Ernest Binfield Havell was a pioneer in the teaching of Indian art and aesthetics. September 16 marked the 150th birth anniversary of the artist-educationist.

September 16 was the 150th birth anniversary of Ernest Binfield Havell [1861-1934], the artist-educationist-reformer who showed the world the way to view Indian Art. Havell's two books ‘Indian Sculpture & Painting' and ‘Ideals of Indian Art' were a breakthrough in Indian art history.

Havell came to India in 1884 to work as superintendent of School of Art, Madras.school of Madras He was an alumnus of School of Design, South Kensington [which later became the Royal College of Art, London]. In Madras [Chennai], he began his career as an educationist and turned an ideologue and art historian. Havell modified the curriculum of the school, and introduced study of Indian designs and decorative patterns into the course of study.

In 1896, Havell went to Calcutta [Kolkata] to join the Government School of Art as its superintendent. Ten years of experience as an art teacher and his staying in India brought him closer to Swadeshi doctrines of Indian art and culture.

The first step he took as superintendent was to abolish the British system of teaching. He remarked that ‘in India, painting must be Indian in attitude and spirit.' Havell included Oriental art in the curriculum, which, according to him, should be the basis of all art instructions.

He also introduced several new craft techniques such as fresco decoration for walls, stained glass windows, lacquer work, and stencils, so as to open a wide range of opportunities for remunerative employment for students.

At a time when his predecessors such as James Fergusson and Alexander Cunningham (both were archaeologists carrying out excavations in India) adopted a Eurocentric approach in their scholarly discourses, Havell edged them out with discourses of aesthetics and Indian ideals of art. In his opinion, Indian sculptures, which are highly original and creative, could be ranked with the noblest creations of the West. These ideals and attitudes had worked behind his reformative methods, which he introduced in the curriculum of art teaching.

Art appreciation

In a report he submitted to the government, he stated that art appreciation be seen as a duty of every individual and not as mere pleasure. Although he faced strong opposition from the British regime, he continued his crusade for pushing the ideals of Indian art. Later he succeeded in convincing them of the importance of reviving the Indian craft tradition.

It was Havell who introduced the fly shuttle loom in India in 1905. Havell argued that handicrafts should be fostered along with architecture. According to him, an ideal living space should be partly Victorian, partly Indian. That is to say it should have relief sculptures on the outside, paintings on the interior walls, and everyday objects in the rooms.

Havell called for unification of art. He saw Hindu temple as a complex synthesis of fine art and applied art, and Hindu architecture as an embodiment of a hierarchical principle of decoration, from the simplest abstract ornament to large figure reliefs. Sculptures should be viewed in its architectural context and not be seen in isolation.

His books and papers throw fresh insights into Indian art and architecture. His book ‘Benares: The Sacred City: Sketch of Hindu life and Religion' (1905) describes Benares as the microcosm of Indian culture.

On Indian aesthetics

The publication of Havell's ‘Indian Sculpture and Paintings' in 1908 came as a breakthrough in Western attitude to Indian art. His ‘Ideals of Indian Art (1911), was a powerful manifesto of the then new Oriental aesthetics. Both his books revolved around certain notions of art versus archaeology of a sharply polarised Indian versus Western point of view. Havell's main defence of Indian art was to offer an artistic and aesthetic interpretation and to place himself at the Indian point of view, which could be arrived at only through unearthing the divine and ideal in Indian art.

His association with the Tagore family generated a powerful undercurrent of nationalistic sympathies in the ways in which Havell articulated commitment to Indian art. Abanindranath Tagore had once said: “Havell shaped my vision. He has my reverence as my Guru. Often he would appear as collaborator sometimes as friend, even.”

His perception on artistic nationalism, titled ‘The basis of artistic and Industrial revival in India' first appeared in The Hindu in 1912, published at the height of the Swadeshi movement. Havell left India in 1905, on sick leave, and was later declared ‘unfit for service in India' by the British regime. Although removed from policy decisions, Havell continued his campaign against the ignorance, philistinism and insidious vandalism of certain aspects of British administration in India.