The Newsletter 87 Autumn 2020

In search of a forgotten dialogue. Sino–Indian artistic discourse in the early 20th century

Amitava Bhattacharya

In the early 20th century, Asia witnessed the growth of several regional art movements in which we find tendencies to integrate Western representational art with multiple traditional and indigenous sources, in an organic synthesis. This was in response to pervasive Western art pedagogy via rampant colonization in many Asian settings since the late 16th century. In this trajectory, Japan was the first Asian nation to achieve spectacular artistic success during the Meiji period (1894-1916).

Japan had effectively internalized the stylistic elements from Western paintings, such as the Kano and Rinpa schools in the 16th century with a predilection for surface treatment and realistic observation; and the remarkable emergence of the new art school Nihon Bijutsuin, which was founded by distinguished art critic Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913), painters Taikan Yokohama, Shimamura Kanjan, Hisida Sunso, Hasimato Gaho and other notable painters.

In India, the Calcutta-based Bengal School of Art (from 1896 onwards), led by the celebrated artist and aesthetician Abanindranath Tagore, painter Gaganendranath Tagore (both nephews of poet Rabindranath Tagore) and Nandalal Bose, was supported by E. B. Havell, a British artist and principal of Government College of Art Calcutta, Sister Nivedita, A. K. Coomaraswamy and Rabindranath. The Bengal School of Art established a high-level aesthetic sensibility incorporating various elements from Eastern traditions, including the Persian and Indian miniaturist schools, the East Asian calligraphic tradition, and later on from new Nihonga, painting as well.

In the meantime, the emergence of the Lingnan School in China led by Gao Jianfu, Gao Qifeng and other artists who had initially trained in Japan, marked the beginning of the modern Chinese art reform. They adopted artistic components from Japan with a desire to formulate a new version of Chinese painting. Gao’s quest was to discover how the Bengal School of Art had found an eclectic way to understand the entire Eastern art tradition with a notion of Okakura Kakuzo’s pan-Asian doctrine.

My research pursuit is to revisit the mutual perceptions of Sino–Indian artists and scholars of the early 20th century, particularly after Tagore’s significant visit to China in 1924. This event fostered a mutual understanding between Indian and Chinese artists and scholars. Their shared experiences hold major significance in the existing backdrop of Asian art, thus they should be re-examined in the context of earlier periods of Asian art. Artistic interactions between Japan, India and China in the early 20th century were conducted in pursuit of internalizing the artistic sources in the Mogao Grotto of Dunhuang and the caves in Ajanta. 

In this scenario, Gao Jianfu’s sojourn in India, during his visit to South Asian countries from 1930 to 1931, was as striking as it was assertive and introspective. He travelled from Ceylon to the Himalayas and made a remarkable study of the Ajanta caves and other ancient Indian historic sites. He also went to meet Tagore in Darjeeling. (fig. 6) Gao Jianfu once had a long discussion with Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore on the relations between the Chinese ‘six methods’ and the Indian ‘six methods’ in painting. It was a crucial conversation that touched upon the core discourse of Indian and Chinese artistic ties. As Ralf Crozier aptly said in his Art and Revolution in Modern China, Gao Jianfu was “open to influence from the ancient East”. He tried to contextualize the relation between two methods, as he says in his lectures that were published in his posthumous book My views on Modern National Painting (1955). What struck Gao Jianfu were the similarities of the methods. In India, the ‘six limbs’ had been formulated during the 6th century, in the Vishnu Dharmottara Purana. In China, Xie He’s ‘six principles’ were used to understand and render the object presence of nature. Additionally, Gao Jianfu’s intention was to review the Bengal School of Art’s success in exploring wash painting techniques and in using Okakura Kakuzo’s influence to promote the pan-Asian doctrine in India.

A number of Chinese artists visited the international university founded by Tagore in Shantiniketan. For example, the celebrated painter Xu Beihong visited (1939-1940) at the invitation of Tagore, primarily as an artist-in-residence during WWII and the Chinese Civil War. Due to the series of very impressive paintings created during his stay, Xu Beihong’s visit to India has been publicized the most. However, the less known and silent sojourn by Gao Jianfu from the Lingnan School, who developed a new perspective in Asian modern art, actually holds much more significance. These artistic exchanges between Japan, China and India were not a coincidence, rather a set of historical circumstances that created the scope of mutual exposures of the artists from the three countries. And their dialogues should be revisited.

Amitava Bhattacharya is a fellow in the Department of History, University of Calcutta, India.