It is disconcerting to hear of the plaid in India. Our dyes, we know, they use in the silk mills of Bombay, with the deplorable result that their old clothes are dull and unintentionally falsified with infelicitous decay. The Hindus are a washing people; and the sun and water that do but dim, soften, and warm the native vegetable dyes to the last, do but burlesque the aniline. Magenta is bad enough when it is itself; but the worst of magenta is that it spoils but poorly. No bad modern forms and no bad modern colours spoil well. And spoiling is an important process. It is a test—one of the ironical tests that come too late with their proofs. London portico-houses will make some such ruins as do chemical dyes, which undergo no use but derides them, no accidents but caricature them. This is an old enough grievance. But the plaid!
The plaid is the Scotchman’s contribution to the decorative art of the world. Scotland has no other indigenous decoration. In his most admirable lecture on “The Two Paths,” Ruskin acknowledged, with a passing misgiving, that his Highlanders had little art. And the misgiving was but passing, because he considered how fatally wrong was the art of India—“it never represents a natural fact. It forms its compositions out of meaningless fragments of colour and flowings of line … It will not draw a man, but an eight-armed monster; it will not draw a flower, but only a spiral or a zig-zag.” Because of this aversion from Nature the Hindu and his art tended to evil, we read. But of the Scot we are told, “You will find upon reflection that all the highest points of the Scottish character are connected with impressions derived straight from the natural scenery of their country.”
What, then, about the plaid? Where is the natural fact there? If the Indian, by practising a non-natural art of spirals and zig-zags, cuts himself off “from all possible sources of healthy knowledge or natural delight,” to what did the good and healthy Highlander condemn himself by practising the art of the plaid? A spiral may be found in the vine, and a zig-zag in the lightning, but where in nature is the plaid to be found? There is surely no curve or curl that can be drawn by a designing hand but is a play upon some infinitely various natural fact. The smoke of the cigarette, more sensitive in motion than breath or blood, has its waves so multitudinously inflected and reinflected, with such flights and such delays, it flows and bends upon currents of so subtle influence and impulse as to include the most active, impetuous, and lingering curls ever drawn by the finest Oriental hand—and that is not a Hindu hand, nor any hand of Aryan race. The Japanese has captured the curve of the section of a sea-wave—its flow, relaxation, and fall; but this is a single movement, whereas the line of cigarette-smoke in a still room fluctuates in twenty delicate directions. No, it is impossible to accept the saying that the poor spiral or scroll of a human design is anything but a participation in the innumerable curves and curls of nature. Now the plaid is not only “cut off” from natural sources, as Ruskin says of Oriental design—the plaid is not only cut off from nature, and cut off from nature by the yard, for it is to be measured off in inorganic quantity; but it is even a kind of intentional contradiction of all natural or vital forms. And it is equally defiant of vital tone and of vital colour. Everywhere in nature tone is gradual, and between the fainting of a tone and the failing of a curve there is a charming analogy. But the tartan insists that its tone shall be invariable, and sharply defined by contrasts of dark and light. As to colour, it has colours, not colour.
But that plaid should now go so far afield as to decorate the noble garment of the Indies is ill news. True, Ruskin saw nothing but cruelty and corruption in Indian life or art; but let us hear an Indian maxim in regard to those who, in cruel places, are ready sufferers: “There,” says the Mahabharata, “where women are treated with respect, the very gods are said to be filled with joy. Women deserve to be honoured. Serve ye them. Bend your will before them. By honouring women ye are sure to attain to the fruition of all things.” And the rash teachers of our youth would have persuaded us that this generous lesson was first learnt in Teutonic forests!
Nothing but extreme lowliness can well reply, or would probably be suffered to reply, to this Hindu profession of reverence. Accordingly the woman so honoured makes an offering of cakes and oil to the souls of her mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, and great-grandmother-in-law, in gratitude for their giving her a good husband. And to go back for a moment to Ruskin’s contrast of the two races, it was assuredly under the stress of some too rash reasoning that he judged the lovely art of the East as a ministrant to superstition, cruelty, and pleasure, whether wrought upon the temple, the sword, or the girdle. The innocent art of innocent Hindu women for centuries decked their most modest heads, their dedicated and sequestered beauty, their child-loving breasts, and consecrated chambers.
We must have an object to refer our reflections to, or they will seldom go below the surface.
Quotidiana is an online anthology of "classical" essays, from antiquity to the early twentieth century. All essays and images are in the public domain. Commentaries are copyrighted, but may be used with proper attribution. Special thanks to the BYU College of Humanities and English Department for funding, and to Joey Franklin and Lara Burton, for tireless research assisting.