The Function of Art in Shaping Nationality

It is in the endeavour to take spiritual possession of its own, in struggling to carry out the tasks before it, that the national idea is shaping itself in India. Readjustments are necessary in all directions, and in making those very readjustments, it may be, we shall become, we are actually becoming, a nation. For it is not change that is destructive, but aimless or wrongly-purposed change. And precisely from such it is that the ideal of nationality, with its overwhelming impulse of moral direction and ethical stability, is to deliver us. Wherever we look, on the sea of struggle, we see this thought, "That we be a nation," shining as their pole-star above the tossing voyagers.

We may turn, for instance, to the culture and position of Indian womanhood. Shall there be new developments here? And in what direction? The immediate need at all costs, to save ourselves from the present everhastening process of despair and ruin, and the further need to bind ourselves together, in a firm and coherent whole, self-conscious, self-directed, self-controlled, in other words, the will towards nationality, gives us at once an answer toour question and a guide. Change there must be. Shall India alone, in the streaming destinies of the Jagat, refuse to flow on from form to form? But what changes we make shall be made freely, deliberately, of our own will and judgment, deliberately designed towards an end chosen by ourselves. Shall we, after centuries of an Indian womanhood, fashioned on the pattern of Sita, of Savitri, of Rani Ahalya Bai or of Jahnabi of Tipperah, descend to the creation of coquettes and divorcees? Shall the Indian Padmini be succeeded by the Greek Helen? Change it is that there must be, or India goes down in the shipwreck of her past achievements. Change there must be. But new learning shall add to the old gravity and wisdom, without taking from the ancient holiness. Wider responsibilities shall make the pure more pure. Deeper knowledge shall be the source of a new and grander tenderness. This generation may well cherish the hope that they shall yet see the hand of the great mother shaping a womanhood of the future so fair and noble that the candle-light of the ancient dreams shall grow dim in the dawn of that modern realisation.

The Education of Woman is, however, only one of many questions. In Science, in Education as a whole, in commercial and industrial organisation, it is a truism to say that we are now on the road to fresh developments. In the case of social questions, for example, we have long been agitated by disputes as to the desirablity or undesirability of certain immediate transformations. But perhaps the actual fact is that we have never yet been fully competent to discuss such matters. We have perhaps had neither the necessary knowledge [and this kind of knowledge, it may be pointed out, is the rarest and most difficult to obtain, in the whole world, or in life], nor the necessary responsibility, nor, above all, the necessary leisure from foreign criticism and advice, all of which we must have, if we are ever to arrive at opinions which are really our own, on these important matters. In fact the growth of a sense of nationality involves, amongst other things, something like the spontaneous appearance of a sovereign faculty amongst us. It is like the perception of their own unity and inter-relation, amongst the different parts of a single organism. Related to each other in the bonds of this idea, we become able to sit in national commission, as it were, on the problems of our own society and our own future.

And about nothing, perhaps, is this more necessary than with regard to Indian Art. Let us suppose then that the national intellect has placed itself in an attitude to consider and predetermine this question of the past and future of art in India. What is it to find? What is it to decide? 

Hinduism, in one of its aspects, is neither more nor less than a great school of symbolism. Every peasant, everv humblest bazaar-dweller understands and loves a picture, a pot, a statute, a decorative emblem of any sort. The culture of the eye is perfect in this land, as it is said to be in Italy ; and the ancient habit of image-worship has made straight and short and in uch-traveiled the road from eye to heart. The appeal of this symbolism, moreover, is universal. It matters not what be the language spoken, nor whether the reader be literate or illiterate, the picture tells its own story, and tells it unmistakably. The lamp left lighted on the threshold that the housewife, returning from the river before dawn, may know her own door ; the bunch of grain made fast with mud to the lintel ; the light beneath the Tulsi plant, or the wending of the cows to the village at sundown, these scenes and such as these will carry a single message to every Indian heart alike. Hence art offers us the opportunity of a great common speech, and its rebirth is essential to the up-building of the motherland – its re-awakening rather. For India has known many great art-epochs which cannot yet have died. The age that sculptured Elephanta was deeply impressed with the synthesis of Hinduism. The power that painted Ajanta was as free and living in its enjoyment and delineation of nature as any modern school of realists. The builders and carvers of Sanchi, of Amaravati and Gandhara enjoyed a continuous evolution of art, marked by great periodic waves of enthusiasm, through several successive centuries. Even a Mohammedan Empire, apart from its own architectural undertakings, only changed the form, it never attempted to suppress the process of creative art in India, as those who have seen the illuminated manuscripts in the Library at Bankipore can bear witness.

An age of nationality, then, must resume into its own hands the power of each and all of these epochs. The key to new conquests lies always in taking up rightly our connection with the past. The man who has no inheritance has no future. The modern student needs to know and understand this. For he has suffered the ordeal of being made suddenly to survey the world as a whole. He is by no means confined, as were his fathers, to the imagination of the things that his own people have done. He is in a position to compare the art of Egypt with that of Greece, that of mediaeval Italy or Holland with that of modern France. And if he knows where he himself stands, in relation to it all, this may prove an emancipation. But if he do not know, it is merely like taking away the protecting hedge from the plant that is too young to grow alone.

For India is not, in matters of art, to hark back to old ways, and refuse to consider or adopt anything that is new. But at the same rime, the Indian people have been trained in Indian art-conventions and cultured through Indian associations, and it is worse than useless to desire to speak to them through the conventions and associations of Italy or Greece. An Indian painting, if it is to be really Indian and really great, must appeal to the Indian heart in an Indian way, must convey some feeling or idea that is either familiar or immediately comprehensible ; and must further, to be of the very highest mark, arouse in the spectator a certain sense of a revelation for which he is the nobler. But to do this, it is clear that it must be made up of elements which in themselves are already approved of by the communal taste. Thus an Indian man who has studied the carved stone doorways of Orissa, or the beaten silver of Southern temples has already possessed himself of a great language of the beautiful, and when he speaks in that language, in India, he will be understood by all, and outside India by those who are sufficiently trained, or sufficiently gifted. Now this language he will speak to perfection, because he himself will understand every line and curve of it. But will he be as competent to represent, say a Gothic window, as he is to draw an Orissan exterior? Obviously not. In the foreign case, fine artist and learned student as he is on his own ground, he will be liable to perpetrate faults and even vulgarities of style which may altogether spoil his work in the eyes of those brought up in a world of Gothic architecture. At the very 'best, the foreign imitator will produce only would-be Gothic, just as the English or German Manufacturer can produce only a would-be Indian pattern in his cloth. We see thus that even the elements of which a picture is made up, are like a language, and just as no true poet could willingly choose to write all his poems in a foreign tongue, so no artist can do work which is eternal in its quality, unless his pictures are couched in terms "understanded of the people." All great expression, whether by writing or drawing or sculpture or what not, is to some extent the outcry of a human heart for human sympathy, and men do not so cry in an unknown tongue.

But the fact that the elements of our style are peculiar to our own country does not preclude their reaching the heights of the universal appeal. The Orissan doorway could not be produced by a foreigner, but it can be enjoyed by him. The absolutely beautiful is understood by all humanity. None of us could reproduce an ancient Egyptian temple, but all of us must admire one when we see it. It came out of its own order. It expressed that order—and its greater and more general qualities speak to us all. At the same time it must be remembered that in order to make another like it, we should have to feel and live and hope and pray and be, in all respects, like the men who built it. And this fact doubtless prevents our understanding or enjoying it, as was done in its own time. For in spite of all the false theories of sentimentalists, a ruin is never so beautiful as the building in use. Nothing endears like the familiarity of daily life.

As an example, however, of the way in which the universal element in a picture may triumph over that which is local and limited in it, we might take the position which is gradually being assumed in the Hindu pantheon by pictures of the Madonna and Child. One can hardly go down the Chitpore Road without catching sight of one of these. Now it is clear that in this case it is the intimate humanity of the motive, with the bright and simple colour, that appeals to the humble owner. A barrier tohis sympathy lies in the forcignness of the subject. He knows the names of the two characters, it is true, but very little more about them. He cannot imagine their daily life together. He knows no stories of that Divine Childhood! Yet, it is after all, a mother and her child, and the whole world understands. A thousand incidents of every day are common to these and their like everywhere. So the human in the great work redeems the local. But let us suppose an equally great master-piece, equally simple and direct and full of the mingling of stateliness and tender intimacy, to have for its subject an Indian mother and her babe. Will it be more loved, or less, by its devotee?

Whoever chose the. pictures that art* painted on the walls of the Jeypore museum, understood the greatness of the past of Indian art, and understood, too, the direction in which to expect for it a mighty future. There is one of these pictures—taken from an illuminated manuscript, but enlarged by the copyists to some fifty or a hundred times the original size—which represents the great scene of Yudhishthira's Gambling. This picture is a blaze of scarlet and gold, full of portraits, full of movement, a marvel of beauty. It is true that no modern artist could have painted in such unawareness of what we call perspective. But it is also true that no modern artist who has= yet appeared, and indeed no one since the age of the missalpainters themselves, would have been able so to fill the same space with splendour of life and pattern. And it is certain that India does not want to lose these greater qualities, in gaining what is, from an artistic point of view, the less.

It is, however, a characteristic of great styles that they can assimilate new knowledge without self-degradation. The creator of this gambling scene would have known quite well what to do with a little added science about vanishing points and the centre of vision ! Such knowledge would have left its impress on all he did, but it would never have led him to sacrifice his beauty and purity of colour, nor his love of sumptuousness and magnificence, nor his knack of hitting off vividly a likeness or a mood, nor his power of making of a picture a piece of decoration. There is such a thing as a national manner in art, and India needs only to add the technical knowledge of Europe to this manner of her own. Not that it is to be supposed that correct perspective is exclusively characteristic of the West. A small picture known as the Coronation of Sita and Rama was bought recently for the Calcutta Art Gallery. Behind the throne, in this beautiful little painting, is the palace of Ayodhya, and behind the palace, the river, with its ships, and fields, with armies under review and what not. And in all this work of the date of 1700 or thereabouts, and of what may for convenience be known as the Lucknow School, the perspective is quite perfect, while at the same time, for harmony of tints and quality of design, it is equal to the best of its forerunners. Never was anything in a mediaeval Dutch picture more detailed than this palace of Ayodhya by some unknown master. Tt is built of white marble and open, much of it, to the sky ; and here, with a magnifying glass, we may see the cows feeding, the horses ready saddled in their stalls, every camel and elephant and banner in its place, and all the long courts and apartments converging in most admirable order towards the horizon, like some fair City of Heaven seen in a dream. 

But if so many and such noble characteristics had already been attained by Indian art, what, it may be asked, is the quality in European painting which has so fascinated the Indian Art student, as to lead him out of his own path into endeavours which have hitherto been for the most part as ill-conceived as their execution was futile and disastrous? In nine out of ten cases the student will answer that their truth to nature is the great charm and attraction of European pictures. This is very flattering to the art of the West, but alas, he who knows more of that art sees deeper and shakes his head. This 'truth to nature' of which the young disciple prates is usually mere hardness and coarseness. Nature's greatest beauties, like those of the soul, arc spiritual and elusive. Quite the loveliest thing I ever saw in Greek art was not she whom Heine calls 'Our dear Lady of Milo,' but a drawing taken from a vase and painted out by Miss Jane Harrison, of a maiden riding on a swan. Her hair is tightly braided, somewhat like a coif, and everything about her dainty person is suggestive of the Puritan rather than the classic, some sweet Elaine or Gretchen or Ushabala, may be, of a people who really understood the beautiful, not in bare flesh and protrusive muscles merely, but in all its phases, wherever it was to be found. Similarly, difficult as the present generation of art-students may find it to believe, the worn face of a Hindu widow with its fugitive smile and deep abiding sorrow, may be better worth drawing, as well as more difficult to draw than the admired and boasted charms of wealth and youth and health. The experienced critic of European art itself knows well how true this is, and even in the Sistine Madonna will see less of a beautiful Roman woman than of the temperament and mind of the man Raphael. A picture is not a photograph. Art is not science. Creation is* not mere imitation. The clay figures of Lucknow and Krishnanagar do not, charming as they are, represent a high type of sculpture. But even if fidelity to nature were the highest criterion of painting, what about the portraits of the Nawabs of Oudh that hang in the gallery at Lucknow? It is true that these great canvases have been copied from tiny miniatures. But has any one ever seen more splendid portraits? From that first Viceroy despatched from Delhi and gazing out over time and space, with sense of the infinitude of hope, to the very last, through all the list, each man stands before us living. Perhaps the least interesting of the portraits is that of the greatest of those kings, Asafud- Daulah, the Well-Beloved. But they are all there, even that ancestor, second or third from the last sovereign, who was so renowned for his beauty that in the bazaar to this day there are men who cherish other portraits of him as their most prized possession.

Truth to nature, then, is not uniquely characteristic of western art, but in some degree or other must needs distinguish all its developments everywhere. Much of the joy of a great picture, indeed, is that in it we see nature as the painter saw it, often in an aspect vastly more beautiful than any we could have caught ourselves. There is a fragment in Griffith's book on Ajanta, of a woman clasping the feet of an image, taken from the frescoes in those caves. Here we have the work of an artist who combined two different qualities in a marvellous degree. He saw the human body as the Greeks saw it, round, strong, and nobly vigorous. And he saw the soul as the mediaeval Catholic saw it. in an agony of prayer. It may be that along some such line of reconciling and revealing power lies the future of art in India. For certainly these arc the two great opportunities offered by this country,—to know the human form, and to recognise the expression of overwhelming emotion, especially in worship.

But what is it, then, in European art, that tempts the Indian artist into emulation? The attraction lies, I take it, in the opportunity which the European conception of art offers to the individual artist. Art in the West is not merely the hereditary occupation of a craftsman. It has become, in modern times at least, a language through which great minds can express their outlook on the world. It is, in fact, one of the modes of poetry, and as such is open perforce to all inspiration, wherever and however it may be born. In India on the contrary, it has always been, or tended to be, treated as a craft, and more or less restricted, therefore, to a caste.

Now caste-education has the advantage of causing accumulation of skill from generation to generation. In the case of the goldsmiths, for example, we should quickly detect a degradation of knowledge and taste, due to the sudden advent of workers from without. A similar deterioration may be witnessed any day in Calcutta, as having befallen the art of dyeing. For undoubtedly it has been by the setting aside of the taste and judgment of hereditary craftsmen, in favour of new and untried tints, that the feeling of those who, in matters of colour, are the uneducated, has become dominant in the community. So that, in spite of brightness and daring, the former beauty of Indian dyeing has given place to a state of things more fit for tears than laughter.

On the other hand, in all such cases, we must remember that doubtless the monotony of the older style paved the way in each instance for its sudden and universal abandonment. For an art that is followed by a hereditary guild tends to an unendurable sameness, tends to become ridden by conventions, till at last the mind of the community revolts, and seeks new ideals. This is unquestionably true of painting. The miniatures of Delhi and Lucknow might be skilful portraits, growing in cleverness from generation to generation. But they lacked elements of newness, lacked indeed the power and the opportunity to create such elements. The desirability of striking out some great new style could not occur to the minds of these painters. For caste produces habit, and habit, though it heightens skill, tends to limit imagination.

In a guild of painters, then, drawn not from any single caste, but from the nation as a whole, the first characteristic that we have a right to expect is vastness and freedom of imagination. These artists are not limited by any rule in their choice of a subject, nor in their treatment of it. They are workmen, it is true, even as their fathers were, for all painters are primarily workmen. But they are also poets, dreamers and prophets of the future. Art, socially considered, therefore, has in our time gone through a great transition in India. And just as in the Europe of the thirteenth century, Giotto, the master-painter of a similar transition, left us the highest culture of his period in his works,— giving to the Florence that lay thrilled under the shadow of Dante, as Lubke so beautifully says, "a Divina Commedia carved in stone,"—so now and always the artist becomes freed from the conventions of the caste, only that he may submit himself to a greater convention which is the mind and heart of his age. The highest art is always charged with spiritual intensity, with intellectual and emotional revelation. It follows that it requires the deepest and finest kind of education. The man who has not entered into the whole culture of his epoch can hardly create a supreme expression of that culture. The man whose own life is not tense with the communal struggle cannot utter to those about him the inner meaning of their secret hope.

In the great ages of the society, one thought permeates all classes alike. One mind, one spirit is everywhere. And this unity of ideal carries up on its high tides even the hidden craftsman in his secluded corner, till he becomes the mouthpiece of a national impulse. This fact it was that gave their greatness to the carvings at Elephanta, and the paintings at Ajanta. For speech is noteworthy, not in itself, but by dint of the power behind, that presses forward through the words. And so with Art. Its rebirth in India today can only take place, if it be consciously made the servant and poet of the mighty dream of an Indian Nationality. For the same reason, there is little or nothing in England now that can be called Art. An impcrialised people have nothing to struggle for, and without the struggle upwards there can be no great genius, no great poetry. Therefore, in periods of empire Art must always undergo decay. But the reverse is the case with ourselves. We have to struggle for everything,—struggle to make our thought clear and definite ; struggle to carry and scatter it broadcast, that we may all be made one in its name; struggle again, when this is done, to make it a reality to others as well as ourselves.

While this is the case, let no one dream that the rendering of a blue pot, or a flame-coloured flower, of a pretty scene, or an interesting group, is the work of the painter. Far better were crudencss of colour with agony of thought behind. Far better were the rudest drawing with the weight of symbolism heavy on the drooping eyelids of the humanity portrayed. For Art, like science, like education, like industry, like trade itself, must now be followed "For the remaking of the Motherland" and for no other aim.

Art, then, is charged with a spiritual message,—in India today, the message of the Nationality. But if this message is actually to be uttered, the profession of the painter must come to be regarded, not simply as a means of earning livelihood, but as one of the supreme ends of the highest kind of education. Thus, an Art-school now a-days would need to be a University; the common talk amongst the students out of hours, to cover all the accepted conclusions, all the burning questions, of the day ; their reading to be marked by an insatiable curiosity for all the noble secrets of the world.

For, it is undeniable that everything great, whether for good or evil, begins with the earnestness of a group of students. When men have reached a decision on any of the critical questions of life, it is already too late for them to come together. The world-shaking confederacies are never made up of masters. One mature mind and many disciples, or many young minds struggling together: these are the groups through which power is developed. For proof of this, we might look at the movements which have grown up in Calcutta itself, as the result of the ferment amongst the students in the time of Keshab Chandra Sen. The whole of the Naba Bidhan with its indisputablepowers of moral education, the whole of the Sadharan Brahma Samaj, with its fearless and unselfish advocacy of every progressive movement, and the whole of the work of the Order of Ramakrishna, to name only three definite associations, are our inheritance from the students of that time.

Instances farther from home abound. Who can doubt that the vicious theories of Imperialism propagated by the man Curzon and his school, are the result of the stand that made itself popular amongst the sons of the privileged classes at Oxford in his student days? Lord Ripon, on the other hand, in his young manhood, was one of the innermost circle of that group of "Christian Socialists" that also numbered amongst its members Charles Kingsley and Tom Hughes. And it was here, as their friends knew well, that he and his wife trained and developed that noble partisanship for the defeated, that instinct of justice and equality, for which their names will shine so long in history.

The Fabian Society of Socialists are one of the central sources in London today of the culture of the democratic idea. And they began as a group of young and hardworked men and women, meeting on Saturday afternoons to study certain books, and discuss the social questions involved.

The London positivists—another ganglionic centre of moral impulses in the intellectual life of England,—were,. a generation or so ago, a knot of brilliant young Oxford men, captured by the great Guru, Congreve, the English clergyman who renounced so much to follow the faith of Auguste Comte.

And the Mediaeval movement in English Art,—its most notable development, probably, during the nineteenth century,—began with young men, Rossetti, Morris, Burne- Joncs, Simeon Solomon, and others.

No. The old may have justice on their side in deprecating their own powers. But the young have no right to doubt themselves. The future is theirs. They, and no others, arc born to inherit the earth.

Now, Universities are built up of thought and hope, not out of mere organisation alone. Let two men take up the study of art in the right spirit, and they will change the whole art-world of India. Let the men of a single art-school understand comprehensively the problem before them, and the new art is already born. For of life comes forth life, but without the quickening of the spirit, there can be nothing but death.

But how can a man be a painter of Nationality? Can an abstract idea be given form and clothed with flesh, and painted? Undoubtedly it can. Indeed if we had questioned this, Mr. A. N. Tagore's exquisite picture of "Bharatmata" would have proved its possibility. But it cannot be done all at once. Such an achievement lies amongst the higher reaches of artistic attainment, and would be impossible for the beginner, with his foot on the first rung of the ladder. How is he to proceed, that he may gradually rise to the delineation of such great ideal forms?

In the first place, it must be understood that art is concerned with the pleasure which we derive from sight. Not with the knowledge. The picture that ministers to that need is a scientific diagram, merely! The fundamental requisite, then, is a truthfulness of sense. Without the ability to decide promptly and finally that we like or dislike a certain delineation, a certain situation, we shall inevitably go wrong in art. Not every scene is fit for a picture. And this truth needs emphasising in modern India especially, because here an erroneous conception of fashion has gone far to play havoc with the taste of the people. In a country in which that posture is held to be illbred,* every home contains a picture of a young woman lying full length on the floor and writing a letter on a lotusleaf ! As if a sight that would outrage decorum in actuality, could be beautiful in imagination! In a country in which romantic emotion is never allowed to show itself in public, pictures of the wooing of Arjuna and Subhadra abound.

These errors proceed from a false ideal of correctness, which leads us to be untrue to the dictates of our own feeling. Under the influence of such misconception, I have seen an Indian girl pick out of a collection of photographs the most unattractive nudities of Puvis de Chavannes, from the Paris Sorbonne, and declare that of them all she liked these best. It was evident to kindly on-lookers that she had not taken the pains to examine her choice closely, but imagined—poor child!—that they must be the correct thing. Similarly, it is not uncommon to find in the guest-room of an Indian bungalow, pictures of ladies smoking cigarettes and otherwise comforting themselves, the exposure of which, in a European house, could only be intended as a deliberate insult to the guest.

In all these cases alike, the mistake arises from the cold-blooded endeavour to make ourselves like a given thing because it is supposed to be 'high art,' instead of for the simple reason that it affords pleasure. Pictures of the nude and semi-nude are always best avoided in India, since it is almost impossible here, at present, to attain the education necessary for their true discrimination, and mistakes in taste on such a subject are dangerous to moral dignity. There is, nevertheless, a certain grandeur of reverence—a sense of the impersonal in such ancient works as the Venus of Milo, in the mediaeval 'Girl taking a Thorn out of her Foot' by Donatello, and in the modern 'Triptych of Love' by G. F. Watts, which lifts the human form out of the realm of the merely physical, and suffuses it with spiritual meaning. But to those who find in themselves no perception of this fact, and to those, who have had no experience in foreign art, such a statement must sound like wordy vapouring, and the expert rule undoubtedly is that the nude be passed by altogether.

This training and heightening of sense-perception, till the eye becomes like a perfectly regulated instrument, reliable as to what it chooses and what it rejects, is more important and more difficult than would readily be suspected. In Indian art, particularly, there is a tendency to become too intellectual or too technical, which is apt periodically to override the artistic instinct, and destroy art. Thus in the Lahore Museum, after a long series of exquisite ancient sculptures which may or may not show the influence of Bactrian or Chinese craftsmen, we come with a gasp upon the emaciated figure of the Fasting Buddha. In Jeypore, also, we hear of a skeleton Kali. Now these things are wrong. They mark the dying power of an art-period. Art is not science. The pursuit of the beautiful—not necessarily the sensuously beautiful, but always the beautiful,—is her true function. The artist has a right to refuse, as not suitable to his purpose, all that to his particular temperament appears as unbeautiful. Indeed we instinctively assume him to have done this, and believe that we may praise or condemn his taste and judgment accordingly.

In nature, then, there is much which is not beautiful, and the artist must judge continually between her diverse elements. In a picture we want neither the mean, nor the muddy, nor the confused. Hardly any scene can be counted lovely that is without light. Even water is as meaningless in a picture as huddled crowns of cocoanut palms, if it be unlighted. I had long admired certain Dutch pictures in the London national gallery, without being able to discover the secret of their spell. They were by a man called- De Hoogh, and consisted of little courts and cooking rooms with red pavements. Nothing very striking in the subjects, for as a matter of personal taste, I immensely prefer Madonnas and Angels to kitchens. At last I took my puzzle to a great artist. "De Hoogh is one of the few people who have ever known how to paint sunlight", was his reply to my question. At last the mystery of the curious uplifting of spirit was explained! I returned to De Hoogh and found it true. His red brick floors lay always in the light.

Contrast of various sorts, is, again, a great element in beauty, contrast within unity. So of course is colour. Amongst studies by Indian art-students, I have seen many oil-paintings of dull unlighted tanks lined by thatched huts, the whole overshadowed by heavy forbidding trees, painted in blue-green. Now these depressing renderings of depressing scenes were true enough to the fact, even to the fact of many a place we love. In outline, they were good enough. Yes, but a single luminous touch, on house or pond or leaves, would perhaps have changed the whole, as by the stroke of miracle. There is another picture often seen, of the child Dhruva making his way into the forest. It is a picture of confusion, without one point of radiance. Wild undergrowth in muddy blue-green does not make a picture. To the child Dhruva, as he actually went by the forest-ways to his heart's desire, there was, it appears to me, some great sense of overarching loftiness, of spreading starlit sky, of open path, a wondrous call and invitation of the Infinite leading him on and on into the sleeping silence in the depth of the forest. These things are not suggested by the picture we know. Moreover, if the artist had realised that his duty was to paint what gave him joy, instead of that, merely, which he had often seen, that picture would have been very very different.

Thus a true picture must be luminous, and it must be suggestive. It must, moreover, have a beautiful subject, which at once rouses our love and aspiration. Now Indian roads and streets and river-banks are full of subjects which would make such pictures, only we must have a heart to see them by. It is through the heart that the artist must do all his seeing. Indian women, with their incomparable draperies; the beggars with the staff and begging-bowl that hints of Shiva; labour, beautiful in all lands, but here still further dignified by its wonderful gendeness and refinement; the priest in the temple, the boatman on the river, the mother with her child, the bride stepping forth to the bridal, do you Indian students of Indian art see nothing in any of these that you long to record? Can you not go through life seeking for the glimpses that open up the great vistas? They are seen oftner in this country than anywhere in Europe! In almost any home one might find the group from which one could paint the Nativity of Christ and the Nanda-Utsab of Krishna. Have you not felt the beauty of the little earthen lamp set alight at evening beneath the Tulsi plant? Have you not breathed the peace of the Shanti-jal ceremony in the gathering dusk? Is there for you no mystic significance in the Baran dala? Believe me, without some such interpretation, some such appeal, the mere technical excellences of which you learn to prate in English schools are bone without flesh ; they are worse than valueless.

This article is taken from ‘The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita’, Volume III.  Courtesy: Advaita Ashrama