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Essentials of Art - Bireswar Sen

Updated: Jun 28, 2018

ART is the neglected Cinderella of our Universities and artists, as a class, rank very low on the rungs of our social ladder. From time immemorial they have been un-appreciated, unhonoured and unsung in our own country, so much so that Kautilya in his Arthashastra classifies them with pimps and bear-dancers. They were of so little importance that we know of few names of artists who executed the most glorious monuments and statuary of ancient India, till we come to the late medieval period, when Indian Art was revitalised under the generous patronage of the Mughal Emperors.

One cannot say that things have improved very much during the succeeding centuries, but thanks to the illustrated journalism and a rapidly awakening interest in matters artistic in modern times, the artists have had their share of publicity to some extent. The artists blame the apathetic public for their indifference to objects of art and lack of appreciation in general, but the fault does not lie entirely with the public. The public must be guided, educated and trained to appreciate things of beauty by the State or the Civic authorities, who alone can bring the masses into closer contact with beauty and refinement. In other countries, this mass contact with Art is effected by public monuments, art-galleries, museums, periodic exhibitions and cheap reproductions of famous objects of art, so that they would be readily available to the people at a nominal price. In our country, public monuments are conspicuous by their absence, art-galleries almost non-existent or at least languishing in shade, museums, old curiosity-shops of junks or antiquities devoid of the appeal of beauty, art-exhibitions few and far between and cheap reproductions of the finest works of art yet to be published. For Art must come to the people, even if people cannot come to Art. Persistent and continuous efforts must be made by the civic authorities to make the people art conscious and this can only be done if a long-range policy is chalked out to instill the artistic sense among the citizens.

It is true that art-exhibitions are now being held with a greater frequency all over the country than before, but the visitors to these exhibitions are generally bewildered with the variety of styles and techniques practised by the artists and cannot take an intelligent interest in the objects displayed in such perplexing profusion before their eyes. They shudder over a Newton, rave over a Jamini Roy, enthuse over a Keyt, weep over a Zainul Abedin, gaze starry-eyed over a Tagore or a Bose, without understanding why it is that they shudder or rave or enthuse or gaze starry-eyed over a piece of paper or canvas. In other words they are moved, but do not know what it is that moves them. If they understood the principles of art their pleasures would be doubled, for once the human heart is awakened, it will be possessed by an insatiable thirst to know more and as it knows more and assimilates more, it will discover the latent principles which underlie all artistic productions.

In the ancient language of our country, one seldom comes across a more beautiful appellation than the word "Kavi". Like the one word which so oft is profaned, it has now come to mean a Poet. In our older literature it also means the Omniscient. The gift of Supreme knowledge is thus always linked up with Poetry. A true Poet is indeed a seer as well.

But what does a Poet or an Artist really see? Is his vision the same as ours, a matter of fact optical impression of the fleeting moment, or something deeper and different? We all see, but we do not generally realise the significance of what we see. But to the Poet or the Artist, the deeper significance and the hidden mysteries of life and nature are spontaneously revealed along with his sensory impressions. This clairvoyance of the Soul is only seen in the noblest of poets, artists, musicians and scientists of all lands-and above all in those whom God chooses to be His mouthpiece from time to time for the sustenance of the Good and extermination of the Vicious. You will perhaps ask why I am interpolating the Artist for the Poet? But aren't they really synonymous, one painting with words and the other wording with paints? Simonides, the Greek philosopher-poet, says that "painting is a silent poetry and poetry is a speaking picture". Horace, the Latin writer, says that a "picture is a poem without words". A still more astute Chinese critic says that a single picture is worth ten thousand words, a single “good” picture that is and not just anything dashed off on the canvas.

Now what does the Poet or the Artist see in a scene that uninitiated people like you or me fail to see? Nature to us is a jumble of lines and forms of bewildering variety and complications and the artist's mission is not to imitate her as the camera does but to represent only the quintessence of the scene, its main and significant essentials, discarding all that is unnecessary or irrelevant. In other words the artist is not a gourmand, but a gourmet, assimilating only the choicest morsels for his delectation. As Joubert says, “the ordinary true or the purely real, cannot be the object of the arts”. Art does not imitate Nature, says Bulwar but founds itself on a study of nature, takes from Nature the selections which best accord with its own intentions and then bestows on them that which Nature does not possess - that is the mind and soul of man. An artist does not copy nature any more than a poet makes an inventory of nature's beauties and charms. Nature simply furnishes the material by means of which the artist expresses a beauty still unexpressed in Nature. The Artist, says Henry James, beholds in Nature more than she herself is conscious of.

Reading between the lines, we feel that art is a selection from and not an imitation of nature, secondly that it is a combination of the Beauty of Nature and the mind and soul of man (or as Bacon said, Art is Man added to Nature) and thirdly that art is an addition to or exaggeration of Nature.

Now let us tackle each item one by one, so that we shall arrive at some conclusions which will equip us for a better understanding of artistic matters.

Beginning with the second proposition, we find that algebraically ART is equal to Nature plus Man. When the beauties of nature are combined with the beauty which is inherent in the mind and soul of man a precious compound is produced which is neither wholly objective nor wholly subjective. The subjective element works as a catalyst, and transmutes nature's leaden metal into the gold of art. A lump of clay or a block of stone inert and dead in itself, blossoms forth into vibrant life as soon as the magic wand of the creative element in man works upon it. This transmutation of a dead mass into palpitating, living organism is symbolically narrated in the classical story of Pygmalion and Galatea, where 'the ardent desires of the artist bring the marble statue of a nymph to life. The common optical image becomes charged with life and takes a deathless form when the true artist breathes his soul into it. No mere machine can accomplish this magic, as the machine does not think or feel, nor can it transmit its personal emotions like a human being. It merely records what-ever lies within its range of vision and cannot select or eliminate according to aesthetic necessity. The commonest misunderstanding which a layman is open to is a confusion between a mere record and a subjective creation.

You will surely ask at this point: Is not nature beautiful in itself without the leaven of art? Why add something else in what is beautiful by itself? But what you call beauty is not in the scene that you see before you. It is something subjective and embedded deep down in your own soul. It is the emotional response that the scene awakens in you making your heart-strings thrill and quiver with a joy that knows no bounds but wells spontaneously out of your soul like a clear fountain of pure water gushing out from deep down the earth. This joy in the heart of the artist spreads itself over his canvas, guides his hand to limn unerringly lines of beauty, to invest his paintings with a light that never was on sea or land and to breathe into an earthly mould a life that ever throbs and palpitates till the end of time.

In order to effect this, the artist first selects the essentials and rejects the unnecessary and the irrelevant. From the gorgeous tapestry of nature, he picks up only those threads which are necessary for his purpose and ignores the rest, in accordance with the particular end he has in view in the final synthesis. What powers or instincts guide his steps through the chaos of nature, we do not always know. The workings of his brain and heart are too complicated for non-technical people to comprehend. But roughly speaking the subtle laws of Rhythm, Balance and Harmony lead him on and in the laboratory of his mind, he analyses, selects, mixes, fuses and synthesises the different ingredients into a unified whole.

But what really are these things - Rhythm, Balance and Harmony? Volumes have been written on these subjects by various writers, artists and philosophers of all ages from Plato and Aristotle downwards. It is not our purpose to enter into a long disquisition on these subjects here and now. Suffice it to say that Rhythm is a feeling of continuity, of flow, of unobstruction, of grace, of a sweet undulating movement, of soft heaves and falls, like the breathing of a child asleep, like the waves of a soft sea-swell, the sweep of a silver cloud, free from breaks, jerks or abrupt beginnings or endings. Its forms are so varied that no one definition can cover all. An S-curve is rhythmic and a jagged lightning stroke is not. Rhythmic curves are best seen in the frescoes of Ajanta, the sculptures of Orissa or Khajuraho, the temples of Angkor, the tankas or scroll-paintings of the Tibetan and lastly and most notably in Chinese and Japanese works of art. Rhythm is mostly concerned with the graceful flow of lines such as we see in Attic marbles, in the tear-drop dome of the Taj, in the curves and contours or the human body, in the bend of a river or the branch of a tree. It gives a feeling of linear movement to something that is otherwise static and invests it with a life and motion all its own. This linear rhythm is best seen in our ancient sculptures in the Sama-bhanga, Abhanga, Tribhanga and Atibhanga poses as well as in gestures, mudras long systematised and codified in Abhinaya-darpana and other classical works on the subject.

As Rhythm deals mainly with lines, Balance deals mainly with masses. The main masses in a picture or a piece of sculpture must be perfectly equipoised so as to give a feeling of a perfect distribution of weights. It should not unduly distract the eyes of the spectator restlessly from point to point in the work of art, but lead on and fix the eye on the supreme point of interest. The whole composition of a picture depends upon its balance and the different units in the picture must be arranged in such a way that a perfect equilibrium is maintained throughout the picture or the sculpture-piece. Where this subtle artistic balance is not maintained, the picture either falls to pieces under the pull of too many distractions, or becomes top-heavy or lop-sided according as weights are dispersed all over the picture or concentrated on the top or on the sides. For perfect balance in painting, there is nothing to defeat our old Indian frescoes and sculptures, the Tibetan tankas and the Chinese and Japanese masterpieces.

Of Harmony much has been said and much more written from the earliest dawn of history down to our turbulent days. Centuries ago, Pythagoras enunciated his theory of the whole Universe moving to the Divine harmony of the music of the spheres and in our own times, where there is no other topic under discussion, we talk of Communal Harmony. Whatever we may do without, we can never do without harmony either in life or in art. Harmony is the subtler essence of both Rhythm and Balance, and can only be established when Law and Order are there. If the rhythm is broken and the balance is upset, harmony tumbles down like a ballerina who has accidentally stepped on a banana peel. That calm dignified quiescence of the great work of art is disturbed and the perfect unison of movement within the picture is no more. Harmony, in other words, is a freedom from disturbance, the elimination of the incongruous elements, the suppression of everything that goes to mar a unified homogeneous impression, so that rhythm and balance might operate without a break or intrusion of unwanted factors. It is like the weeding of a flower-bed, the plucking out of thorns from a garland, the chaff from the grain. To establish perfect harmony in a picture, there should be three harmonies, the harmony of form, the harmony of colour and above all, the harmony of ideation. Just as in an automobile, the engine, the steering and the brakes must work in harmony, similarly in a picture, the harmonies of form, colour and ideation must work in perfect sychronisation. Else sooner or later there will be an aesthetic breakdown.

In addition to Rhythm, Balance and Harmony there are two other elements which we must look for in a real work of art viz., conformity to tradition and originality. What exactly is tradition and what part does it play in a work of art ?

“Summer is a-coming in loudly sings the cuckoo”, so wrote a medieval English poet centuries ago. How does the bird know of the advent of summer? It cannot read the weather reports or delve into the mysteries of the Nautical Almanac, yet something tells it that the rigours of winter are over and gladsome days are ahead. In the silken sheen of the nascent leaves, in the embalmed air, something stirs, something that fills it with joy and makes it pour forth its heart in a piercing paean of perfect pleasure.

As with bird, so with man. Man too feels something and tries to convey it in gestures, words, form, sound and colours. This is his nature. For this reason, a human being is called a "Vyakti" in the ancient language of our country. Etymologically “Vyakti” means an “Expression” and not a “Homo sapiens”. Why then is a man called “Vyakti”? Because a human individual is distinguished from others by his particular form, by his particular voice, gait, manner, mode, character and idiosyncrasies. We can recognise an unseen individual by his voice or even by his footsteps, by the thousand and one ways in which his inner self expresses and advertises its presence in a world of name, form and action. He is not simply a Being, he is also a Becoming, a “vyakti”, an expression. His particular expression distinguishes him from millions of others similarly constituted, each expressing himself in his individual fashion.

In a similar way, taking individuals en masse we find that the genius of a particular country expresses itself in its own characteristic manner. Our own country India is different from others. Her climate, physical character, outlook on life, manners and customs, religion, art and literature are distinct from those of her neighbours. Hence the character of her cultural expression is not identical with that of other countries.

What is the basic tradition of Indian Art? In what way did the genius of India express itself throughout the ages? This question is so vast and possesses so many facets that we cannot possibly deal with them all. Let us take just one or two and see how they have cut a characteristic channel through the rock of ages. Its primary motive power is a conscious ideation almost invariably connected with religion, for religion even to this day is a living thing in India. The temples and tabernacles of the old gods of Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome have long crumbled to dust and even the names of their high gods, once in everybody's mouth in chants and litanies, have been totally forgotten by the people who once worshipped them and live only in the dusty tomes of the antiquary. But even in the remotest corners of India, villagers meeting each other at dawn or any other time of the day take the name of Rama, greeting each other with the familar “Jai Ramjiki” or “Sat Shri Akal” or some other similar phrases for accosting which have been handed down from generation to generation from time immemorial. Religion thus is intimately interwoven in the web of Indian life throughout the ages and art is always intimately connected with the noblest aspirations of man and held as a religious pursuit or vocation. As against this ancient and time-honoured tradition of India, if we look around us at the present time, we cannot but feel that the majority of the artists of today have completely lost sight of the ancient ideals. Instead of being the abiding monument of the spirit, Art has become the plaything of the moment, changing with the ephemeral dictates of fashion or catering to the baser instincts of man. It is a liberal profession which does not now liberate the spirit of man, but tends to fascinate and cloy rather than to elevate and chasten. Sir Frank Brangwyn R.A., one of the greatest of modern masters, bewails this lack of spiritual inspiration in modern art in no uncertain terms. “Too long”, he says, “Art has pandered to the lowest feelings of man and has become a pastime, making stunts to attract the idle. If Art hopes to take its right place in the future, it must be used to transmit the more noble and religious perceptions. This is the artist's part in the forward movement of mankind and he bears a great responsibility”.

At the present moment the world is too much with us and most of our Indian artists have forgotten the ancient ideals in their senseless mimicry of western slap-dash modernism. We forget our rich heritage of the past and exchange our gold for plastics and our jewellery for paste. The same old veteran artist, whom I have just quoted, Sir Frank Brangwyn R.A., has recently written to one of my pupils on receipt of the reproductions of his work, that “it was indeed a pleasure to see the works of and to see that there are still artists in India, who keep alive the noble traditions of Art of their own country. There is far too much of the influence of European Art showing in many artists of the East, but one is happy to see in ...’s work the true spirit, expression and ideals of his country”. This excerpt from Sir Frank Brangwyn's recent letter should give our young artists food for thought, as it clearly reveals what one of the greatest exponents of art for all time thinks of that section of our present day artists who are trying to sever all connections with the past in their mad rush for being modern. From this point of view the art of Jamini Roy based on the traditional pats of Bengal is far superior to the works of such artists as Amrita Sher-Gil and those who follow her. The former has links with the nation's past and roots in the soil of the country of its origin, but the latter is a hot-house plant, a European bride in an Indian home.

Our last item on the agenda is originality. In an age of jet-communication, radio and television, it is very difficult to preserve a distinctive note in art, but it is certainly not impossible to develop a personal mode of expression in the graphic and plastic arts while remaining true to the traditions of our own country. Originality in art is the outcome of the development of personal ideas conceived in an individual way and executed with a personal technique which is moulded by the creative ideation. In the works of beginners, this originality of conception and technique is hardly to be noticed, for like the delicate creeper the beginner wants a support to help him in his progress and usually it is the technique of his teacher or somebody he hero-worships. With ripening powers and mature thinking capacity, the artist usually sheds these early influences and comes into his own.

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