Lockwood de Forest's Successors

by Ibn Warraq (October 2009)

(Part III of the Lockwood de Forest series. Part I is here and Part II is here.)


It is very likely that Lockwood de Forest visited the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, which played such an important role in furthering the aims of the East Indian Arts and Crafts Movement. This exhibition housed all the gifts that had been showered on the Prince of Wales during his widely publicised tour of India; they were displayed in the Indian Court, and the catalogue, Handbook to the British Indian Section, was prepared by the next great, perhaps the greatest, advocate of East Indian Arts and Crafts, George C. M. Birdwood.


Sir George Christopher Molesworth Birdwood, K.C.I.E., C.S.I., (1832-1917), the eldest son of General Christopher Birdwood, Indian Army, was born at Belgaum in the Bombay Presidency on the 8th December 1832. We know that his family had long been connected with the Indian Army and public services, and like all Anglo-Indian
[1] families of the old school, had a deep love and appreciation of their country, India, either of adoption where they were to pass the greater part of their lives, or, as in the case of Birdwood himself, country of birth. Indeed Birdwood dedicated his book SVA to the four castes of Hinduism and ends his dedication with these words,

TO THESE
THE FOUR VARNA, “COLOURS,” OR “CASTES”
THE ARK OF THE SOUL OF INDIA
OF THE HINDUS
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK
IN TESTIMONY OF THE AFFECTION THAT
GLOWS WITHIN MY HEART FOR MY MOTHERLAND
SHRI BHARATA[2]
[HOLY INDIA]
 
AND ITS SACROSANCT PEOPLE
AND EVER MORE AND MORE FAITHFULLY
AND FERVENTLY AS MY LONG PROLONGED
PROBATIONARY DAY ON EARTH
RINGS TO EVENSONG.
 
This moving dedication is a testimony of the love Birdwood, and others of the Old School, bore India and her peoples; the above are hardly the words of an “orientalist” in the pejorative sense established by Edward Said and his epigones, and must be always borne in mind before Orientalists are ever again dimissed as bigots, and racists.  

Birdwood was worried that commercial pressure would induce Indian artisans to betray their own cultural and artistic traditions and ape Western designs in order to be able to compete on the international market. Birdwood’s championing of Indian crafts gained considerable support from advocates of the arts and crafts movement in Britain, Birdwood was addressed in an open letter dated, significantly, May 1st, 1879 and endorsed by some the most imporant figures in this movement, many of whom have a solid place in the history of art, figures such as William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, Walter Crane, Frederic Leighton, and Caspar Purdon Clarke:

“In common with all who have given any attention to the subject, we have seen and lamented the rapid deteroriation that has of late befallen the great historical arts of India.

The independent and courageous criticism contained in your Handbook, founded on close observation and long experience, has shown us the causes that have been at work in bringing about this deterioration, and has given us hope that something may yet be done to stay its further progress”
[3]
     
Again, it is worth underlining that, here, some of the most important figures in British Art were defending the Arts and Crafts of India - they were not busy showing contempt for the “other,” as caricatured by Edward Said.

Birdwood then published The Industrial Arts of India [1880] which is “an amplification of his earlier handbook, carefully re-written, with additional matter from the administrative reports of the local Governments of India, aud provincial gazetteers. Though the second part of the Industrial Arts of India is thus a republication, with large additions, of the author's handbook above mentioned, the first part is entirely devoted to a carefully written, and accurate account of the Hindu Pantheon, without some knowledge of which Dr. Birdwood says, ‘half the interest of the manual arts of India is lost.’ ” As the Calcutta Review further noted, “the handbook is a very full aud systematic account in detail of the manufacturing resources of India.” Birdwood claims that “The arts of India are the illustration of the religious life of the Hindus, as that life was already organized in full perfection ‘under the Code of Manu, B.C., 900—300.’ Although some of ‘the freshness of its Vedic morning has been already lost,' it is left still in its first religious and heroic stage, as we find it painted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata; and we owe its ‘preservation, through the past three thousand years, from change' and decay, chiefly to the Code of Manu. Dr. Birdwood wisely and vigorously points out the dangers to which Indian art is subjected by the introduction, of European ideas and the manufacture of Indian art products, cheap, trashy, and degenerate, to meet the demand for orders, which weigh and measure art by the pound, the cubic contents, and the square yard.”
[4]

Birdwood’s The Industrial Arts of India was well-known in Europe and the United States, and subsequently translated into many European languages.
[5]

PROPER  ATTITUDES TO THE ‘OTHER’?

We are now in a better position to be able to analyze the attitudes of these Indian enthusiasts, though it is by no means easy to arrive at any firm conclusions as to which attitude was “correct.” Birdwood was described by the distinguished Indian art critic, Partha Mitter, as an “upholder of romantic primitivism” who idealized the traditional Indian villages, contrasting them with the havoc created by the Industrial Revolution in the English countryside.
[6] Clearly Birdwood approved of the caste system attributing to it the excellence of Indian hand craftsmanship, and seeing it as a sort of guild network, the upsetting of which would lead to social chaos. A Hindu traditionalist would undoubtedly be flattered at Birdwood’s endorsement of his social hierarchies whereas a reformist like B. D. Ambedkar would be shocked at this easy acceptance of, what would be for the reformer, an iniquitous social system responsible of every kind of social injustice. Birdwood accepted India on her own terms, and yet, at the same time, his attitude was forged by developments back home in England of the Industrial Revolution.  

Lockwood de Forest’s vision of India was also romantic. Accounts left by Lockwood in a unpublished manuscript provide a “largely sympathetic picture”
[7] of India. Bombay “was and now is one of the most fascinating picturesque cities in the world,” enthused Lockwood. He was dazzled by everything he saw, “If any of you have ever plunged into a rapidly flowing river with waves often going over your head, you can, perhaps form some idea of the aesthetic river of the streets of the native city of Bombay. When you were nearly drowned in the human current you crawled out on one of the shutter-like counters of a shop to watch the flow go by. There were so many things of surpassing interest I felt dazed and it took some time to concentrate my mind on any particular thing I saw and wanted to find out all about”.[8]

Lockwood seems to have found even the large cockroaches amusing rather than disgusting. He found little to criticise, instead he wrote, “As the highest enjoyment in things seen, touched, tasted, heard and smelled can only be expressed when they are so acute as to send cold shivers up and down one’s spine, one is in an almost continuous chill in India”.
[9] Lockwood seems to have accepted India and her complex culture as it presented itself to his uncritical gaze. But despite his commercial interests in reviving the native arts of India for which he was often accused of exploiting the Indian artisans, Lockwood did provide work for many years to the woodcarvers and metal workers of Ahmedabad. And he did after all manage in rescuing an entire house that was about to be destroyed in Ahmedabad; it is now to be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London. His efforts to preserve dying craft traditions were surely sincere, as was his admiration for Indian woodcarving. 

It took another Orientalist E. B. Havell [1861-1934] to challenge de Forest’s assumptions. Havell argued that “the true spirit of revival could not be imposed upon India from the outside; true Indian art had to be made by and for the Indian people and had to express Indian life and religion and culture. He also insisted that the industrial arts of India could not be separated from India’s traditions of painting and sculpture and architecture.”
[10]
    
 


[1] Anglo-Indian here indicates those Englishmen and women who had a long connection and attachment to India, rather than, as it later came to connote, someone of mixed race descent.
[2] Sri or Shri is a Sanskrit word often used as a title of reverence or veneration: here it indicates “Holy” or “Revered” or “Sacred”; Bharata is a Sanskrit word for India.                                                                                        
[3] Quoted in Roberta A. Mayer, op.cit. p51; original letter published in Journal of Indian Art and Industry 8, nos.,61-69 (January, 1900):51
[4] Calcutta Review, Vol.LXXII, 1881.
[5] Oscar Wilde could be said to have been indirectly inspired by it. Wilde was a great admirer of Ernest Lefébure’s Embroidery and Lace: Their Manufacture and History… Trans. Alan Cole, (H.Grevel) 1888; Lefébure quotes Birdwood. Wilde reviewed the book, and referred to it in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
[6] Quoted in Roberta A. Mayer, op.cit. p50
[7] Roberta A. Mayer, op.cit.,p.55.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.,p.57.
[10] Ibid.,p.203.


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