Artistic and cultural links between India and Japan (to 1890-1940)

Wednesday 12 December 2018: Artistic and cultural links between India and Japan (circa 1890-1940) lecture by Christine Shimizu, Honorary General Curator of Heritage.

Christine Shimizu begins by recalling that the artistic milieu of which she is going to speak is located in Calcutta (Bengal) which is then the capital of the British Raj until 1912. This province is the largest of the Raj. In 1905, it was divided into two parts by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of the Indies, in order to weaken its political demands. This creation of two states, one predominantly Hindu and the other Muslim, resulted in the creation of a nationalist movement: the Swadeshi (movement for "self-sufficiency" in India).

During this period, the Bengali bourgeoisie had sumptuous houses built in Jorasanko, the northern district of Calcutta. The Tagore family is one of them. It plays a decisive role in relations between Japan and India and has a great influence in the "Bengal Renaissance" movement. In addition to Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the famous poet and Nobel Prize winner, the family is a rich intellectual milieu of musicians, writers and painters. In 1877, R. Tagore launches a literary and artistic journal Bharati where will be reproduced paintings of the avant-garde of Indian modernity.
Another character who plays an important role in this cultural milieu of Calcutta is Margaret Noble (1867-1911), known as Sister Nivedita. This Irish woman, who followed the guru Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), himself a disciple of Ramakrishna, arrives at Calcutta in 1898. An exceptional woman, she devotes herself to the Indian cause and, social worker, to the cause of women. Very close to the Indian literary circles of Calcutta and Rabindranath Tagore, she is opposed to the British influence and argues that the history of India must be written by Indians and that the artistic and literary renewal must have its roots in India .
At the end of 1901, Sister Nivedita presented Okakura Kakuzō (1862-1913) passing through India to Rabindranath Tagore. After this meeting, Rabindranath Tagore will always show a passion for Japanese culture and art as evidenced by the development of his home in Jorasanko. Okakura is the director of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, founded in 1889. With his book The Ideals of the East ("The Ideals of the Orient") published in 1883, he is a precursor of the pan-Asian movement. The first sentence of his book, Asia is one, emphasizes its desire to see Asia regain its values ​​in the face of the West. So, does he want Nihonga painting, a painting using traditional Japanese techniques, to occupy a central place in education against Yōga painting?, Western style oil painting. According to him, contemporary Japanese art must be an extension of ancient art. In his school, Okakura asks students to copy ancient paintings and sculptures in order to immerse themselves in Japanese civilization. He will have to resign because of differences of opinion and will start his own school in 1898. Okakura's slanted ideas are echoed in the Indian independence cause, and Sister Nivedita by signing the foreword to her book called "Nivedita de Ramakrishna-Vivekananda" inscribes the book in the movement of the Indian politico-religious movement.

Rabindranath Tagore.

Margaret Noble - Sister Nivedita.

Okakura Kakuzō.

Cover of a re-edition of Ideals of the East.

Okakura also has a great artistic influence in India through his teachings that promote artistic creativity based on traditional art and nature as a model. With this in mind, many Indian artists will visit the recently discovered Ajanta Caves, whose paintings will be published in 1896. Nandala Bose is one of the painters to be part of a trip organized by Sister Nivedita in 1909 during which he copies for three months the murals.
Another key figure in this quest for Indian identity is Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947): he is the founder of the history of Indian art from an Indian point of view and not English. Born in Ceylon, he visited India for the first time in 1909 and met R. Tagore. Just like Okakura's book, Coomaraswamy's entitled Swadeshi and Art (1911) is a pamphlet against the westernization of India and the loss of its artistic values. He stands against Western fashions in architecture, painting and the defense of traditional arts.
These new currents of thought developed in Calcutta find a place of expression in a small experimental school founded in 1901 by R. Tagore on land he owns at 180 kms from Calcutta. In opposition to the discipline-based English education system, education is based on creative activities and a great deal of freedom for students. This type of education is inspired by "schools of the forests" where ascetics lavished in ancient times their teaching around their ashram. In 1919 is created the Kala Bhavan, art department of the school where are studied mural painting, engraving, sculpture, pottery and weaving and whose director is the painter Nandala Bose. In 1921, this school is transformed into a university, Visva Bharati, still active today.
Painting in India on the eve of the arrival of Japanese painters in Calcutta was taught at the Government School of Arts and Crafts, established in 1854 and where “Western good taste” was instilled. But in 1896, the new director, Ernest Binfield Havell (1861-1934), tried to reform education and put Indian traditions forward. For him, “In India, painting must be Indian in spirit and in form”. He published in 1911 The Ideals of Indian Art, direct reference to Okakura's book The Ideals of the East. With Coomaraswamy, he favors a pro-Indian and anticolonialist education. This nationalistic push leads some artists to illustrate the history and indigenous mythologies to 1880-1900 in mytho-paintings  produced by the Calcutta Art Studio (led by former students of the Government Art School). If the subject is Indian, the style remains realistic and Western techniques, as with Raja Ravi Varma (1846-1906).

Saraswati. Raja Ravi Varma. Oil on canvas.

Saraswati. Hishida Shunsō. 1903. Tempera on paper.

Copy of a painting of Ajanta. Nandalal Bose. 1909. Watercolor on paper.

Radical pictorial transformations of this Indian painting appear with the arrival of two Japanese artists belonging to the Nihonga movement: Hishida Shunsō (1874-1911) and Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), students of Okakura. In 1902, Rabindranath Tagore asked Okakura to send him Japanese artists to decorate the palace of the Indian kingdom of Tippera (now Bangladesh), where Tagore was the prince's advisor. Unfortunately when they came in January 1903, the project was canceled and the two artists, who were counting on these wages to continue their journey to the West, found themselves stranded in Calcutta. During this stay, they introduce painters around Tagore to the techniques of Japanese painting. But they also discover the Indian tradition and Taikan makes copies of Ajantâ murals. Thus, Okakura's theory on the unity of pan-Asian art resting on a Buddhist base is confirmed. Before their return to Japan, R. Tagore organized an exhibition of 40 of their paintings in Calcutta. Another exhibition of Japanese paintings will be organized in 1910 by the two nephews of R. Tagore, Abanîndranâth (1871-1951) and Gaganendranath (1867-1938), painters and founders of the Indian Society of Oriental Art.
In addition to Japanese ink and brush painting (Sumi-e), Taikan and Shunsō transmit to the Indian painters of the Tagore circle their new work of colors without contours to render the atmosphere in colored washes and gradients: this style is called Morotai ("Foggy") because of the impression of blur that emerges. This Japanese style marks the first production of the School of Bengal. He is particularly well represented by Abanindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore. The latter illustrates several works by his uncle, Rabindranath, as Jeevansmriti ("My Memories", published in 1912), as well as poems from it and the chronicle Chaitanya Charitamala (before 1914) presented in an exhibition in Paris. Abanindranath, meanwhile, is recruited in 1905 by B.Havell as vice-principal of the Calcutta School of Fine Arts and is considered the father of modern Indian painting. Two of his most famous paintings are executed in style Morotai. Asoka who by the whiteness of his fame has made the universe immaculate is a continuation of the Taikan painting titled Kutsugen: symbol of the nationalist ideal (on the one hand, Asoka is the first unifier of the Indian empire, on the other hand, it is a portrait of Okakura in the guise of the statesman Chinese Qu Yuan while Okakura is forced to resign from his duties as director of the school of fine arts), a reminder of Okakura's concern, who asked the question "how to make the air?". Likewise, Bharat Mata (Mother India, 1905), shows an Indian woman wrapped in a saffron-colored sari and holding a book, a sheaf of rice, a cloth and a rosary, symbolic objects: it is the personification of self-sufficiency advocated by the Swadeshi movement and symbol resistance against foreign power. Nandala Bose (1882-1966) also adopts this style Morotai in his famous painting sati, symbol of the ideal of the Indian woman by her self-sacrifice and her devotion to wife: she takes on an ethereal appearance with vague outlines, very different from the realistic academic paintings of European style. This image has become the emblem of self-sacrifice in Indian nationalism.

Ashoka. Abanindranath Tagore. Tempera on paper.

Kutsugen (Qu Yuan). Yokoyama Taikan.

If the Japanese influence Indian artists, the influence is reciprocal and Japanese painters find in the exotic Indian customs new themes, such as Ryūtō ("The Lanterns on the Water", 1909) by Taikan inspired by a ceremony in Benares from which he only retains the figures of three women on the banks of the Ganges. Hishida Shunsō performs in 1903 Sarasvatian example of pan-Asianism, since this Indian deity finds its counterpart in the Japanese Buddhist deity Benzai-ten. The painter Katsuta Yoshio, meanwhile, illustrates in 1906 an episode of the Râmâyana, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the forest.
After graduating from the Tôkyô School of Fine Arts, Katsuta Shôkin (1879-1963) traveled to India to study Buddhist painting. Invited by Rabindranath Tagore, he taught for two years (1906-1907) in Santiniketan sharing with Indian artists. Sakyamuni leaving the palace (1907) combines a search for a sunny atmosphere around the future Buddha in style Morotai and a taste for Indian dress details.

Riyūtō (The lanterns on the water). Yokoyama Taikan. 1909.

Sati. Nandalal Bose. Tempera, gold on paper. 1907 (1943 copy). NGMA. New Dheli.

Bharat Mata (Mother India). Abanindranath Tagore. 1905.

Sakyamuni leaving the palace. Katsuta Shōkin. 1907.

At the request of R.Tagore, Arai Kanpo (1878-1945) produced and brought to India copies of works by Hishida Shunsō and Yokoyama Taikan that the poet wanted to own. Kanpo also worked in Santiniketan for two years (1916-1918) during which he met Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) with whom he visited Orissa. Both make paintings of it.

Christine Shimizu finishes her presentation with the paintings of Nosu Kosetsu (1885-1973) who travels to India in 1918 after graduating from Tokyo. During his stay, he meets Arai Kanpo, who offers him to be his assistant to copy the paintings of Ajanta. In 1932, he returned to India to decorate the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara in Sarnath, built on the presumed site of the Buddha's first sermon. Kosetsu was appointed by the Japanese government to make interior wall paintings. After discussing the topics to be discussed with R.Tagore, he executed seventeen paintings illustrating the jataka and the life of the historical Buddha. These four-year-old works bear witness to Okakura's claim to pan-Asianism.

Darjeeling in the fog. Nandalal Bose. 1945. Tempera on paper. NGMA. New Dheli.

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore. Kosetsu Nosu. Ink and wash on paper.

The awakening of the Buddha. Fresco of Kosetsu Nosu. Mulagandha Kuti Vihara. Sarnath.



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