Of art, artists and art history

A useful compendium to a cross-section of Indian subcontinental art history. That is how GAYATRI SINHA describes Partha Mitter's new book, ``Indian Art''. Read on...

IN THREE decades, this is Partha Mitter's third book on Indian art. In each book there has been a different intention and emphasis, beginning with the seminal analysis of the Western world's prejudices against Indian iconography in ``Much Maligned Monsters, History of European Reactions to Indian Art'' - 1977 - on to a highly documented study of 19th Century Indian art and its lead into the nationalist movement in ``Art and Nationalism in Colonial India: 1858-1922'' - 1994.

In the third - and the slimmest volume so far - Mitter, who is Professor in Art History at the University of Sussex, enters the sphere of a synoptic view of Indian art. He prefaces the book by saying that there is a need for reassessing Indian art, for seeing it outside the Western canon with its ``notions of progress'' - an idea instilled into Western thought since Vasari. In the process he attempts a revised nomenclature as it were, of Indian art history.

The classical textbook division of ancient, early and late medieval and modern, or Hindu, Buddhist and Jain periods is somewhat revised. Mitter writes that James Ferguson's description of Gupta art as the apogee of creativity notwithstanding, it is an imperative to challenge some of the other damaging presumptions about Indian art.

For instance, there is the long cherished notion that after the Guptas Indian art steadily declined into the overly decorative and the florid - a thesis which tends to look askance at Khajuraho, Konark and the Bhubhaneshwar temples as emblems of a decaying art, a theory reinforced by Indian art historians like Niharranjan Ray.

It is entirely likely that this notion of a decayed art and lost artistic sensibility suited the British who had convinced themselves of the `appropriateness' of revising the aesthetic sensibility of Indians through their own form of education and then own notions of beauty.

Mitter seeks to redress the balance in favour of Indian values in art, such as decorativeness, and its wide application for a range of purposes, such as utensil-making or embroidery, for instance.

Mitter clubs together Buddhist and Hindu architecture in a long spread from 1700 to 300 BC followed by brief essays on Hindu and Islamic art and architecture. These are fairly straight well- documented textbook readings, although Mitter seeks to bring the reader up to date with newer ideas and formulations in the art world.

The one that he quotes is the controversy between Vidya Dehejia and Susan Huntington on whether the aniconic symbols like the dharmachakra or the tree were purely representative of the Buddha - an issue that remains unresolved, with Dehejia taking the more widely accepted position, while Huntington has argued that such aniconic symbols exist outside the Buddha narrative.

The author devotes smaller sections to `Notions of Beauty' and eroticism in Indian art, he also raises the old question of why erotic sculptures adorn holy temple sites - and the overlay of influence of Bhakti and Tantra on Brahminism. However, the question around either the obsessive interest in the feminine or the erotic component of so much Indian art, remain in the broad area of conjecture.

Mitter writes that most histories of Indian art overemphasise the Hindu and the Buddhist at the cost of the Islamic. He balances his own writing by putting in sections of the Sultanate and Moghul periods. Mitter also raises issues such as the `realism' of Moghul painting, which though different from the Greek idea of `mimesis' satisfies a criterion of what constitutes the realistic.

Certainly this is an area that Indian art historians can develop to advantage. The realistic portrayal of the courtier in ``The Dying Inayat Khan'' in which Jahangir ordered his painters to accurately delineate the courtier's wasting away disease is well- recorded in the ``Tuzuk-i- Jahangiri''. Again, the accurate psychological portraits of the 17th Century Moghul court, in the work of Mir Hashim and Goverdhan, or Bishan Das' highly skilled portraits of women within the zenana are all examples of realism as developed in an Indian context.

Deccan painting and the architecture of the Deccani kingdoms is too briefly discussed, as is Hindu architecture of the medieval period, such as palaces and forts, even though the North Indian temples deserve more than a passing reference in such a volume.

What Mitter attempts is to widen the terms of discourse with a section on the non-canonical arts of tribal peoples, women and artisans of which he says: ``There is a curious silence in Indian art history about these groups hidden from history''.

In this sense, a dynastic view of Indian art needs to be replaced by a more sociological view of people's creative endeavour. He also talks briefly of craft and jewellery, and indigenous crafts such as kundan which have been recently foregrounded by the recent exhibition at the British Museum, ``Treasures of the World from the Al-Sabah Collection''.

A substantial section of the book is devoted to the impact of the British Raj and leads thereon to the contemporary period. Partha Mitter is on sure ground when he writes on the period of his specialised study, pre-independence nationalist art, to which he adds a small section on colonial architecture. He also identifies 1922 as the year of the introduction of modernism to India when on the initiative of Rabindranath Tagore, an exhibition of Bauhaus artists was held in Calcutta. This leads up to the vital point about the fact that the modern artist in India could not resolve the contradiction ``between a modern sense of alienation and the cultural cohesion expected of a nation engaged in an anti-colonial struggle''.

This is, in fact, at the crux of some of the conflicts around Indian modernism and indigenous identity and needs to be discussed at some length. One may argue here in the small section of art after independence for the number of artists excluded from his briefly descriptive roster, including KCS Panikker and his decisive influence on Southern modernism.

However, in such an extensive period of art history, perhaps detailing will inevitably receive short shrift. Existing histories of Indian art, of a comprehensive natural recall J. C. Harle and A. L. Basham, which have been in circulation for several decades. After these studies appeared Roy Craven's widely sold ``Concise History'' which devotes its final chapter to Jain, Pahari and Rajasthani painting.

Mitter goes beyond right into the contemporary period of India, with lateral references to Pakistan and Bangladesh thus bringing the reader upto date on subcontinental rather than only Indian tendencies. In that sense, this volume serves as a useful compendium of information of the leading manifestations of the cross-section of Indian art history.