Foreign fields with inspiring corners

The Arts of Kutch - Hindu Art and Architecture - Sketches Scribbles Drawings - Indian Art
October 5, 2001

We have heard of chinoiserie - the 18th-century European craze for all things Chinese - but what is "europeanerie"? It describes a much less well-known scenario: the East's fascination with things western. In this particular case, early colonial India's attraction to all things European, such as the passion of the Mughal emperor Jahangir and many lesser princes for European mirrors, clocks and art, including scenes from the Bible, portraits of Queen Elizabeth and even paintings of English admirals and generals.

"So far," writes Amin Jaffer in an original contribution to The Arts of Kutch , "scholars working on India in the era of the East India Companies have suggested that the Indian adoption of western dom-estic articles was largely political", ie there was a kudos attached to the trappings of the colonial power. "But even before it became advantageous to understand western manners and tastes, there existed in India a very genuine interest in certain western manufactures. It is likely that these sentiments were motivated by precisely the same type of curiosity which inspired chinoiserie in the West."

Kutch is the desert area in India's far west, bordering Pakistan, with the salt marsh known as the Rann of Kutch in the north and a long coastline in the south. Over four centuries until 1947, it was a princely state, remote from the rest of India and not subject to British power until the mid-19th century. Although its princely rulers were Hindus, a strong Islamic influence pervaded Kutch; indeed, it boasts the oldest surviving Muslim monuments in India, erected in the mid-12th century. This was some years before the Muslim conquest of northern India in 1192, and indicates that the buildings were the work of peaceful seafaring traders. As revealed in a fine contribution by Mehrdad Shokoohy, these traders were far more tolerant than the sultanate in Delhi. Instead of smashing Hindu temples and images such as the abominable phallic linga, they adopted some Hindu motifs and building principles in their mosques.

Much later, the most celebrated Hindu ruler of Kutch, Maharao Lakhpatji, did the same with European art and architecture. Inspired by one of his subjects who had spent some 18 years in Europe, around 1750 he built a palace that included the Aina Mahal, a colourful mansion displaying a harmonious blend of Indian design with European-style mirrors, Venetian chandeliers, and floors made of blue delftware tiles - much of which appear to have been manufactured in Kutch from European designs. Alas, the Aina Mahal was severely damaged in the terrible earthquake of January 26 2001.

The Arts of Kutch is thus something of an inadvertent memorial to the splendour that was Kutch. Packed with magnificent photographs, it covers architecture, painting, silverwork and the current craft traditions in wood carving, weaving and embroidery, all supported by expert text. One can only hope, given the traditional resilience of Kutchis, that the artisans who were so badly hit by the quake will recover soon, and that at least some of the devastated architectural and artistic heritage can be restored.

Kutch does not feature in Hindu Art and Architecture , George Michell's contribution to the World of Art series. But this is because he has restricted himself to "shrines consecrated to Hindu cults, and works of art portraying specifically Hindu divinities, semi-divine personalities and mythological narratives". Palace architecture and secular paintings of the Hindu courts, such as the famous Rajput courts at Udaipur and Jodhpur, are therefore excluded. Within this narrow compass, the book is outstandingly good, with a brilliantly chosen treasure trove of illustrations, exquisitely reproduced, and a lucid, jargon-free commentary by one of the world's experts on this multifarious, intractable subject, which remains unfamiliar and even rebarbative to the majority of those educated to admire western art.

Here, for example, is Michell on that most iconic of Hindu sculptural images, Shiva Nataraja, the four-armed Dancing Shiva: "His two rear hands hold the fire and the drum, the latter producing the sound which accompanies the cosmic dance; in front, his left hand is flung across his body to point downwards to his lifted foot that indicates liberation, while the other foot crushes a dwarf who represents ignorance." This language is simple but illuminating, bringing the non-specialist into sympathy with an arcane image.

Partha Mitter, by contrast, in Indian Art , apparently seeks to distance readers from his subject, which includes the Islamic art traditions as well as palaces and painting right up to 2000. At the outset, he announces:

"There is a need for a reassessment of the way in which we look at, and talk about, Indian art. The interesting question is not what Indian art shares with western art, but how it differs from it." Michell would surely disagree, as does this reviewer. What is interesting is what Indian art shares with western (and far eastern) art and what is uniquely Indian - along with the interplay between the universal and the specific, as in the films of Satyajit Ray. To downgrade the universal elements and concentrate chiefly on the parochial ones seems to be self-defeating in a book intended to introduce Indian art to a wide audience.

A second theme stresses that "insight into the unique qualities of Indian art is best achieved through a broad cultural history which places art production and patronage in its social and cultural contexts". Again, such an approach has its place in writing about the art of any civilisation, but when the writer allows it to smother an aesthetic response, the effect is deadening, especially when, as here, the illustrations fall well below the standard expected. Not only are many of them unclear, technically speaking, they are poorly chosen and incomplete, showing no detail from the great temples at Khajuraho or Konarak, nothing worthy from Vijayanagar, no painting at all from Shekhavati, and, shamefully, no works by Binodebihari Mukherji, K. G. Subramanyan and Dhruva Mistry, despite ample space given to barely known, inferior modern artists. (Imagine a book on British art that omitted to illustrate work by, say, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud and Eric Gill.)

There are also significant errors in the text, which is loaded with technical language, inconsistent spellings, jargon and political correctness, and is sometimes sloppy (eg, no exact dates are given for the building of the Taj Mahal). According to Mitter, the Mughal term for "public audience hall" - as at the Red Fort in Delhi - is diwan i-amm khass . But this is a contradiction in terms. Amm means "general" and khass means "special"; the correct term is simply diwan i-amm , the diwan i-khass being the "private audience hall", as Mitter rightly says. And it is wrong to lump Rabindranath Tagore in with the Bengal School and imply that he was a "soulmate" of the Theosophists; he was critical of Bengal School painting (his own painting utterly rejected it), and he heartily disliked Theosophical mumbo-jumbo.

It is a relief to turn to the works and writings of a major modern artist, widely regarded as among the finest living Indian artists, Subramanyan. Now in his late 70s, he has been producing work - almost all figurative - for half a century in a great range of media, from watercolour on paper, to glass painting, murals, fibre hangings and terracotta sculptures, as well as illustrating his own children's books and writing extensively on art while teaching at the M. S. University in Baroda. His oeuvre is marked by a certain sensuousness and wit and a refusal to be pigeon-holed. He is serious, but this does not stop him from being light-hearted and responsive to popular culture. He favours "a blurring of borders between the highbrow and the lowbrow", in his own words about his visit to America a decade or so ago. However, he does not indulge in nobrow: his work is never mindlessly repetitive and designed purely to sell, unlike too many of his contemporaries in India. He is an inspiring example of how deep roots enable an artist to suck in nourishment from all over the world and produce new growth.

As Subramanyan explains in "Reminiscences and reflections", his sophisticated introduction to his "sketches, scribbles and drawings" from the past three decades, he was lucky in his early training. In 1944, he went to the art school at Shantiniketan, the university founded by Tagore, where he was influenced by notable artists and teachers. The most important was Binodebihari Mukherji, whose landmark murals at Shantiniketan Subramanyan helped to complete. A second artist, Nandalal Bose, told an instructive story of how he had found a blind street-singer in a town and brought him to Shantiniketan for training in music. There he moved about the campus, stick in hand, clapping his hands from time to time to sense where he was by the echoes. "Nandalal used to say artists are more or less in the same predicament; we have eyesight but we are blind to a lot of what we see. What impels us to do what we do... is the desire to probe it afresh and sense it in its echoes."

Sketches Scribbles Drawings , a large-format book splendidly produced in India, is, so to speak, a collection of echoes from around the world. Many are scribbles and sketches - though the majority are signed - but others have the look of finished drawings. None is titled, though they are described, dated and located at the back of the book. This enables one to gauge roughly why the book has been divided into nine (unlabelled) sections: one section concerns China and Japan following a visit; another Britain (where Subramanyan was a fellow at Oxford in the late 1980s); a third depicts creatures such as goats, monkeys and insects; a fourth shows trees; while a fifth contains human figures, including nudes and Hindu-inspired imagery. Most evince humour and joie de vivre ; throughout one feels a delight in the quotidian. From time to time, they bring to mind works by a wide variety of painters, for example Goya, the Mexican painter Francisco Toledo, Kalighat bazaar paintings from Calcutta, traditional Chinese landscapes, and the indefinable strangeness of Tagore's art world.

With an artist of Subramanyan's richness, this is as it should be. But he is not superficial in his borrowings, merely derivative like chinoiserie. His work reminds me of what Ray, an admirer of Subramanyan, once said of Binodebihari Mukherji, who was also Ray's art teacher: "You never feel that 'Oh, now he's copying so-and-so's composition...' You feel he's being himself - very much so. It's a reflection of his own personality and his ability to get the best out of all the elements and make a whole."

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES , and author of Maharaja and The Art of Rabindranath Tagore .

The Arts of Kutch

Editor - Christopher W. London
ISBN - 81 85026 48 3
Publisher - Marg Publications
Price - £38.00
Pages - 147

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