OF ART HISTORY
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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, kuchipuī∙ī, and O∙issī 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
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.)
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 :
ed Ratan Parimoo, Deepak K arwal, shwajipanikker New Delhi : book
and Books, 1988, 53-6.