Native light and the colours of prejudice

Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922
September 1, 1995

The past decade or so has seen a sudden spurt of interest in colonial India, both in academe and more generally, with new histories, social and political analyses and theoretical formulations about colonialism. More recently, two books surveying the art scene of the period have appeared from the same publisher. Tapati Guha Thakurta's The Making of a New Indian Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal 1850-1920 was published in 1992, Partha Mitter's Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922, the book under review, in late 1994.

Mitter is a meticulous scholar. He has taken enormous pains in collecting background information and reading all the relevant literature he could lay hands on. In his previous book, Much Maligned Monsters, he spotlighted the ignorance, often the obtuseness, of the West in its early readings of traditional Indian art and how these misreadings left their mark on the attitudes and notions of some subsequent - though well-meaning and learned - Indophiles. This led him to conclude that the art of a civilisation should be studied in the light of the ideas and values of its native milieu.

In his new book he therefore takes extensive stock of the diverse viewpoints of the practitioners (artists and art educators) and their public (patrons, critics and "media men"). The rapid establishment of printing presses in India during his chosen period and the growth of English and local language newspapers and periodicals meant that the cultural scene was covered rather elaborately; and in resurgent India, with a vocal intelligentsia, these media also became platforms for lively controversy. However, as a result of his research, Mitter seems to have gained a sense of the ineluctable foreignness of the past, which requires historical analysis to be a delicate balancing act mediating between current ideas and past ideas about art - all the more so when the ideas of the colonisers tended to be one-sided and tinged with condescension, and the counter-ideas of the colonised and their partisans often over-reactive, shadowed by the assumptions of the colonisers.

In reappraising this past, Mitter accepts too readily certain notions outlined by western art historians. He refers to the revolutionary impact of post-Renaissance realism as a natural prelude to the growth of modernism, as they do, and says that this art carried in itself the seeds of its dissolution (rather as Marxists at one time considered capitalism to be an essential prelude to the growth of socialism). The appearance of comparable stylistic traits in the art of colonial India therefore makes Mitter hail the period as an "age of optimism", whatever that may mean. And he poses the question, "Why did academic naturalism oust the earlier Indian art of the colonial period with such ease?" But did it? Academicism arrived on the Indian scene in the 1770s, after the East India Company had strengthened its presence in India and a number of European artists had come to seek their fortunes in the country by gaining the patronage of princely courts and native states. In the second half of the 19th century their visits ceased and we see the rise of their Indian-born successors. The success of Raja Ravi Varma - whom Mitter sees as "the artist as a charismatic individual" and thus a harbinger of modernity - came from the fact that Varma followed close on the heels of these European artists and was backed by his noble birth, personal influence and sound business sense.

But was Varma a good exemplar of academic art? From the various reproductions in this book one can see that his work was highly uneven by academic standards; few of his hugely popular mythological figures and ambitious historical compositions had assured authenticity. His brother Raja Raja Varma, who was unfortunately kept in Ravi's shadow, was a more consistent and talented painter, as his few surviving works show. The hallmark of Ravi Varma's work was a kind of eclecticism, sometimes rewarding, sometimes not. By contrast, the work of various artisan (so-called Company) painters, working for both British and Indian patrons, is more illuminating than Varma's and demonstrates diverse responses to academic art which had subsequent repercussions. Mitter does not give the Company painters any attention, probably because they were miniaturists, did not paint in oils and could not be considered "gentlemen painters" of the kind trained and polished by the art schools.

The latter are the true focus of this book. But what was the contribution of the art schools themselves in strengthening academic art in India? Most of Mitter's account of the art schools concerns the controversies and differences of perspective between the various heads regarding educational objectives. These make interesting, even diverting, reading; but most of the issues are non-issues today. All art educational institutions have always had difficulties in deciding what should be the correct emphasis on art versus design; they still have. Maybe in colonial India the debate was coloured by certain prejudices in the minds of the administrators against the visual arts of the subcontinent. But in the final analysis the concern of art schools with the industrial arts diminished over time. And when it did and the art programme gained prominence, what did it manage to achieve?

Among the art school celebrities Mitter lists (be it a selective list) there are very few, judging from the book's reproductions, who can be considered good exponents of academic realism, who measure up to their western confreres, bar A. X. Trinidade, Manchershaw Pithawala and Fanindranath Bose. For all the importance given to Mahadev Dhurandhar, his work is sorely uneven and drab. And again, going by the reproductions in the book, the work of the teachers is far from impressive and makes one doubt whether they had the ability to instil in students a good academic realist attitude, or even a basic conviction of its worth. What is more, by the turn of the century there was a distinct change of approach in European art schools, ushering in eclectic tendencies in both art and design. Though Britain may have been late in responding to this change, it is conceivable that this new approach had already started to undermine the beliefs of the art schools in India. John Griffiths's painting The Temple Steps, reproduced here, may point to this.

So the kind of ideological opposition between western realist and orientalist modes in this book seems a little overdrawn if we go by the results. Not that the records of the time do not give proof of raging controversies, which Mitter elaborately documents, fully demonstrating the contradictions obvious in each position. (Lord Curzon, for instance, who had a poor opinion of Indian character and integrity, was neverthless eager to protect India's cultural traditions. E. B. Havell, who was a loyal servant of the crown, was at the same time a vociferous advocate of indigenous traditions in Indian art and design. Abanindranath Tagore, who wrote expositions of indigenous canons of art, rarely practised them or even had confidence in them. And so on and so forth.) But these were all alarums and excursions in a typical colonial drama, in which variable strategies of dominance and resistance were employed by, respectively, the rulers and the newly self-conscious intelligentsia.

The truth of the colonial interaction lay hidden behind all this. The work of the "orientalist" Tagores, seen as a whole, shows as many similarities with European art forms of the period as it does nationalist echoes; probably more of the former than of the latter. And in the established art schools of the subcontinent, modernist rethinking began first among those trained by the Tagores' disciples (eg Nandalal Bose) rather among the academicist sections - contrary to what might be expected on the basis of a simple ideological opposition.

But apparently Partha Mitter's intention was to document the whole drama in great detail and strong colours and present it with operatic aplomb. Much of this detail is amusing, even engrossing, with each player dressed up and sometimes caricatured and his historical context made intriguing and conspiratorial. And it is rewarding in the sense that it is bound to make readers sit up and think afresh. Art and Nationalism in Colonial India will therefore be an invaluable source book for future students and researchers.

K. G. Subramanyan is a painter and emeritus professor of painting, Visva Bharati University, India.

Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations

Author - Partha Mitter
ISBN - 0 521 44354 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £60.00
Pages - 475

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