Those of you who do not know Coomaraswamy, this is what a noted artist said about him. ‘Today If India takes her due rank as a first-class artistic power, it is in large measure owing to Coomaraswamy’. He was one of the first Asian students of Indian Art. And one of the finest interpreters of the same. Besides studying art, as ASI was discovering it in various parts of the country, he was able to derive the essence of Indian art. He was able to connect with the mind of the artist and the patron, with the collective psyche of the people of that era. Introduction to Indian Art is authored by him.
On a time horizon, the book Introduction to Indian Art moves from Indo-Sumerian times till the late medieval period. But that is what most history books do. What Coomaraswamy tells you is not a laundry list of items found from a certain place and tries and interprets them wrt to their radiocarbon dating. Instead, he studies various connected elements. He studies the art across the regions at a given point in time. And derives the essence of it for the reader. He tells you the difference between the interpretation of art in the eastern mind in the past. And the modern mind that is primarily dominated by the logical west.
He tells you how art is or rather was such an integral part of Indian life. And there was no art for the sake of art, as it exists in the west. He talks about the symbolism in our art and the absence of realism. You will see that when you see the Buddha figures with local features in each region while all the symbols of a Mahapurush remain the same all across. He says every icon is at once a symbol and a representation.
He says Indian art was never meant to be decorative. And any decorative element that exists may have come from the west. He does not even miss talking about the art of the ages that are not available to us. And was probably made in perishable material like wood or clay and hence not survived. He places the genesis of stone art in wood based on the earliest designs that it imitates from wood carving continuity in the art. He traces the cult of sun and fire, Yaksha, and Nagas to the remote past. Beyond what we know through excavations.
He says that the apparent predominance of Buddhist art is mainly due to special circumstances of patronage leading to abundant production in certain centers. And does not really mean any submergence of Brahminical tradition. He concludes that early Buddhist art is the art of the people. While medieval art is by the monks only. He relates the Great Enlightenment of Buddha to the awakening of the race from innocence to consciousness implied in the passage from Vedic to Vedantic thought. For Gupta period, considered to be the golden age of Indian art, he says ‘The sum of Indian culture is so rich, so fully organized and so conscious that we can hardly fail to regard the preceding half a millennium as the period of high creative activity in the whole development of Hindu Civilization. An activity to be regarded as the formal and material embodiment of Great Enlightenment’.
It is during this time that India was for the first time spiritually and intellectually One. All foreign influences have been absorbed and Indianized. Forms and experiences of finite life are revelations of the infinite. Philosophy and faith possess a common language in art. That is at once abstract and sensuous, reserved and passionate. This was the age when renunciation and enjoyment are perfectly attuned. All India was richly painted. And the art was the art of the race and not any individual.
Choosing his favorite time in history he says ‘Were it possible to put back the hands of the clock and revisit ancient India, it is perhaps to the eighth century that we should turn. Choosing for our pilgrimage a moment when temple building and sculpture were in the fullest tide of their activity. But little of the work of former centuries had been destroyed.’
About the artist and his art, he says – When the intellect is self-poised, then the forms of art are conceived. The artist is not a special kind of man. But every man is a special kind of artist, or else is something less than a man. To understand both you have to place yourself in the position of the artist or the patron – to think their thoughts or to see with their eyes. Study art to enlarge your own consciousness of being.
Introduction to Indian Art is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand Indian art holistically.