Revisiting Havell's values
Neo-Bengal School, The zeal for revivalism and Rabindranath's reevaluation
During the colonial period, in the in-search of an identity which was signified in the lineage of Kolkata-based modern Bengali art practices towards the end of the 19th century, the trope 'identity' itself was put under investigation. Before we even attempt to throw light on the terrain that still bears the mark of the epistemic and artistic shift that took place courtesy of Ernest Binfield Havell, we must examine the very concept of identity with Hegel's dialectical formulation that says, 'Identity is the identity of identity and non-identity.' The revivalist thinkers who aligned with Havell and his co-enthusiasts simply lost sight of this multidimensional aspect of identity and turned this trope into a vehicle of nationalist passion.
Soon after joining as the head of the Government School of Art in Kolkata in 1896, Havell attempted a detour from the linear progression that based itself on academic learning primarily framed against the requirements and knowledge disseminating project of the then coloniser. Any such resistance to the mainstream surge towards progress and social cohesion is bound to result in a dialectical tension between the accepted norms and the proposed idea. However, in India, during that crucial time of social change, Western colonization enforced an identity politics divested of this tension, as the search for identity itself, in the end, simply got lost in that overbearing, emotionally-loaded concept of nostalgia. And as far as identity is concerned, it can only be defined as mere nostalgia of identity.
Through the two components of the Hegelian identity one may attempt to clarify certain aspect of the nationalist identity politics that still holds sway over public imagination. The second aspect of the two-part analysis spurs one to hold in suspicion the false identity imposed by the process of colonization; it also helps to identify the faults that beset the 'present identity', a form of identity that Havell erroneously conceived which will be terminologised as false identity.
In reclaiming Indian identity Havell elided the very dialectics of the above-mentioned two layers of identity. Havell's exclusion of the non-identity part forced him to make his claim to Indianness through only the first. His was an Orientalist stance that took nostalgia for a lost identity – one that has been perceived as the true characteristics of Indian identity. In short, in Havell's project, what Hegel referred to as the identity of non-identity stayed unmentioned, un-signified and neglected, which left room for some new questions.
First off, what is being claimed in Havell's 'nostalgia reconstruction' project of the identity that had been lost in the process of colonization? And secondly, what is being claimed or being considered as reconstructable, does it signify “Indian identity” fully? In order to investigate the premise it is necessary to analyze the dialectics of his subjective position, because Havell, who rejected the identity which was imposed by the colonial process, himself was part of the colonizing 'power elite'.
Havell's project takes another dimension through the engagement of artist and teacher Abanindranath Tagore, which has become an authentic part of the Indian art history. This particular event led to the formation of the Neo-Bengal Schools – an art movement that intended to regenerate a national identity, which its enthusiasts believed had been lost, and needed efforts in revivification.
Rabindranath Tagore's participation, rejection, argumentative stance, in the stream of these events, and the search for a new national identity add special substance to the study of modern arts in this part of the world. So, examining the premise as to the question of construction / reconstruction of a national identity in the modern Bengali art, Havell, Abanindranath and Rabindranath, eachin the process of addition, rejection and complex arguments for and against their stance should be examined as individual phenomenon related to individuated thoughts and set goals and projects.
In the Kolkata-based academic art practices, which began in 1854 with its emphasis on industrial draughtsmanship, it was Havell 'who laid the stepping stone of regeneration of Indian arts,' in 1896.1
The regeneration of Indian arts initiated by Havell are referred to as 'the creation of nationalist art' in the history book of Indian arts whose scribe is none other than Partha Mitra.2 Not unlike Mitra – in order to create a discursive and analytical history of Indian arts Ashok Bhattacharya writes:
'[A]t that time (in the second half of 19th century) interested in European lifestyle, awed by the reading of English literature and moved by the humanity of British political thoughts, the educated class of Bengal had no doubt about the greatness of European art. As a result everybody believed the only way Bengali arts can develop is by imitating Western Art.
It was in this climate that Havell became the director of arts school and began to raise pointed questions against a method of teaching that imitated western art forms. He initiated a new school of thought that was based on India's own traditions. This epoch-making intervention of Havell's was founded on his own beliefs in a certain mode and a respect for Indian art as a whole.'3
In the history of modern Indian arts, written after 1947 following the country's independence, this wholesale construction of Indian identity by Havell had been claimed as an epic event. The dominant stream of the historiography during the postcolonial period has failed to understand the problems of the Orientalist approach of Havell's project. We can conclude that in Bengal the British colonial lords created a knowledge-based project that was premised upon a binary oppositional relationship clearly manifested through the usual matrix of 'self' and 'other'.
In 1896, when Havell became the principal of Kolkata art school, and initiated the project of Indian school of drawings and figurative arts and nationalist art study, that was not even the first project of native cultural regeneration by the colonial power elites.
At the foreground of all such efforts, lay the colonial academic practices that began long ago. Establishment of the Asiatic society of Bengal on January 15th, 1784 inaugurated the Orientalist grain of epistemic intervention. 4
The very first president of Asiatic Society, Sir William Jones, was a famous scholar in Sanskrit. He began the comparative studies of Bed (Veda) and Upanishads that had a bearing on the pedagogic practices that followed. In 1789, Jones translated Kalidas's Shakuntala in English. Sir William Jones devised four parts in history of ancient India based on Purana, Manushanghita, Joy Dev's Geet Govinda and other such ancient texts. Back then, Henry Thomas Colebrooke and James Princep were famous orientalist scholars who came after sir Jones. Also, William Carey and John Marshman, from Srirampur's Christian mission, joined in with the efforts of the Asiatic Society in translating Ramayana from classical Sanskrit to Bengali.
In 1832, James Princep published The Journal of the Asiatic society of Bengal. Before this the main publication of the Asiatic Society was Asiatic Researches. After the publication of the journal, the importance of the Asiatic researchers lessoned. It is James Princep who revolutionized the Orientalist Indian study. Before this in the orientalist study of India, language, literature, poetry and purana or myth have been considered important resources. But Princep emphasized visual evidences over literature in the study of Indiology. Princep achieved newer dimensions to orientalist studies by adding a wide repertoire of sources, such as numismatic, epigraph and archeological remains. 5
By way of putting in alignment empirical evidences from varied sources, he initiated the generation of organised knowledge about Indian culture, history, traditions and lifestyles. European scholars created a dominant paradigm. Michael Foucault has recognized a paradigm as a face of power. The knowledge generated by 'native' Bengali scholars was inadmissible in the structure of this paradigm where power and knowledge were intertwined. After reading Edward Said's Orientalism, in 1978, Bengali historian Nihar Ranjan Roy raised a question which goes like this: 'Asiatic society of Bengal has been established for 47 years, since 1842. In this half a century, no Indian intellectual was part of this society, neither Raja Ram Mohan Roy, nor Radhakanta Dev were members here, though they had expertise in many different languages, and were well versed in the religious, literary, philosophical traditions of India. Why then the Asiatic society had remained a European organization? Why no Indian intellectual could be a part of this society?' 6
Sufficed to say that the Asiatic Society of Bengal didn't create any pure project of knowledge, if that is at all possible. Rather it created a hegemony based on knowledge-generated power practices. By identifying the weaknesses of Bengalis the orientalist had a field day enforcing their point of views. By constituting the Asiatic Society the Europeans secured their foothold on India, as colonial discourse were one of the means to make incursions into the collective psyche. This discourse came in the form of history of Bengal – identifying the lack of organization and knowledge in the in-search of history on the part of the colonized. This precipitated the condition where the colonized had to accept an inferior status vis-à-vis the colonizer. Through this inferior status and the resultant listlessness of the colonized the landed colonizer creates a cultural colony in the mass psychology. The revival of the nationalist project of E B Havell is the continuation of the orientalist project of this cultural colonization.
Thus the sympathy of E B Havell towards Indian arts and artists can easily be perceived as arising from an expression of orientalist-colonialist position. As Havell attempted to revive Indian art, he had only managed to realize the European colonial-orientalist project. By imbibing in people an awareness of the 'other' detected in the art practices, Havell apparently established a hierarchy based on knowledge-power paradigm.
Havell's project was not what Ngugi wa Thiong'o referred to as a discourse of mind's decolonization.7 The project of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, in the final analysis, seems to have been fashioned on an orientalism actualized by Havell, one that we may now dub as a pseudo-sympathetic liberalist position.
From 1864 until 1882, Henry Hover Lock trained Bengali students arts in European academic style which established the superiority of Europeans arts and actualized the European colonial modernist project. Later, Havell came into the scene, and by teaching art in a predetermined Indian style, he generated an interest among artists and patron alike. But the enthusiasm that marked its beginning was not the whole story – it had attracted a fare amount of criticism and a lot of misgivings around the art of the orient and its status among the practicing artists.
The one-dimensionality of Havell's project, negates the fact that the location and distribution of truth is multi-spatial and multi-faceted in its dispensation. The basis for his revivalism had only a pseudo-cultural dimension to it, as it had been non-conflictive. So it can be said that colonialism and orientalism, in order to occupy both physical and mental sites, first makes a steadfast attempt at either perverting the very concept of, or fully effacing the identity of the colonized. From this point of view we have to judge Havell's Indian identity generation project. Because Havell is an outsider and part of the colonizing power elite, as a result his investigation can be deemed unnatural and constrained. But Havell's investigation, since the vector of this investigation was towards finding an authentic Indian identity, creates a connecting point with Abanindranath Tagore. Because Abanindranath with his own accord, and inspired by Rabindranath, was also trying to express an Indian identity.
In 1905, Havell invited Abanindranath Tagore to join Kolkata Government Art School as vice-principal. Abanindranath accepted his offer. The association of Havell and Abanindranath initiated the beginning of a new artistic language, and it also marked the beginning of an error. Havell inspired Bengali students to take Mughal miniature as the ideal scenographic model. Both in style and content, students were inspired to resort to the past, skirting around all forms of living art. What he failed to realize is the fact that the art of the Mughal court, or that of the Rajput, had little bearing in the life of the then Bengali masses.
The vast frontier that remained unexcavated was made up of the popular Bengali story-telling pat-chitra, pottery-painting and art works that were inspired by folkloric as well canonical philosophies of the land. As a result, by taking Mughal miniature as his ideal and primary reference, Havell initiated a process which almost put the artistic tradition of Bengal in jeopardy: and this, no way does justice to the tradition of Indian culture.
In order to revive Indian art or to reconstruct lost identity, 'Havell took few classical examples from the past' as the only source to set a new destination for artists. Abanindranath too accepted that 'and he couldn't remove himself from the illusion of this nostalgic travel.'8 Though Havell after a long time in a self-critical realisation was able to recognize the reconstruction of his Indian identity as a pseudo-identity:
'[…T]he repetition or reproduction of the miniature that supported the entertainment of the aristocrat society in the mid 19th century is what represents or is manifested as Indian Art. This art practice of the past is making Indian art somewhat aristocratic and similar to an avocation. This entire art revolution has only touched on the surface of the Indian society and could reach the lives of only a selected few. It does not stand the scope of intertwining itself with daily lives. Because it has distanced itself from Indian politics, it did not get the approval of the Indian people and it couldn't be a part of their happiness.' 9
In the beginning Rabindranath almost unequivocally sponsored this erroneous quest of Havell and Abanindranath, an art practice that was removed from people's lives and experiences. Even in the beginning of the 20th century, Rabindranath understood art, 'only as an expression of Mythos in a literary idealist mode. At that point of time, Abindranath was still thinking art to be a surrogate to literature.'10 It is for on this ground, Abanindranath's Bichitra Studio for the artists of neo-Bengal, which Rabindranath saw as an extension of his Bichitra Shobha in Tagore House in Kolkata, received Robindranath's full cooperation and support.
Rabindranath's illusion, one that made him realign his thoughts and ideas along the line of the nationalist identity formulated in the climate of the Bichitra Studio, was soon done away with, as he travelled across Japan. The visual experiences he had were decisive in reforming his ideal. During his stay in Japan, Rabindranath referred to the neo-Bengali School of Bichitra Studio as clichéd and nearsighted, as it stemmed from a canonical source that had no bearing on the historical development of the time and no link whatsoever with lived experience.
After returning from Japan in 1917, Rabindranath felt the need for closing down Bichitra Studio, which had turned into an institution that generated unimaginative, alienated, and regressive art.
At the beginning, Havell and Abanindranath's quest for a new identity left even Rabindranath confused; however, after having a satori, to borrow a Zen Buddhist concept, he closed down Bichitra studio. In authoring the concept Indian art, he started believing in a journey of continued imaginative concretisation. Rabindranath's rejection of typical features of Havellian aesthetics, often passed off as Indian traditional art, coupled with his constant quest for new art, distanced him from the erroneous premise of Havell and Abanindranath. In a lecture (titled Art and Tradition) given in Dhaka, in 1926, Rabindranath reached a new height of openness:
'I am pleading to our artists to refuse considering ancient conventions as a model for Indian art; also to repudiate the condition to remain enclosed like a cattle in a shed… by accepting the parochialism of ancient traditions in the name of Indian art, we are harking back to bygone times which is nothing less than exhumation of the dead to surrender to it's all-encompassing force. This conventional thought process does not seek eternity, rather it uses the excuse of sacredness to bind us to habits and norms, and discourages any daring acts, as a result it neither enriches itself through cultivated life nor does it assist in nurturing life. The experts who, with great care and attention, nurture this form of arts, it remains confined in their midst and it incites false pride in the very same people. Bees are slaves to habits… their lives revolve around a vicious cycle of repetition. There is also a similar pattern to human lives backed by universal discipline, one which is grounded in logically proven practices. When this very pattern constructs a rigid boundary all around itself, then, despite the flawless emergence of a design, similar to the artifice of a bee hive, it curtails the mind which is fired by infinite potentialities to move.' 11
Rabindranath's journey towards a new mode of art and a newer paradigm is exemplified in his establishment of Vishva Bharati, manifested in his experience of spectating the Euro-American art of his time, in inviting foreign teachers and artists at Kalabhaban and his emergence as an artist in the later phase of his life. In the process Rabindranath deconstructed tradition, but also inaugurated a new tradition that is never thwarted by the dictates of the classical texts and antiquated practices. Rabindranath's project of quest for an Indian identity includes the idea of Hegelian non-identity which is absent in Havell-Abanindranath's project.
Rabindranath drew the very spirit of non-identity from the soil and people of Bengal. In order to revive lost identity, Abanindranath, follwing Havell's example, chose to lend primacy to aristocratic life passed off as tradition, within which there were little room for people and their experiences. As such, through Mughal miniature what he made possible was a form of negation of the present by evokeing false memory. As a result Havel and Abanindranath's Neo-Bengal School project simply got reduced to a search for a false identity. But Rabindranath, by bypassing this false memory which is devoid of experience, revived a traditional “non-identity” based on people's lived experiences.
As opposed to the Neo-Bengal project, Rabindranath's identity of non-identity help reveal individual identity of the artist and the collective identity he/she is a part of.
- Ashok Bhattacharya, Banglar Chitrokola, Poschimbongo Bangla Academy, Kolkata, 2002, p 120
- Partha Mitter, Indian Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001
- Ashok Bhattacharya, ibid, p 120
- Salahuddin Aiub, Shangskritir Jiggyasha, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1999, p 33
- ibid, pp 33-40
- ibid, p 40
- Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Worldview Publications, Delhi (First Indian edition), 2007
- Shovon Shom, Tin Shilpee, Banishilpo, Kolkata, 1985, p 12
- ibid, pp 20-21
- ibid, p 107
- ibid, pp 25-26
Translated by AYESHA RAHMAN and DEPART DESK