Perception of India’s Architectural Tradition

The history of Indian architecture, as a systematic study, was first taken up in British India. Several influential writers, from 1874 – 1927, set the future trends of scholarship. Most viewpoints that were current till recently, were influenced by the writings that appeared from mid 19th century onwards. From Henry Cole’s publication of the catalogue of the Indian collection at the then, South Kensington Museum (1874) to Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy’s classic, History of Indian and Indonesian art (1927), several issues regarding Indian art and architecture were debated and frameworks, largely derived from western methodologies, were put forward. Partha Mitter divides these writings and their approaches into two broad groups: archaeological and transcendental.

To the first group, classical European art was the exemplar of perfect taste against which all Indian art and architecture was to be judged. This is easily discerned in the writings of its major protagonists: Henry Cole, R. Orme, H. Colebrooke, James Fergusson, Vincent Smith and George Birdwood. This approach did much to further formulate the orientalist canon, seen in James Mill’s History of British India, written in 9 volumes (1817-20), where the principal orientalist vision received its first classic articulation. Rediscovery of India’s cultural past in these colonial writings was founded on the premise that to control the present better, you need to know the past of the ruled better. Primacy of religion and race were crucial in understanding Indian architecture for this approach. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam were the markers of Indian cultural identity. In this paradigm, Vedic and Buddhist periods were periods of pristine purity, while medieval Hinduism coincided with decay as evidenced from overtly decorative temples. The debate concerning Aryan versus Dravidian centred on Buddhist art being alone worthy of appreciation as it was Aryan and influenced by Graeco-Bactrian antiquity. In some writings, Islamic art too was superior and rational because it came from outside and Islam did not have the constraints of the Hindu caste system. Central to this construct is the foreign origin of Gandhara, as it was influenced by Greek art.

The second group was concerned with characterizing Indian art as transcendental and can be called nationalist in its approach. The writings of these art historians, led by Ernest Binfield Havell and Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy centred on Indian art embodying an idea, an inner world of beauty that has an intrinsic meaning. Based on classical norms of Neoplatonist doctrines, this approach read all Indian art as spiritual. The spirituality of Indian art was underlined when Coomaraswamy informed that nature was transcendental and existed on a metaphysical plane in the artist’s mind, which was then externalized and represented in material art form in his work. The vehicle through which this happened was a special technique of vision, the practice of yoga, known to the traditional Indian artists. Even the architectural form of the dome, to Coomaraswamy, was a work of imagination and not one of technicality. However, Coomaraswamy too, like the other writers, took refuge in western thought and knowledge of Platonism to explain Indian art. Again, although, Coomaraswamy was right in assessing the role of religion in Indian art, but when it came to explaining the precise relation between art and religion or the nature of Indian art, he took recourse to collective metaphysical generalizations. The problem with this approach is that it does not show how the meaning is derived, or how to read meaning in a form by virtue of its intrinsic properties. Much of writing today explains the exact nature of this relationship in more concrete and individual ways, rather than in generalized collective notions. Indian art and architecture has to be studied in specific religious, cultural, political and social contexts. Different endeavours and forms have to be assessed from their own specific contemporary positions.

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