Survey of Sino Indian Artistic Discourse

A Twentieth Century Framework

by Amitava Bhattacharya

ISBN: 978-81-8206-051-7
Published by Towards Freedom and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata
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This book focuses on the multiple interactions and exchanges between Sino-Indian artists in the early part of 20th century in a large backdrop of modern art discourse in Asia. This backdrop witnessed a quest for Indian modernity in colonial and post dynastic Asian nations. Bengal School in particular paved a new artistic and aesthetic movement under the leadership of Abanindra Nath Tagore and E.B. Havell. In this process, Okakura Tenshin, a leading Japanese scholar and art critic played a seminal role to facilitate the movement and through his initiation artists og Bengal came in touch with Japanese artists to comprehend the remarkable success of new Japanese Art.

China, a major Asian nation witnessed a new quest for modernity in art after the dynastic decline in 1911 and got a new momentum in May 4th movement in 1919. We come across Chinese artists after the visit of Rabindra Nath Tagore and Nandalal Bose in 1924 to China. Since then few Chinese and Indian artists had an urge to know each other to understand the new development in art of both the leading Asian nations. But these important interactions went unnoticed. This book is an attempt to unearth the various modes of artistic exchanges and dialogues to know each other in the 20th century.


My inclination to this research publication has grown out of my preoccupation with ink brush painting. Primarily, to me, it was ardently artistic to understand Shuimo or ink painting on suanzhi or absorbent paper made typically for ink painting and instigating subtlety, the economy of means, spatial diligence and for the converging nature of calligraphic brush strokes and painting. Incidentally my first visit to China under a government scholarship in 1993—1994 played a key role in my interest. Chinese ink painting in general is like an exploration. The objective facts revealed through orchids, bamboo, mountain -water is somewhat extended the larger concerns of the very visual language. What I feel is that the metaphorical footnotes on the vision and execution of paintings provide certain signals which simultaneously endorse understanding of poetic and visual imageries to perceive the language of painting. It is like asking how to translate nature, for example and after such translation what is the imperative- the nature or its translated form (that is the language through which such translation has taken place). Benode Behari Mukhopadhaya often uses the word “tension” in his writings. He speaks of a tension between the subjective interpretations of nature as contrasted with the objective facts of nature. He speaks of this in the context of defining art, if I may say so. Art is somewhere between these two, for him. Somehow Chinese ink painting seems to address this issue in a very profound way by revealing the very subjective element on the one hand and also by focusing on the essential aspects of natural facts on the other. Simply speaking, instead of a broader art historical and usual academic interest, my queries rested on the problems between the ways of seeing and the presentational system which resulted from the advent of so called Western Academic Realism and its imposition or codification in both of our Asian art collages. By visiting many art institutes in China and interacting with many painters, I intended to enter in this particular discourse and a research initiative.

In 1993—94, during my first visit for study, I made an extensive travel to North China and visited many art centers of the region. That was the time of most fascinating socio-cultural transition in mainland. The tragic aftermath of student movement in 1989, unprecedented growth of ‘Kaifeng’or open door economic policy, rapid urban expansion and certainly the rampant international exposure of new Chinese art. On the flip side, there was inevitable demand of freedom for pluralistic artistic practices among the artists in many peripheral realms and in various parts of the mainland outside the official segment. Since the end of 1980s most of the major cities evidenced many private galleries and various activities related to Chinese modern art. To a young Indian student whose entire exposure to China was through the mystic, lofty and vast nature painting was initially bit awkward like a strange traveler it encountering different situations without knowing the language of that time and the experience the rich and varied offshoots in Chinese art.
“—–Then it comes to me with sadness that, as human beings, we have no common language through which we can come close to one another. This perhaps has its advantages; for it makes us pay the price of knowing each other; we begin as strangers and have to win each others love by strenuous endeavour.” (Ref: R N Tagore, in a lecture” To My Hosts” in China, 1924, Talks in China, p 45 Rabindra Nath Tagore, Rupa, Co, Calcutta 2002)

Gradually, during a year stint I got ample opportunities to view a good collection of post dynastic Chinese art in the early twentieth century and its impact in modern painting and artistic polemics. Certainly, it was a special opportunity to come across original Chinese painting, breathing within the objective and subjective condition of Chinese society and nature. This situation gave me additional privilege to read linguistic aspects in Chinese painting apart from the trend we perceive through western portals and printed plates in our curriculum of’ Far Eastern art’.

Relatively in a more open China, I spent several times in a most controversial Yuan Ming Yuan artist’s village {Artist’s colony in Beijing suburb existed from 1991 to 96} near the ruins of Jesuits in Ming period in Beijing.Yuang Ming Yuan –the former summer palace which was burnt by the British in 1860 during the period of king Qianlong.

The historical importance of the place, appealing environment and the life style of its inhabitants stimulated my interest in Chinese art and culture. However, the artists’ colony was almost unrecognized by the official artistic regime. But, their collective movement made a vital thrust became a later Avant-Garde art movement in China.

To me Yuan Ming Yuan artist’s colony was a most accessible gateway to read the artistic psyche and emotional components of new generation in post Cultural Revolution and post Mao society in mainland. I received pleasing warmth and support from the artists and other cultural activists in the colony. Since my first stint and later my second visit for seven months as a visiting fellow in Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing under Asia Fellow programme, my concern was to furnish relevant texts and other materials on modern Chinese art.

Gradually I became more interested in exploring the feasibility of a comprehensive publication on focusing on the scenario and some core debates addressing tradition, realism, East-West integration and nascent radicalism in post dynastic society. Secondly, my intention was to enquire the mode of interaction between Indian and Chinese proponents in early 20th century within the broader framework of Asian artistic modernity . I need not mention, that epoch which witnessed artistic and aesthetic quest to comprehend East Asia {or what we called it as Far East} among the Indian artists and scholars based in Bengal.

In the contemporary Indian art circuit until the end of 1980s, modern Chinese art was believed to have revolve either around the utilitarian, propagandist, socialist, realist oil painting or the stale copies of traditional ‘Guo Huar’or national ink paintings– almost a trait of craft {gongyi} specific art and even a sort of modern oil painting promoted by official academic segment., China is our next door neighbor and have had a rich artistic heritage so I felt that it was an imperative to read their new changes and various off shoots in modern art movement.Indeed,it was not so easy to catch up with the entire scenario for its so diverse lanes and bylanes,for language constraints and for the difficulty to access Chinese society without knowing the handling of ‘Kunzi’ or chopstick in dinner table or at least having a minimum skill in ‘Bagua’ or the traditional art . My teacher Li Ming Ho a traditional ink painter in Beijing {who taught me at least a basic of handling ink on paper} once advised me to learn martial art to catch up the flow of brush. Despite in gaining all constraints, I tried to get utmost recourses through my travels and interviewing many persons concerned with this area.

by Amitava Bhattacharya