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Part 9: Sister Nivedita and Indian Art: The Horizon of Her Perceptions

In her letter to Havell on 6 July 1909, Nivedita expressed unmistakable joy about his book Indian Sculpture and Paintings. In the Modern Review of November 1909, while writing about the book, she made some observations betraying the wider extent of her approach while judging art. For example, she begins with which remains the single most powerful motivator behind the undying glory of Indian art. Let us follow her words about the “Story of Buddhism”: “How great was the power of an Idea which could dominate and synthetise the cosmopolitan whirlpool of Taxila and its neighbourhood, immediately before the Christian Era! How great was the power of Buddhism, and how far it travelled, and in what forms it has appeared later, are all secrets, indeed, that have not yet been worked out in full.” With such introductory words, Nivedita focuses on what Havell has done in his book. Referring to him, she adds: “When he begins to deal with Hinduism, however, Mr. Havell is as helpful as when he is speaking of the better-known Buddhist sculpture. Indian men and women today need a key to the understanding of their own religious art, even more than to the appreciation of that of a great past epoch.” 

Her writing reveals how Nivedita took an overall viewpoint in judging human creativity: “We cannot too clearly realise that Buddhism is Hinduism dominated and organised by a single master personality. It claimed only to be the system accepted by a religious order, and perhaps for this very reason, it exerted an overwhelming attraction upon all parts of the nation, and created arts, literatures, and nationalities.” Elsewhere, she adds, “… Whatever we may find to say about Buddhism … it was Hinduism working at its highest potentiality, of unity, purpose, and organisation …” And then Nivedita goes back to the indivisible legacy of Indian art, she writes: “… What is true religiously, is true also artistically. Even the sculpture of Buddhism, supreme in quality as that undoubtedly is, springs out of the soil, and stands out against the background of Hindu Sculpture, and often cannot be disentangled from it.” 

(Figure 1: Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica, © vlad131/Fotolia – Boro Budor)

But Sister Niveditas of this world never dwell on their thoughts alone, they always look for irrefutable instances to base their ideas on firmer plinths; hence, her words continue: “The impulse that we call Buddhism reaches its noblest, largest and most distinct expression in the temple of Boro Budor in Java, between 650 and 750 A.D. But even this expression cannot be understood, without reference back to the world that had already produced the rails of Sanchi, Bharhut, and Amaravati, and the temple of Elephanta. For the great Rails represent Hindu art, holding up the Buddhist ideal to an admiring world. The Sculptures that we find on them, rendered in stone, have already been familiar for ages to wood-carvers, image-makers, and plaster-decorators. Buddhism, springing suddenly to the throne of the world, and dreaming of eternal memorials, in 250 B.C., seized for its purpose the means that lay to its hand, which had been provided for it, by the great Indian civilisation to which it belonged. Only gradually does the daughter-faith disentangle itself, emerging as a triumphant and wholly individualised entity at Boro Budor. Undoubtedly it was enabled to do this, by the presence on the throne of Java of a prince who belonged to one of the Rajput, or royal organising tribes of North-Western India.” 

And before quoting Havell from his book, Nivedita validates her logic from a different angle: “… Apart from this personal preference of one man [the Rajput prince] or one family, or even of a throne supported by a powerful religious order, the civilisation of Java was Hinduistic, and this fact is well indicated in her art, from 950 to 1500 A.D. To this period belongs the statue of Durga slaying Mahishasur, of which Mr. Havell Says: ‘Judged by any standard, it is a wonderful work of art, grandly composed, splendidly thorough in technique, expressing with extraordinary power and concentrated passion the wrath and might of the Supreme Beneficence roused to warfare with the spirit of evil’.”

(Figure 2: Ajanta Caves [Credit: commons.wikimedia], Ellora Caves [Credit: UNESCO, © Bruno Poppe], Elephanta Caves [Credit: © UNESCO, Francesco Bandarin])

Before pointing out the catholicity in Havell’s approach to Indian art, Nivedita draws our attention to another unmistakable legacy of Hinduism in later-day Buddhist art and sculpture: “It is Hinduism, again, which has produced the great literatures of the whole Indian world, and therefore the arts that illustrate them. The sculptured Ramayanas and Mahabharatas of Javanese, Cambodian, and southern temples, are all equally the creation of Indian workers and Indian ideals. In the cave-temple of Elephanta, Hinduism reaches the same isolation and detachment as Buddhism in Boro Budor. Of this sculpture Mr. Havell Says: ‘In the cave-temple of Elephanta, Ellora, and Ajanta, Indian sculptors played with chiaroscuro in great masses of living rock with the same feeling as the Gothic cathedral builders, or as Wagner played with tonal effects, hewing out on a colossal scale the grander contrasts of light and shade to give a fitting atmosphere of mystery and awe to the paintings and sculptures which told the endless legends of Buddha or the fantastic myths of the Hindu Valhalla’.” 

After dwelling on the vastness and power of Indian conceptions that makes the skill of their sculptors so impressive and, at the same time, the wonderful capacity of Hindu sculpture for grand portraiture, Nivedita compliments Havel: “Mr. Havell has, in a high degree, the conviction that is essential to all writers on things Indian, namely, that behind the children exists the mother, behind the detail, India herself.” 

We have selected this review by Nivedita and included abundant quotes from it in our story for two reasons. First, to give an idea of the magnitude of her approach while dealing with subjects dear to her heart. Secondly, in our previous stories, we have read two unreserved acknowledgements; From Nandalal Bose we learned that, “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.” (see Sister Nivedita and EB Havell: A Shared Love for Indian Art). Abanindranath Tagore also has said that Sister Nivedita “… had opened the eyes of the Indians to the beautiful in their own country, their own art and their own institutions.” (see the same story). 

This review of Nivedita allows us to guess what prompted Abanindranath and his pupil Nandalal to record what they experienced while witnessing her inspiring impact on men of great distinction. But the list of men of eminence is long, who on different occasions associated themselves with Sister Nivedita and benefitted from her abundant abilities. Nonetheless, the fact is, we hardly have adequate words from those who gained from her unceasing help and guidance. Rabindranath Tagore lived close to where Nivedita passed her days in Calcutta, and their prolonged association and mutual respect is a historical truth. The Poet’s tribute to the Sister after her demise is, to a great extent, a timeless compensation for what we missed elsewhere: “The world’s best gifts are given to us free of cost, without our having to haggle for them. Because we pay no price, we do not quite appreciate their full value. The gift that Sister Nivedita gave us was the gift of a great life. She kept nothing back but gave without reservation … all that was best and noblest in her … Sister Nivedita is worthy of our reverence, not because she was Hindu but because she was great. We shall honour her memory not because she was one of us but because she was much greater than we.”

(Read for more in Part 10: Sister Nivedita and Indian Art: The story of Her Knowledge and Inspiration)

References and Notes

  1. Sister Nivedita, Havell On Hindu Sculpture, The Modern Review, November 1909, p. 488-91.
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, Sister Nivedita, translated from Bengali by Kshitis Roy and Krishna Kripalani, Indian Literature, Vol. 10, No. 3 (July-September 1967), pp. 6-7,> accessed May 28, 2024.

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