THE DISCOVERY of Oriental Art by the aesthetic mind of Europe is one of the most significant intellectual phenomena of the times. It is one element of a general change which has been coming more and more rapidly over the mentality of the human race and promises to culminate in the century to which we belong. This change began with the discovery of Eastern thought and the revolt of Europe against the limitations of the Graeco-Roman and the Christian ideals which had for some centuries united in an uneasy combination to give a new form to her mentality and type of life. The change, whose real nature could not be distinguished so long as the field was occupied by the battle between Science and Religion, now more and more reveals itself as an attempt of humanity to recover its lost soul. Long overlaid by the life of the intellect and the vital desires, distorted and blinded by a devout religious obscurantism the soul in humanity seems at last to be resurgent and insurgent. The desire to live, think, act, create from a greater depth in oneself, to know the Unknown, to express with sincerity all that is expressible of the Infinite, this is the trend of humanity’s future. A philosophy, a literature, an Art, a society which shall correspond to that which is deepest and highest in man and realise something more than the satisfaction of the senses, the desire of the vital parts and the expediencies and efficiencies recognised by the intellect without excluding these necessary elements, these are the things humanity is turning to seek, though in the midst of a chaotic groping, uncertainty and confusion.
At such a juncture the value of Eastern Thought and Eastern Art to the world is altogether incalculable. For their greatness is that they have never yet fallen away from the ancient truth, the truth of the Soul; they have not gone out of the Father’s house to live on the husks of the sense and the life and the body; they have always seen in the mind and body only instruments for the expression of that which is deeper and greater than its instruments. Even intellect and emotion had for them only a secondary value. Not to imitate Nature but to reveal that which she has hidden, to find significative forms which shall embody for us what her too obvious and familiar symbols conceal, has been the aim of the greatest Art, the Art of prehistoric antiquity and of those countries and ages whose culture has been faithful to the original truth of the Spirit. Greek culture, on the other hand, deviated on a path which led away from this truth to the obvious and external reality of the senses. The Greeks sought to use the forms of Nature as they saw and observed them, slightly idealised, a little uplifted, with a reproduction of her best achievement and not, like modern realism, of her deformities and failures; and though they at first used this form to express an ideal, it was bound in the end to turn to the simple service of the intellect and the senses. Mediaeval Art attempted to return to a deeper motive; but great as were its achievements, they dwelt in a certain dim obscurity, an unillumined mystery which contrasts strongly with the light of deeper knowledge that informs the artistic work of the East. We have now throughout the world a search, an attempt on various lines to discover some principle of significant form in Art which shall escape from the obvious and external and combine delight with profundity, the power of a more searching knowledge with the depth of suggestion, emotion and ecstasy which are the very breath of aesthetic creation. The search has led to many extravagances and cannot be said to have been as yet successful, but it may be regarded as a sure sign and precursor of a new and greater age of human achievement.
The Oriental Art recognized in Europe has been principally that of China and Japan. It is only recently that the aesthetic mind of the West has begun to open to the greatness of Indian creation in this field or at least to those elements of it which are most characteristic and bear the stamp of the ancient spiritual greatness. Indian Architecture has indeed been always admired, but chiefly in the productions of the Indo-Saracenic school which in spite of their extraordinary delicacy and beauty have not the old-world greatness and power of the best Hindu, Jain and Buddhistic work. But Indian sculpture and painting have till recently been scouted as barbarous and inartistic, and for this reason, that they have, more than any other Oriental work, deliberately remained in the extreme of the ancient symbolic conception of the plastic Arts and therefore most entirely offended the rational and imitative eye which is Europe’s inheritance from the Hellene. It is a curious sign of the gulf between the two conceptions that an European writer will almost always fix for praise precisely on those Indian sculptures which are farthest away from the Indian tradition,—as for instance the somewhat vulgar productions of the Gandhara or bastard Graeco-Indian school or certain statues which come nearest to a faithful imitation of natural forms but are void of inspiration and profound suggestion.
Recently, however, the efforts of Mr. Havell and the work of the new school of Indian artists have brought about or at least commenced something like a revolution in the aesthetic standpoint of Western critics. Competent minds have turned their attention to Indian work and assigned it a high place in the artistic creation of the East and even the average European writer has been partly compelled to understand that Indian statuary and Indian painting have canons of their own and cannot be judged either by a Hellenistic or a realistic standard. More salutary still, the mind of the educated Indian has received a useful shock and may perhaps now be lifted out of the hideous banality of unaesthetic taste into which it had fallen. Whatever benefits the laudable and well-meaning efforts of English educationists may have bestowed on this country, it is certain that, aided by the inrush of the vulgar, the mechanical and the commonplace from the commercial West, they had succeeded in entirely vulgarising the aesthetic mind and soul of the Indian people. Its innate and instinctive artistic taste has disappeared; the eye and the aesthetic sense have not been so much corrupted as killed. What more flagrant sign of this debacle could there be than the fact that all educated India hailed the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, an incompetent imitation of the worst European styles, as the glory of a new dawn and that hideous and glaring reproductions of them still adorning its dwellings? A rebirth of Indian taste supporting a new Indian Art which shall inspire itself with the old spirit while seeking for fresh forms is now, however, possible and it is certainly a great desideratum for the future. For nothing can be more helpful towards the discovery of that which we are now vaguely seeking, a new Art which shall no longer labour to imitate Nature but strive rather to find fresh significant forms for the expression of the Self.
It is necessary to this end that the wealth of their ancient Art should be brought before the eyes of the people, and it is gratifying to find that an increasing amount of pioneer work is being done in this respect, although still all too scanty. The book before us,Mr. O. C. Gangoly’s South Indian Bronzes, must rank as one of the best of them all. Southern India, less ravaged than the North by the invader and the vandal and profiting by the historic displacement of the centre of Indian culture southward, teems with artistic treasures.Mr. Gangoly’s book gives us, in an opulent collection of nearly a hundred fine plates preceded by five chapters of letterpress, one side of the artistic work of the South,—its bronzes, chiefly representing the gods and devotees of the Shaiva religion,—for the Shaiva religion has been as productive of sublime and suggestive work in the plastic arts as has been the Vaishnava all over India of great, profound and passionate poetry. This book is a sumptuous production and almost as perfect as any work of the kind can be in the present state of our knowledge.
There are certain minor defects which we feel bound to point out to the author. The work abounds with useful quotations from unprinted Sanskrit works on the rules and conventions of the sculptural Art, works attributed to Agastya and others; but their value is somewhat lessened by the chaotic system of transliteration which Mr. Gangoly has adopted. He is writing for all India and Europe as well; why then adopt the Bengali solecism which neglects the distinction between the b and the v of the Sanskrit alphabet or that still more ugly and irrational freak by which some in Bengal insist on substituting for the aspirate bh the English v? Even in these errors the writer is not consistent; he represents the Sanskrit v sometimes by b and sometimes by v, and bh indifferently by v, vh or bh. Such vagaries are disconcerting and offend against the sense of order and accuracy. It is always difficult to read Sanskrit in the Roman alphabet which is entirely unsuited to that language, but this kind of system or want of system turns the difficulty almost into an impossibility. We hope that in the important works which he promises us on Pallava Sculpture and South Indian Sculptures Mr. Gangoly will remedy this imperfection of detail.
Sri Aurobindo (Early Cultural Writings)