Ashok R. Kelkar







            Do we really need art history?  Is there such a thing as art history?  I am arising this question in view of the fact that there are those who apparently answer it in the negative.


            Of course, even these persons accept that there is such a thing as an art chronicle, and undoubtedly useful account in a chronological order of works of art, each of which appears on the scene in splendid isolation.  The doubt that these skeptics raise concerns the feasibility of transforming such a chronicle into a history.  How could we possibly read some kind of a continuous story?  How could we discern some overall plan in this procession of art works?  Indood, why give so much importance to the chronological order?  A survey is a survey: whether we arrange it period by period and call it a of art or a chronicle  arrange if region by region and call it a gazetteer of art is simply a matter of convenience.  Underlying this scopticism there may be a simple refusal to pass beyond facts to interpretation of facts.  In practice such a refusal may be no more than a proposal for a division of labour (I’ll go after facts, let somebody else worry about interpreting them)  or just a piece of intellectual laziness (worrying about historical under-currents just makes my head dizzy) or an attempt to cover up one’s intellectual timidity (I don’t want to sick my neck out and make value judgements,  facts are safer to handle).  Such types of practical refusal are not uncommon, but they are not my chief concern here.  Rather I am concerned with a refusal to do art history on philosophical grounds.  There are those who are ready to offer plausible theoretical grounds for accepting the concept of art chronicle (itiv¤tta) but rejecting that of art history (itihāsa).1





            What are these grounds?  To begin with, there are those for whom a thing of beauty is a joy for ever, let art be only for delight.  This is the position of critical hedonism (ānandavāda).  A work of art need not look before or after: it has no history.


            The second position is that of critical didacticism (āšvāda). If for the hedonist critic art is pure delight, for the didacticism art is pre meaning.  It communicates a message.  Naturally art has no history of its own independent of general history: the moral or religious or even political messages that art works convey merely serve as footnotes to man’s general history as such.


            These two positions naturally induce others to offer some raison d’ętre for art history, some reason to justify its existence.  Actually, there are three such reasons, or rather three such sets of reasons, thus yielding three more critical positions.


            The third position is that of critical formalism (rūpavāda).  An art work is not merely a formal unity but a self-sufficient unity.  For the formalist critic, art history is a procession of specific stylistic solutions to certain specific artistic problems that each generation of artists, each school of artists, indeed each artist faces.  Thus, when Hindustānī  vocalists o the 17th  century found the single-minded and austere and other worldly Dhrupad an insufficient vehicle for the worldly ambience of the court, their solutions was the khayāl or rather the various styles of the Khayāl, a solution that was aided by the influence of  Persian music.

            The fourth position is that of critical vitalism (jīva´avāda).  For  the vitalist critic, the history of art is the history of how different ways of life have been embodied in art, how art is influenced by society and its culture and influences society and its culture in its turn.  To create and enjoy art are both no less than, and no more than, because its subject matter and thematic content is Buddhist or because its makers happened to be Buddhists, but rather because it was an integral part of the Buddhist way of life.

            So far we have recognized four critical possibilities—hedonism, didacticism, formalism, and vitalism, out of which hedonism and didactisim question the very possibility  of art history.  There is one more critical position.  A critic that takes up this fifth position recognizes that art is not merely form, not merely life, but also reading a certain form into life in all its variety and complexity, lucidity and obscurity.  Hence art not only articulates life as it is being lived but also presents life as it might be lived.  This is critical bipolarism (āšayrūpavāda).  Moving beyond  the dreams and disappointments of men, art explores and enlarges the possibilities of life.  That is what greatness in art is all about.  The great Kailāsa  temple of Ellora is an epic hewn out or rock comparable in scope to Mahābhārata  or Tirukkural.   A  bipolarist critic writing art history will seek to make it internal in its approach.

            Unfortunately Indian art history has not come of age.  Barring a few isolated efforts here and there is not a critical history even when it ventures beyond the level of the chronicle and the gazetteer. It ca come of age only by closely associating itself with art criticism and even art appreciation, and by taking some definite critical positions.  Different art historians of India could have different critical positions.  What is important is that they have some critical position.  If the scholars take merely a factual interest in art, they will be little better than auctioneers or lawyers dealing with art-at best they will produce chronicles or gazetteers, and for them a work of art will remain for ever a piece of historical evidence just as for the others it will be a piece of merchandise or a piece of property.  Art historians cannot lazily or timidly shrink a more intellectual, more theoretical, more critical approach to the job in hand.  A corollary follows.  True art history will not be the history of the visual arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, and design alone. It has to extend its purview to the performing arts of music, dance, and the theatre and to the arts of literature and of cinema.  A second corollary follows.  An art historian has to make evaluative and interpretative judgements.  (Actually even an art chronicler worth his salt has to make them at least implicitly when assessing the so-called internal and stylistic evidence relating to matters of chronology, authenticity, or the like.)



            Indian art history should pay attention to the need for the idealization of Indian art history, if it is ever to outgrow the limitations of its provenance in colonial times.  The reasons for such Idealization are not patriotic but academic. What does such an Idealization mean in terms of a concrete programme?  May I make bold here to suggest a five-point programme?


            First, Indian art historians should not only relate Indian art to Indian sensibility and Indian art to Indian sensibility and Indian ways of looking at art but also in their town work undertaking a serious attempt to make use of Indian conceptions of art.  I am not at all denying that looking at Indian art in the oblique light of the Western or the Chinese point of view or looking at Western or Chinese art in the equally oblique light of the Indian point of view may yield interesting insights along with unfortunate distortions.  What I am urging that such exercises will be useful only after we have seen Indian art through becoming inward to the Indian point of view and have thus wrested its inner secrets.  (That is what Ananda Coomataswamy was trying to tell us.)  Comparison can wait.


            Secondly, while the use of English or Hindi as media of communication at international or national forums is probably unavoidable, this should not lead to a permanent neglect of some excellent work in the field of art history written in the other Indian languages.  Thus, D.G. Godse who is both a practicing artist and an art critic has written a body of important if controversial work in art history form the vitalist point of view. That he wrote it in Marathi was fortunate in so far as it was instrumental in bringing art history home to the Marathi reader.  The association should perhaps put together a reader of Indian art history consisting of material translated form Indian languages into English so that this body of work gets the wider audience it deserves.


            Thirdly, Indian art history should recognize that, because of certain historical reasons, Indian art styles are more like dialects than like distinct languages.  They intermingle geographically and shade off into each other.  Consider the relationships between Dāst¶¶am (standardized in recent years as Bharatanāyam), Mohinia¶¶am, kuchipuīī, and Oissī in the area of cultivated dance.  Unlike in the West, there are seldom any clear geographical boundaries.  (Even in the West with growing ‘internationalization’ these boundaries are now getting blurred.)


            Fourthly, relating the history of visual arts to the history of performing arts and of literature is desirable not only on the theoretical ground of the kinship of all arts but also on a specific empirical ground.  The Indian approach to the arts demands such an intermingling. The oft-quoted parable of Vajra and Mārka¸∙eya form the Viâh¸udharmottara Purā¸a  is only the testimony out of many to the close mutual involvement of the fine arts in ancient and medieval India. (the sad fracturing of the art scene in modern Indian is a late aberration.  Once this interrelationship is understood, one can begin to see, for example, how the rise of courtly miniature painting and of khayāl singing and of the courtly version of Kathak dancing and of certain poetic modes are  not only coeval (roughly the 17th century) but also correlated artistic events of North India.


            Fifthly and finally, Indian art history could ill afford to harp overmuch on the distinction between fine art and useful crafts in the western fashion or between cultivated and popular levels of paining, music, dance, the theatre, and so on.  Madhubānī painting, Bānkurā terracotta, Yakâhagāna dance theatre, or Panjābī folk epics should claim the attention of art historians no less than Ajanta painting, Chlāukya sculpture, Kathak  dance, or the Gāthāsattasaī.  There are good historical reasons for the fact that the social levels of mārgī and desī , saṁsk¤ita and  prāk¤ita  nāgara  grāmya constantly intermingle and enrich each other in the Indian art scene.  (Again, the sad confrontation of the high, middle, and low ‘brows’ and the patronizing attitude to peasant and tribal art is a late aberration of modern India, which is there for good historical reasons to be sure.)


            The greening of Indian art history depends both on its intellectualization and its indianization in the coming years.  The Delhi-based Journal of Arts and Ideas has certainly made a small but useful beginning in this direction.

1. These and other  parenthetical Indian expressions are being offered as suggestions for a consistent terminology.  They have no basis  in our ancient writings.


1. Inaugural address: National Seminar on Ellora Caves: Sculpture and architecture at Ellora No.1985.

2.  Bahuvahan : An occasional : sculpture and architecture :

            Proceedings ed Ratan Parimoo, Deepak K arwal, shwajipanikker New Delhi : book and Books, 1988, 53-6.