Reclining Nayar Lady, 1902, Art of India
Art,  English

Art of India: A Mirror of India’s Incredible Culture

The text below is the excerpt from the book Art of India (ASIN: B016XN11UA), written by Vincent A. Smith, published by Parkstone International.

In 1897 Gauguin wrote, ‘Ayez toujours devant vous les Persans, les Cambodgiens et un peu d’Égyptiens.’ (Always keep before you the Persians, Cambodians, and Egyptians). One wonders what he would have written if he had known of the frescoes at Ajanta with their magnificent surety of line and delicately rendered plasticity. The placing of castes of Indian sculpture from the late medieval period on exhibition in the Trocadero in Paris may be taken as the first step towards the Western appreciation of Indian Art.

On 28 February 1910 the following declaration appeared in The Times above the signatures of thirteen distinguished artists and critics:

  • We the undersigned artists, critics, and students of art… find in the best art of India a lofty and adequate expression of the religious emotion of the people and of their deepest thoughts on the subject of the divine. We recognize in the Buddha type of sacred figure one of the great artistic inspirations of the world. We hold that the existence of a distinct, a potent, and a living tradition of art is a possession of priceless value to the Indian people, and one which they, and all who admire and respect their achievements in this field, ought to guard with the utmost reverence and love. While opposed to the mechanical stereotyping of particular traditional forms, we consider that it is only in organic development from the national art of the past that the path of true progress is to be found.
Jain god sculpture decorating the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, c. 1050, Art of India
Jain god sculpture decorating the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, c. 1050, Chandella Dynasty. Sandstone. Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh.
  • Confident that we here speak for a very large body of qualified European opinion, we wish to assure our brother craftsmen and students in India that the school of national art in that country, which is still showing its vitality and its capacity for the interpretation of Indian life and thought, will never fail to command our admiration and sympathy so long as it remains true to itself. We trust that, while not disdaining to accept whatever can be wholesomely assimilated from foreign sources, it will jealously preserve the individual character which is an outgrowth of the history and physical conditions of the country, as well as of those ancient and profound religious conceptions which are the glory of India and of all the Eastern world.

This declaration was directly caused by a paper read before the Royal Society of Arts by Sir George Birdwood, the chronicler of Indian industrial arts. As a matter of fact, all that was then said had already appeared in print thirty years before, but the moment was not then ripe for the acceptance of the challenge. Birdwood can in no way be accused of lack of sympathy with Indian life or things Indian. A stylistic analysis of the crafts of modern India is illuminating with regard to one’s attitude to the country itself, for one is forced to acknowledge the predominance of the Islamic and especially of the Persian culture of the Mughal court.

Sadashiva, c. 550 C.E., Art of India
Sadashiva. The supreme expression of Shiva’s divine form, each face expressing a contrasting mood or sentiment. On the left is Shiva as the fearsome form of his aghora aspect, opposite are the soft features of his feminine nature, Vamadeva-Parvati, and in the centre is the divinely calm and meditative Shiva as the supreme yogi Mahadeva, c. 550 C.E., Early Chalukya dynasty. Rock-cut relief, 610 m. Elephanta, Maharashtra.

Except in their everyday household form, pottery and metalwork are purely Islamic. Textiles, especially prints and brocades, are very largely Persian in design, although the Indian strength of imagination and purity of colour are evident. Certain forms of textiles are, however, purely Indian, the darn-stitch Phulkaris of the northwest and certain tied-and-dyed and warp-dyed forms. Only in jewellery has the Indian tradition been wholly preserved, in the beadwork of the villages as well as in the enamels of Jaipur. Birdwood’s love of all this delicate and colourful craftsmanship, and of the complex, changeful life of which it is a part, is expressed in many passages from his pen of very great beauty. The arts of Ancient and Medieval India were outside his field, and his criticism of them is not deeply considered and purely personal.

In his paper before the Royal Society of Arts he stated with regard to a certain Javanese seated Buddha that this ‘senseless similitude, by its immemorial fixed pose, is nothing more than an uninspired brazen image, vacuously squinting down its nose to its thumbs, knees, and toes. A boiled suet pudding would serve equally well as a symbol of passionate purity and serenity of soul.’ This attack, however, may be considered as being equally directed against the loose verbiage of those critics of Indian art to whom the ideal content of an object is of greater importance than its form, than against Indian art itself.

Shaddanta Jataka, 6th century C.E., Art of India
Shaddanta Jataka: The hunter kneels in reverence before the kind Bodhisattva Shaddanta, the elephant king, who is removing his tusks and handing them over, 6th century C.E. Detail of a fresco. Ajanta caves (Cave XVII), near Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

An earlier statement in the official handbook to the India Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum offers a more definite criticism.

“The monstrous shapes of the Puranic deities are unsuitable for the higher forms of artistic representation: and this is possibly why sculpture and painting are unknown, as fine arts, in India … How completely their figure-sculpture fails in true art is seen at once when they attempt to produce it on a natural and heroic scale, and it is only because their ivory and stone figures of men and animals are on so minute a scale that they excite admiration.” Here it must be noticed the subject under discussion is modern Indian ivory-carving. In his Handbook of Sculpture, Professor Westmacott dismissed Indian art in one paragraph, forming his judgement, apparently, from the steel engravings and lithographs of the two or three books that were all that was then accessible.

Itimad-ud-Daulah Mausoleum, 1622-1628, Art of India
Itimad-ud-Daulah Mausoleum, 1622-1628, Mughal dynasty (Jahangir). White marble, semi-precious stone decorations and pietra dura inlay. Agra, Uttar Pradesh.

There is no temptation to dwell at length on the sculpture of Hindustan. It affords no assistance in tracing the history of art, and its debased quality deprives it of all interest as a phase of fine art, the point of view from which it would have to be considered. It must be admitted, however, that the works existing have sufficient character to stamp their nationality, and although they possess no properties that can make them useful for the student, they offer very curious subjects of inquiry to the scholar and archaeologist. The sculptures found in various parts of India, at Ellora, Elephanta, and other places, are of a strictly symbolical or mythological character. They usually consist of combinations of human and brute forms, repulsive from their ugliness and outrageous defiance of rule and even possibility…

Yashoda Ornamenting Bala Krishna (Divine Child Krishna), Art of India
Raja Ravi Varma, Yashoda Ornamenting Bala Krishna (Divine Child Krishna), Modern period. Oil on canvas, 88.9 x 68.58 cm. Private collection.

See more on Indian Art here:

National Gallery of Modern Art

Indian Museum

Museum of Indian Arts & Culture

Cleveland Museum of Art

Heard Museum

The Walters Art Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

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