India has always, since time immemorial, expressed itself in its art, just like Renaissance artists in Italy did. Colour and gold are used on statues and architecture for decoration and in paintings, the subject matter often showing aspects of their culture.
A land of diverse culture, diverse tradition, and diverse religious beliefs existed in harmony, provided, of course, that someone did not interfere with them. There were quite a few nations that did. There were so many battles and wars fought by so many different indigenous princes and kings and invading forces it is very hard to keep up with it all. Fought and ruled over by Moguls in the 16th-19th centuries, there was a Portuguese presence in India from around 1510 and the Brits joined in from 1612. The British Empire’s takeover of India was, or appears to have been, the most extensive invasion of all. Ruling from 20 June 1837 until her death in 1901, Queen Victoria gained the additional title of Empress of India on 1st May 1876. Here she is in her regalia.
Tradition and wetsern art
Throughout India, in present time, you will find that the most startling and heart warming traditions north, south, east and west continue on in the Indian way. Wherever you go, local cultures might differ widely, both in religious belief and non religious matters, with local festivals celebrated throughout the year and added to by a national festival agenda.
A great sacred river ‘The Ganges’ crosses India in the north, flowing eastwards on its way to disgorge into the ‘Bay of Bengal’. On the way it passes through many towns and cities, providing a backdrop to the noises colour, costumes, and gathering crowds at festival time. One such place is Varanasi, one of India’s most sacred cities in the north east. Night time here can be pretty spectacular too, as you can see below, during the Ganga Aarti festival or in fact on any night of the year.
Along its banks are the ‘Ghats’, steep steps that lead down to the water. It is a place for bathing ceremonies, to celebrate ones ancestors and a place where the ashes of the cremated are disbursed over the water. It is on the Ghats that people congregate to pay their respects to those that went before them.
And why single out Varanasi? The answer is that this is where eastern painting traditions meet western art disciplines, in the form of fine art. Indian artist Samiran Sarkar takes on visions of Varanasi and gives them a western treatment using simple techniques in water colour. This is an Indian artist trained in western fine art, painting Indian scenes to be admired by both east and west. His interpretation is of an entirely different view to that of the English that inhabited the city.
English Artist Lord Edwin Weeks painted this water colour of Varanasi viewed from the Ganges. An illustration done in 1890 follows it and it too seems to me to be a panoramic view of India rendered in the style of a western artist.
Lord Weeks has captured the busyness, the architecture and the crowded river bank. Buildings, shades, and boats all feature. Even the river seems secondary to the building in the background, which might be mistaken for an English, grand municipal building rather than a temple. Weeks explores the material side of life on the river rather than the spiritual and sacred life which Varanasi is famous for.
The 1890 illustration below was made by an English artist, although his name is not known. Again the buildings, shades and river side activity seem to suggest material things rather than the spiritual. Even the temples seem to be in the picture for their fancy roof top carvings rather than their spiritual purpose. This is perhaps an English version of a place to visit on tour, rather than go to for worship.
An Indian artists portrayal of Varanasi however, is quite different and comes 126 years later. Samiran Sarkar, an Indian artist from Kolkata, has painted his vision of the Ghats, which picks up on the spiritual life of The Ganges and what is more, most surprisingly to me as an art historian, has done it in the western style. One would never know the artist comes from an Indian heritage, so here it is, it is oh so subtle.
Samiran has captured moments when it is quiet, the river gentle with a few people sitting or standing around along the steps and quays. The shades are up, ready for the heat of the day that is to come and highlights of colour take our eye off the boats in the foreground to activities going on in the mid-ground. The misty background brings distance and an ethereal quality to the whole painting removing material wealth or the lack of it away from the whole.
I am a westerner who has visited India many times and lived with Indian families, doing as they do, for short periods of time. In viewing a beautiful water colour painted by a native Indian, trained in western art academy disciplines, I can really pick up on the spiritual nature of life in India.
Where did Samiran learn his trade? Where did he learn to use his brush to best effect with water colour paints? Bet you can’t guess. The Royal Academy of Art in London? The Boston School of art perhaps? It’s actually in one of the last places you would think of.
The answer is Kolkata, a city that was once headquarters of the British East India Company, back in Victorian times. He attended the Kolkata Academy of Fine Art and he certainly knows how to produce it.
Featured image – Ganga Aarti at Varanasi Ghats, from flickr.com.
Jemima J. Jones