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Part 8: Sister Nivedita and EB Havell: A Shared Love for Indian Art

As we know, Sister Nivedita and EB Havell first came to know each other in 1902. The four of her letters addressed to Havell are mostly about Indian art and related subjects. Hints are there that Havell also wrote to her from time to time. Nivedita’s available letters belong to the period when Havell had left India. This indicates that when he had been here, both used to meet to discuss their topics of interest. In the first available letter to Havell on 13 March 1908, Nivedita expressed her pleasure at Havell accepting her idea about the “Buddha-Siva Image”.  She even added an eight-point explanation of the gradual evolution of the Buddha Stupa in this letter, which might have in the background a query Havell had made before. 

Nivedita’s second letter on 6 July 1909 beats with a palpable joy—for here she seemingly refers to Havell’s Indian Sculpture and Painting, released from London in 1908. About this book, her verdict reads: “This is exactly the book we wanted—a readable, authoritative account, well-illustrated, of the psychological attitude in which competent persons might approach Indian art. For that is what it amounts to—and yours is the first attempt of its kind—though it is easy to foresee that it will have hundreds of followers, for it opens an Era in Criticism.”  

Shortly after, we catch a glimpse of how a knowledgeable Western mind, with a deep love for Indian art and its significance, could easily connect with someone who shares similar inclinations towards timeless heritages: “It is so wonderful to think that India was accustomed to speak of an ‘Old Western’, an ‘Eastern’, and a ‘Madhyadesh’ School of Art, as we of Limbria, Tuscany and Venice! The next point is to determine 3 different styles, and assign surviving works to them as far as possible. I cannot help thinking that the wonderful buttersoft style of Baragnon may be the Madhyadesh School.” In this letter, Nivedita informed Havell of her plans for the upcoming visit of Mrs Herringham: “I think you probably know that Mrs. Herringham means to return to Ajanta this winter on a sketching expedition, and if possible, a number of us are hoping to join her there, and form a considerable camp. It would be a wonderful chance of studying the pictures!”

(Figure 1: Ajanta Fresco)

What Nivedita wrote to EB Havell on 3 March 1910 shows that the latter had earlier written a letter to her with a copy of the Journal of the Society of Arts to convey the events at the Royal Society meeting. After adding her views on Sir Birdwood and his speech, Nivedita congratulated Havell: “This is good. The whole future is with you.” Then she drew attention to some photographs of Ajanta by Gonen Brahmachari, which had reached Havell probably through the Tagores, seemingly meaning Abanindranath and Gaganendranath. But then again, Nivedita could not suppress her passion for the riches of Ajanta Caves, as she writes: “You certainly must have Ajanta. It is a vastly greater factor in the history of India than one cd. have dreamt. And Hindu sculpture of 600 to 1000 A.D. is magnificent! Such slenderness and beauty—especially of limb—one has never seen. This of course at Ellora and Elephanta. The sculpture at Ajanta could not be compared with it. But the painting, especially the Young Buddha and Yasodhara of Cave! —Magnificent!”

After preliminary pleasantries in her last available letter to Havell on 7 April 1910, what Nivedita writes next betrays her delight and concern: “You are doing wonders for Indian Art—and I now see how even your resignation of the work here, can be made to serve the great cause. I cannot congratulate anybody however, on the personality or qualifications of your successor [Percy Brown]! But if the worst came to the worst, I suppose it would always be possible for the Tagores to divide the movement from the official thing. How fortunate that their class is both powerful and enthusiastic!”

(Figure 2: Credit: Wikipedia – Albert Grünwedel)

The suggestion that a way out might be needed following Havell’s absence shows two things. The first is Nivedita’s concern for the budding Bengal School of Art, and the second is her awareness of the future role of the “Tagores” to ward off any untoward consequences. This letter also shows Nivedita’s admiration for the “Hindu sculpture of the Pre-Mohammedan period.” But it asks that we first read what Albert Grünwedel, a German scholar of repute, writes about Indian sculpture: “…The fact that Indian sculpture never became more than a rilievo serving for the decoration of large buildings, so much so, indeed, that the buildings executed in stone appear overlaid with carved mouldings. The ornamental relief only seldom, and as if by chance, attains organic completeness; even in ancient Buddhist art a certain irregularity is indulged in—a constant varying of the panels employed decoratively, for the normal architectural development of which there is no hard and fast rule. It is therefore, as we shall see, very difficult to insist upon the points which, according to the design of the sculptor, should be emphasized. … And, further, there are no separate figures in Buddhist art: for even when figures are executed alone they are never represented without an aureole, never without attendant accessory figures, and never without a wall behind to form a solid background to the figure.”

Refuting Grünwedel’s criticism, Nivedita conveyed her views to Havell: “Each visit to Elephanta and Ellora deepens in me the awe and admiration which I feel for Hindu sculpture of the Pre-Mohammedan period. In view of the great sculpture-cloister at Ellora, I cannot understand what Grunwedel means, by his strictures (p. 30, Buddha Art in Ind.) on the inability of Hindus to evolve real sculpture. Surely the fact that these statues stand against a rock does not constitute them mere relief!!! Besides, is it a Veda that we alone know the truth in Art and that the different aims of other peoples are mere lapses from the ideal? I wish I could read Grunwedel through with you, line by line, and page by page!”

(Figure 3: The trio – Dr JC Bose, Tagore and Okakura)

Besides these letters, eyewitness accounts also support that what Nivedita thought and believed about Indian art and sculpture had a lasting influence on EB Havell. For example, we have come across a letter in which Nandalal Bose writes this to a close admirer on 25 August 1954: “Yes, the Sister had taught EB Havell on matters pertaining to art. I think it had been on the Indian viewpoints on aesthetics and philosophy of art, which she explained to him. For EB Havell was too eager at those days to imbibe the mystery and deeper aspects of Indian art. This can easily be found from his books on Indian art. I am not aware of whether he mentioned the name of the Sister, but while writing his books on Indian art, he frequently discussed with eminent Indian scholars.” In the same letter, Nandalal Bose adds the names of some distinguished personalities who benefitted from the Sister’s company: “EB Havell, Abanindranath Tagore, Okakura (Artist and art critic of Japan), and Dr Jagadish Chandra Bose, etc., all used to discuss the subjects of art with Sister Nivedita—and how all of them were inspired by her is evident in their books. Rabindranath Tagore had also similar discussions with the Sister.”

After the untimely demise of Sister Nivedita, Abanindranath Tagore remembered her in his letter to EB Havel on 2 November 1911: “Perhaps you have heard that our Sister [Nivedita] died in Darjeeling last month. It will be hard to find another like her again. How keenly we feel her loss.’ But his indebtedness to the Sister was more pronounced in what he said in the memorial meeting for Nivedita at the Calcutta Town Hall on 23 March 1912. In that meeting, according to the Modern Review of April 1912, “Babu Abanindranath Tagore read a paper in Bengali, pointing out how she had opened the eyes of the Indians to the beautiful in their own country, their own art and their own institutions.”

(Read for more in Part 9: Sister Nivedita and Indian Art: The Horizon of Her Perceptions)

References and Notes

  1. Letters of Sister Nivedita, ed. Sankari Prasad Basu, in 2 volumes (Kolkata, Advaita Ashrama, 2017) pp. 2.181, 268-69, 395, 407, and 584.
  2. Percy Brown (1872–1955): A renowned British scholar, artist, art critic, historian and archaeologist. In 1909, he became the principal of the Government School of Art in Calcutta. He retired in 1927 and became secretary and curator of the Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta. He held the post until 1947. See Wikipedia:> accessed October 14, 2023.
  3. Albert Grunwedel,Buddhist Art In India (London, Bernard Quaritch, 1901), p. 30.
  4. Barendranath Niyogi, Shilpa-Jigyasay Shilpi-Dipankar Nandalal (Calcutta, Bharatbani Prokashani, 1368 [Beng.]), pages 24 and 28 (translated from Bengali).
  5. The Modern Review, April, 1912, 451 (see Notes: The Sister Nivedita Memorial Meeting).

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