Arts in India
Come of the Modern Age*
The Coming of the Modern Age to India
YOU HAVE NOTICED that I have avoided the expression ‘Indian Renaissance’
in the title of my paper. I
have preferred instead to use the less colourful and so less question-begging
expression ‘the Modern Age’, partly alluding to the practice of historians
and partly alluding to the concept of ‘modernization’, which along
with the concept of Brahmanization (introduced by M.N. Srinivasa)
is invoked by anthropologists in analyzing the on-going cultural change
in India. Before I proceed to characterize the coming of the Modern Age to
India it will be best to get ‘Indian Renaissance’ out of the way because
this later expression tends to be misleading and has done considerable
I do not know who was the first person, Indian or European,
that used this analogy with the European Renaissance, which was brought
on by the breakdown of the feudal order and the rise of city states
and monarchy, the revival of Graeco-Latin learning, the exploratory
sea voyages to the East and to the Western hemisphere, and the rise
of mercantilism and which was followed by the Protestant Reformation
and the Scientific Revolution (associated with the names of Descrates,
Bacon, Kepler, and Galileo). Some
historians placed Indian Renaissance in the 16th century
associating it with the emergence of the Mughal Empire, the Bhakti
and Sufi movements (Hindu and Muslim Protestantism as it were), and
the coming of the European traders and soldiers to the Indian shores.
Other historians, recognizing that the social and the cultural and
the ideological upheaval was almost wholly a result of the coming
of the British rule, its liberal reforms, its Christian evangelists,
and of course its economic exploitation. For them the Indian Renaissance was spread
over a century, 1820-1920 to be precise.
There are clearly vital differences between Europe coming to
the Modern Age, an inner process, and the Modern Age coming to the
South Asian sub-continent, an externally originating process. With
Europe the shift from the Medieval ethos to the Modern ethos was a
shift from a feudal to a mercantile social order, from a Church-dominated
cultural order to a history-oriented cultural order, from an Other-directed
personality (where the expression ‘the Other’ is to be taken in its
widest sense) to a personality directed by a search for a new order.
Hamlet’s doubts about getting on with the simple filial duty
of revenge, doubts which didn’t prevent vigorous action on his part,
are as good a symbol of the Renaissance man as any. What do we find when we turn to the resurgence
of a prostrate India in the 19th century? Two vivid images come to mind – one image from
Tilak’s famous obituary of Ranade – who is credited by Tilak with
infusing life into the cold flesh of the body social – and the other
image from Tagore’s celebrated ode evoking the heaven into which he
would see his country awake some day.
The Indian resurgence seeks to catch up with four centuries
of European history down to the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The values that
European modernity espoused touched upon –
the relation between man and the universe (rationality in understanding
it and utilitarianism in changing it),
the relation between man and man (egalitarianism at home and nationalism
to the rest of the world), and
the relation between man and self (individualism and secularism in
relation to the Other).
The European Renaissance introduced secularism, individualism,
and nationalism; the European Enlightenment introduced egalitarianism,
utilitarianism, and rationalism.
The Indian awakening partook a little of both and equaled neither
in depth or scope. To begin with, it is not segmented but fragmented
– by religion (for example, the Muslims were only partially drawn
into it, social reform and emancipation of women were very much removed
indeed from their thoughts), by classes aligned by caste and community
(for example, the scholars and professionals were only imperfectly
in touch with the new merchants like Jagannath Sankarsett and the
new merchant industrialists like Jamshedji Tata and with the peasant
discontent), and by region (for example, in spite of being one of
three presidency towns of the East India rule and in spite of being
the seat of one of the three oldest universities, Madras did not figure
as a ‘renaissance’ centre along with Bombay and Calcutta) Next, the
India resurgence is not all-pervasive in the way the European Renaissance
was – thus, it is significant that Marx didn’t reach the Indian intellectuals
till the beginning of the 20th century, that the critique
of religion among the Hindus was not followed by the emergence of
new philosophical thought, that one meets with personalities uneasily
hovering between orthodoxy and reform all through this period.
Finally, the Renaissance man was largely conspicuous by his
absence. The nearest we come to personalities alive to many sides
of life are Raja Rammohan Roy (religious and social reformer, educationist,
scholar), Justice M.G. Ranade (statesman, economist, historian, religious
and social reformer), Rabindranath Tagore (poet, painter, thinker,
and founder of Visvabharati as well as Sriniketan), and Mahatma Gandhi
(political and social activist, religious and economic critic).
One has only to consider these personalities and their impact
in comparison with their European counterparts and also with their
Indian contemporaries to realize that the so-called Indian Renaissance
is a far cry indeed from the European Renaissance.
Perhaps D.K. Bedekar’s term Prabodhan (teaching and awakening)
better captures the spirit of the Indian resurgence which stood for
the regeneration of a prostrate society through the assimilation of
Western values and the rediscovery of Indian values especially from
the distant past rather than the immediate Medieval past. Educating the public and educating the young
were the most widely shared programmes of the leaders of the Indian
In considering the Indian Prabodhan in relation to the Arts
in India we shall consider not only the visual arts of painting, sculpture,
architecture but also the performing arts of music, theatre, dance
and the literary arts of poetry, fiction, and prose.
Without going into substantiating detail, we shall sketch only
the broad outlines. Admittedly, this essay is much more programmatic
than definitive in its reach.
How the Arts of India fared in the Modern Age
When one uses an expression like Baroque Art one thinks of
the visual arts, music, as well as literature, all together, of Continental
Europe in the late 16th and the 17th centuries.
The same goes for Romantic art in the late 18th
and the 19th centuries.
When one thinks of the cultivation of the Arts in ancient India,
one thinks of the dialogue in Vishnudharmottarapur¡na
(6th century A.D., part 3) wherein Markandeya explains
to Vajra how worship involves all the arts each meshing with the others.
In contrast, when one thinks of the arts in contemporary India,
one finds the fragmentation to be complete. Consequently, one has
to think of them in four separate fragments in assessing the coming
of the Modern age to them.
Group A comprises music, dance, and the theatre
dominated by music and/or dance.
Group B comprises painting, sculpture, and
Group C comprises the decorative and design arts
and recreative arts such as the commercial
Group D comprises poetry, fiction, essay, and literature-
dominated theatre and cinema.
There is an interesting
and significant correlation between this grouping and the relative
use of the English language among the practitioners of these arts
and in the thinking connected with these arts ranging from very little
in Groups A and C through quite a lot in Group C to a good deal in
Group D. This reflects degrees of ‘modernization’ in the anthropologist’s
sense. Another correlation
is with the social respectability which reflects the degree of ‘Brahmanization’
(again in the anthropologist’s sense) ranging from very low in Group
C through quite a lot in Group A and B to very high in Group D.
The arts in Group A, namely, music, dance, and the non-literary
theatre were the most removed from the influence of the Western counterparts
but by no means free from modernization.
(As for influences from the West, we have to recognize at least
the adopting and adapting of musical instruments such as the humble
hormonium and the noble violin.)
In Hindustani music this process was led by Bhatkhande and
Vishnu Digambar Paluskar – between them they had a four-point programme:
the claim on respectability, the replacement of feudal patronage by
democratic patronage through clubs and tickets, the avoidance of wastefulness
and irrationality in the training of the musician, and the application
of modern scholarship to committing musical lore to print.
The technology of sound recording and transmission affected
the ambience and the flavour of musical life.
The break-up of ghar¡nas
was led by Kumar Gandharva and the notion of experimentation was made
acceptable by Ravi Shankar. Karnatak
music and classical dance were rather slow to modernize. Dance had to be rescued from ‘nautch’ – Rukmini
Devi transformedDasi-attam into Bharatanatyam, Menaka (Leila Sokhey)
placed Kathak on the world map at Berlin, Vallathol founded a house
for Kathakali, and Tagore’s patronage rescued Manipuri from obscurity.
Ragini Devi, Udayashankar , and Tagore married dance to theatre –
they called it ballet. I think
these rescue operations are quite analogous to the mechanism of upward
mobility for a whole caste that Srinivasa called ‘Brahmanization’.
The arts in group B, namely, painting, sculpture, and architecture
graduated from the status of unlettered crafts to high culture via
the British-sponsored art schools and official patronage.
This put them, however, in the grip of Victorian ‘academic’
art and cut them off from the lifeblood of the Indian heritage.
(Of course British patrons like Sir Charles Malet and British
art teachers like Griffith were enlightened exceptions who saw the
worth of the Indian heritage.) The
Bengal School of Ajanta pastiches initiated by Nandlal Bose who of
course transcended the school and the one-man school of Ravivarma
marrying Hindu mythology to a Baroque palette and brush were but different
attempts to make the best of the situation and certainly successful
in moulding popular taste for the decades to come. Modernism came with Amrita Sher Gill but degenerated
into ‘academic modernism’. The
history of vital Indian painting in modern times is still a gallery
of isolated figures like Abanindranath Tagore, Abalal Rahman, Amrita
Sher Gill, Benode Behari Mukherjee, and a few others and not the story
of an evolving tradition. Sculpture
and architecture were even slower.
Unfortunately, the public cannot escape from ‘academic modernism’
and Christmas-cake kitsch in architecture – they become daily eyesores.
The challenge of modernism has yet to be accepted; we have
still to recover from the British patronage; we have still to evolve
invigorating get-togethers of excited artists.
The arts in group C, namely, decorative and design arts and
recreative arts such as the commercial cinema present us with a study
in ironies. Traditionally the arts in India have recognized
a system of two varnas in symbiosis – sanskrita and prakrita,
margi and deshi, shishta and itarejana. Art works
of either varna were accessible to both the refined society
and the general public – high art often borrowed from low art and
low art often drew upon high art. The coming of the art market replaced
the symbiosis of the two varnas by the mutual tolerance of
three brows and a fourth partner: highbrow art was patronized by the
aristocrat and the Westernized middleclass; middlebrow art by the
non-Westernized middleclass; low-brow art by the urban moneyed class
and the urban and rural working classes; and the fourth partner was
the so-called ‘folk’ art of the peasants and the tribals. The whole
scene is riddled with ironies – the marketers, thinking they are the
ones to manipulate popular taste, are only victims of their own poor
taste uneasily hovering between the middlebrow (grade B, mas¡l¡ films); the ‘folk’ reject folk art in favour
of the lowbrow; the middle classes embrace folk art; the highbrow
are becoming tourists in their own country and embrace imported middlebrow
art. The arts of group C in spite of the rich heritage of decorative
and recreative arts are now wallowing in a sea of kitsch – that peculiar
Indian brand of kitsch – in spite of isolated peaks of excellence.
The brass band and the all too loud speakers constitute a noisy threat
to the traditional Indian ways of marking and decorating the passage
of time. The ‘nautch’ has
made a comeback in commercial cinema and more recently in stage entertainment.
The only saving grace is the excellence of a good deal of middlebrow
recorded and filmed music, which incidentally borrows more freely
from Western popular music.
The arts of group D, the literary arts of poetry, fiction and
essay, the literary theatre, and the literary cinema appeared to have
fared better, being firmly in the control of the Westernized and non-Westernized
middle class. But this protective shell has also proved to be a limiting
strait jacket. Ancient and Medieval Indian literature is largely
in verse and governed by either of three poetics1 –
the ¡rsha poetic of Vedic poetry and the two great
the shishta poetic of classical Sanskrit poetry and theatre
and its derivative poetries in the regional languages, and
the prakrita poetic exemplified in classical Tamil poetry,
the Sanskrit and Prakrit poetry of Jayadeva, Gathasatasai, and the
like, the bhakti poetry in Sanskrit and the regional languages, and
the folk poetry in the regional languages.
Bear in mind that only
the shishta poetics was codified properly.
There was probably an ¡rsha theatre also – nothing survives except
references in the encyclopedic lore of Bharata. There is also the Perso-Arabic poetic of Urdu,
Indo-Persian, and some Kashmiri and Sindhi poetry. What did modernization mean to the various
arts of this group? The prose
essay and prose fiction came into their own.
On the eve of the British conquest, there was no highbrow or
middlebrow theatre in action. Maharashtra
and Bengal were the first to set one up and followed both classical
Sanskrit and western models, especially Kalidasa, Shakespeare, Molière,
and Ibsen. Satire and humour was cultivated first in Marathi and Tamil and
is very painfully percolating the other regional languages. Traditional poetry slowly petered out – first
in Marathi and Bangla, last in Telugu.
The Romantic poetic was embraced in the early phase. Modernism fared somewhat better than in the
visual arts. Unlike group
B, there was no manifestation of ‘academic modernism’ – with one important
exception, contemporary English poetry written by Indians. The use of the regional languages saved the arts of this group from
being cut off from the lifeblood of Indian heritage – though it did
not save them from the onset of Indian kitsch.
The literary cinema had to wait for its Satyajit Ray with its
post-Romantic poetic. The segregation of the ‘brows’ has adversely
affected the arts of this group, since Romantic and post-Romantic
art depends for its vitality on a widening circle of sympathies.
An art of, by, and for the middle classes is not calculated
to succeed in this respect. The growth points for the future in this
group of arts are likely to be two – the induction of the working
classes and the tapping of the ¡rsha
and prakrit poetics. Dalit poetry and prose narrative in Marathi,
Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema, and the play Ghashiram Kotwal are some examples
of such growth points. One
also hopes that the rich store of folk satire and humour in Bhojpuri,
Panjabi, and elsewhere insinuates itself in highbrow and middlebrow
art. The prose essay has had a rather separate development – in the
early phase it was primarily the vehicle of the Prabodhan ideology
– nationalism, egalitarianism, rationalism, utilitarianism, individualism,
and secularism (roughly in that descending order of priorities). The
critique of religion did not, however, quite burgeon into a new Indian
intellectual tradition, as we have already intimated. The Indianization of post-liberal ideologies like Marxism was not
even seriously attempted, still less achieved.
Retrospect and Prospect
I think I have said enough by now to justify the terminological
aside in the opening section of this essay.
The gap between the expectations raised by the expression ‘Indian
Renaissance’ and the dampening reality of the Indian Prabodhan
is not merely a terminological inexactitude but also a historical
failure – fragmented, incomplete, limited, and limiting.
This historic failure is still haunting us in independent India
– Swadeshi is a poor substitute for true Swaraj in maters of
the arts and of ideas.
At the same time, the debit side of the Indian Prabodhan must
not blind us to its indutiable credit side which can best be appreciated
in the perspective of world history – even in the perspective of the
history of South Asia as a whole. Islam has never really forgiven
itself its failure in wholly converting India into a dar-ul-Sal¡m – the conquest of South West Asia
and Mediteranean Africa was so easy in comparison both in military
and cultural terms. While the military resistance in India was not
very good, medieval India partially Hinduized Islam in India. Christianity whether it accompanied the Portuguese musket or the
English pair of balances (the emblem of the honourable Company) fared
even worse in spite of resolute attempts to save India.
(It was only some Christian clerics and some Western academics
that realized, often grudgingly, that India was no land of utterly
benighted ‘natives’ who had nothing to save but their souls.) Modernity (in the sense of the Modern age, not in the sense of
modernism in poetry or art) has fared much better in India
than either Christianity or Islam. What is more to the point, modernity has fared
much better in India than it has in most other countries outside Europe.
One reason that has been put forward for this state of affairs is
that there are certain affinities between the Hindu view of life and
many of the values associated with the European Renaissance and the
European Enlightenment – in particular, between nationalism and svadharma,
between egalitarianism and the suspension of inequalities in bhakti,
between rationalism and the willingness of darshanas to go
where tarka (logic) and pratyaksha (sense perception
and mental perception) will take you even in the face of scriptures,
between utilitarianism and the doctrine of vyavah¡ra
between individualism and the recognition of atmatushti (satisfying
one’s inner self) in morals and of loneliness in spiritual maters,
and between secularism and the acceptance of plurality of paths in
the spiritual quest. Of course
affinity is not identity and the Hindu mind has not fully come to
terms with nationalism as against family and caste loyalty, with egalitarianism
as against the social inequalities of ritual status, with utilitarianism
as against the centrality of the sacred, with individualism as against
the recognition of the pervasive character of the sacred.
So unless one takes the view (as some Westerners and some Indians
do) that most of all of these values are not merely not eternal but
largely pernicious, one should feel that the Indian Prabodhan
has not done too badly. It has done badly only to the extent we recognize
hat it could have done beter.
But in a sense this whole line of reasoning is an irrelevant
exercise. After all India’s destiny is not merely for
ever to keep catching up with the West. So thinking of the prospect
is not simply a question of predicting whether India in general and
the arts in India in particular will ever come of the Modern Age in
the foreseeable future or not or even whether India and the arts in
India will ever truly met the challenge of modernity and modernism.
Is this a covert plea for nativism?
No, I have already said that Swadeshi is a poor substitute
for true Swaraj. The contemporary Indian has a double heritage
(at least) – the Indian heritage and the Western heritage.
Confining ourselves to the arts of India, we can say that the
artist in India has fully to acquire (in the words of Goethe) what
he has inherited – we haven’t fully exploited, for example, ¡rsha and prakrit poetics and dramaturgy;
and our sense of the West is wholly Anglo-Saxon with insufficient
awareness of what the Continent has to offer; and we have been the
losers for it and has all been our fault.
But surely the challenge of modernity in the arts is more than
merely fulfilling the heritage. Shall we or shan’t we meet this challenge? Well, it depends – specifically it depends
on three things. First, it
depends on how free, how courageous the individual artist of great
talent and integrity will show himself to be.
Secondly, it depends on the health of the Indian artistic sensibility,
the general level of artistic taste – the peaks of art normally require
supportive slopes, they don’t rise like needles.
Vishnu Digambar’s watchword, let’s train the ears of tomorrow,
was never more urgent than it is today.
Thirdly, it depends on the overall political, economic, social,
moral, and cultural health of India. The prospects of the arts in
India are inextricably bound with the prospects of the Indian society
and culture as a whole. Do we have the freedom, the courage to be
ourselves, to enjoy the Swaraj, to shape our own destiny?
The following citation is a telling example of the kind of
documentation we shall need to work out an art history of the India
of the period circa 1820-1920.
Uday Shankar wrote of his participation in Anna Pavlova’s troupe
: “Being in her troupe I learned discipline, punctuality, co-operation,
stagecraft, observation, sense of balance and proportion, sense of
duty, responsibility and, above all, showmanship.”
(Quoted on page 44 of Mohan Khokar, Dance in transition : The
Pioneers, Marg 36 : 2. 41-76, 1985.)
Another goldmine of documents is the carefully annotated collection
of letters in Marathi (a few in English) called Vishrabdha sh¡rad¡,
edited by Haribhau Mote (Bombay 1972, 1975, one more volume to
follow) casting its net over men and women of action, of letters,
and of the visual, the performing, and the recording arts.
This was published in New Quest No.56:95-101, March-April
* This is a slightly revised and augmented version of
the paper presented at the Fourth Seminar on Indian Renaissance,
organized by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research at Ajanta,
Maharashtra on 22-23 March 1986.
I am indebted
to Bhalchandra Nemade for the germ of this idea. I do not imply, however, that he will agree
wholly with the present formulation.