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New Year 2019 Issue

In the Nature of Art-full Politics

Rupika Chawla is an art conservator and author of Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India. She is presently working on a book about the Ajanta caves
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Painting on the canvas of freedom

THOSE WHO WERE LIVING BEFORE THE independence of our country could not wait to shake off alien rule. The wish to be free had gathered momentum over many decades and the strong emotion that had swept the country was that of nationalism. The Indian National Congress (INC) had come into being in 1885 and had become a rallying point.

The catalyst that worked for Indians was perhaps the Partition of Bengal in 1905. It was a move made by the British with the intention of weakening the freedom movement. Events however, went to the contrary. From the many protests that resulted, came the resounding call for ‘Swadeshi’, or a boycott of foreign goods. Hoarse went protestors crying ‘Swadeshi’, the magic word for asserting sovereign rights and economic freedom. It was a call for the great revival, the resurgence and return of national pride in India’s culture, education, art and religion.

Never before and never after have art and politics come together in the service of the country. This was the miracle of Swadeshi. Never before and never after have artists and thinkers been brought to the forefront of shaping the nation to reflect upon what a nation should be, and how it should move forward.

Sri Aurobindo, one of the chief advocates of Swadeshi, lapsed revolutionary and later the renowned mystic of Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry, gave philosophical interpretations to Swadeshi by using art as a metaphor. He stated that truth in art could not be found in academic realism propagated by the West, especially as taught in the colonial art schools in India. His belief lay in ancient Indian art as personified by the paintings of Ajanta upholding ‘bold and firm insistence on the pure and strong outline with a total suppression of everything’ that was painted within those lines. By negating the many aspects of detail, highlights and foreshortening that personify academic realism, he was negating colonial rule. By proclaiming the art of Ajanta as true art, he was proclaiming his nationalism. The great spiritualist that Sri Aurobindo was, the bold outline that gave shape to form and figure without any distraction of detail or decorative element within its boundaries held great meditative possibilities that was lacking in the overstated realistic art of the West. Detail and decorative devices that existed in academic realism trivialised a work, and, according to Sri Aurobindo, deprived it of its spirituality. For him, Abanindranath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath Tagore epitomised the true soul and spirit of India with his soft and fluid wash and tempera paintings held together by fine outlines. His well-known work Bharat Mata, painted in 1905, depicted the country as an Indian goddess and was in step with the l’esprit du temps.

Someone had to be found who painted in the style of the West and also used imported oil paints, canvases and brushes now considered reprehensible because of the boycott on foreign goods. That person was Raja Ravi Varma who happened to die of diabetes just at this juncture, and therefore, could not defend himself. According to the Tagore family, Sister Nivedita, Ananda Coomaraswamy and several others, Ravi Varma was not appropriate for the spirit of the times and represented anti-nationalism because the medium and technique of his art were completely Western and not indigenous to the country. Materials and methodology of easel paintings made with oil paints on canvas had been brought into India mainly by the British. Other Western entrants for over two centuries had also made a contribution.

The sari as worn by goddesses in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings was only just emerging at the turn of the century and was different from the diverse styles of regional saris; it was a pan-Indian sari, his own nationalistic statement

Ravi Varma’s profound knowledge of Sanskrit and the Puranas did not help his cause. Neither did his layered mythological paintings that demonstrated his familiarity with the epics work for him, nor the popularity of his inexpensive oleographs of gods and goddesses disseminated and worshipped the country over.

The fact that he was well known, vastly respected and admired made him ideal for slander, for only such a person can grab the headlines and be ideal for the patriotic cause being espoused. As a result, Ravi Varma was posthumously accused of being non-Swadeshi and politically incorrect.

The actual facts were of no great importance, the way perhaps things are in any witch-hunt. Ravi Varma grew up in a traditional environment, the tenets and rituals of which he observed till the end. The gods and goddesses painted by him have become the prototypes for the Hindu religious pantheon. His Lakshmi and Saraswati are worshipped in a variety of visual interpretations from the time first painted by him till today. The sari as worn by these goddesses was only just emerging at the turn of the century and was different from the diverse styles of regional saris; it was a pan-Indian sari. By making his goddesses wear such a sari, he was making his own nationalistic statement. But in these extraordinary times, he did not fit the Swadeshi bill and had to go.

According to the Tagore family, Sister Nivedita, Ananda Coomaraswamy and several others, Ravi Varma was not appropriate for the spirit of the times and represented anti-nationalism because the medium and technique of his art were completely Western and not indigenous to the country

His paintings were removed from many walls where they had previously been hung with pride. They found their way into obscure corners of a house, there to gather dust, termites, gashes and holes for almost seventy years. A landmark exhibition at the National Museum in 1993, curated by A Ramachandran the artist and I, signalled the grand resurrection of the artist.

The exhibition was inaugurated by then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, who spoke nostalgically about the oleograph of Shivaji that used to hang in his childhood home and which he still remembered. Ravi Varma had earlier made Shivaji’s oil on canvas painting in 1895 which was eulogised in Maharashtra’s Kesari newspaper and made into oleographs thereafter.

The years of neglect and indifference took their toll on his canvases. Some ten years back, I visited a particular family in Hyderabad living in their ancestral mansion built around 1900. Ravi Varma had stayed with the patriarch in 1903 and left some paintings with him, including a portrait of the Nizam of Hyderabad made from photographs. Upon asking the present descendant about the paintings, he mentioned three works that had gone to other family members but had no knowledge of the Nizam’s portrait. “Oh really,” I said, “Do please check.” He sent some of his staff scurrying about in search of any painting no one had ever noticed before. Well after we had finished tea and namkeen, one of them arrived holding a dusty painting with filthy hands and cobwebs clinging to his Aligarhi pyjamas. It was the Nizam portrait abandoned in the godown for long. The canvas had suffered badly, much in the way many Ravi Varma paintings have done.

Having dispensed with the ‘seditious’ Ravi Varma, with realism in art and with paint materials imported from the West, Indian painting was brought back on to the politically correct course again. It was realigned with the ancient tradition of wall paintings and with miniatures, all of which were made with water-based tempera colours.

In 1938, Nandalal Bose made the famous Haripura posters for a huge political meeting held in Haripura in Gujarat. Strong lines with bright watercolours on handmade paper depicted various sorts of human activity in rural areas, continuing the theme of rural heritage propagation

THE NEWLY FOUND AJANTA CAVES were important for the nationalists for several reasons apart from those expressed by Sri Aurobindo mentioned earlier. Ajanta’s awe-inspiring sculptures and paintings and the extraordinary environment of the caves made them quite unforgettable. Ananda Coomeraswamy, the Anglo-Sinhalese art historian and philosopher, experienced a sublime revelation when he visited Ajanta during this time. It made him aware of his true identity and his Asian heritage as compared to the ‘intense thinness of English life’ that he had known earlier.

Ajanta became the buzzword internationally as well as with people arriving to view its wonders. In 1910, Lady Christiana Herringham, an acquaintance of Rabindranath Tagore in London, travelled to India for her third visit to Ajanta to make copies of the paintings. Assisting her at this venture were two students from Hyderabad and three sponsored by Abanindranath Tagore who had been recommended by Sister Nivedita. They were Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar and Samendranath Gupta—all belonging to Santiniketan. They stayed at a fine camp set up by Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur, the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was keen to acquire copies of Ajanta paintings that Lady Herringham and her assistants were to make.

As a result of the three months spent at Ajanta, Bose’s work and that of his companions showed the influence of the art there. The concept of wall painting also became integral to the curriculum at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan and continues to remain so.

So closely linked was Santiniketan with the politics of that time that when Mahatma Gandhi energised several INC meetings around the country, the venues were transformed by artists from Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, especially by Nandalal Bose. The visual imagery depicted at the meetings propagated the idea of ‘art for the community’, using rural craft and materials, part of the ideology shared by Mahatma Gandhi and Nandalal Bose. In 1938, Bose made the famous ‘Haripura posters’, for a huge political meeting held in Haripura in Gujarat. Strong lines with bright watercolours on handmade paper depicted various sorts of human activity in rural areas, continuing the theme of rural heritage propagation.

At the time of independence, when the Constitution of India was being prepared, it was Bose again who was called upon to illuminate the pages of the volume. Each relevant folio was carefully designed with images from Ajanta, Mohenjo-Daro and other high moments of India’s civilisation, so important for a free India and now almost forgotten.

Art had been in the service of politics throughout the struggle for freedom. With the Independence of 1947, art lost its raison d’être and henceforth existed only for its own sake. Post-independent artists rushed to catch up with the events of the world, euphoric with the freedom that had arrived, eager to experiment with a fresh language in art imagery and with a new way to paint with bright oil colours and canvases. Pioneers such as MF Husain, FN Souza and SH Raza were known as the Progressives, later to be joined by Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar, Gaitonde and Krishen Khanna. They became India’s coveted painters, second to none; not certainly to anyone in Santiniketan. Another native returned later to join the group of ‘Most Desired’: Raja Ravi Varma.

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