The Bamboo Flute

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One beautiful night when the autumn moon shed its silvery radiance over the banks of the Yamuna Krishna decided to sport with the Gopis in fulfilment of a promise made to them. When the gopis heard the strains of his flute their hearts were enslaved and forsaking their husbands and their homes they hastened to meet him. To tease them he chided them for their immodest behaviour. The gopis were downcast and said:
‘O Lord, it behoveth thee not to speak such cruel words to us.’
Pleased with their devotion, the Lord engaged in dalliance with them.
Karl Khandalavala on illustrations of the BhPur

I

John Zoffany to Tilly Kettle, esquire

You may well wonder, sir,—no doubt you do—
At this unheralded address to you;
And if I claim (I do it with a blush)
Fellowship of the palette and the brush,
Presuming on a past acquaintanceship
Which I own, on my part I have let slip
Since we first met in the Society
Of Artists. You, I trust, remember me
As I do you and hope you recollect
The cordial admiration and respect
With which, as its Director, I acclaimed
Your first exhibits there: the justly famed
Theatre piece of Mandane, the no less
Praised ‘Powell’s wife portrayed in Turkish dress’;
—Though such were held a specialty of mine—
And we were hung together on the line;
My Mrs Oswald’s portrait facing yours,
Your tragic actress, greeted with applause
Equal to my depiction of a scene
Of comedy upon a village green.
But you in later triumphs have forgot
Our early intercourse as like as not,
Since each in recent years has lived abroad;
I, several years in Florence, to record
And copy with exact and loving care
The Grand Duke’s paintings in his gallery there
And you to the East Indies, as I know
And hear you prospered, sir. Not long ago
I saw your Native Dancing Girls which you
Exhibited in seventeen seventy two,
And others sent for exhibition here,
Such as The Mogul Empire’s Grand Vizier
Reviewing the Company’s Troops, which all attest
For animation, posture and the rest,
A masterpiece of colouring and design
And that opinion, sir, is also mine.

Which brings me to the subject of this screed:
That India made your fortune is agreed;
With such exotic subjects to your hand
And oriental splendour at command,
The pictures you sent home were bound to please,
And nabobs offering lacs, too, of rupees
For portraits done in European style,
It was a just reward. You made your pile!

Mine is the commoner case, I must confess.
Like you I had achieved, I thought, success.
The Queen’s commission for her cabinet
Seemed a sure seal of future triumphs yet.
The contrary was the outcome, it appears,
For the vast labours of those seven years;
Her Majesty dislikes the picture, nay
Haggles and seeks to whittle down my pay
And, as if this reverse were not enough,
Since my return my patrons all fall off.
‘Twill be no news to you, sir, I dare say.
Fashions in painting quickly have their day.
Art à la mode our connoisseurs expect
And treat my plain depiction with neglect.
My talents thus relegated to the shelf,
I think to sail for India myself.

When first I meditated this design
I writ for counsel to a friend of mine,
Lord Macartney, Governor of Madras
Who welcomed me and, in addition has,
In view of your experience and the fame
You won in India, wished on me the same
And civilly has ventured to suggest
Yourself, sir, to advise me for the best.

Now my old Friend, if I may call you so,
These are the things that I should like to know:
As a skilled painter, fallen on evil days,
Where and to whom should I first turn to raise
My prospects as I hear yourself you did?
Given the lapse of time, might I succeed
At this day more by portraits as in yours
Or scenes of oriental state? Are wars
With their exotic trappings and display
Likelier to win a following today?
Since history painting is once more the mode,
A modern battle’s sure to draw the crowd:
Knowing the field, sir could you recommend
A patron or an influential friend
By whom, when I arrive unknown, I may
More expeditiously make my entrée?
And all else you may think that I should find
To my advantage, pray, sir, keep in mind
Ere I set forth. I have by now applied;
The ‘Honorable John Company’ has replied;
Their permits are already on the way.
‘Tis now December, and by April, say,
I must already have been some weeks at sea,
Past that Cape of (Please God!) Hope for me.
Wherefore, since I must soon aboard, sir I
Would be obliged too, by a prompt reply.
More than my gratitude could e’er repay,
I am,
your servant,
Zoffany, R.A.

II

Tilly Kettle to John Zoffany, R.A.

Sir! your epistle prompted me to laugh,
Too civil, too obliging, sir, by half
To rank me with yourself. Although we were
Colleagues in the Society, even there
If on the line we once hung side by side,
My offerings were much more often ‘skyed’.
Your fame by far, indeed, eclipsed my own.
I received no commissions from the Throne;
And though hung once by the Academy,
No King proposed me for that company;
No Empress of the Holy Roman court
To paint her whelps dubbed me a baron; in short,
You show me too much honour, I repeat,
For, if on any common ground we meet,
‘Tis that of common misfortune, common too
To artists in all ages; and if you
With all your talents, find yourself put down,
I too have lost the fruits of brief renown.
My seven years in India almost
Made me a nabob, and I used to boast
Of being court painter to all Hindoostan.
Sujah-ud-Dowlah, Mohammed Ali Khan
Had been my patrons, paid me princely fees.
Return to England cost me most of these.
It was your case exactly. Here I found
New styles of painting—new painters too—abound,
Old patrons, less enthusiastic, friends
Judging the ‘Nabob’ by the way he spends.
The fortune dwindles and the friends are lost.
In short I have decided, sir, almost,
Since bankruptcy now stares me in the face,
Return to India must mend my case,
And to this end, enquiries I have made
Suggest that even there the painter’s trade
Suffers such changes as we meet at home.
The best advice to give you, ere you come,
Is to use every means here to prepare
And advertise your coming, and, once there,
Your Governor of Madras I should regard
By way of introductions, a trump card.
(Appended to this letter, by the way,
You will find several others, sir which may
Prove of some use to you when you make port,
Both in Calcutta and at the Nabob’s court
Where if you thrive you may advance my plan.
—We painters have to live as best we can—)
In all I wish you, sir, every success.
I, when I shall arrive there, hope no less.
Now for those other tentative points you raise:
Since fashions pass as fleeting as our days,
And not more here than in the ‘Changeless East’,
Since Calicut is your entry, there at least
You must meet all the pundits, I agree;
Without them you may whistle for a fee.
But having done so, if I may suggest,
You would do well to move then north or west.
I have intelligence lately from a Friend,
In Lucknow there’s a prince he can commend,
Asuf-Ud-Daula, the great Nabob of Oudh,
A friend to painters, rich and well endowed
With taste and judgement, affable and kind.
I have his princely patronage in mind
If I return to India, as I may.
Should you in turn be minded to repay
This trifling service, recommend me too,
And I should be beholden then to you!
Pray be so civil, too, should fortune smile
On your endeavours to let me know meanwhile
If you should find, may I be bold to add,
In these lean years so ruled by whim and fad,
Portraits in crayon, miniature and wash,
Genres confused in one absurd mish-mash,
If, as I say, you chance to hit upon
Some corner of painting we could call our own,
Some genuine but exotic genre where
We could restore our fortunes and repair
Our damaged reputations in Bengal.
Your letter raised this topic, I recall
At least one line that has occurred to me.
Ten years ago, in seventeen seventy three,
I viewed some specimens of Indian art.
A Gentoo friend of mine, obliged to part
With his collection, offered them to me.
An odd, untutored art, you would agree,
Innocent of perspective, limited
In colour and design, when all was said,
Yet with a native charm that might appeal
To our new connoisseurs for whom the real
Authentic rendering of nature you
Have found, as I have, will no longer do.
That was ten years ago, but I suggest
You scan the scene now, put it to the test
And, if the scheme shows possibilities,
Then let me join you in the enterprise.
The world is all before us, where to choose,
As Milton says, then why not the Hindoos?

III

Lord Macartney at Madras to William Dunkin in Calcutta 23 August 1783

The bearer of this letter which I send
By him is Baron Zoffany, my friend
The painter. (You may know him by repute.)
He is, I warrant you, without dispute
The greatest painter ever visited
These shores. He comes indeed to earn his bread
And will be grateful, as I shall be too,
For such civilities and help as you
Put in his way, as well I know you can.
An easy, well-informed, agreeable man,
So you will find him. It occurs to me,
As your great folks are soon to put to sea,
(And Mrs Warren Hastings first to sail)
An introduction there might well avail
To do her credit and advance his own.
(There’s nothing like a notice from the Throne.)
In any case, sir, I rely on you;
In this back-water, what else can one do?
Your governor-general exerts his sway
Here in Madras and also in Bombay.
With times so changed, what boots it to rebel?
I look to be relieved soon, sir.
Farewell.

IV

John Zoffany to Tilly Kettle

November 1786

From your last letter, sir, I have no doubt
That you must soon be ready to set out.
Your friends here, English, Muslim and Hindoo
Who keep your memory green, will welcome you
And I, I own look forward for my part
To some good talk about the painter’s art.
—In Europe there’s too much of this, I know—
In India one paints in vacuo.
The common run of men, I am afraid,
Have but two interests, politics and trade;
And in high circles or at a nabob’s court
Next come cock-fighting, hunting and such sport.
And, though I have not met with a rebuff,
Your great folks here, it would be true enough
To say, will hire a painter much as we
In Europe hire a tradesman, for a fee.
That genial, easy friendship we have known
‘Twixt artists and their patron still goes on,
But what it lacks is knowledge, vision, taste.
So what I long for most and come by least
Is talk with fellow craftsmen, heart-to-heart,
Technical chat with which we season art.
The prospect of your coming, I confess,
I view with more than usual eagerness.
As for my coming, thanks to your advice
My fortunes still continue on the rise.
But though I prosper greatly, to be sure,
My reputation rests on portraiture.
However in our earlier exchange
I said I meant then to extend my range.
India, in fact, soon caught me in her spell.
Mughal and English rule are very well,
But Hindoo India is my delight.
I fell in love, I told you, at first sight,
And since then I have painted not a few
Scenes of their life, studied their customs too,
Their legends, their religion and their law,
Their art, to which you once referred before,
And on that subject, here’s an anecdote
Touching that Gentoo friend of whom you wrote.
Fired by your tale, I had enquiries made
And within days received a visit, paid
By the same man, with the same paintings too,
Which some years since he swore he offered you;
And, though he came mysteriously by night,
Each painting seemed to glow with its own light,
Though how this came about I could not guess.
And, though he seemed in manner speech and dress
An ordinary, civil, high-caste Hindoo,
There was a strangeness in our interview
To which in my conclusion I return.
He questioned me of you with some concern
Then showed his paintings one by one to me.
“Our native view of art, you will agree
Is so unlike yours, both in form and style
That I was pleased,” he added with a smile,
“To learn of your enquiries. What I show
I offered Mr Kettle some time ago.
Your painter friend envinced some interest,
But I could see he was not much impressed.
I was at fault, of course. I should have known
Such art must seem naïve beside his own,
Nor could he hope to grasp the inward sense
Of legends not in his experience,
Yet charged with sacred awe for a Hindoo.
I shall not err in the same way with you,
But will narrate to you the general theme,
Next touch the sensual, shape the painter’s dream,
And only then lead to technique and style.
I trust that you will bear with me the while.”
I nodded; he placed a painting in my hand.
“This is Lord Krishna. You should understand
He is with us a most belovèd god,
But mischievous; his conduct may seem odd
To your view of a great divinity,
But he’s a god of herdsmen too, and he
Shares in their rustic life and sense of fun,
Of which the scene depicted here is one.”
I looked. The painting showed a charming scene:
Crouched in a river or on a strip of green
That bordered it a group of women stood
Stark naked and implored the seated god
Who, from the bough of a Kadamba tree,
Watched them, their filched clothes draped across his
knee.
I asked then, “why is he depicted blue?”
“That shows he is a god to a Hindoo.
You see the naked girls, the god, the tree;
Now I must tell you what you do not see
For in our art, on that all all else depends,
The visible being a means to other ends.
Life is a book of pictures. What they mean
Is hid but leads the mind to things unseen,
Which grow to further meanings day by day.
We educate our children in this way
And I shall lead you now as they are led:
The legend first and, that interpreted,
One after one the higher truths emerge.

Lord Krishna grazing cattle on the verge
Of the Jamuna’s banks, himself concealed,
Saw from the village through a sunlit field,
The fair milk-maids of Vraja all come down
To bathe themselves and each take off her gown
And leave it, plunging in the shallow stream
To splash and frolic there. It was a dream
Of loveliness to which, although not blind,
The god unseen, to mischief more inclined,
Stole up and took their clothes and climbed the tree
And watched to learn what their response would be.
Leaving the pool in ravishing nakedness,
Each found her water-pot but not her dress.
They searched the banks enquiring why and how?
Till, spying the god perched smiling on the bough,
All in a flurry of pale limbs, like a school
Of fish plunged back and sheltered in the pool.
From there they prayed the god they all adore,
The young, the graceful Krishna, to restore
Their garments and have pity on their shame,
But he refused unless each singly came
Stark from the water and made good her claim.
And though they pleaded for their modesty,
Still smiling, Krishna still refused their plea,
Till each came forth in turn and chose her dress.
Lord Krishna then, pitying their distress,
And pleased with their compliance, as a boon
Said he would meet them at the autumn moon
And dance with each in secret and alone
Knowing, for their desires to him were known,
That each was filled with longing for his embrace,
Then turned and drove his cattle from the place.
Autumn came on and Krishna kept his word:
Through all the moonlit plain his flute was heard.
Hearing those notes that rain like silver fire,
Their hearts enslaved by passionate desire
And yearning for Lord Krishna, driven wild,
Each milk-maid leaves her home, her man, her child
And running towards the flute’s insistent plea
Finds the god dancing to its melody.
The flute plays on alone. Now face to face
Each knows the ecstacy of his embrace
And all night, till the moon at last is down,
She dances and makes love with him alone.

Now, sir, that is the tale we love and know.
It tells more than the brush itself can show;
But what it does not tell, you must find out.
You think it a crude folk-tale now, no doubt,
Pointless, perhaps, and unbecoming and odd
To all your Western notions of a god.
But to us Hindoos here, it has an end
Beyond itself and meanings which extend
Up to the heights of man’s philosophy
Here is a simple one for you to see:
You are a painter. Let this myth impart
A parable of the artist and his art
And those who view his work; but it is true
Of the composer and the poet too.
As the god had to see the milk-maids nude
In absolute nakedness, the poet should
View nature, see into the heart of things
And show them to themselves in all he sings.
And as the milk-maids danced for him alone,
Each poem is a tryst with the unknown;
Naked we meet him in his nakedness:
The divine music asks of us no less,
Till we become the melody within.
Now, if you think this way, you may begin
To see our Indian painting with new eyes.”

He paused and smiled and then, to my surprise
Holding me with his gaze, it seemed he grew
Larger and all his body turned dark blue.
You will scarce credit this, but, sir, I swear
Quite suddenly, he was no longer there
And all the sounds of night and man were mute
Except the faint strains of a distant flute.

The paintings, I should add, remain with us,
Which, at your coming, I hope we may discuss
Unless you think this land has turned my head
As it is apt to do,
Your friend, J. Z.

V

Mrs Mary Kettle to John Zoffany

It is sir, my unhappy task to state:
Your letter to my husband came too late.
He had set off about the time you wrote,
Having resolved to travel, not by boat,
As being a queasy traveller, by sea
And his health poor at best. Parting from me,
He took a course through Europe overland
And reached Aleppo. News just come to hand
Tells of his death there. Why or how, to know
We wait for fresh intelligence. And so
Enclosed I send your letter back again.
My service to your honour,
I remain
Yours truly,
Mary Kettle.
If I learn
More details you shall have them by return.

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