Any art practice evolves with change, and likewise, ‘Each change is significant in its own time as it rises over the terminological stagnation or insufficiency of the period preceding it and is in that sense inevitable.’ Likewise, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the young Japanese painter Shokin Katsuta, who was then only twenty-six years old, arrived in Calcutta when India as a whole was ruled by the British and, thereby, striving for a culturally potent scenario. He was hosted by the Tagores at their ancestral Jorasanko thakurbari, which was then the cultural, political-ideological hub of the country. Katsuta was preceded by his mentor, Tehshin Kakuzo, the renowned Japanese artist, educationist, visionary, and curator, followed by Yokohama Taikan, Hsishida Shunso, Kempo Arai, et al. But Katsuta’s stay in India for two consecutive years, from 1905 to 1907, played a significant role because he was officially appointed a teacher at the Government School of Art, Calcutta, when, interestingly, Abanindranath Tagore was its vice principal, a rare feat of cultural exchange during the British colonial era.

Any art form is a dynamic phenomenon that changes with the specific needs, enquiries, and technological attributes of societal developments. Likewise, since the beginning of the twentieth century, the infusion of Far Eastern art and aesthetics, especially from China and Japan, received an appreciative acceptance into Indian art practice and helped in creating an indigenous language of its own within the framework of nation-building. Already, under British rule and the emergence of Western academic knowledge, a new consciousness in terms of definition, intention, and application of art emerged amidst the Indian elite class of society which, earlier, was relegated to traditional craftsmen.

To this new awareness, ever since the establishment of art schools from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the necessity for individualism, the quest for originality, and similar ideas grew, expanding the conceptual breadth of art on one hand, and making it one of the coveted professions of livelihood on the other. Within this new approach, Abanindranath was considered a pioneer because the Tagores, in various spheres, were consciously nurturing the enhancement of self-expression, which was one of the major objectives of modernism. The language of Indian art, therefore, explored more humanistic knowledge and objective truth-seeking to devise a kind of global art form.

Amidst this changing landscape, when Shokin Katsuta arrived in Calcutta in 1902 with a unique pan-Asian outlook, his ideas were appreciated and accommodated. Later, his book, The Ideals of the East: With Special Reference to the Art of Japan, managed to nourish an ideological change to a great extent. Shokin Katsuta’s arrival in the city took place within this virile phase of assimilation and absorption.

Funded by Japanese ministry of agriculture and commerce, Katsuta left for India days after his wedding.

Katsuta had graduated from the Tokyo Art College under the tutelage of the noted teacher Hashimoto Gaho. Katsuta was a nihonga artist who practised the Japanese modern style of painting, an idea which was at first initiated by Okakura, Gaho, and a few others. Katsuta had a liberal and experimental approach to his choice of subject as well as the technique from the very beginning.

‘Indian art is essentially idealistic, mystic, symbolic, and transcendental. The artist is both priest and poet,’ noted E. B. Havell, the great reformist of Indian art. In the same way, the art of Japan too evolved with certain mystical, spiritual, and philosophical understandings from times bygone. Japanese art and culture, which was mostly aligned with Buddhism, was initially derived from China but over the centuries transformed itself to secure a unique vocabulary infused with spirituality, mysticism, aesthetics, and beauty. This awareness played a pivotal role in the emergence of traditional techniques to which the rendition of space, the magnificence of calligraphy, and often the usage of minimum colour in wash treatment, created an eloquent pictorial language. Kakuzo Okakura’s pan-Asian outlook could, therefore, easily amalgamate with the Indian mindset and vye for a new direction amidst a nationalist set-up brewing around the country. A major agenda of the era was to seek an alternate to Westernisation through an individual style rooted in the soil. Shokin Katsuta, who was already infused with his Buddhist ideologies and an evercurious creative mind, found further stimulation within this Indian scenario. His travels to Ajanta and Ellora mesmerised him not only from a religious point of view but also from the magnificence of its technicalities.

Credit: DAG

His trips to Sarnath and Bodhgaya, along with Surendranath Tagore, besides having the virtue of a pilgrimage, also offered him immense stimulus to undertake the making of innumerable sketches and provided him with subjects for his paintings. Unfortunately, most paintings undertaken during his Indian stay remain untraced except for a review in the journal of oriental art, Rupam, where O. C. Ganguly mentioned two of his works titled Buddha and Sujata and Temptation of the Buddha. Apart from these, a few black and white photographs help us catch a glimpse of the subject matter and composition of some of his paintings. Tapati Guha-Thakurta in her book, The Making of a New Indian Art, mentions a work titled Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana in the Forest based on a black and white photograph. Katsuta was also an art teacher to the Tagores, and as a result of that close association with Abanindranath, his stylistic traits became noticeable in the latter’s Meghadoot, The Great Departure, Sujata, and other paintings. Katsuta maintained a dairy that gives us several interesting inputs about his travels and stay in India, and his sharing of creative perceptions with Abanindranath, Gaganendranath, and others. In one of them, he mentions an exhibition being arranged by the Tagores that had unfortunately to be cancelled. Rabindranath had also invited him to Santiniketan and in the writings of Kazu Azuma, the noted Japanese Tagorean scholar, we come to know that Katsuta became the first Japanese teacher to teach the oriental technique of art in Kala Bhavana.

As a nihonga artist, Shokin Katsuta had an unbiased outlook that was further enhanced on his trip to India. He evolved beyond the percepts of traditional constraints to introduce elements of freshness and originality by representing Buddha in a personified manner. The iconographical divinity of Lord Buddha was merged with a more humanistic outlook.

Credit: DAG

The painting by Katsuta represented here is a figurative composition in watercolour on silk with the subject as well as its interpretation being much more Indian in flavour. Though Untitled, the composition, if viewed carefully, appears to relate to an episode in the Ramayana of the banishment of Rama, Sita, and Lakshman, with King Dasarath seated on his throne in an abashed posture—perhaps the painting Rama’s Partaking mentioned in Japanese scholar Masumi Igarashi’s treatise on Katsuta. While the composition is divided into the conventional mode of three tiers with a foreground, middle ground, and background, in a sombre palette of sepia, brown, white, and black, the delineation as a whole is a combination of Western and Indian ideals. While Rama, Lakshman and Dasarath have been represented with academic perfection, Sita has been deliberately portrayed in the Pahari miniature style in a demure stance.

Indian art during those days was in the process of borrowing from Indian miniatures and such correspondence can be duly noticed here. The traditional female costumes in the miniatures mostly comprised a long skirt, a blouse, and a transparent scarf, which Sita in this painting has been verily draped in. Secondly, while Sita is projected with a fairer complexion, Rama and Lakshman are more Dravidian in their looks and physique, creating a cross-cultural, cosmopolitan disposition in the narrative. Such amalgamation of concepts and styles was the trend of the era and Abanindranath himself was then negotiating with such attributes. As mentioned earlier, working closely with Abanindranath, it was quite possible for Katsuta, in turn, to be influenced by the Indian master. Abanindranath’s ‘Abhisarika’ and Katsuta’s ‘Sita’ have a close affinity and belong to the same genre.

Credit: DAG

Besides the figurative forms, the chandelier, floor carpet, furniture, and other still-life objects, all probably validated his panoptic sensibilities towards his immediate surroundings in the Jorasanko household. Being a Japanese painter, Katsuta’s minute sense of observation and decorative predilection blended sensibly in this portrayal of an episode from the Indian epic. As a painter, he was noted for of his introspective outlook. However brief his contribution to Indian art, it complemented the genesis of a notable visual expression.

Shokin Katsuta in his later years. Credit: DAG

This is an excerpt from Iconic Masterpieces of Indian Modern Art, DAG, 2023. The second edition of the Iconic Masterpieces of Indian Modern Art will debut simultaneously on February 11 at two venues in New Delhi – DAG’s booth at India Art Fair, as well as at its new galleries in New Delhi, located at Windsor Place, Janpath. It will run until March 26.