Jamini Roy: BBC stuck in anti-colonialism

I have been listening to an interesting show, From Bengal to Baker Street, about the Indian painter Jamini Roy. Poor old Radio 4 couldn’t get beyond its anti-colonial meta-narrative… Roy and his fans seem interesting and made a good show. But it couldn’t help ticking the same old boxes. So its billing and opening were about the idea of an Indian painter finding his Indian identity granted that the Imperialists had rubbished the idea of Indian fine art. The substance of the show then demolished most of that, I think, but of course impressionable minds will take the overall messaging.

[Note added 7 May 2015: today’s BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time had a fine account of Rabindranath Tagore. In particular it showed the peculiar admiration the British felt toward Indian pre-colonial culture.]

Indeed, it is at least possible that it was the colonials who liberated Roy to explore the artist’s life in a far more interesting way than Indian tradition would have done.

It happens that in my cursory wanderings in the BM or elsewhere, I haven’t seen much or any painting from old India which is what the West would call “Art”. There is little individualism in style or self expression. The show remarked that the British set up art schools and shows to bring to Indians something of the Western impulse in Art. And it said so, I think, as part of its trope that this was bad colonialism.

But hold on. As the show unfolded it was clear that Roy imbibed Western adventurousness in the desire to self-express, and he also imbibed its narodnik interest in peasants as the salt of the earth. True, Ghandi was a trail-blazer in peasant-worship, and it was both his strength and weakness as an Indian leader. But in going out to the farmlands and villages, Roy was also in a Western mode, habitual since the 19th century, and, surely, not doing anything normally Indian.

More than that, we find that Roy eventually found his voice as a merger between Bengali traditions and Western self-expressiveness. He was immediately lionised by Western intellectuals and found a ready market amongst them. Interestingly, and this is an Indian twist, he also found ways to make his art cheap, and in that he is being – I think – a real and Indian pioneer who could teach Western artists something right now.

But, and here the sweep of trope and irony is doubly enchanting, it turns out that he is now seen, by the very sort of Westerners who so admired him, to be too much the craftsman and not enough the truly artistic creative voice. So, and the show could hardly say this, he is now thought a lesser figure because he was prone to the very weakness many Western aesthetes and colonial racists thought they saw in the Indian tradition all along. And, let it not be forgotten, many Westerners, and colonialists amongst them, indulged in a sort of hero-worship of the very Indian art which others of their time and colour and background thought repetitive.

I should say that none of the contributors to the show, that I recall, were other than ordinarily friendly about and interested Roy’s contacts with the colonial world or Westerners. It was the show’s opening pitch which I dispute, and I suspect it accords well with BBC commissioning and continuity expectations.

None of this matters hugely, but why should we put up with state-sponsored mental shoddiness and social stereotyping?

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Publication date

06 March 2014


Mind & body; On art