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Mannerism & Tradition - Bireswar Sen

Updated: Jun 28, 2018

Disciple : May I ask you something, Sir?

Teacher : Sure, son, what is it?

Disciple : It is something about what I have been reading in books and periodicals recently, but the whole thing is so vague, that I felt that I must talk it over with you. In short, it is about the traditions that one should follow in art. It is said that modern Indian artists must conform to the oldest Indian traditions. The writers refer to the glorious heritage of India’s artistic past and advocate strict adherence to these ancient traditions. But what exactly are these traditions?

Teacher : Do not your writers say anything about them?

Disciple : They do; but always in a vague and uncertain way. They refer to the ancient cave-paintings of Ajanta, Bagh, Sighiya and Sittanavasal, talk enthusiastically about the ancient sculpture and architecture of Ellora, Ajanta, Raru and many other places, grow ecstatically over the medieval Rajput, Mogul and Bangra paintings, but never explain what is the artistic tradition which runs through all these creative achievements of the past.

Teacher : Leave aside the critics, it is after all the artists who create. Let us, as humble followers of Arts, as two of the innumerable links in the great Hierarchy, sift the matter for ourselves. Tell me what is your own idea about tradition.

Disciple : We are told, Sir, to model our modern art on the lines of the great schools of painting which flourished in India in olden times. It is only by following them that we can hope to revive what is now dead. Many well known painters are working along these lines and believe that the salvation of Indian Art lies this way.

Teacher : My dear child, the ways of salvation are not one, but many, in art as in life. The Bengal Nagpur Railway as well as the East Indian will take you to Bombay from Calcutta. But tell me, what ancient tradition do the present day painters seek to follow?

Disciple : Sir, I make it a point to see all the Indian art exhibitions, read all the Indian art-journals and study all the colour-plates that are published in our magazines and my impression is that in most cases the modern Indian artists seek to reproduce the older forms. The influence of Ajanta, for example, is very much in evidence, old sculptural works and architectural features too contribute a good deal to the modern movement and, not unoften, the peculiarities of form and technique of the Rajput, Mogul or the Bengal “Pat” painters are deliberately imitated.

Teacher : From what you say, it appears as if their sole vocation were endless imitation!

Disciple : Well, Sir, yes and no; for it is said that the modern painters are trying to revive the ancient Spirit as well.

Teacher : So far so good, though the obsession of the ancient spirit on a new age may not always be an unmixed blessing.

Disciple : But surely, Sir, if we can revive our own art by recalling the ancient spirit.

Teacher : I never thought, son, you believed in necromancy. It is the Spirit of the Modern Age which should vitalize modern art and not the dead spirit of by-gone days, however glorious they might have been.

Disciple : But isn’t the spirit of the modern age rooted in the past?

Teacher : It is, but they are not the same. Doesn’t the child look ludicrous when it seeks to imitate its parents? You are fairly well-acquainted with the history of Indian art. Tell me, do the forms or types that you see in the earliest Mohen-jo-daro sculpture repeat themselves in the sculptures of Bharut or Sanchi, or the Bharut and Sanchi sculptures reflect themselves in the art of Ajanta or the art of Ajanta duplicate itself in the art of the Rajputs or the Moguls?

Disciple : I cannot say that the tradition of form of one age is imitated by the artists of a succeeding age, yet –

Teacher : Yet there is something indefinable which is common to all. It is the Soul of India of that particular period seeking to express itself in terms of Art; in other words, the ‘Zeit–geist’ or the Spirit of the particular age in which these works of art had been executed.

You must have seen how in the relay races one runner runs a certain distance and then hands over his flag to the next runner, who in turn hands the same to a third and so on. In old Greece, torches were used instead of flags and the second runner had to light his torch from the first, the third from the second and so on. This is highly symbolic. In art, the pupil lights his torch from the master and at the end of his race allows his own pupils to light their torches from his own. Thus forms the Hierarchy in Art.

And mind you, they always go onwards and never retrace their tracks, for the tradition of form of one period is never identical with that of a subsequent one. It is, therefore, always futile to try to reproduce the form–traditions of a by–gone age, because one succeeds only in aping the mannerisms; and, as I have repeatedly told you, nothing is so suicidal in art as trying to imitate the mannerism of others, however great they might have been. You surely have heard about Constable, the great landscape-painter. Well, this is what he says about mannerism –

“Manner is always seductive. It is more or less an imitation of what has been done already, therefore, always plausible. It promises the short road, the near cut to present fame and emolument, by availing ourselves of the labours of others. It leads to almost immediate reputation, because it is the wonder of the ignorant world. It is always accompanied by certain blandishments, showy and plausible, and which catch the eye. As manner comes by degrees, and is fostered by success in the world, flattery, etc., all painters who would be really great should be perpetually on their guard against it.”

Thus you see that what most of us take as tradition is nothing but repeating the mannerisms of the ancients.

Disciple : And how does the Spirit of the Age affect the art of the time?

Teacher : Art is the outcome of the individual consciousness of the artist and always bears the stamp of his personality, the impress of the land of his birth and the mark of the period to which he belongs. It reflects in other words, the soul of the artist, his nationality and his times. In as much as it is the product of an individual creative soul, it is diverse in form and expression, but there is always a generic semblance in all works of art executed by artists who are contemporaneous and belong to the same nationality. You will find by actual verification that what I have just told you is true with regard to every ancient art. But now Science is pulling down the barriers of Space and Time and the art of every nation is in the common melting-pot. Who knows what new pattern would emerge from the roaring loom of Time?

Disciple : I am afraid, Sir, I am too dense to follow what you say, unless I am shown concrete examples.

Teacher : Surely, son. Never be satisfied with generalizations unless you are given specific proofs. I will give you a very well-known example. Let us take the head of the Buddha and see how the artists of different ages and different lands have tried to depict it. You are perhaps aware that no image of Buddha was ever executed during his life-time. There is only one Tibetan legend about how all contemporary artists having failed to delineate his divine countenance, an artist of the King of Roruka was asked by the Enlightened One to trace his shadow on the wall and use the same for his paintings. In all early Indian sculpture, he is represented by a symbol – the bodhi-tree, the vajrasana or mere foot–prints. We see his image first in Kushan and Gandharan sculptures. If we trace his image through the ages, what do we see? Here’s the Gandhara Budha : it is said that Graeco-Bactrian artists executed it. Does it not appear to you to be manifestly hellenic? Even to the ethnic type, even to the very arrangement of the drapery that clothes his divine form? Do you see that even the arrangement of his hair is different? Different from the usual curly locks that we generally associate with the Buddha images?

Disciple : Yes, Sir, he is a Greek, not an Indian.

Teacher : In other words, the artist being a Greek – being Hellenic, to be precise – has conceived Buddha as a Greek in a Greek dress. It proclaims the contemporary Hellenic ideals in every lineament of the face, in every fold of his dress. Now let us take this Kushan head of Buddha from Mathura. Does it not seem to you to be entirely different from the Gandharan one? Is not the very ethnic type of the face different? See how the hair is almost absent; the little that there is, is plastered on the head, and not curled or tied up as an ‘ushnisha’. He is certainly not a Greek, nor does he appear to us much like an Indian. What is he then?

Disciple : Sir, I am not very good at ethnology or anthropology, but the head might have been that of a Tartar.

Teacher : So, you too feel that it is Scythian? You are right. The later Kushana type has been recognized in Central Asia and China by men like Fouche, Grunwedel, Aurel Stein and Osvaid Siren. Now turn to the images of Budha from Amaravati, now in the Madras Museum. Are not they different from the Mathura type? Look at the full thick-lipped face, the short curly hair, the plump little body. To what part of India, do you think he belongs?

Disciple : Sir, he is a Madrassi. He looks much like Prof. R.

Teacher : Well, well, let us leave Prof. R. for the present. But the fact remains that the Andhra sculptors assuredly made the statues of Budha after their own images. In the same way you will find different types of Budha in different ages, but all conforming to the ethnic type of the nationality to which the artist belonged. His dress too varies according to the period and nationality of the artist and no artist of one period imitates the form-traditions or mannerisms of another period, except those of the present day. Thus Buddha is a Pahari in Kangra images, a Bengali of the Goswami type in the Pala sculptures, a Bihari in Nalanda, a Nepali in Nepal, a Ceylonese in Ceylon, a Burmese in Burma, a Javanese in Java, a Siamese in Siam, a Cambodian in Cambodia, a Chinese in China and a Japanese in Japan. Yet through all these diverse creations runs a common element which at once arrests the eyes of the spectators and overpowers their minds – the sense of calm imperturbable dignity and majesty, of wisdom and forbearance, of kindliness and charity, of beauty, purity and love. This is the link which binds all these great creations of various epochs in various lands executed by different artists into one unified whole – this is the real tradition, the tradition, not of form but of the Spirit, which flows through successive centuries down to the present day, the tradition which we should saturate ourselves in if we are to revive Indian Art – the tradition of ‘Rasa’.

Disciple : But, Sir, would we not be accused of anachronism, if we paint Budha in modern dress, just as the ancient artists garbed him in the dress of their own times?

Teacher : Well asked, son. Whether a thing is anachronistic or not depends upon our knowledge of definite historical facts and to some extent upon force of habit. Valuation of works of art cannot be made on the basis of anachronism alone. If you can call forth the desired emotional response in the heart of the spectators, it matters not whether your work is anachronistic. On the other hand, historical precision will be of no value to you, if you fail to evoke the right feeling. You must have heard of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” being played in modern dress in London a year or two ago. In the hands of incompetent players the drama would have degenerated into the burlesque, but the tragic dignity of the Shakespearean drama was so worthily maintained by the players that nobody noticed the incongruity of the modern dress. In other words, the audience overlooked the anachronism and enjoyed the ‘Rasa’. Besides this, the sense of anachronism is more or less a matter of habit, a sort of mental conservatism. You are used to thinking of the Buddha as a man with a certain type of face dressed in a certain type of garb. But remember that the first image of Buddha was executed four centuries after his death. What if I say that what you regard as the real image of Buddha is also anachronistic? No, my son, anachronism cannot take anything away from the real merit of a true work of art. Think of the countless Italian painters who have painted the Madonna and a thousand other scenes from the holy Bible. Are not all their biblical paintings wholly anachronistic? Do the innumerable Madonnas appear to you to be Jewish women dressed in the Semitic garbs of Caesarian times; are they not Italian maidens with an Italian child in arms, robed in the contemporary dress of the Italian artists who painted them? And do you see the arid sun-scorched land of Judea in the background, or the rich Roman ‘campagna’ set with tall poplars swaying gently with the breeze of the blue Italian skies? If anachronism cannot destroy the charm of Italian masters, rest assured it cannot destroy yours. Your Buddha in modern dress will in no way be inferior to its predecessors provided you keep up the old tradition of the Spirit, the tradition of Rasa.

Disciple : Then, Sir, why are the paintings of Ravi Varma run down on grounds of anachronism by the modern painters?

Teacher : Raja Ravi Varma was a very capable painter, but he is a mediocre artist, it is certainly not because his paintings are anachronistic, but because they are theatrical and so obvious. As a draftsman and a colourist, he has few equals, but alas, colour and, draftsmanship are not everything in art.

Disciple : There is one other thing which I would like to ask you. Up till now you talked mainly about sculpture, but does what you told apply to painting as well? The modern revival of Indian Art is chiefly restricted to painting, you know.

Teacher : What is true of sculpture is true of painting as well. Just as there are local and contemporary variations in the Buddha images, similarly you will find local and contemporary variations in the paintings – say of Krishna, for example. Take the archaic Rajput paintings. You will find that they do not follow the form-traditions of Ajanta. Krishna is depicted as a Rajput boy in Rajput dress. The women are also dressed in Saris. During the Mogul period the same Krishna wears the court-dress of the Moguls and the ladies too follow suit. In Kangra, Krishna is depicted as a typical Pahari lad of the Kangra valley and the Gopis are typical Pahari maidens dressed in the skirts in vogue during that period. In the Bengal “Pat”’s, Krishna becomes a typical Bengali in flowing pleated dhoti, surrounded by typical girls from the Bengal villages.

Painting or sculpture, the principles are the same. If sculpture has the advantage of the third dimension, painting has the advantage of colour. Otherwise there is little difference. Both are impassioned expressions of Rasa. Do not our Scriptures say Raso Vai Sah?

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