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Part 7: EB Havell and His Crusade for Indian Art: A Closer Look

According to William Rothenstein, it was Ananda Coomaraswamy who introduced him to the drawings of Abanindranath Tagore and other artists of the Calcutta school. Rothenstein shares here more of his experience on Indian art.: “…When Havell returned to England, he, Coomaraswamy and I went to hear a lecture by Sir George Birdwood, who while praising her crafts, denied fine art to India; the noble figure of Buddha he likened to a boiled suet pudding! This so disgusted me that, there and then, I proposed we should found an India Society. A meeting was held at Havell’s house, and with the support of Dr and Mrs Herringham, Thomas Arnold, W. R. Lethaby, Roger Fry, Dr Thomas, T. W. Rolleston and others, the new society was formed.”

(Figure 1: Credit: Wikipedia – The Royal Society of Arts)

Rothenstein’s reference to Sir Birdwood reminds us of a significant meeting on 13 January 1910 at the Royal Society of Arts in London with Sir Birdwood acting as its chairman. At the beginning of the meeting, he spoke a few words about EB Havell while referring to a paper the latter would present in the same meeting. Before concluding his introductory speech, Sir Birdwood expressed that he did not entirely agree with Mr Havell’s views on the existence of Fine Art in India, which he admitted could be due to his lack of complete understanding. EB Havell presented his 12-page paper before the gathering, from which we shall selectively quote here: “… Excluding the small fraction of the population which is mostly congregated in the great Anglo-Indian commercial cities, art still survives throughout the length and breadth of India as a part of a great traditional culture, intimately bound up with the religion and daily life of the great mass of the Indian people. In this traditional culture art still is as much a part of national life and education as it was in Europe from the dawn of civilization down to the eighteenth century. Opposed to this view of art as a part of religion, life, and work are two exotic forces—Western commercialism, in which art is merely an instrument of wealth, and Western education, represented by Anglo-Indian schools and colleges, from which art and religion are almost totally excluded. To these may be added the principles of Anglo-Indian administration, in which art has hitherto been treated as it generally is in modern European life, only as a luxury and means of intellectual recreation or amusement.”

While concluding his paper, Havell offered his firm view: “Indian art is not dead; it has been sleeping, but is now awakening, and to continue to ignore it in the future as we have done in the past is, I am convinced, the worst of all bad policies, and one which is fraught with evil consequences to our Empire.”

We need to hear what Sir Birdwood had said in the meeting that provoked many to stand against the condescending attitude of a section of Western art administrators and critics: “… The Lord Buddha. The senseless similitude, in its immemorial fixed pose, is nothing more than an uninspired brazen image, vacuously squinting down its nose to its thumbs, and knees, and toes. A boiled suet pudding would serve equally well as a symbol of passionless purity and serenity of soul! It is in vain to argue that such imbecilities are objects of ‘fine arts’ because of the thoughts of emotions they excite in the devout.”

(Figure 2: Credit: Wikipedia – William Rothenstein)

The sequence of events that followed is narrated in the biography of Mrs Herringham: “Rothenstein was deeply offended by Birdwood’s comments on the Buddha’s figure, and in response, he suggested that they should establish an Indian Society. He promptly drafted a letter to the Times, which was signed by a group of artists representing various art forms such as painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and art education. This, too, is worth quoting at length, for it is the manifesto of their new order in cultural relations with India.” The importance of this letter, appearing in the Times of London on 28 February 1910, inspired the Modern Review to republish it in their May 1910 number: “We, the undersigned artists, critics, and students of art … find in the best art of India a lofty and adequate expression of the religious emotion of the people and of their deepest thoughts on the subject of the divine. We recognize in the Buddha type of sacred figure one of the great artistic inspirations of the world. We hold that the existence of a distinct, a potent, and a living tradition of art is a possession of priceless value to the Indian people, and one which they, and all who admire and respect their achievements in this field, ought to guard with the utmost reverence and love. While opposed to the mechanical stereotyping of particular traditional forms, we consider that it is only in organic development from the national art of the past that the path of true progress is to be found. Confident that we here speak for a very large body of qualified European opinion, we wish to assure our brother craftsmen and students in India that the school of national art in that country, which is still showing its vitality and its capacity for the interpretation of Indian life and thought, will never fail to command our admiration and sympathy so long as it remains true to itself.”

The letter had thirteen signatories, viz., Frederick Brown, Walter Crane, George Frampton, Laurence Housman, E. Lanteri, W. R. Lethaby, Halsey Ricardo, T. W. Rolleston, W. Rothenstein, George W. Russell (A.E.), W. Reynolds Stephens, Charles Waldstein, Emery Walker. According to Mrs Herringham’s biography, “Havell was not a signatory, but he warmly welcomed this plan for respect for Indian art. ‘I am very glad indeed to hear that you set up a united protest against Birdwood’s extravagant utterances,’ he wrote to Rothenstein. ‘I think it is high time that artists began to counteract his influence, and Purdon Clarke’s, at South Kensington, for as long as that lasts nothing of Indian art will be shown there, except what appeals to the early Victorian artistic understanding—and to archeologists.” According to the same biography, “On 27 April 1910 the India Society was formally launched. It decided to prepare for its members an annual publication on some aspect of the arts of India. It issued publicity, and membership guineas began to come in.”

(Figure 3: Ajanta Caves in Panoramic View)

About this time, according to Rothenstein, Mrs Herringham was planning a revisit to the Ajanta Caves primarily for two reasons. The first was to attend to the unfinished copies made during the earlier visit in 1909-10, and, secondly, to make fresh copies of the frescoes till then unattended. Pressed by Mrs Herringham to accompany her and inspired by the beauty of some recently seen photographs of Benares, Rothenstein decided to go with her to India. But he did not stay for long at Ajanta, nor is he known to have made copies of the frescos there. But based on his ability and depth of perception—his words about the Ajanta Caves shall always be of relevance in India’s art history: “Though I had seen a few photographs of the facades, I was unprepared for the magnificence of the temples. … Once within the temples, the effect was bewildering—a forest of elaborately carved columns, rich ceilings, stupas, sculptured figures and walls covered with paintings—I wandered from cave to cave throughout the day. On the day following I was able to concentrate on the wall-paintings. At first I thought these paintings irreparably damaged; then I deciphered vast compositions wherein the whole life of India seemed to be displayed, with an observation and grasp of form, character and movement set down with swift precision and energy of line.”

According to Rothenstein, even though he was inspired by the ‘jungle of masterpieces’ at Ajanta, he couldn’t stay there for long. Instead, he left to explore some other interesting places in India. 

(Read for more in Part 8: Sister Nivedita And EB Havell: A Shared Love for Indian Art)

References And Notes

  1. William Rothenstein, Men And Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein – 1900-1922 (London, Faber & Faber Limited, 1932), 231, and 235-36.
  2. Proceedings of the Society, Indian Section, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 58, No. 2985 (February 4, 1910), pp. 273-74. (> accessed October 13, 2023), pp. 273-274)
  3. E. B. Havell, Art Administration In India (Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 58, No. 2985, February 4, 1910), 274, 285, and 287:> accessed September 14, 2023.
  4. Mary Lago, Christiana Herringham and the Edwardian Art Scene (Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1996), 200, and 201.
  5. The Modern Review, May 1910, 517 (See: Eastern Art makes Events in the West).

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