lampblack and camphor in solidified thick sticks.

This is a very ancient craft. I have seen Yokoyama Taikan while working, if the brush was too full of the ink he would suck his brush and swallow as the camphor contents were beneficial to the stomach, as he himself maintained. It gave him great pleasure to give presents of such painting materials to friendly Indian artists whenever they visited him. To an artist these were indeed most valuable gifts.

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