Vessantara Jataka, Pavilion scene in the Palace of Prince Vessantara and his wife Princess Madri, 5th-6th century C.E.
Art,  English

Unity in diversity makes Indian culture unique

The text below is the excerpt from the book Art of India (ISBN: 9781783107834), written by Vincent A. Smith, published by Parkstone International.

At the Delhi Exhibition of 1902-1903 many examples were shown of the oil-paintings and water-colours produced in considerable quantities of late years by students trained in European methods, chiefly at the Government Schools of Art in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Lahore. In Sir George Watt’s book, Percy Brown, late Principal of the Calcutta School of Art, criticized the Delhi exhibits as follows:

Until its introduction from Europe, there was no oil painting of any kind practised throughout the country, but the number of pictures executed in the medium shown in the Exhibition reveals the fact that oil picture painting as a branch of study, as well as a means of livelihood, is being taken up seriously by a rapidly increasing class. Some of the work displayed in the Eastern Hall of the Exhibition was remarkably good; in the life studies the modeling and feeling of living flesh being well reproduced, and one or two landscapes showed an atmosphere and a consideration for composition which is worthy of remark. Much, however, of the work shown was of a very ordinary character, the drawing being decidedly defective, and the technique and colouring in most cases crude.

The Jetavanaramaya stupa, located in the ruins of Jetavana Monastery,
3rd-4th century C.E., Indian
The Jetavanaramaya stupa, located in the ruins of Jetavana Monastery, 3rd-4th century C.E., Anuradhapura period. One of the largest brick structures in the world (93.3 million baked bricks), height: 122 m, volume: 233,000 m3. Anuradhapura.

The most prominent representative of the Europeanized school of Indian artists was the late Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) of Travancore, a connexion of the Maharaja of that State. His works, which are extremely numerous, achieved wide popularity, and have been freely vulgarized by oleographs and other cheap modes of reproduction. The Raja practised both portrait and landscape painting, and four of the portraits in the Banqueting Hall, Madras, are from his brush. He was assisted by his relative, Raja Raja Varma (1863-1918), and other members of his family. He had received instruction from Theodore Jensen and other European artists who visited Southern India, as well as from Alagri Naidu, a native of Madurai who was patronized by Swati Tirumal, Maharaja of Travancore from 1829 to 1847 and was considered in his day to be the best painter in India after the European fashion. Ravi Varma had a formidable rival in Ramaswamy Naidu, a member of the clan of Nayaks at Madurai, who was considered to excel in portrait painting.

Two figures with drum, late 6th century C.E., Indian
Two figures with drum, late 6th century C.E. Sandstone. Ellora caves (Cave XV), Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

Stimulated by the active encouragement of the royal family of Travancore, the Gaekwad of Baroda, and other wealthy patrons, Ravi Varma turned his attention to the illustration of the Hindu legends and epics.

In his own country his works in that kind are regarded as masterpieces and adequate expressions of Indian feeling. At the hands of recent critics in Europe they have met with a different reception.

‘The art’, writes Havell, ‘which truly reflects the fictitious culture of Indian universities and the teaching of Anglo-Indian art schools, is exhibited in the paintings of Ravi Varma, who is the fashionable painter of modern India for those Indians who do not ignore Indian art altogether. Certain it is that his pictures invariably manifest a most painful lack of the poetic faculty in illustrating the most imaginative Indian poetry and allegory; and this cardinal sin is not to be atoned for by any kind of technical skill in the execution.’

This beautiful light-footed elephant painted in one of the ceiling panels has
been chosen as the official logo of India’s Department of Tourism, the first
half of the 6th century C.E., Indian
This beautiful light-footed elephant painted in one of the ceiling panels has been chosen as the official logo of India’s Department of Tourism, the first half of the 6th century C.E. Detail of ceiling panel. Ajanta caves (Cave I), near Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

Coomaraswamy, a fellow mystic, is still more severe, and declares that ‘theatrical conceptions, want of imagination, and lack of Indian feeling in the treatment of sacred and epic Indian subjects are Ravi Varma’s fatal faults. His pictures are such as any European student could paint, after perusal of the necessary literature and a superficial study of Indian life.’

In a later publication the same author gives his opinion with greater brevity and somewhat less severity to the effect that ‘the late Raja Ravi-varma was the best known of these painters in a purely European style, but neither he nor any other workers of the pseudo-European school attained to excellence. His work at the best reached a second-rate standard.’

Probably this last quoted judgement is not far wrong.

‘The work of the modern school of Indian painters in Calcutta’, Coomaraswamy writes, ‘is a phase of the National reawakening. Whereas the ambition of the nineteenth-century reformers had been to make India like England, that of the later workers has been to bring back or create a state of society in which the ideals expressed and implied in Indian culture shall be more nearly realized.

Raja Ravi Varma, Maharani Chimnabai II (1872-1958), 1889, Indian
Raja Ravi Varma, Maharani Chimnabai II (1872-1958), 1889, Modern period. Oil on canvas, 167.64 x 106.68 cm. Maharaja Fatesingh Museum, Laxmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara, Gujarat.

This new movement on the art side has been enthusiastically supported by E. B. Havell, who felt keenly the futility of training Bengali students on purely foreign methods, alien to their nature, and sought to turn their attention to the productions of the Indo-Persian and eighteenth-century Hindu schools as being more expressive of Indian ideals. With some difficulty Havell persuaded the authorities to let him have his way, and replace a collection of poor European works by a choice selection of Indian paintings. He found in Abanindro Nath Tagore (who later went on to become Vice-Principal of the School of Art) a willing coadjutor, and a painter of considerable power. Havell recognized in his colleague a real artist ‘who has come to pick up the broken threads of Indian pictorial tradition’, and credited him with ‘giving us a true interpretation of Indian spirituality, and an insight into that higher world, the fairy land of Eastern poetry and romance, which Eastern thought has suggested.’

Raja Ravi Varma, Paravur Kayal (Lake), 1897, Indian
Raja Ravi Varma, Paravur Kayal (Lake), 1897, Modern period. Oil on canvas, 43.18 x 58.42 cm. Sri Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

Explore on Indian Art in our articles:

India and its Art

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

See more on Indian Art here:

National Gallery of Modern Art

Indian Museum

Museum of Indian Arts & Culture

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

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