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Part 6: EB Havell : The Man and A Mission of Historical Dimension

When EB Havell left this earth, OC Gangoly wrote this about him in the Modern Review of February 1935: “The discovery of Sanskrit Literature is justly regarded as one of the momentous mile-stones in the progress of European culture. A much more momentous discovery, pregnant with future consequences, it was our good fortune to witness about the year 1907, when the late Mr. E. B. Havell proclaimed to cultured circles in Europe that India had bequeathed to the world a logically developed autochthonous and indigenous Art—the forms and ideals of which are the special product and the peculiar expression of her own native genius. Indeed, before this discovery, Indian Art was not only lost to the Indians themselves, but was on the point of being lost to the world…”

(Figure 1: Credit: Wikimedia – EB Havell)

EB Havell (1861–1934) first came to Madras School of Arts and Crafts from England in 1884 and served as its Principal for ten years. He then moved to Calcutta in 1896 as the Superintendent of the Government School of Art and Keeper of the Government Art Gallery. During his stay in Calcutta, he went to England for a year in 1902 and wrote markedly appreciative articles on Indian Art in notable English journals. In early 1906, he again went to England on a protracted leave and finally, while there, was removed from his post in 1908.

Havell had a special love and liking for Abanindranath Tagore, who considered him his mentor. They together laid the foundation of the Bengal School of Art and, eventually, changes were brought about in the art education at the Calcutta School of Art by going beyond the prevailing West-centric attitude of many contemporary artists. In precise words Havell taught the West to understand and appreciate the excellence of Indian art and sculpture: “It is waste of energy for Christians to inveigh merely against Hindu superstition, idolatry, and caste. It is rather by sympathetic study of Hinduism in all its aspects that we shall learn to reach the hearts of the people, as our Great Teacher did on the shores of Galilee.” And it had not been the West alone that needed Havell’s counseling; even to the West-centric contemporary Indian artists, he pointed out where to search for the essentials: “No nation has ever grown to greatness by compromising. India has sunk in the scale of nations because she has been false to her highest ideals and India will rise again when she holds up for herself and for humanity higher once than Modern Europe now brings her.”

In his crusade, Havell had a unique partner in Abanindranath, whom he called his collaborator, and at times—his disciple. While deliberating on his timeless contributions in a three-page tribute to EB Havell in the Prabasi, Rabindranath Tagore admitted how Havell had redirected Abanindranath from an incorrect path to what led him to the pilgrimage of Indian art. Even Abanindranath himself has unhesitatingly acknowledged the role of Havell in his life: “Above all, Mr Havell had been my mentor. In perception and appreciation of art of this country, he had no peer. Two hours each day, he took me to his side in a secluded room and taught about my country’s paintings, the elegance of the sculptures—and their values and histories. The office attendants were ordered not to disturb us in those two hours. I think now that without my foreign mentor teaching me in that intimate way about the merits and excellence of Indian art, I would have remained a crude chunk of coal without the mind and eyes to appreciate the wonders of my country’s art and sculpture.” In the same memoir, Abanindranath expressed his gratitude to EB Havell in no uncertain terms: “All through I have revered him as my mentor, it had hardly for nothing that I adored him as my elder. He too lovingly called me his collaborator; and at times termed me his disciple, loved me as his younger brother. He loved me more than I love Nandalal.”

(Figure 2: Credit: Wikipedia – OC Gangoly with Lady Ranu and Atul Bose)

After Havell had gone back to the West, claims OC Gangoly, “A great stir was created in cultured circles in Europe when with the rich eloquence of his voice he championed the cause of Indian Art … His claim at once met with sympathetic support of critics, both in England and on the Continent, although it gave very rude shocks to Anglo-Indian antiquarians comfortably settled down to the belief that India had no Fine Art of its own. ”So much so, that “…the foremost English critic, reviewed Mr Havell’s championship in a brilliant article in the Quarterly Review (October 1910): ‘And now, finally, the claim is being brought forward on behalf of the Scluptures [sic] of India, Java, and Ceylon. These claims have got to be faced; we can no longer hide behind the Elgin marbles and refuse to look; we have no longer any system of aesthetics which can rule out, apriori, even the most fantastic and unreal artistic forms. They must be judged in themselves and by their own standards.’”

Another gifted English poet, dramatist, and art historian—Laurence Binyon, who played a distinct role behind Mrs Herringham’s visit to the Ajanta Caves, wrote this in the same number of the Quarterly Review: “Before Mr. Havell wrote, it was the fashion to deny that India had produced any ‘fine’ art at all. That fashion is now exploded. Mr. Havell has done a real service by his championship of Indian sclupture [sic], painting, and architecture. He has shown that India possesses a creative art, animated by its own ideals, and he has interpreted those ideals with sympathy and eloquence. He has made the English public, so ignorant of the real India and its achievements, and so little enlightened by the returning Anglo-Indians, acquainted with an art of which it had no conjecture.”

(Figure 3: Credit: Wikipedia – Sir William Rothenstein)

Before we delve into the impact of Nivedita’s association with EB Havell and a few eyewitness accounts of its significance, let us present some recollections of Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945). His contributions to the cause of India perhaps remain much in the dark than they deserve. He was an English artist, author, and spokesman for the arts, best known for his portraits of English and European authors and artists and his paintings on Jewish themes. He was active in the art community and held important positions in leading organizations like the Royal College of Art and the Royal Fine Arts Commission. According to Rothenstein’s memoir, only two of his collector friends had some “superb examples” of Indian art, but as he writes, “they fetched insignificant prices” at Sotheby’s. Rothenstein expressed his disappointment at how Indian art remained unappreciated in his time. He recalls Campbell Dodgson offering him Indian drawings for only 3 shillings each, which Rothenstein found to be among the finest Indian art in his collection. Despite vaguely hearing about a man named Havell preaching about the significance of Indian art in India, Rothenstein found that Mrs Herringham was the only person in London who shared his interest in Indian painting and sculpture. Mrs Herringham, who knew more about the subject than Rothenstein, even planned to go to India to make fresh copies of the paintings in the Ajanta caves.

About Mrs Herringham’s visit to India and its consequences, we have already discussed in the article titled Sister Nivedita and Indian Art: An Almost Unread Story, published on this platform at the outset. In the next part of the story, we shall look into how Rothenstein had involved himself in the cause of Indian art.

(Read for more in Part 7: EB Havell and His Crusade for Indian Art: A Closer Look)

References And Notes

  1. Ordhendra C Gangoly (1881-1974) – A Renowned Painter and a leading connoisseur of Indian art, as well as art critic and historian. He was one of the founders of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, edited the quarterly Rupam: An Illustrated Quarterly Journal of Oriental Art, Chiefly Indian (in publication from 1920 to 1931). Authored many well-accepted books on Indian art, music, and culture.
  2. The Modern Review, February 1935, pp. 200-201, and 204. (see E.B. Havell: The English Prophet of Indian Nationalism, by OC Gangoly).
  3.> accessed August 16, 2023; and> accessed August 16, 2023.
  4. Prabasi Itihaser Dhara: Miscellaneous Topics and A Compilation, 2.320 (see EB Havell, by Rabindranath Tagore, Magh, 1345.
  5. Jorasankor Dhare, 80, and 126.
  6. William Rothenstein, Men And Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein – 1900-1922 (London, Faber & Faber Limited, 1932), 230.

Sotheby’s art auction firm: ‘One of the world’s leading auction firms, founded in London in 1744. It originally handled sales of important manuscripts and library collections, but, beginning in the mid-1950s, it increasingly focused on the sale of art. Headquartered in New York City since the 20th century…’ (Britannica,> accessed August 18, 2023).

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