Besides, a traditional society laid great stress on what the creative individual received from his heritage; it was by knowing his heritage that he developed what one may call organs of creativity. Paradoxical as it may sound, this conditioned, on the one side, the traditional artist for cross-cultural exposure; used to rationalising an art form from an ancient time and understanding its conventions of practice, he was prepared to countenance another cultural form without much resistance (even if he was not fully equipped to understand it). But, on the other side, this ensured that he did not lose his balance in the process, as his basic training and orientation obliged him to reinterpret each new form in its light and ignore whatever was out of tune with it.

Of this kind of training, I may refer here to an extreme example. Years ago, when I was a student, one of my teachers had observed that in a traditional art atelier in Japan, he had visited, the entire training of the student consisted of copying a scroll painting by Toba Sojo in free brush line again and again – first over a tracing, then by keep ing it before his eyes, then from memory.

This apparently simple and limited exercise was supposed to give the trainee, through prolonged practice, control over the brush, an understanding of the values of form, space and rhythm and the ability to express them in crisp calligraphic lines. By following a versatile model of craftsmanship like Toba Sojo’s scroll, he went through the whole gamut of skills and sensibilities needed for such expression and, with these at his command, could do whatever he wanted in that métier. All traditional arts and crafts, music and dancing followed (and still follow) this pattern of tutelage with commendable and not-so-commendable results: commendable when the process does not stop with aping the prototype and repeat ing its technical mannerisms but goes on to respond to experiences outside its pale; and not so commendable when it stops short of this. When a tradition has various parallel work-streams and corresponding prototypes, as it tends to when it broadens and diversifies, there may be many such systems of tutelage for a novice to choose from or reconcile.

This was so at the end of the Italian Renaissance; and Agostino Carracci’s well-known sonnet, counselling a young man who hoped to be a “goodly painter” to follow the drawing of the Romans, the movement of the Venetians, the colouring of the Lombardians and to emulate works of Michelangelo, Titian, Correggio, Raphael and others for their special merits, points to this.

Many other artists and academicians received similar counsel, earlier and later. Such exhortations to eclecticism are also easy to find among the discussions of traditional literature and art in our own country, though all these are generally concerned with different forms or styles within the same work-stream which have moved away from each other and have developed their own specialities with the passage of time, deriving stimulus from different sectors in our experience of nature.

Historically, modern Indian art should be taken to start with the appearance of the non-traditional artist on the Indian cultural scene. It is here that you see the emergence of individual artists, liberated, maybe against their choice, from social predispositions and left to fend for themselves. It is here that the artists come face to face with the problem of identity. In seeking an individual basis for activity, they come upon the question of their environment. Where do they belong? In seek ing out the nature of their activity, they come upon the questions: Who are they? What do they want to say? It is another matter that artists have probably not faced these questions squarely, or have been happy with stopgap answers. In any case, the appearance of the non-traditional artist came out of, in a sense, the establishment of the government art schools.

The history of these art schools is known to most of us. Almost all of them were instituted with the major purpose of strengthen ing the traditional crafts of India, and the minor purpose of “refining” its figurative art traditions through a contact with Western forms, though this was not overtly stated. The former purpose was well intentioned but was never served by the schools for obvious reasons. The latter was ill-conceived and counterproductive; instead of refining our traditions, it edged them out, again for obvious reasons. What the schools really succeeded in doing was to arouse an interest in the Western art tradition and its various skills. The need for these skills was growing in this country, where photography, realistic illustration, block engraving, etc., were coming into use with the introduction of a new kind of education and new methods of communication. The students came from various strata of society as the new educational system and the liberal ideas it propagated wiped out, to some extent, the caste-bound stigmas associated with the practice of certain professions.

But the government art schools did not really encourage the kind of individuality we associate with modern art. Rather, they drilled the artists in academic realism of the more wooden kind, driving young man after young man to make the same kind of drawings, paintings and portrait studies. In effect, they trained a whole new class of craftsmen to serve a whole new set of needs. The atmosphere in these schools was not at all encouraging of creativity. There was no educational ferment, nor any rethinking of values. For that, you had to look elsewhere.

The British, for all their opacities of vision, took the initiative in surveying the art and craft traditions of India and its various cultural institutions; and in their assessment of these, were themselves drawn into several controversies. At a time when there was a fervent nationalist counterforce gathering strength in the country, these controversies had their repercussions on Indian thinking. The details of these are too well-known to go into here.

In the field of art education, these led to thoughts such as: The academicism of the art school does violence to the native Indian genius; it foists on the Indian an arsenal of alien norms and skills, it distorts his outlook and keeps him alienated from his cultural roots. The Indian, nay the Oriental, has to find his own norms and skills if he has to preserve his own genius and develop along the right lines. In fact, the spiritual East has an edge over the materialistic West in matters of culture and religion and has its own lessons to give. Certainly one of the biggest reasons for this was the fear among a section of the Indian intelligentsia that they would be robbed of their culture, and eventually their national, identity, if they succumbed to this educational system. But it was also true that the system did not have much to commend itself.

The search for alternatives led us into a study of our traditions in an effort to unearth, as it were, archetypes for further growth. This was a time when the learned sought to read the personality (or “ethos”) of a people by studying their history and institutions, by studying their behaviour or genetic structure. Some of them even went as far as to hint at a kind of evolutionary determinism lying coiled at the core of each culture, and put into service the conceptual infrastructures of various scientific disciplines – geology, physiology, botany, biology, psychology – to explain it in terms of a cultural shift, anatomy, strain, code or daemon. In any case, some of our new artists sought a connection with their traditions in order to fight back the sense of alienation that was gaining on them as a result of colonial rule, though they did not always manage to construe these traditions in clear enough terms.

Shri Bhagwati Shah
Youth Services and Cultural Activities
3rd floor
Block No. 9
Gandhi Nagar

Dear Shri Shah,

Thank you for your kind letter of 11 July 1972. I am happy to hear that the Gujarat government is thinking of beautifying their offices, houses and public buildings.

I would, however, like to mention here that the way to beautify buildings does not merely consist in strewing works of art around them. Most of our public buildings are ill-built and ill-maintained. Their interiors are shoddy, especially the office interiors which are probably the worst examples of visual disorganisation – with files heaped everywhere worse than rubbish, with inelegant furniture, with drapes which are hardly better than rags. Few public buildings have gardens worth their name and, in most of them, the public facilities are filthy. If all of these are going to remain as they are, adding a few works of art to this confusion will not serve any purpose; it will be as futile a gesture as repairing an ill-cooked dish with superficial garnishing.

I think that if the Gujarat state government seriously means to beautify its offices, houses and public buildings, it should first clean them up, paint them well, polish their fittings, plan their interiors with taste, use simple well-designed furniture, have the offices in better order and plant and maintain gardens around each of them. A work of art becomes appropriate only when these basic requirements are fulfilled.

To do these best and economically, the state government should have expert committees with young architects, artists, interior designers, horticulturists and landscape designers to plan the reconditioning. It should acquire or commission works of art only when there is a plan for such comprehensive reconditioning.

I hope you will not misunderstand why I write such a letter; while as an artist I am interested in promoting the state patronage of the arts, as a private citizen I am equally concerned that this patronage should be well conceived. To dump a few works of art on what is a disorganised slum is doing justice to neither. Also, when works of art are commissioned, the government will have to see that they get the best and the most appropriate works (through competitions or otherwise) or else they will eventually have on their hands a large body of mediocre work which they cannot put aside even if they want to.

Yours sincerely,
KG Subramanyan

Then and Now

Nothing remains the same.

This was a wilderness when you came here first
Though not a howling desert or a woodland thick with trees,
Just a place that met the sky in privacy.
Far from the crowd of men.

A pebbly piece of earth,
Washed bare by winds in summer, by water in the rains.
Where grasses grew tall,
And the sturdy palmyras with fan-shaped leaves.
And all the rest was small.

The lanky date-palms notch-cut at the neck
Like crazy punks, with a crown of spiky leaves.
Stunted mango trees; sour-plum bush.
Thorned simul trees with crimson cup-like flowers
Standing like candelabra;
Crowded with raucous birds.
Thin palas, whose blossoms burned like fire
In cool-black chalices that lined their stems.
The seven-leafed mascot tree
That tempted the patron to make this settlement,
And gained its special status.
Then clumps of bamboo round the scattered huts
That went wild in a storm and swayed their heads
Like soothsayers in a trance.

Each was special
But they did not stand together
To make an impression.
Like those in the tourist sites;
Grouped, groomed and ordered by landscape architects.
Flattered by artists in their watercolours.
And reproduced in posters on the walls.

Yet they had each
A special kind of speech
That called you close and whispered shamelessly,
See me for myself. Come and read my name
In the crinkles of my skin,
My knots and crevices,
The folds of my leaves and the funnels of my flowers,
My fruits and pods with flat uncloven seeds.

You spent four years to make their acquaintance;
Hearing their murmurs; sniffing their gummy sap,
Reading the stories scripted on their trunks;
Getting a thrill from the touch of their leaves and flowers
Aping their awkward gestures. Desperate
To fill your work with these.

But that was hard to do. The most you got
Was a smudgy fingerprint.

But even that was rewarding as it went.
You can’t have it all.

Did not some thinker say
That all this art is but a shadow-play?

When I had to leave I left with a heavy heart.
With a curious feeling just below the ribs
That brought me close to tears.
I mooned around each site, each tree and bush
Of this world I knew for many days on end.

Their images survive.
For now and then, when I try to call them back
They step out just as they were in those days
Lean, ascetic, bony, intimate
Dated spectres from a world that was.
Certainly strange to the people of today.

For their recent successors are fat and lush;
And in a crowd, not single, separate.
Each shooting higher to catch the sun’s first rays
In jostling competition. They have lost
Their old proportions, even characters.
More artful now, they are less articulate.

They do not excite me as their parents did.
Maybe my eyes have lost their appetite,
And hold to what they knew when they were keen.
This is but natural. It is hard for one
Used to the slender beauties of the Book of Hours
To fall to the charms of the bulgy denizens
Of the fleshy world of Peter Paul Rubens.

The Oadlisque and the Jumping Cat

She sits now in a chair
Upon a tiger pelt.
Is that real or fake?
That will be hard to tell.
It has the orange field.
It has the jet black stripes.
It has a whiskered face.
And two balls of shining eyes.
And rows of teeth and claws,
All white like chinaware.

It is late afternoon
And like all such afternoons
Weighed down by a sense of loss.
Time is now running out.
The white day has lost its gloss.
She is just half-awake
Untied her body’s knots.
The flesh has now become dough.
The skin too is creasing up.
The bones creak at every move.
The breath has a distinct wheeze.

But she remembers – once
Time stopped and served her ends.

(Or so it seemed to her.)
Burnished her moony face,
Tinted her cheeks and lips,
Buoyed up her tiny breasts,
Padded her waist and hips
Hardened her marble thighs,
And although she stood on earth
Flew her up in the skies.

Then the tiger was not a pelt.
He stood on sturdy legs.
Burned bright and waved his tail.
And held warm between her thighs
Breathed fire like a blacksmith’s forge.

This gave her immense power.
Grew on her many arms
With tools for love and war
To handle any man or beast
That chose to cross her path.
Giving her a god-like grace
That redressed her mortal frame,
Burnished it silver white
Like a blistering autumn cloud.

But the tiger soon lost its power,
To hold high her body’s fire.
So on a summer’s day
He packed up and ran away

And jumped into a weedy lake.
She sought him; but too late.
When out of its slimy bed
They lifted and brought him out
He was already stiff and dead.

So on these hapless afternoons
She has no power-cat.
Only its ragged pelt.
Nor any beasts in sight
To give her a chance to fight.
No challenge now, no risk
So sprawling in her chair
And dreaming of the days gone by
She is no goddess now
Just a handsome odalisque.

Excerpted with permission from The Creative Circuit; The Living Tradition; Letters; and Poems; KG Subramanyan, Seagull Books.