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THE HISTORY OF INDIAN ART HISTORY:
Interpretation and Interpenetration
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To compare Indian art historiography with art historiography in general, we need first to constellate these categories - general art historiography with western art historiography and Indian art historiography with the art historiography of colonized people. Art History as a nascent discipline is born in the west, particularly in Renaissance Florence, in the work of Giorgio Vasari (1511-74). It took shape as a discipline under circumstances similar to the birth of all modern academic disciplines, as a way to arrive at a complete and comprehensive knowledge of the human species and its world, in its historical evolution towards perfect rationality. Art was seen as a precious human expression, capturing the truth of beauty in the natural world and the Renaissance was seen as its most fulfilled, rational and technically perfect manifestation. This provided a datum for the comparative measurement of the art of other periods and places in Europe. "Man, the measure of all things" was the new motto; left unsaid because deemed axiomatic, of course, was the qualifier "Renaissance rational" to "man", later to become "western civilized man". The expansive "Enlightenment" drive for abolishing all darkness, was sponsoring in the meantime, elaborate "voyages of discovery", mapping the world, in a systematic effort to know all. A scientific methodology of objective study was developed and applied to every conceivable area related to the human being and his world, to become the "disciplines" of research, aimed at an organized totalism of knowledge. The study of the arts, "Humanities", more properly to be seen as the "sciences of human expression" were born to complete a paradoxical rational understanding of the subjective domain. By the 18th century, this search for "pure" knowledge had emerged in the form of systems of attention in academies of knowledge and had revealed its intimate relation with the more ignoble ends of western colonialism, extending its disciplinary metaphor into an objectification of the "darker continents", to know their otherness and to subjugate and civilize. In this, a peculiar ambivalence found expression - whereas the native inhabitants of the colonies were deemed "human", and hence potentially the same as western man, yet they were considered racially inferior, doomed always to remain the subordinate of the civilized west. Paralleling the subject-object relation of the Enlightenment scientific episteme, a master-slave relation would always prevail between colonizer and colonized. The function of the sciences of man and human expression in the colonies - archaeology, anthropology, history, philology - would be to map the unchanging racial essence of the natives, so as to classify the human populations of the world in comparative scales against the centrality of western civilized man. It would also provide certain practical or technological benefits: it would create the conditions for the efficient execution of (i) the opportunistic goal of disciplining and exploiting colonized "others" as forms of objectified resource for the benefit of western man; and (ii) the "noble" or "altruistic" goal of bringing the benefits of a rational organization - i.e. civilization - to the natives, to suppress their otherness, all the better to control them. With respect to the second of these goals, an additional but variant strand was provided by Christian missionaries in colonized territories, in their "selfless" efforts to save the souls of heathens.
Combining post-Enlightenment thought and Christianity, a firm basis and a universal philosophical framework were provided for many preceding western ideas in the late 18th century by the German philosopher G.F. Hegel (1770-1831). According to Hegel, the basis of unbridgeable racial differences across the world was spiritual. The human species expressed through its history the progressive manifestation of Spirit, evolving inexorably towards perfect embodiment. In this evolution, races were seen as manifesting historically partial evolutionary experiments, expressing Spirit in its temporal embodiment as Zeitgeist or "spirit of the age". Such historical developments were however, structurally predictable, entirely conditioned by a dialectic relating to a form of consciousness, which was specific to each race. These forms of consciousness could be arranged hierarchically in a classification which led from brute matter to the perfect embodiment of spirit. In Hegel's view, the non-European peoples of the world represented races which had been involved in earlier phases of the Spirit's evolution, which had reached its culmination in German rational Protestantism of his time.
Thus the notions of racial essences, of unchanging cultures and nations based on these, which our late 20th century finds itself obsessively engaged with, received their clearest philosophical articulation in a grand totalizing narrative by Hegel. Moreover, this teleological narrative, prioritizing rational and Christian Europe, took into its purview all aspects of human culture, spanning the world spatially and temporally and classifying these in a singular structure. Thus, in Heidegger's phrase, he can be seen as the initiator of the modern "Age of the World-Picture", though, as I have pointed out, his real achievement lies in articulating within an integrated edifice the totalizing epistemological assumptions already implicit in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Further, germane to our present consideration, his relational history of world cultures, includes the history of art, presenting an evolutionary view of the art of different "nations", including that of India.
Though Vasari in the 16th century had concerned himself only with the history of western art, his epistemological assumptions were not very different from those of Hegel. For Vasari, as others of his time, the human expression called "art" was a product of rational cultivation and could not be extended to "uncivilized" non-western cultures. It’s ideal was the perfect embodiment of beauty in natural forms. The original moment of the expression of this ideal was seen to be the Classical Age of Greece, from which Vasari traced its fall to its nadir in the "Gothic barbarisms" (Preziosi 1998: 13) of the Middle Ages and subsequent recovery and rise to its fullest glory and perfection in the Renaissance art of his own time. Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors from Cimabue to Our Times (1550) presents a canonical reading of art, against which all other artistic expression should be seen as derivative and judged. However, no justifications are provided by Vasari for any causational or other relationship between the art of different periods, though a foundational notion of "progress" is to be found in his work.
Following Vasari, an art history with universal pretensions, in which non-western art featured in some relational way in a consideration of western art was formulated only in the 18th century by J. Winckelmann (1717-68). It was only in the second part of the 18th century, largely based on the work of Winckelmann and others, that art history as a discipline claiming the status of an "exact science" emerged. In Winckelmann's work, the teleological notion of "progress" is applied to studies of stylistic evolution in art. In his History of Ancient Art (1764), Winckelmann followed the lead of the Gottingen School of historians who concerned themselves with problems of "universal history." As a precursor to Hegel, Winckelmann saw the primitive artistic experiments of non-western cultures of the past lead by "cultural diffusion" (Mitter 1977: 192-3) to the flowering of Classical Greek art, which became the datum of perfection for him, later resurrected in the Renaissance. As an "universal historian", Winckelmann acknowledged both the potential of non-western cultures to produce art and a process of evolution, dictated by "inner necessity" in the art of all cultures. However, in practice these arts did not match up to the art of Classical Greece because the evolutionary process could not reach its culmination in these cases for various circumstantial reasons. Though Winckelmann does not give any consideration to Indian art, he sees Egyptian art as a precursor to Greek Art. But Egyptian art fails to fulfil itself and can only offer the fruits of its experiments to Greece, due to "climatic reasons" (Ibid.).
In comparison, Hegel's arguments for the failures of non-western art are more iron-clad. Non-western arts were doomed to fail for spiritual, racial, essential reasons. In Hegel's universal evolution of art, Indian art features, but is given no history. This is because, in Hegel's evolutionary history, India and China occupy opposing historical positions, while the beginnings of history in Asia are the special spiritual prerogative of Persia, with its awakening to political consciousness. India and China, on the other hand, express no evolutionary will, remaining unconcerned by change. Whereas China, for Hegel, is all Material, unquestioningly and forever subject to dynastic rule, India is all Spiritual, historically determined by religious structures such as caste, unconcerned by changes of political control. Indian art therefore, in keeping with its essence, is expressive of a restless spirit with inadequate natural forms to ground it. It is monstrous, excessive and unnatural. However, it finds a place in Hegel's history because he sees it as the lowest rung in his culturally hierarchized teleological museum of universal art. In this conception, there are three phases, the first being symbolic, the second classical and the third romantic. Indian art represents the symbolic phase, where matter refuses to yield to spirit; Hellenic art represents the classical, where matter adequately clothes the spirit; but the highest in art is the romantic, represented by the Christian art of the Renaissance, where spirit suffuses and radiates from matter, without however, distorting it. This is the final destination of art, the dizzy zenith of representation, beyond which it disappears from sight into a higher expression of spirit, religious experience.
The 19th c. saw the consolidation of British colonial power in India, particularly after the acquisition of the country by the British Crown about mid-century. Of course Orientalist interest in India as an object of systematic study had been instituted from the 18th c., with the founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal by Sir William Jones in 1784. Indeed, it was from the work of men like Jones and Colebrooke that Hegel received his knowledge of India. But before the mid-19th century, there was little interest in attending to a history of Indian art. Though there was no dearth of articles and books illustrating and discussing Ajanta, Sanchi, the Taj Mahal or the temples of Bhubaneshwar and private collections and public museums were busy stocking up on Indian artifacts, Indian "art" was considered an exotic curiosity, not deserving of the exalted pedigree of "fine art".
The first histories of Indian art, written in the middle and later part of the 19th century, were dominated by an interest in race. We have already seen how theories such as Winckelmann's or Hegel's utilized non-western cultures to construct a progressive history of the west. By these views, India preserved in its culture the past of Europe. This sense was further amplified by a curious wrinkle in the racial constitution of British colonialism. The philological discovery in the late 18th century of the relationship between Sanskrit and European languages and the study of the Rig Veda as a record of conquest, led to the notion of the Aryan race, which had migrated from Central Asia to displace the local Dravidians of India through invasion. The same Aryans were held to have migrated North to Europe and been responsible for the rational heritage of Classical Greece. Thus a division was posited between the Northern and Southern Aryans, the first the ancestors of the “rational” and “dynamic” civilization of Europe; the second the progenitors of the “irrational” and “static” civilization of India.
J. Leitch's 1850 English translation of C.O Muller's Ancient Art and its Remains contains a summation of what was currently written of Indian art. Muller labels Indians as "the most eastern members of the Caucasian race" and concludes that, though "their grotto temples [are] worthy of admiration, we miss altogether the directing mind which could have employed and controlled this industry for architectural purposes." From this Muller surmises that the "architectural and plastic sense in India was only awakened by examples and connection of various kinds from without." "The flourishing period of Indian art (if we may use the expression)," he says doubtfully, "goes no further than the first century B.C....The revolting licentiousness of the representation in Elephanta ... points to times of internal decay (Muller 1850: 257-60)."
The first comprehensive study of Indian art came in four progressively expanded architectural histories published by James Fergusson between 1855 and 1876. Fergusson started with a few dozen monuments and eventually included nearly five hundred in his consideration. He covered a period from the Mauryan dynasty (4th c. B.C.) up to the beginning of his own century. Along with a section on Islamic architecture (which he referred to as "Mohamadan") he categorized Indian architecture in terms of Buddhist, Jain, southern Hindu, northern Hindu and modern Hindu styles. Fergusson took a characteristic and explicitly racial approach to Indian art, each of his categories the product of a distinct race, following a different inherited, and inherent tradition. He espoused a theory of devolution, where the high-point of Indian architecture and sculpture was seen as early Buddhist, retrogressing to the excesses and atrocities of Hindu architecture: “The Indian story is one of backward decline, from the sculptures of Bharhut and Amravati topes, to the illustrations of Coleman’s ‘Hindu mythology’ (Mitter 1977: 264).” The superiority of Buddhism over Hinduism was one of the widely held evaluative myths in Indological Orientalism of the time. Buddhism was seen as a more “rational” ideology than the phantasmagoric complexities of Hindu thought; moreover, the fertilization of Buddhist culture by the civilizing power of Greece, as in Gandhara, was seen as the proprietary mark of European superiority. In Fergusson’s reading, Gandhara had intervened between Sanchi and Amravati, becoming thereby instrumental in “the most remarkable monument in India (Ibid. 267)”: “Though it may, in some respects, be inferior to either of the parent styles, [Bharhut and Greek] the degree of perfection reached by the art of sculpture at Amravati may probably be considered as the culminating point attained by that art in India (Ibid.)." The implicit racial bond here was, of course, the Aryan pedigree of early Indian art - i.e. Buddhist, rapidly deteriorating through mixture with inferior Dravidian stocks in later "Hindu art." In contrast, the higher and purer Aryan breed of western man was responsible for a continuous "steady forward progress, toward higher aims and better execution (Ibid.)." In general, Islamic architecture was better received by western scholars than Buddhist or Hindu, who approvingly commented on the technical and aesthetic superiority of the western dome and arch in Islamic structures, though these were not considered "Indian", but "Semitic." Fergusson condemns the "Semitics" for "the effeminacy and corruption inherent in Eastern dynasties", but notes that they make no art of value except when they rule "a people of another stock (Fergusson 1876: 490-2)." Still, he offers eleven "true styles" along with two "bastard styles" of Islamic architecture in India, before the coming of the British period (Ibid.).
Henry H. Cole, Prince Albert's confidante and the planner of the Great Exhibition of 1851, reflected views very similar to those of Fergusson. Cole represented a kind of British patron of handicrafts, and spawned a trend whose culmination we see in William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement. Cole hoped for the vitalization of industrial design in England through the study of the pre-industrial crafts of India. After the success of the Indian Crafts display at the Great Exhibition, the Central School of Industrial Art at South Kensington was founded in 1857, with Cole at its head and he was appointed by the government to purchase Indian objects for permanent display at the new museum at Marlborough House, with a view to serving as “superior examples of industrial design for students (Mitter Op. cit: 227).” Cole wrote the original catalog for the collection of the museum and shows his derivation from Fergusson in it. He reveals his collusive Orientalism early in the catalog by making explicit that his reason for studying Indian art is to "learn ... of its people" and because "in a more practical aspect it bears on the commercial interests of [Britain] (Cole 1874: 2 ff.)." Cole proceeds to a history of India's races, their styles and their decline, largely derived from Fergusson: "To understand what is meant by Indian sculpture it is necessary to be familiar with certain types produced by different races and at different periods (Ibid.)." Thus, the Hegelian framework of art history continues to be reproduced, with the world divided into static races with essential characteristics that have come to be expressed in distinct and singular artistic styles, these races or nations subservient to Europe, its incomplete proto-stages, peripheral embellishments of its Grand Exhibition, serving with the sub-rational vitality of their pre-industrial crafts the artworks of the European mind. As for Indian art, with Fergusson, Cole believed in a swift decadence from an early "Aryan" beginning in the Vedas and in Buddhist art to the monstrosities of Puranic Hinduism.
The predominance of racial criteria in the classifying and judging of Indian art renders the attempts of these writers laughable in retrospect, but we should not forget the serious issues related to colonialism that were involved in these judgements. Cole, for example, who believed in the "rational" superiority of Buddhism over Hinduism, equated the Indo-Aryans with the Hindus, and turned Buddha into a "Turanian (Mitter. Op. cit.: 259)." Fergusson however, who agreed with Cole on the "rational" superiority of Buddhism, was keen to assert European kinship with the Buddha, and thus made him an Aryan. It was the “superstitious fetishism” (Ibid.: 264) of the mixed Turanian and Dravidian races that were responsible for ‘decadent’ Brahmanism. Further, he introduced a third, yet more inferior race, the Dasyus, who were responsible for the medieval temples of Orissa (Ibid. 265).
George Birdwood was Cole's successor in the project of bringing Indian handicraft to Britain to improve British industrial design. His Handbook of the British Indian Section for the Paris Universal Exposition of 1878 continued Cole's approach of racial aesthetics and its paean to "the Indian's qualities as an ideal craftworker (Birdwood 1878: 50-1)." Revising his text two years later as Industrial Arts in India, Birdwood expanded it to include a full historical overview of Indian art, beginning with a racialized consideration of Buddhist expression, historically followed by that of the Jains, replaced by later-appearing Brahmins and finally, by the Muslims. In this work, he detailed the development of Indian "decorative arts" based on the works of Fergusson and Alexander Cunningham, with an emphatic equation of the highest quality as "pure Aryan", uninfluenced by the Turks. "The chief Aryan influence on the arts of India has been that of the force of a superior intellect, which is the distinguishing mark of Indian art (Birdwood 1880: 125)." In his description, this influence reached India through the Greeks, Persia and the commerce with the West as well as through the Vedic Arya and Brahmanical Hindus, "a race found in the south by an admixture of Dravidians, in the northeast with Tauranians, etc (Ibid.)." However, Birdwood had no doubts about the subordinate ranking of Indians where it came to the "superior" western abilities of producing "fine arts". In one of his several notorious provocative pronouncements on this subject, he went to the heart of the matter by saying “… painting and sculpture as fine arts did not exist in India (Mitter 1994: 32).” Of course, his classic statement on the subject of Indic art is his now-legendary comment made about a Javanese stone Buddha and written up in the Journal of the Royal Arts Society in 1910: "This senseless similitude... by its immemorial fixed pose, is nothing more than an uninspired brazen image, vacuously squinting down its nose to its thumbs, knees and toes. A boiled suet pudding would serve equally well as a symbol of passionate purity and serenity of soul (Smith 1911: 2)."
This was the first decade of the 20th century and western perceptions of art were in a state of flux. Artists and art critics had disrupted the notion of a canon based on the naturalistic perfection of Hellenic or Renaissance art. In Britain itself, the Pre-Raphaelites had heralded a revaluation of medieval art, with its subjective and ideal criteria for representation. In Paris, Impressionism had revolutionized the art-scene, putting to question the basis of artistic judgement. In the same year of Birdwood's comment, the art critic Roger Fry coined the term Postimpressionism for an exhibition of modern painting he held at London. Birdwood's comment was the spark that set off a conflagration of counter-opinion leading to the revision of western attitudes to Indian art. The new ideologues who held that Indian art was indeed "fine art" included Vincent Smith, E.B. Havell and Ananda Coomaraswamy, all of whom were to write extensively on the subject. The rupture they represent is closely related to the revision in the basis of western art history occurring in the early years of the 20th century. According to a new aesthetics of modernism, preached by critics like Roger Fry, artistic form was to be judged not against optical realism, but on its intrinsic merit.
A year after Birdwood's comment, Vincent Smith published a book entitled A History of Fine Arts in India and Ceylon; from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. As coded into the title, Indian art was explicitly acknowledged here as meriting the ranking accorded to the productions of the western canon of excellence. To make his point, Smith invoked Roger Fry's views on modern art. He sought to demonstrate the value of Indian art as an expression of "creative power," as distinct from "decorative or industrial art, ... which is merely the outcome of skilled, hereditary craft." He added, "I am convinced that India has produced at various periods not a few works of Fine Art in both Sculpture and Painting (Smith 1911: 4)." This, however, did not change for Smith, either the racial essentialisms or the relative superiority of western art. "Indian art" was essentialized now to mean the Buddhist-Jain-Hindu complex, which was further conflated as "Hindu art" - an attitude which was to haunt Indian art history through the nationalist period and has lately been labelled (I believe too hastily) as the germ of neo-Hindu chauvinism. In Smith's words, "Hindu art, including Jain and Buddhist in that comprehensive term, is the real Indian art (Ibid.)." Though he sees the designation of "fine art" as applying to early Indian art (stretched by him up to the Gupta period), the medieval and modern periods, from the 7th c. to the present display a predominant history of decay. "Medieval art at its best possesses qualities entitling it to respectful considerations on artistic grounds," he says patronizingly, but quickly adds that the majority of it may be dismissed as "monstrous and impossible creations... to my mind... impossible to defend... on artistic grounds (Ibid. 5-6)."
As for Mughal art, Smith could not bring himself to credit the "Semites" with artistic possibility. Forced to acknowledge architectural masterpieces, such as the Taj Mahal, he says: "Mughal architecture... is not Indian." "The architect of the Taj... was either a Venetian or a Turk (Ibid.)." The equation of races with styles in Smith's mind creates complicated confusions that seem farcical today. For example: "Ajanta and Sigiriya have a Hindu element, though basically they are Indo-Persian in form (Ibid.)."
A key issue for the establishment of relative hierarchical standards between western and "Indian" art became the anomalous phenomenon of Gandhara art of the Kushan period. The Greco-Roman influence in this art needed to be evaluated in the context of the history of Indian art. We have already had occasion to consider the opinion of Fergusson, who thought that its intervention was critical in the vitalization of a decadent Buddhist art, leading to the high-mark of Amaravati. Cole, Vincent Smith and a number of others seconded Fergusson in this. The location of supreme Buddhist inspiration was seen as Gandhara and the impact of superior Greek influence in Gandharan sculpture, though far inferior to its distant European origin, was yet held to be the standard of excellence in Indian art, against which all later productions were to be judged. In Vincent Smith’s words, “The Gandhara … sculptures … would be admitted by most persons competent to form an opinion, to be the best specimens of the plastic art ever known to exist in India. Yet even these are only echoes of the second rate Roman art of the third and fourth centuries (Smith 1889: 268).” Establishing such precedents in the early civilizing influence of Europe over India, amplified the moral justification of present British occupation and its right to decide on the forms of culture to authorize in India.
However, further revisionary strains in modern western art history were to question even the legitimacy of a canonical distinction of "fine arts" or of the hierarchical positioning of cultures in an art historical enterprise. One movement that raised issues leading to such a trend in Britain was the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris. All the India sympathizers we have considered so far, though critical of industrialism, were yet convinced of the superiority of western civilization on two grounds: (1) race; (2) rationality. Though a pervasive racism runs through 19th century European thought, it rested for its support on the assumption of a superior western rationality, most manifest culturally in the Greco-Roman classical age and in the Renaissance. However, the most thorough and comprehensive critique of industrialism and its discontents in Britain came from William Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement. According to this movement, the roots of industrialism lay in the Renaissance, which marked an ontological shift from community towards individualism. The splitting off of the individual from the anonymity of the integral social expression of community, brought with it the culture of connoisseurship, the patronage of genius and the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft’. Morris saw in this the roots of materialism, the locus of human goals fixed in worldly convenience and enjoyment, leading to and becoming dominant in 19th century industrialization. This led easily to the polarizaton of Materialism and Spirituality in Arts and Crafts ideology, with its typification of industrial Britain as Materialist and pre-Renaissance medieval culture as Spiritual. Morris thus stood for the abolition of the distinction between art and craft and the contextualization of both as aspects of an integrated communal culture. While on the one hand, this implied a subjugation of the ego into the anonymity of a larger communal and a transcendental purpose; on the other, it meant a rejection of mechanized mass production. Contrary to popular supposition, however, the Arts and Crafts proponents did not call for the disappearance of the machine, but for its adaptation as an aid to human expression (Mitter 1977: 248-51). Thus, for the Arts and Crafts followers, issues relating to the distinction between the "fine" and "decorative" arts were unimportant from an art historical standpoint, as was the issue of the superior ranking of western culture. E.B. Havell (1861-1934) and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) were two followers of Morris' movement responsible for giving a new radical turn to the study of Indian art history based on the ideas and concerns of this movement.
Havell’s roots are firmly in this Arts and Crafts movement. The civilizational superiority of Europe over India was an ambiguous and doubtful question in his mind. The oppositional spirituality to the civilizational materialism of post-Renaissance Europe, which others in the movement located in medieval European culture, Havell saw in Indic civilization. In a reverse application of Fergusson’s devolutive principle in art, Havell classified European art into three periods: the spiritual (Middle Ages); the intellectual (Renaissance); and the material (post-Renaissance). Artistic decline came in the seventeenth century, heralding the ‘insincere art’ of the eighteenth and finally, the ‘materialist art’ of the nineteenth. But the germs of the decline went back to the Renaissance when art ceased to be a communal expression (Mitter 1994: 251).
It was this insight, based in medieval European art and detached from imperial interest that drew him to seek for the standards of Indian art appreciation and criticism as evolved from within the Indic tradition itself, rather than in extraneous European absolutes. Havell was well aware of his fundamental difference from prevailing critical opinion in this: Indian artistic expression begins from a starting-point far removed from that of the European. Only an infinitesimal number of Europeans, even of those who pass the best part of their lives in India, make any attempt to understand the philosophic, religious, mythological and historical ideas of which Indian art is the embodiment (Mitter 1977: 271).
As a corollary, he was to take issue (as also was Ananda Coomaraswamy) with the prevailing view that the Buddhist divine ideal found its supreme expression in the Greco-Roman art of Gandhara. “I started with the premise”, he writes in the Introduction to ‘The Ideals of Indian Art’, “that the Buddhist divine ideal… was not, as archaeologists have generally assumed, a debased imitation of a Greco-Roman model, deficient in technical achievement for lack of anatomical knowledge, but an imaginative creation, purely Indian in origin, derived from the teaching of Indian yoga philosophy which was adopted by Mahayana Buddhism (Havell 1972 reprint: xiii-iv).” From his contextualized Arts and Crafts position, Havell also delineated an integrated approach to the study of the Hindu temple as a complex synthesis of fine and applied arts. In Partha Mitter’s words, “…Havell saw Hindu architecture as an embodiment of a hierarchical principle of decoration, from the simplest abstract ornaments to large figure reliefs. So to view the sculptures in isolation was to miss the point. Every aspect of temple decoration was infused with a ‘spiritual’ principle that gave unity to the architecture… Lacking such a synthesizing vision, earlier teachers had tacitly accepted the low level of Hindu sculptures, concentrating on the ‘useful arts’ in expectation of an artistic revival (Mitter 1994: 250).”
Moreover, in keeping with this perception, he was to consistently discourage a decontextualized connoisseurship and advocate an integrated approach to modern artistic, critical and art historical practice in India. Whatever his other shortcomings then, in these respects important for art historical practice in general, and Indian art history in particular, Havell represents a radical trend, which needs to be acknowledged.
Much of what has been said about Havell could be said for Coomaraswamy. The principal contribution of these two thinkers is in establishing Indian art history as an independent discipline, not leaning on western canonical or stylistic approval, but contextualized within its own culture with internally developed standards. The difference between Havell and Coomaraswamy can be seen in that though Havell was politically a British loyalist, Coomaraswamy was more actively associated with the Indian nationalist movement. In effect, however, this does not seem such a great difference, since as has been pointed out by recent scholars of Orientalism, they both still shared the essentialized racial ideas that made Indian art historical and an expression of "eternal scriptures" rather than changing social forces . The dangers of this approach have been brought home in recent times in no small measure. Though Hegel's teleological civilizational structure has been collapsed in the work of Havell and Coomaraswamy, his historical national and racial essence remains. India, the spiritual opposite of the material West, distanced and sealed from the "outside" in its hermetic search for unique internal principles by which it has eternally abided and must eternally abide, renders itself ineffective in the technologically proliferating modern world. More seriously, it defines itself monolithically in terms of orthodox structures, erasing difference and heterodoxy from its past and present as being "un-Indian". With Jainism marginalized and Buddhism vanished from the present, a homogenized Hindu nation-state can expel or otherwise "cleanse" "foreign" elements, such as Muslims and Christians from its social body tomorrow in the name of nationalism.
I believe these are exaggerated and reductionist understandings of the ideas of Havell and Coomaraswamy. Though it is true that some degree of racial essentialism is present in their work and that they grant a hegemonic role to pan-religious Indic spiritual notions such as those of dharma, karma, dhyana, moksha, nirvana, chakravartin, etc., a sophisticated and flexible use of an inclusive nature is made of such "civilizational" concepts. Nevertheless, it is true that a preponderant historical focus is brought to bear by them on Indian art. As I have shown in my study of the changes in approach to Indian art history within the history of art historical ideas in the west, a persistent Orientalizing of Indian Art is evidenced in it. From a lack of recognition to a derogatory subordination, the history of Indian art has been subject to western projections of prejudice through time. With Havell and Coomaraswamy, we seem to have moved only from an active to a passive prejudice - from subordination to othering. The history of Indian Art History following the work of Havell, Coomaraswamy and others of their generation and persuasion, such as Stella Kramrisch, has grappled since with this stigma. How to avoid subjective distortion in the study of other cultures? Is it even possible? This is an issue again, not limited to merely Indian art history. It is a pervasive concern in all contemporary culture studies - whether of colonized nations or of different milieus within the west.
However, be it noted that Coomaraswamy's History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1927) has still much to offer to us. Apart from its intuitive brilliance, the scope of its coverage (within the restricted time span of its consideration) and its identification of complexities, even its historical surmises are not insignificant. I believe that temporally consolidated, "eternal" meanings are an important aspect of Indic relation to its sacred art, which should not be discarded for exclusive political or other historically grounded interpretations. In many ways Benjamin Rowland's Art and Architecture of India (1953), follows Coomaraswamy, though it makes for certainly better reading. In it, racial identifications, as with Coomaraswamy, continue, made in fact, more explicit and graphic (Rowland 1953: 3). Like Coomaraswamy, his book also excludes Islamic art from its scope.
Later works, such as Roy Craven's Indian Art (1976, revised 1997), J.C. Harle's The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent (1986), Susan Huntington's The Art of Ancient India (1985) and Vidya Dehejia's Indian Art (1997) avoid the obsessive racial identifications of earlier works. In all cases, with the exception of Huntington's book, they are also inclusive of the Islamic Period. Roy Craven's revised edition and Vidya Dehejia's books additionally address the British and Modern Periods. Of these works, J.C. Harle's still perpetuates the technical and stylistic approach to art. Though Huntington's study is the most comprehensive and detailed of the lot (within its time span), its presentation also tends to the clinical. Roy Craven's and Vidya Dehejia's are easily the two most readable books and can be treated as popular introductions, which nevertheless, approach the subject with depth and thoughtfulness. I particularly like Dehejia's book for its attention to the social conditions of the production of art and its ability to convey a hint of the flavor of the artwork in its social embeddedness, without pressing modern assumptions into the study of the past or indulging in wild surmises beyond the availability in the artwork.
It is impossible to escape from one's subjective prejudices, but it is possible to enter into relationship with otherness through a "hermeneutics of dialog" (Franco and Preisendanz 1997: XII). In the case of art history, this allows the artwork to speak of the ontology of practice which makes it possible - the agencies of artist, patron, user and tradition - and the choices that come to birth in it. For this the artwork is queried in the context of its production, but at the same time, we query our own assumptions, the psychological constitution of the object of attention in our consciousness. Art History is a discipline born in the west but the history of art historical practice has been one of meeting a progressive demand of universalization, allowing it the possibility in the present to be a decentralized methodology for relating to cultural otherness, without maintaining walls, by risking oneself in dialogic engagement.
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DEBASHISH BANERJI - He completed his undergraduate studies in English Literature from the University of Bombay. He served as a cultural correspondent with some of the leading English language newspapers in India. He completed a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Louisville, Kentucky and a Ph.D. in Indian Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles. From 1991 – 2005 Debashish served as president of the East-West Cultural Center in Los Angeles founded by Dr. Judith Tyberg. Debashish is part of the adjunct faculty of Pasedena City College teaching Art History. Presently, he is Educational Coordinator at the distance-learning graduate level University of Philosophical Research in Los Angeles and is Director of the International Center for Integral Studies in New Delhi