How Britain didn’t understand Indian culture?

NPG x12958; John Ruskin by William Downey, for  W. & D. DowneyJust by chance I looked at a weekly supplement of my favorite newspaper. It is all on Arts & Culture and carries two interview pages of leading cultural personages, classical dancers, musicians and theatre personalities. All of them engaged my thought for a while. All my favorites are here and that led to a train of thought into arts and culture for quite a time!

And then I came from my reverie of sorts and I took the book that was lying in front of me since few days. It is none other than the vulnerable figure, John Ruskin(1819-1900). I assume that his name is familiar to at least some of the readers. For others I want to say here that Ruskin lived in the 19th century, when for Indians at any rate, the British Empire was at its great triumph. The two world wars were yet to come and impact. It was a century that saw the full flowering of the British talents. Education was invariably linked with culture and culture meant everything that shaped people, their notions of superiority in terms of etiquette and manners and high living.

Anyway, one fact about Ruskin, the great art critics and social and moral reformer is that Mahatma Gandhi was drawn to his three lectures, collected in the name of “Unto this Last”. Now I am reading his autobiography, strangely named by him as ” Praeterita “. Yes, it is not easy to read it and I found at many times it is very high-handed prose indeed!

Now, what I want to tell here, to the Indian readers, in an education journal that when I went to Oxford in the late 1950s, John Ruskin’s books were still displayed in bookshops! Also, I soon discovered in my enthusiasm for Labour party and the Fabian Socialism that like Ruskin there were other early utopian socialists like William Morris and others. They had a common thread of the British belief in their mission to civilize the world, at least civilize their colonies! Anyway, I had come a long way from that early enthusiasm and also my innocence! Now, when I look back and reflect on what I learnt from Britain and from their own beliefs, I have changed a lot, it seems!

After I had travelled extensively in Europe and seen the other civilisations, say Rome and the Italian Renaissance towns like Florence, I have a very different view of the world. Now, in Ruskin’s autobiography what caught my attention and even the mild shock I experienced is that the Brits, as a people, were so sure of their view of the world. After all they were the centre of the world once and so they assumed there is no other world superior to their own. Though they also learnt lot from Greece and Rome, they didn’t tell us so, we Indians were fed with Macaulay system of education preparing a class of clerks and coolies to serve their lordships!

Yes, I just now read another book, titled as Ornamentalism, on how the Brits gave themselves funny names like OBE, KG etc. they changed their names to artificial ones so much so that the Indian maharajahs were made to kneel before the visiting royals and call themselves as knights and Sirs. Such nonsense paid them off well and their empire lasted, alas, not any longer and when they departed they left behind them the Lutyen’s bungalows in which reside our present masters, our low-level politicians with extensive lawns etc!

When I read through Ruskin’s autobiography my chapters naturally rushed to the ones on Ruskin’s visits to Rome and Florence. I myself was in Rome and Florence and so my interest in knowing what Ruskin has got to say on the same monuments I saw and appreciated. He was in Rome in 1840 (Nov 28-30, Dec.30).

Here are his own words. Ruskin on Roman Forum:
Saw the Forum, Colliseum and so on. I had no distinct idea what the Forum was(!) or even had been or how the three pillars or the seven, were concerned with it(!) or the Arch of Severus, standing without any road underneath or the ragged bloc of buildings above, with their tower of the commonest possible eighteenth century type. There was, however, one extreme good in all this that I saw, with whatever faculty was within me, exactly for what they were and though my religious instruction, as aforesaid, led me to suppose the malaria in the Campaign was the consequence of the papacy….”(page 241). In another place he says:

What the Forum and the Capitol had been I did not in the least care.” Ruskin was at the Vatican and saw the Sistine chapal. He says:”the whole lower storey of the Sistine, were entirely useless to me”. Raphael’s an ugly one”. “I paid no more attention to what any book said (unless I happen to agree with (!)On the subject of painting”. “The main wonders of Rome thus taken stock of”.(page 242).
On Florence(page237):This is on November 13th,1840: “I have just been walking or sauntering, in the square of the statues, the air perfectly balmy; and I shall not soon forget, I hope, the impression left by this square as it opened from the river, with the enormous mass of tower above,- or of the Duomo itself. I had not expected any mass of church, rather something graceful, like La Salute at Venice. Not that it is good as architecture even in its own barbarous style(!).The notion of magnificent figures in marble and bronze about the great square, thrilling”(pag238).

“At Florence then, this time, the new gate-like palaces were rightly hateful to me”(pag238..”The whole, a provocation and weariness, except for one master, M. Angelo”(page238. The one M.Angelo is none other than Michelangelo!

Ruskin is a great figure. But to say only this much on Michelangelo whose marble statue, David stands at the very square where Ruskin is standing! What to call? Ruskin’s audacity or a high superiority of his own understanding and appreciation of arts? Then about the great Uffizi gallery! (I didn’t visit it for the simple reason there was no time and it takes a few days to complete the journey! Anyway, Ruskin’s words on Michelangelo, Raphael and his comment on the great Uffizi gallery:”Uffizi collection in general, and unbecoming medley, got together by people who knew nothing, and cared less than nothing about the arts. On the whole, when I last walked through the Uffizi in 1882, I was precisely of the same opinion. It was not to be expected of me at that time to like either Angelico or Botticelli; and if I had, the upper corridor of the Uffizi was an entirely vile and contemptible place to see the great Madonna of the one or the Venus Marina of the other”(page 239 Now, what has these observations have to do with India?

The British imperialism thrived on a sense of in-bred superiority of its own talents. What talents? They came as traders and ended up as barbarian rulers, right? So much of famine and deaths, poverty and degradation as a consequence of economic poverty and social helplessness. All these traits led to a sense of inferior status of the Indian people. All I want to point out here is that the British were boorish when it came to appreciating Indian history and civilization. Has any Briton wondered at the soaring heights of the Chola temples in Tanjore? Or, the Sanchi Stupa in M.P. Or, the Ajanta frescoes? Or for many other such Indian art and archeological monuments? It is painful Ruskin can be so casual about the Roman civilisation. No word on Michaelanglo, Leonardo da Vinci or Mona Lisa! While he praised and promoted the British painters, Whistler, Turner who are all now forgotten names outside British Isles.

A sort of British parochialism? It looks like that! Our ancient arts, temples and sculptures in stones and metals, Chola temples, bronzes to stone idols, Nataraja statues, are now widely famed human art achievements, comparable to what the Greeks produced. They are now spread in all world museums and private collections. Indian antique smuggling is now big business. If our arts heritage is not so unique why is then this smuggling trade? The British simply were an inferior race and they couldn’t appreciate Indian heritage.

Even great art genius like John Ruskin couldn’t appreciate the Greek and Roman heritage. This came as a shock to me when I read that great man’s autobiography. It is time, we Indians too study the Greek and Roman heritage and also take Indian heritage to world appreciation in all possible ways. This is the one great lesson I learnt by reading through John Ruskin.

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