Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore as a progressive artist

New Delhi, May 10 (Calcutta Tube) Art for Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore was the final extension of his literature, beginning at a point when he wanted to express himself in a more creative way at the age of 67. One hundred and fifty years after his birth, he still retains pride of place as one of the founders of the progressive art movement in India.

He devised a new language for contemporary art in the first decade of the 20th century, freeing it from the colonial stranglehold.

In an essay in 1926 (Art and Tradition), Tagore spoke about his journey away from nationalism in aesthetics to a more independent terrain saying, ‘When in the name of Indian art, we cultivate a certain bigotry born of the habit of a past generation, we smother our soul under idiosyncrasies that fail to respond to the ever-changing play of life.’

Born in 1861 on the Indian calendar date of ‘Pochishe Boishakh’ – which falls May 9 this year – Tagore the youngest of 14 children of the clan, was inspired by sketches made by his elder brother Jyotirindranath, a gifted artist.

The images lingered in his mind and for the last 23 years of his life, the poet and novelist devoted himself to mastering techniques of water colour, gouache, tempera and mixed media of ink, etchings, oil and pencils to create an eclectic body of art that included doodles, scratch art, word art (suggestive of colours), visages, figures, wildlife and naturescapes.

‘Of all the artists, the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s emergence as a painter is the stuff that myths are made of. At the age of 67, his artistic impulses suddenly broke all barriers and flowered like a restless stream reflecting many moods,’ says eminent art writer and critic Ella Dutta.

His figurative compositions were characterised by a mute almost dull but varied colour palette, long, ovoid and gaunt faces of women with linear bodies, mysterious forests, exotic birds, animals, plural spaces suggestion assimilations from cultures, complex spiral forms that sometimes arose from a jumble of irrelevant words.

At a historic exhibition in Paris May 5-May 19, 1930, duchess Anna de Noailles, in her opening remark on Tagore’s paintings, described them as, ‘To me, it is like climbing a staircase of dreamland’.

Artist Mukul Dey, who sponsored one of Tagore’s exhibitions and photo-documented his art, reminisces in one of his articles, ‘Exactly 22 months before his Gallery Pigalle exhibition, Tagore had stayed at 28 Chowringhee Road in Calcutta (which happened to be his residence) and … absolutely immersed himself in his paintings and if not more – completed 126 works.’

The exhibition of Tagore’s art in Paris was followed by expositions in England, Denmark, Sweden, Rome, Germany, Russia and Europe. Calcutta (Kolkata), his home turf, hosted the show a year later in 1931.

Tagore’s paintings, say historians, created a flutter in Germany drawing visitors like scientist Albert Einstein.

Writes Debashish Banerjee, ‘The Jorasanko family culture in the mid-19th century offers an interesting example of the operation of the Bourdieu’s theory of toxic practise.

‘Subjective autonomy, critical consciousness and democratic openness to the ‘other’, enlightenment constructs of liberty in the public space of modernity were pressed into close relocation with the affective density – and the dialogic and dynamic co-constitution of taste, fantasy and understanding of Bengali village community.’ It brought out the soul of Bengal in his art.

In 1913, Tagore landed at the Chicago Art Institute Armoury show with 1,600 exhibits and researched a gamut of modern masters from the impressionists to Marcel Duchamp. Tagore’s visit to the British Museum exposed him to primitive art – which he later encountered in Indonesia, China and US. The exposure – followed by several more thereafter – imbued his compositions with mystical aura.

Tagore identified with the world in colours. His art verged on the abstract inspired by surrealism, expressionism and post-modern impressionism practised by the early 20th century masters in Europe in America.

‘The world speaks to me in colours; my soul answers in music,’ was his oft refrain.

–Indo-Asian New Service


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