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Published on: Nov. 15, 2021, 11:19 a.m.
Lode of inspiration
  • Nicholas Roerich, Padmasambhava, Banner of the East. 1924. Courtesy Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York

By Swapna Vora

This amazing book is gorgeous, rich with unpublished or rarely seen art, and reveals the huge influence Indian creativity and thought had on modernism, not just in France or Italy but in Sweden, Russia, North America… It discusses this mine of inspiration for artists like Hilma af Klint, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian and Goncharova. Stagecraft genius Stanislavski and Tairov read yoga in Russia and wrote notes showing its huge impact on them. Ballets Russes costume and set designers, along with German and French theatre directors, indicate the ‘very roots’ from which their work arose. This rare research offers wonderful insight into the thoughts of intellectuals like Jung, Coomaraswamy, Tagore and the Theosophists.

“Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future” was officially the most-visited exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum’s 60-year history, (2018). As Jerry Saltz wrote about Klint, whose art clearly and repeatedly shows tantra, the show is ‘only a hundred years late’. Hindu-Buddhist thought was not based only on temporal events and limited individual experience but explored knowledge and consciousness itself. It examined ideas felt ‘subliminally, intuitively, even secretly’. This exploration expressed ‘emotion, secret ideas, even magic against the insistence on empiricism’. ‘With modernism came a great expansion of horizons and many ways of representing the visual world: this breakthrough was in many ways indebted to India.’  Why did the acknowledgement to this source of Modern Art take so long? 

This book describes the rich, enchanting effect that India, especially Hindu and Buddhist thought, had in inspiring Europe’s Modern Art and the related art, music, dance, theatre and architecture. The reason for this huge influence lies in understanding that Hindu/Buddhist/Jain seekers sought the source of consciousness and expressed it in their classical and folk art.

One reads that Jung expressed his ideas through Indian symbols and that Kandinsky and Mondrian stated their abstraction came through learning Indian thought via Theosophy. Kandinsky said the purpose of art was to create ‘a mental or spiritual state’. This relies on the Hindu cosmic view and study of nada, tantra, and rang. The Upanishads reached Europe in the early 16th century, (Urs App books), and some were eagerly translated. Schopenhauer encountered Anquetil's Oupnek'hat (Upanishads) in1814 and ‘repeatedly called it not only his favourite book but the one work of the entire world literature that is most worthy of being read’. 

Few know Wagner died with his Buddha project unfinished while his Parsifal and Ring used Hindu/Buddhist thought, (Montsalvat). Pavlova sought a Hindu ballet, Shakuntala and Vasantsena were staged in Europe, Jung used Hindu symbolism, William Morris took Indian designs, and opera composers used Indian themes. Rodin wrote on Nataraja’s perfection. Moreau, who taught Matisse, was familiar with Indian poetry. Owen Jones and Henry Cole studied vastu architecture and then set up The V and A. (Rembrandt too had his collection of Indian miniatures!) Odilon Redon painted an aniconic Buddha, Matisse painted ‘la pose Hindou’, and Mata Hari performed ‘Brahmanical dances’.

Modern dancers arrived eg Pavlova, Ruth St Denis, Esther Luella Sherman, to learn and some spent their lives preserving it. Who were the key mediators who brought the magic of India to the west’s modern artists and intellectuals? Steiner, Yeats, William Morris, Tagore, Coomaraswamy, Vivekananda…

After Europe’s world wars, many sought meditation and science and reached India where, they had heard, people could open the doors of perception to access altered states of consciousness and thus create extraordinary art and inventions. (Much later, we saw seekers of inspiration and reality like Harvard’s Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, the Beatles and now Jobs and Zuckerberg.) As Leary noted, one could reach such states without drugs and avoid their long-term havoc. This influence, beginning with inspiration and leading to productivity, is beyond enormous. Common acknowledgement to Indian thought and its deep study resulting in these modern, much-loved endeavours of arts, literature, theatres and even operas, is non-existent or only a rare afterthought!

 India is usually associated with vague spiritualism rather than with concrete contribution to every art and to knowledge itself. Ahuja writes: ‘Ours is not an exercise on boosting national Indian pride! ... It is to look at the mediators between India and West.’ Essential reading for all who delight in creativity, especially in ‘Modern Art’! 

Naman P Ahuja is an Indian art curator, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and co-editor of Marg. Louise Belfrage, International Advisor at Ax:Son Johnson Foundation, Stockholm, currently heads Indian Influences, seminars on the influence of Indian thought on western art.

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