On Indian Drawing, by Howard Hodgkin

Arts Council of Great Britain, 1983

On Indian Drawing

This exhibition was arranged by an artist. A lot of nonsense has been written about the ‘Artist’s Eye’ – it’s certainly not superior but possibly a bit different. But anyway how would I know? As an artist I can choose what I like, a privilege forwhich I am grateful but one not available to the scholar or art historian.

My love for Indian drawing is something I want to share with other people. But it is based on feeling rather than knowledge, and so this exhibition is neither comprehensive nor historical. Few of these drawings come from museums because they don’t have many. Most are from private collections, many from my own.

When I first became interested inIndian drawings and began to collect them I succumbed to the easy temptation of equating them with great European drawings of a kind I would never be able to possess. This one reminded me of an Ingres, that one was like a Rembrandt. The only advantage of these rather silly comparisons was to make me realise how unlike European works Indian drawings actually are. Tentatively at first, I began to see them as great drawings in their own right, executed in a language entirely their own.

But there were other attractions. They reminded me of India in a manner that was both intense and impersonal. The foreignness of the subject matter, and at the same time its curious familiarity, were moving in a detached sort of way. And my ignorance of style and iconography enabled me to enjoy these beautiful drawings without needing to worry about what they actually were. The subject matter retained its innocent enchantments: a ruler visiting a holy man in a garden, a prince hunting lions, an exquisite portrait of an animal. But inevitably as I learned more about them by making comparisons between one drawing and another the rot set in, and I started making value judgements. From then on I began to have endless conversations with friends on this fascinating subject. With Professor Cary Welch of Harvard, whom I first met many years ago when I first took some drawings to the Indian Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum for an opinion. He was typically forthright in his reactions. Not only has he a celestial gift of the gab when talking about Indian art, he is also a world authority on the subject; and his encouragement and enthusiasm have meant much to me over the years. Also with Robert Skelton, now Keeper of the Indian Section, who was also present on the same occasion and who has remained a constant and articulate prisoner’s friend. (All collectors are prisoners.) And finally with Terence McInerney who has written the introduction to this catalogue, and who better late than never, opened my eyes to Mughal art.

Drawing is the most naked of thevisual arts. Sometimes we can feel an almost physical contact with the artist and share in the workings of his mind and imagination. We learn to recognise and identify with certain marks on paper, traces of pencil and gouache, the speed of execution and the possibilities of various media, the genuine searches and intentional errors. The human element is paramount, so we feel we know when we are being told lies by the draftsman.

But our familiarity with these things can act as a barrier when we start looking at Indian drawings because at first they look so physically alike. For example, the emphasis on artistic personality, the self-revelation of a single human being, that is so familiar in Western art is not often found in Indian art. And it is all too easy to equate the loose and calligraphic with an individual hand. Nor do we find human emotion expressed in any direct way. Perhaps the nearest we get to it in this exhibition is the affecting, almost life-size drawing of two girls with faces touching (no. 11); or, with a far more generalised reticence, in the portraits (nos. 2,3 and 7). However, pantheistic feelings about nature abound, not only in images of animals such as the ubiquitous elephants, but also in the mysterious visual life given to the portrayal of plants and trees.

The Indian landscape, in so far as one can generalise at all is mostly quite empty and very dusty with a general tone and colour of beige and cream not unlike the tint of much of the paper that is used for these drawings. The sun and the light that come from it are so bright and hard that the edges of everything, whether leaf, stone, hill, building, animal or man, are very sharp. Even morning and evening pass in a flash. Shadows are cutouts. The light is so bright that the modelling of surfaces is quite shallow. The scale is also different from what one is used to. The even illumination negates distance, so that the enormity of space is quite visible and everything looks and feels small.

Apart from the technicalities of drawing with brush and ink, there may be another reason for the almost totally linear foundation of Indian drawings. In an Indian situation, a tree is a tree. If it is depicted surrounded by blank paper, it is none the less representational. The one-to-one relationship between a drawn shape and its counterpart in nature is both finite and literal. There are no saving clauses, no sudden descents into mysterious calligraphy or romantic vagueness, no hopeful journeys into the unknown. All is clear and, if not exact, at least concrete.

The delicately coloured, unfinished landscape reproduced on the cover of the catalogue is of an astonishing fidelity to anyone who has been to Kotah. But it lacks the enclosing envelope of light that we would expect to find in Western art. In this drawing, the trees cast no shadows. Likewise when we look at the modelling on an elephant’s belly or, more rarely, on a man’s face, it doesn’t really reveal an effect of light. Rather like braille, it demonstrates the tactile quality of the form. Volume is more often implied than described. Indian draftsmen must surely be among the absolute masters of enclosing a weighty form between two simple lines, leavingthe spectator to fill in what lies between.

Among the different subjectsrepresented in this exhibition such as the durbar, tiger hunts, human andanimal portraits, etc., elephants predominate. This is partly because I have a particular love of drawings of elephants. But there is also a better reason: good Indian drawings of elephants are more frequently encountered than drawings of any other subject. Human beings in particular are not nearly as elaborately or as enthusiastically depicted.

Perhaps the shifting volume and surface, the loose skin and the obvious structure inside it, the colossal weight which can defy gravity with a leap in the air and then sink to the ground in a heap like a mountain, were to the Indian artist what the changing forms and moods fo the human body are supposed to have been to the Post-Renaissance European artist.