Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath began to paint at a time when art and nationalism were closely linked in India. Abanindranath, his nephew, was at the height of his fame, though years had elapsed since his collaboration with E B Havel which resulted in the language of painting rooted in an Indian tradition considered to be of national significance. While Abanindranath's disciples were still preoccupied with the past glory of Indian art, seen mostly through the prism of nationalism, what proliferated at the behest of Rabindranath, a poet turned painter, exemplified a new beginning in the history of modern art in this region.
Interestingly, Rabindranath, before considering Indian art as a strand of the great Eastern trajectory only to have been preoccupied with Japanese ingenuity at a later date, had been an early champion of Raja Ravi Varma, a painter who had appropriated European naturalism with ease . However, as Abanindranath had been able to map a new direction in painting, they found an appreciative pair of eyes in Rabindranath -- the most enthusiastic denouncer of what we would now call cultural imperialism -- in art, as much as in any other area. He wrote:
'The humiliation constantly heaped upon us by people who had the habit of sharply diving the human world into the good and bad according to the hemisphere to which they belong…generated in our young men a distrust of all things that came to them as an inheritance from their past. The old Indian pictures and other works of art were laughed at by our students in imitation of the laughter of their European school masters of that age of philistinism.'
But sooner than most Rabindranath realized the lacuna in Indian artists' reaction to this humiliation and had to clarify his position by saying:
'When in the name of Indian art we cultivate with deliberate aggressiveness a certain bigotry born of the habit of a past generation, we smother our souls under the idiosyncrasies unearthed from buried centuries. These are like masks with exaggerated grimaces that fail to respond to the ever changing play of life.' ( letter to 'A', Drawings and Paintings of RT by Pritwish Neogy)
Naturally, when Rabindranath started painting he refused to be guided, or should one say, misguided by the internal limits of national cultural boundaries. He came to believe quite strongly that the cultural inheritance of the whole humankind is at the disposal of the artist and not just his own national heritage. His comment below is a clear testimony to such libertarian spirit:
'A sign of greatness in great geniuses is their enormous capacity for borrowing,' he wrote, 'very often without their knowing it; they have unlimited credit in the world market of cultures. Only mediocrities are ashamed of borrowing for they do not know how to pay back the debt in their own coin.'
So bringing his own paintings to the service of nationalism or patriotism was certainly not for him. His sources were as varied as alpana designs to Expressionism, Art Nouveau motifs to the art of Pacific islands. (plate 1)
It is common knowledge that Rabindranath started by playing with deletions and erasures in his manuscript (plate 2-4). These were prompted by a desire to rescue the pages of his manuscript from the ignominy of being filled with scars after thorough scratching and turn them into pleasant sights. The attempts soon took hold over him and these doodles had a way of joining up and taking a life of their own. The game of making a virtue out of the defect soon developed into a full-blown desire to paint and thus began his adventures into the realm of the visual.
Rabindranath had no formal training as an artist although as a young boy he did take some sort of drawing lessons as was expected from anyone of a cultivated family background. But his exposure to art, both traditional and modern, eastern and western, was considerable. Art was very much a part of the Tagore household and Abanindranath was a leading light. Rabindranath's extensive travels in both east and west familiarized him with the contemporary experiments in the early 20th century. In 1922, he took the initiative to organize the first ever exhibition of modern European art in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Avant-garde artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, Metzinger, Lyonel Feninger and Wyndham Lewis were shown in this historic exhibition. The exposure naturally encouraged Rabindranath's own efforts.
If we consider 1924 to be the year of the beginning of his doodling on the manuscript of Purabi when he was on his way to Argentina, or 1928 as the year when Tagore seriously takes up painting albeit as a 'timorous amateur', his maturation comes in a surprisingly short time. (plate 5) A series of international shows in 1930 that started in gallery Pigalle in Paris and went on a whirlwind twelve city tour covering London, Birmingham, Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Copenhagen, Geneva and Moscow in Europe and Boston, New York and Philadelphia across the Atlantic to critical acclaim, fuelled his confidence tremendously and he took to painting more self-consciously.
Tagore's mental sophistication and uncanny visual instinct transcends his technical limitations. His art is refreshingly free of literal allusions. Even in his illustrations for the whimsical children's story 'she' (titled 'He' in the English translation) the visuals are complimentary rather than merely illustrative (plate 6-7-8). One is tempted to assume that sometime the storyline follows the drawings rather than vice versa. These are also fine examples of the genre of the absurd although often the characters are based on real people that were known to the poet as well as Pupe for whom the narrative was initially meant.
Artist and writer K G Subramanyan has aptly pointed out that 'Tagore's work share the predicament of every artist who does not 'seek' but 'finds'; those in which he does not find the others feel likewise, are totally unrewarding, the rest compensate for these.' In this game of hit and miss the hits form a considerable body of work from among more than two thousand paintings that Rabindranath made, these are the ones that are of lasting value and I'm going to share some of my favourites with the august audience today.(plate 10)
Tagore's early interest in the unusual method of finding forms and shapes in a scratch or an ink blot, combined with his impatience to arrive at the final image quickly, would not let him rely on a traditional medium such as oil or tempera; instead he used water proof ink, pastels and at times thick gouache or opaque water colours. Quick-drying inks best suited his artistic temper. It helped to create a surface animation that is eccentric, vibrant and so personal that imitation of it is inconceivable. (plate 11-12-13)
Water proof ink has its own characteristics; it does not blend like water colours or oil but tends to leave hard edged brush marks. To overcome this requires layering. Layer upon layer of pigment, laid on with restlessness, nervousness mark a making that eventually builds into dazzling colours.
Overlaying a bright warm iridescent colour with darker transparent colour in such a way that the colour beneath shows through is a typical Tagorean device. Water proof ink lends itself to this effect particularly well, imparting the strange eerie glow, the light from within. (plate 13-14)
The landscapes, with their silhouetted trees set against an incandescent sky are mysterious partly because of the quality of light. It is either dawn or dusk, the times of the day that never ceases to make us wonder about the deeper reality of life. The dark clumps of primordial trees, the suggestion of a mountain, a glistening river, a ruined temple, all seen below a glowing sky, produce a sense of timelessness. Although the trees remain unnamable and these are not specific places they distill the essence and like a raga in music capture the emotion that nature evokes in us.
Rabindranath's flowers are not nature studies or 'still-life' studies in the strict sense of the word, but this does not mean none of the flowers are recognizable; they are known to us and yet unknown. A hibiscus, a tuberose, a cannas or flames of the forest in the paintings are useless to science and yet each blossoms with life.
The portraits too are rarely drawn directly from life, nevertheless, from the veiled ovoid female profiles, much commented upon for their so-called melancholy demeanour and perhaps the best known examples of his works, to the most grotesque heads or masks, there is everywhere the indelible stamp of his personality and an emotional charge. Myriad human emotion is touched upon. Even the birds and animals – both real and fantastic and composites – are not exempted. The sly fox, a brave cockerel, a guffawing creature and a grumpy scowling one, all have definitive characters.
Architecture or elements of it also plays a vital part in a considerable number of works. At Santiniketan, under Tagore's patronage, a fusion of styles was attempted in search of the new Indian architectural language. The five different houses built for him by Surendranath Kar and others, eclectically incorporated structural elements from Ajanta cave pillars, Chaitya doorways, Mughal 'chhatris' and even the modest village mud-hut. The results were often eccentric amalgams and not always functional. Nevertheless the spirit behind this surge of experimentation tells us much about its patron. It finds its way into his paintings quite directly.
The architectural configurations are a bit like stage sets, which is perhaps to be expected given that theatre was yet another area where the Tagore family were pioneers and plenty of experimentation was happening in Santiniketan itself. Rabindranath himself being both an accomplished playwright and actor, many of these works seem overtly theatrical. The exaggerated gestures and strange costumes of the figures only add to this impression. These could well have been illustrations of the plays and dance dramas he had written but they are not. These remain enigmatic performances in the drama of the bizarre.
Coming back to portraits, Rabindranath's adaptations of his rather official-looking photograph that appeared on the cover of the birthday number of Visva-Bharati news in 1934 remain a favourite of mine. In some of these scribbles done on off prints of the cover, he remains more or less himself albeit with some changes but in others he transforms into different personalities altogether, in one instance into a woman almost parodying his own painting of the veiled women. This playfulness with his mechanically reproduced likeness at one level is just that -- playfulness. But I would like to believe there is a bit more to it. The huge pressures of public life could possibly have created a desire to escape and transform into different personalities, even changing the gender, at a most private moment of play. The wistful chameleon-like behaviour could be an expression of an urge to slip out of his own image. The self-mockery is unmistakable, all the more so because it is done on a serious looking photograph printed in the official journal to celebrate the important occasion of the 73rd birthday of 'Gurudev', as he was popularly known in his close circle.
There is a passage in 'She' ('He' in English translation) where this self-mocking tone at his own busy schedule is self evident, '…since then I have become member of twenty five societies. I am now the professional president of every organization in Bengal; The old music board, The water hyacinth eradication society, The undertakers club, The literature reformation society, the union of the three Chandidas's organization, The board of marketing research on sugarcane refuse, The society of refurbishing Khana's property at Khannan, The committee for defending the right to grow facial hair, the list is endless. Moreover, requests are pouring in: to write a forward of a book on Tetanus, and an introduction to “New Math”, to send my blessings to the author of a book on 'Bhababhuti in Bhubandanga', to suggest a suitable name for the new-born baby of a forest official in Rawalpindi; to send a note of appreciation for a new shaving soap' and then finally, 'to write my own experience of taking a drug to cure insanity.'
It stands to reason that a man of his stature and standing on whom everyone seemed to have a claim often felt a desire to slip out of his skin and into someone else's at will.
Here, I would like to digress a little and tell you about the experience of my young friend Soumik (Nandi Majumdar) in Santiniketan who ventured to expose school children to the paintings of Rabindranath. He just published his findings in a small booklet called 'Chhobi Dekchhi' or 'Looking at Pictures'. The initial reactions of the kids were of disbelief that Rabindranath, the poet they know of, also painted. Nobody told them that. When they finally accepted the fact and stopped giggling at the child-like manner of painting they really started looking. This experiment was more about exposing children to visuals but there is a reaction that might be of particular interest to us. When shown one of the portraits, one child quite perceptively comments that he looks sad because the world was in trouble. Considering that these were painted in or post 1934 it is not an altogether implausible interpretation, the world was indeed troubled and was hurtling towards the World War II.
The prevailing Victorian prudishness of his milieu as well as Tagore's own extreme delicacy about matters sexual ensured that it was left almost unspoken in his literature. In art, however, Rabindranath was to deal with nudity and eroticism in a far more frank way. It had no place amongst the Bengal revivalists, although a thinly veiled eroticism can be found in their works, often carefully disguised in mythological garb. Life drawing classes were part of the art school curriculum and a few painters did paint nudes in the British academic tradition, but by and large female nudity, let alone male nudity, was left aside.
The nudes that appear in Rabindranath's oeuvre are not many but they are nakedly unsentimental and without bashfulness. There is nothing comparable in contemporary Indian art with the bare breasted frontality of the woman.
There is another work that shows the bare female torso merging with a piece of Rabindrik furniture; a cross between an easy-chair and a grand piano. The flowing curve of the furniture strangely and sensually extends the eroticism of the human figure. The tension between the two -- the animate and the inanimate -- is finely balanced. The darkness that hides the face is not a void but teems with suggestive power. The darkness is crucial in many of Tagore's paintings. Besides, setting off the colours and delineation of form it enhances the mystery, as the dark corners of the stage enhance a performance, eloquent in their silence.
In sum, Rabindranath's paintings and drawings defy classification, they cannot be bracketed either as simply 'naïve' or 'expressionistic', 'Indian' or 'western'. His position in the pantheon of Indian modernism remains unique. He was a modernist but not in the strict western sense of the word. What he was arguing for was a non hierarchical dialogue between cultures. He wrote: '[T]rue modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters.' In the final analysis he remains an Indian modernist more Indian than perhaps many who professed nationalism as their avowed goal. Rabindranath had the light and its source was within.
I will end with oft quoted Nandalal Bose, who amongst his contemporaries understood the true worth of Tagore's impulsive art and wrote in 1936, 'We need to re-educated, as it were, into the fundamental values of art, and none can do it better than he who is creating before our very eyes, forms whose originality baffles our classifications, and whose vigour compels the admiration of the artist … If Rabindranath seems rough and destructive, it is because he is breaking ground anew for us, that our future flowers may be more surely assured of their sap.'
Indrapramit Roy is a writer and researcher based in Baroda, India and teaches at the University of Baroda.
INDRAPRAMIT ROY is a writer and researcher based in Baroda, India and teaches at the University of Baroda