By Ananda K. Coomaraswamy
A 12th Century bronze statue of Kali from South India
An increasing use is made of sculpture. As in other countries, there is a stylistic sequence of primitive, classical, and baroque types. The primitive style of Bharhut and Sanchi can hardly be surpassed in significance and may well be preferred for the very reason that it restricts itself to the statement of absolute essentials and is content to point out a direction which the spectator must follow for himself. Nevertheless, in many ways, the Gupta period, from the fourth to the sixth centuries a.d., may be said to represent the zenith of Indian art. By this time the artist is in full and facile command of all his resources.
The paintings of Ajanta, approximately comparable to those of the very early Renaissance in Europe, depict with irresistible enchantment a civilisation in which the conflict of spirit and matter has been resolved in an accord such as has hardly been realised anywhere else, unless perhaps in the Far East and in Egypt. Spirituality and sensuality are inseparably linked here and seem to be merely the inner and outer aspects of one and the same expanding life. The art of this age is classical, not merely within the geographical limits of India proper, but for the whole of the Far East, where all types of Buddhist art are of Indian origin.
There follows a mediaeval period which was essentially an age of devotion, learning and chivalry; the patronage of art and literature moving together as a matter of course.
From the twelfth century onwards, the situation was so profoundly modified so far as the north of India is concerned by the impact of Muhammadan invasions of Persian and Central Asian origin. But while the effects of these invasions were to an appalling extent destructive, the Islamic art added something real and valuable to that of India; and finally, though only for a short time, under the Great Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries, there developed in India a new kind of life which found expression in a magnificent architecture and a great school of painting. Just because of its more humanistic and worldly preoccupations, this art is better known to and better appreciated by Europeans at the present day than is the more profound art of Hindu India.
From the twelfth century onwards, the situation was so profoundly modified, so far as the north of India was concerned, by the impact of Muhammadan invasions of Persian and Central Asian origin. But while the effects of these invasions were to an appalling extent destructive, the Islamic art added something real and valuable to that of India.
Hindu culture persisted almost unchanged in the South. In the great temple cities of the South, both the reality and the outward aspects of the ancient world have survived until now and the world has no more a wonderful spectacle to offer than can be seen here.
Everyone has heard of the Taj Mahal, a wonder of inlaid marble built by Shah Jahan to be the tomb of a beloved wife; everyone can easily understand and therefore admire the Mughal paintings that provide us with a faithful portrait gallery of all the great men of northern India during a period of two centuries. This is a kind of art that really corresponds to that of the later Renaissance, with all its personal, historic and romantic interests.
In the meantime, Hindu culture persisted almost unchanged in the south. In the great temple-cities of the south, both the reality and the outward aspects of the ancient world have survived until now and the world has no more a wonderful spectacle to offer than can be seen here. In the north, Hindu culture survived too in Rajputana and the Punjab Himalayas and here, in direct continuity with ancient tradition, there developed the two schools of Rajput painting that are the last great expressions of the Indian spirit in painting or sculpture. Modern developments in Bengal and Bombay represent attempts either to recover a lost tradition or for the development of an eclectic style, neither wholly Indian nor wholly European. At the present day, the Indian genius is finding expression rather in the field of conduct than in art.
European influence on Indian art has been almost purely destructive; in the first palce, by undermining the bases of patronage, removing by default the traditional responsibilities of wealth to learning. Secondly, the impact of industrialism similarly undermining the status of the responsible craftsman, has left the consumer at the mercy of the profiteer and no better off than he is in Europe. Thirdly, by the introduction of new styles and fashions, imposed by the prestige of power, which the Indian people have not been in a position to resist. A reaction against these influences is taking place at the present day, but can never replace what has been lost; India has been profoundly impoverished, intellectually as well as economically, within the last hundred years.
Even in India, an understan-ding of the art of India has to be re-won; and for this, just as in Europe where the modern man is as far from understanding the art of the Middle Ages as he is from that of the East, a veritable intellectual rectification is required. What is needed in either case is to place oneself in the position of the artist by whom the unfamiliar work was actually made and in the position of the patron for whom the work was made: to think their thoughts and to see with their eyes. For, so long as the work of art appears to us in any way exotic, bizarre, quaint or arbitrary, we cannot pretend to have understood it. It is not to enlarge our collection of bric-a-brac that we ought to study ancient or foreign arts, but to enlarge our own consciousness of being.
As regards India, it has been said that ?East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.? This is a counsel of despair that can only have been born of the most profound disillusion and the deepest conviction of impotence. I say on the contrary that human nature is an unchanging and everlasting principle; and that whoever possesses such a nature-and not merely the outward form and habits of the human animal-is endowed with the power of understanding all that belongs to that nature, without respect to time or place.
(Extract from Introduction to Indian Art, published by Munshiram Manoharlal, 10-B, Subhash Marg, Delhi-110 006.)