When we look at the historiography of Indian art and architecture the contributions of European administrators, collectors, and the self-styled archaeologists are valuable. But many of us are also unaware of the fact that the early European reaction to Indian art was fraught with a distasteful response to Indian art. In his seminal book “Much Maligned Monsters” art historian Partha Mitter talks about how the European travellers who encountered the sculptures of Indian gods and goddesses for the first time mistook them as the depiction of monsters and demons. They were also poorly judged for its lack of naturalism. Indian art was regarded as inferior to its western counterpart. He marks 1910 as “the great watershed” when Indian art became the object of respectful inquiries and studies “with its rehabilitation complete with the powerful affirmation of its aesthetic and not merely archaeological significance”. According to Mitter: “If one were to search for a name to give the credit for this extraordinary transformation, it would no doubt be that of Havell. It was his dedicated work which was in a large measure responsible for generating wide interest in learned circles.” E. B. Havell’s contribution in creating a counterpoint to the hegemony of western art and pedagogy is incredible though it came to much criticism later from the Indian circles itself. Nevertheless, Havell built strong foundations for Indian art education which foregrounded Indian art practices and enabled it to stand at par with the European art. His contributions in setting up institutions, revising curriculums and most importantly reviving the traditional Indian art forms was crucial in creating a nationalist response to the prejudiced sensibilities of the Europe. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Visionaries,” we introduce you to E.B Havell and his contributions to Indian art and education.
Ernest Binfield Havell was an artist-educationist-reformist who played a significant role in repositioning Indian art in the history of world art. Havell came to India in 1884 to work as superintendent of School of Art, Madras. It was in Madras Havell began his career as an educationist and also turned into an ideologue and art historian. He reworked the curriculum of the school and introduced the study of Indian designs and decorative patterns into the course of study. In 1896, he was appointed as the Principal of Calcutta Art School, where he inspired his Indian students to get back to painting in their own style and tradition. Havell was making such assertions at a time when newer discoveries and studies on Indian paintings were made. New bodies of artworks, collections, and manuscripts were found through extensive field works by many pioneers. The nationalist movement was also slowly picking up the pace and was invested in an indigenous turn. Havell too came close to the Swadeshi ideas of art and culture.
After joining the Calcutta Art School he removed the European academic way of teaching. He remarked that ‘in India, painting must be Indian in attitude and spirit.’ Havell included Oriental art in the curriculum, which, according to him, should be the basis of all art instructions. He also introduced several new craft techniques such as fresco, stained glass windows, lacquer work, and stencils, so as to open a wide range of opportunities for which would allow students to earn a living. His aesthetic sense was strongly shaped by Indian philosophy and ideals of art. In his opinion, Indian sculptures, which are highly original and creative, could be ranked with the noblest creations of the West. It was these ideals and attitudes that had worked behind his reformative methods, which he introduced in the curriculum of art teaching.
His interactions and close connection with Abanindranath Tagore led to another significant chapter in the history of Indian art. The together pioneered a new visual style which was later on termed as the “Bengal Revivalism” steeped in Indian tradition. Ajanta paintings and Mughal miniatures were its inspiration, gouache was its predominant technique, Abanindranath its practitioner and Havell the foremost defender and ideologue. Havell wrote numerous books on Indian art and architecture emphasising the spiritual nature of Indian traditional art. In a report he submitted to the government, he stated that art appreciation has to be seen as a duty of every individual and not as mere pleasure. His recommendations were faced with strong opposition from the British regime. Despite this, he continued his crusade for pushing the ideals of Indian art. Eventually, Havell succeeded in convincing them of the importance of reviving the Indian craft tradition. Some of his important books are ‘Indian Sculpture and Paintings'(1908), ‘Ideals of Indian Art (1911), The Basis for Artistic and Industrial Revival in India (1912), The Ancient and Medieval Architecture of India: a study of Indo-Aryan civilization (1915), etc.
Havell left India in 1905, on sick leave, and was later declared ‘unfit for service in India’ by the British regime. Havell’s removal from policy decisions did not deter him from voicing his vision for Indian art. He continued his campaign against the ignorance, philistinism and the arrogant cultural superiority of British administration in India.
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- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st