It is an extremely delicate and difficult task for the pupil to write about his Master. So many factors tend to bias his personal estimation that a correct valuation seems to be almost an impossibility. One never knows how much the Socrates of Plato is real Socrates and how much a creation of Plato's own brain.
In order to judge the greatness of a man in any particular field of art or culture, we must bear several things in mind: whether he is great by himself, a peer in his own right or great through other circumstantial or contributory causes; whether he is great in his own limited personal sphere, a lone star, or great amidst a galaxy of great ones; and finally, whether his greatness is purely parochial and transitory or universal and far–reaching in its effects. History record's many instances in which greatness is thrust upon persons of mediocre merit, who come into the limelight of publicity for a fleeting span of years and then pass on to the limbo of complete oblivion. Of such were made the one–time heroes of political revolutions, of such are made the heads of offices of the present day. No official status or prestige can ever confer real greatness on a man unless he possesses some innate quality, a unique personal power of self–expression, some outstanding distinction which lifts him above his fellowmen.
Accepting for the time being this sketchy definition of greatness, we find that Abanindranath is resplendently great in all the three respects. He is great in his own right, a peer without peer in the realm of art, a shining light in the midst of a host of scintillating ones, and one whose beneficent influence will shed sweetness and light for years to come.
It is often seen that the pioneers of new art–movements are looked down upon with suspicion and distrust. The Impressionist painters in France were ridiculed as mad dilettanti. The very newness of their self-expression shocked the placid conservatism of the public and made it put its back up. The same fate was in store for Abanindranath. His early work was not well received by the professional critics of the day who pooh-poohed his work as puerile and amateurish. Nothing daunted, Abanindranath worked his way up the ladder of success with unflinching determination in spite of the hail of protests and derision which the critics showered upon him. He had ample faith in his divine mission and subsequent events proved that he was right.
Wherein lies the secret of his success? What is the special distinguishing characteristic of his genius? Is he a mere opportunist hitching his wagon to the star of nationalism and reaching his goal of fame on the surging tide of a popular nationalist movement, a cultural demagogue who avails himself of a propitious current of events or a true genius ushering in a new era of art–consciousness and artistic achievement, a leader of men inspiring thousands to follow his joyous oriflamme? Looking back into the pages of history we found that periods of intense artistic activity and those of intense national fervour do not always synchronise. The Napoleonic era did not produce great art or great literature. It was an era of action, not an era of creation. More often, it is during the fag end of periods of comparative peacefulness, that new art movements arise, breaking through the shackles of academic codifications and conservative placidity. This restlessness of the creative impulse is discernible throughout the tail–end of the Victorian era and finally it gave rise to many and varied fin du siecle movements in art and literature.
In India, the effects of the fin du siecle spirit were fairly apparent in politics, literature and art towards the beginning of the present century. The poetry of Rabindranath reflected the breaking of old traditions. of old forms, the politics of Surendranath represented the incipient intolerance of the long accepted forms of government and the art of Abanindranath revived the long dormant creative ebullience pent up in the heart of a sensitive race.
Up till now Bengal had drunk deep of the heady wine of Western culture. Her modes of life, especially in the upper circles, her ways of thinking, her language even, had rapidly become anglicised. The inevitable reaction started in the opening years of the present century. Abanindranath was the first person to show that in art, as in literature, it is best to express the nation’s mind in the typical and characteristic national way. Western art was all very good for the Westerners. It is a typical product of the culture of the West, just as the piano is the typical musical instrument to render Western music adequately. But for complete joyous and unhampered self–expression in art for the East, it was practically as unsuitable as the tuxedo is for Indian dinner–parties. Years of national effort to express the national mind in art carves out a characteristic channel which is typical of the genius of the country, just as the hill–streams trace their serpentine way in a characteristic manner on the hill–side. This path is not ready made, not preconceived, but wends this way and that in accordance with the invisible ebb and flow of the nation’s sprit.
Abanindranath was the first to perceive that the salvation of the country’s art lay in picking up the broken threads of tradition, in recapturing the essentially national spirit, of form as well as of sentiment. Early in his career he painted a series of “Krishna-lila” pictures, which in spite of their obvious technical immaturity, show that he had struck the right path and had rediscovered the long–lost secret of the old Indian masters.
At about this time he also came across a beautifully illustrated Mughal manuscript in his grand–father’s library, which decided once and for all the trend of his future artistic genius. Just as the “Krishna–lila" pictures showed that in order to appeal to Indian heart, the subject matter should be typically Indian, in a similar way, his Mughal pictures proved that for technical model it is far better to adopt the simple refined style of the Mughal masters than lose oneself in the complicated labyrinth of Western technique. The difficulty with technical elaboration in art is that it often makes the artist a slave to his technique rather than its master. Skill in handling, dexterity of manipulation, slick versatility are all very good, but they can never compensate for the loss of a telling directness, an eloquent simplicity of style and a spontaneous revelation of the soul of the artist.
His fondness for the Indian classics prompted Abanindranath to seek his early inspiration from such well–known Sanskrit works as Kalidasa's Meghadutam, Ritusamhara, Betalpanchavimsati as well as the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. His classicism was not however the archeological and sartorial classicism of David, Leighton or Alma Tadema, but something subtler, something still more romantic, seeking to recapture the fragrance of bygone days and their delicate spirit rather than their solid, matter–of–fact, three dimensional reality. True reality is not the reality of archeological reconstructions but a finer reality which is beyond reason or analysis and perceivable by the heart alone.
This inner reality of true vision is apparent in every work of Abanindranath. He made the dry bones of history live in a way as they never had lived before. His renderings of Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and others are truer renderings of the character of the Grand Mughals than even the magnificent courtly portraits painted by contemporary master–painters of the Imperial Household. It is true that from the point of view of elaborate technique the Mughal paintings are unapproachable by any modern painter. But alas! technique is not everything in art. What is lamentably wanting in the Mughal portraits and what is triumphantly apparent in Abanindranath's art is the life–force, the real emotional appeal which vitalises a mere painting on wood, canvas or paper into something vibrating with inner life and glowing with a light that never was on sea or land.
A picture ordinarily is an inert thing. The life it breathes is the life which its creator infuses into it. This supreme radiance comes from the heart of the artist and transmutes it into a thing of beauty and joy for ever. The beauty and the spiritual glow that we see in Abanindranath's paintings are the outcome of his sensitive soul, of the more inner and inmost realities, as Sri Aurobindo calls them. They are the products of those glittering movements in which
"All may be imagined from the flash,
The cloud–hid god–game through the lightning–gash,
Those hours of stricken sparks from which men took
Light to send out to men in song and book."
It is impossible to touch on all the points of greatness of the Master's art in a short article like this. He is undoubtedly the greatest seer and path–finder in the art of modern India and the torch that he has lit will burn for untold ages and serve as a beacon light to bumble votaries of art for countless generations to come.
– Published in Visva–Bharati Quarterly, May, 1942 pp 38–42.