The most celebrated Bengali poet, playwright, novelist and thinker, Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings have long been an enigma to many. If they have commanded attention of a select few, their visual verve and newness failed to generate appreciation among the vast majority of his followers. Though on the buoyant global art market, his works now command hefty amount whenever they go under the hammer. Mustafa Zaman attempts to trace Rabindranath’s achievements by pointing out the pertinent issues that had guided the poet towards painting.
Painting visually and psychically
An autodidact, poet Rabindranath Tagore left behind some three thousand works of art, worked on mostly between 1924 and 1940. They are source of enigma for many, while there are others who place them on the mantle of his highest achievements. If the six-year long preoccupation was his final phase that saw him emerge as an artist, there were early efforts that laid the ground for such fertile intervention. Beginning at the age of sixty-three, the poet plunged into regular art-making to take the initial doodling that began while he was on a cruise to South America in 1924 to a fully fledged language of expression. Though, at home, reception was mixed as some lauded his effort as ‘pure visual’ experience while others thought they lacked professional attitude, since they hardly ever negotiated verisimilitude, or artistic acumen achieved through rigorous practice in life drawing.
Before even contemplating experiment in image-making, Rabindranath also went through a learning phase in his youth. The young poet, in his formative years at Jorasanko, tried to achieve good likeness while painting portraits of his family members, including that of his artistically gifted nephew Abanindranath. In an article in Marg in 1961, Mulk Raj Anand wrote, ‘[I]n 1890, he had filled a whole copybook with sketches. And, in April 1909, he had secretively shown the painter, Mukul Dey, some head and figure studies.’
In a cover piece titled Master of Arts, the Sunday supplement of the London Observer, in August 1986, once defended the merit of Rabindranath’s works. The poet’s serious engagement, from the time of his early studies to the creative spurt in September 1924 that inspired him to veer into the realm of art for the next sixteen years, testified to his devotion to art. After the initial hesitation, expressed in his letters, the poet could set out to make images in his own terms.
Before one even casts a position vis-a-vis the sizable corpus the poet developed in his later life, one needs to keep in mind that Rabindranath’s position was that of an ‘outsider’. What followed in the form of abstract, absurd, and even animistic imageries, could easily have established him as an ‘outrider’ in his motherland, had the cognoscenti been responsive to his bold innovations. The unresponsiveness of the art-literary elite was undoubtedly due to his negation of both English academic art connected to verisimilitude and the Bengal School’s quaint style that sought to revive Mughal and Rajput trajectories.
That Rabindranath Tagore took painting up as regular pursuit at the age of sixty-three is an indication that he was compelled to take to paint and brush, since confidence was never in short supply.
Yeras ago, in letters written to his dear ones, including his daughter-in-law, he expressed dissatisfaction over what transpired in the then Calcutta art scene in the name Indian art. By that time, his approbation of the Bengal school, developed by Abanindranath Tagore with obvious references to classical Indian schools, simply evaporated. The poet was rather disappointed over what he himself dubbed as the re-production of ‘ancient conventions’ while the artists accepted the ‘condition to remain enclosed like a cattle in a shed.’ On his first visit to Japan, the poet wrote back to his daughter-in-law at home out of despair: ‘I am not a painter, but if I were one I would have shown them what a painter is all about.’
After this comment, Rabindranath had to wait about a decade to begin painting. The poet had the ‘will’ but the gestation period was rather long. In the words of artist Paritosh Sen, the desire to paint ‘must have lain dormant in him for nearly seven decades.’ When finally the moment arrived in 1924, the first fruitions came in the form of doodle into the pages of Purabi manuscript.
Soon, Rabindranath would start to produce stand-alone paintings. We may describe this impassioned process as an effort on his part to ‘lift the corner of the holy shroud’ that covered his literary personality since in his painting he successfully unveiled the unconscious. Whereas, if his literary corpuses are to be judged in relation to his phantasmagorical imageries, life’s dark mysteries had had no place at all, those that we often assign to the ‘unconscious’.
With painting, for the first time in the poet’s life, the ‘irrational’ was externalised and formed into imageries. Watercolour, pastel and even pen on paper were among the bare means Rabibdranath used to extraordinary effect, often unveiling emotions and ideas that usually remain hidden in the deeper recesses of the psyche.
‘The literary intelligentsia sniggered behind his back. And the doyens of Bengal school turned away, as though from a madman. The orthodox leaders said that the old man was playing childish prank,’ this is how Mulk Raj Ananad summed up the reaction at home via Marq. However, the west would soon be won by the edgy expressiveness of his work.
Doodles metamorphosed into art
When Bengal’s first internationally famous, globetrotting poet began to churn out paintings, it surprised many. Some even thought it to be a futile exercise, as the form of expression itself was enigmatic, if not exotic, to have eluded the radar of the cognoscenti. But, one needs to pay attention to how the ground had been prepared before he began to make a stab at art-making.
Rabindranath had already visited the cultural centres of the modern world, including London and Paris, and was exposed to Cubist and Expressionist art. The poet, one can assume, had also experienced the European modern art in Calcutta, when a Bauhaus exhibition travelled to his hometown in 1922. Works by Kandinsky and Klee must have come to the notice of the poet. The work of Klee did not escape the attention of the poet — Rabindranath had occasions to spare compliments for the latter artist for his unique calligraphic abstraction.
Additionally, the poet was also exposed to Oceanic art, though in reproduction. On his way to Argentina, he had with him a book on Oceanic culture. This was also the time the poet began what can also be described as a phantasmagoric journey by turning his corrections in Purabi manuscript into images. Through doodling, he arrived at imageries of fantastic creatures and nondescript forms. Once back from his sojourn in South America, painting became a daily habit, which continued for the next few years.
He began to paint what he himself once referred to as ‘daily wonder’, the primary source of which was nature. While his exploration into art commenced unrestrained, since he had no academic background, admirers in the literary circle were left wondering about their revered gurudev’s debunking of the ‘polite’ expressions that his literature was replete with. The painter Rabindranath introduced an ‘uncanny’ beauty and a world of imagination where ‘udbhat’ or the uncanny ‘rash’ (rasa in Sanskrit) was regularly invoked. His vision in art can thus be defined as that of a primordialist. It is a well-known fact that German Expressionism, Klee’s modern primitivism, appealed to him.
The poet-painter had once speculated that, ‘[I]f by chance they [pictures] are entitled to claim recognition, it must be primarily for some rhythmic significance of form which is ultimate, and not for any interpretation of idea or representation of fact.’ The total disregard for anatomy was thus intentional.
His works are less about their formal qualities (and had least to do with ‘ideal form’) than about the rasas they are infused with. His humans and animals were envisioned without conforming them to external dictates.
The poet himself once attempted to put his creative phase in content, he wrote: This is the meaning of the poet’s vision of the ancient Aegean shore, where the heartbeat of the sea, when he realised that his experience of ages, and the eternity of Man in him, was awakened to the tremendous cadence of the tide.’
What poet Bishnu Dey once described in his literature as ‘something delicate, well-mannered, spiritual, somewhat aristocratic and a little Tennysonian,’ was thus overturned in paintings.
With the images he made, ‘nicety’ or ‘refinement’ was the last thing in his mind. Though doubts about his own ability persisted and in many an occasion he often expressed his inadequacy about the craft of painting, the ‘torrent of imageries’ that followed after the initial spurt, earned him many an admirer, including Victoria Ocampo, the Argentine writer and intellectual. Ocampo inspired the poet to pursue art during the poet’s convalescence in Buenos Aires. Following a doctor’s advice he had halt at Buenos Aires while he was on his way to Peru in November of 1924. Ocampo was also instrumental in organising an exhibition in Paris.
A series of international shows followed, after the Ocampo-organised exhibition at gallery Pigalle in Paris, in 1930. It also occasioned a travelling spree — the poet turned painter 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’. The recognition and he took to painting more self-consciously.
Beyond the ordinary
At one point in his life, Rabindranath Tagore felt that ‘art is a way for the human to attain completeness [of being]’. To exted on this concept one can also fall back on another quote culled from his conversation with Rani Chanda, which, in turn, makes clear the strong romantic urge for the creation of the ‘other’ he felt in him:
‘What is present in front of the eyes is never sufficient. One must witness something out of the ordinary; together they form the whole.’
This romantic longing for ‘transcendence’ and ‘otherness’, which completes the circle of the ‘whole’, is the frame through which we may seek to fix a gaze while attempting to examine the most celebrated Bengali poet’s visual output. However, at the same time, one must be vigilant of the fact that the idealist poet’s art is a departure from the convention of idealism that was the guiding spirit behind his vast literary repertoire.
Rabindranath simply assigned separate values and responsibilities to art and became a ‘vampiristic threat’ to the national, rational as well as etiquette art. If the works are seen in the light new rasas, or sensibilities or ‘sensible ideas’, to use poet-painter’s own phrase, they tapped the most unexplored aspects of art. Ranging from the grotesque to the burlesque, from the absurd to the extra-sensuous, everything was now out in the open for all to see.
Though he was unresponsive to red, could not see red since childhood as he suffered from a form of protanopia, Rabindranth’s works gleam with colours, including red. The darkness that manifests effectuates a noir sensibility, thereby lending a nervy quality to his art.
Burhanuddin Khan Jahangir, one of the most revered art critics of the country, once stated that the poet’s works came into being only when he decided to let the ‘satan’ in him express what lied within the depth of his mind. No reference to extraordinary rasas of primordial vision is found in such blatant misrepresentation of artistic sensibilities.
While trying to tease out meaning of the poet’s artistic creations, since he himself preferred not to attach much intellectual value to it, one may borrow a line from the Bolshevik poet of Russia, Alexendar Block. On the emergence of the New Man who must take over, Bloc defines him as ‘not the ethical, political or humanist being but, in the words of Wagner, the creative being, the artistic person, who alone will be capable of living life in the epoch of storm and whirlwind into which mankind has unwittingly jettisoned itself.’
In painter Rabindranath began to partake oneself of the ‘entirety’ of life with a sharper understanding that appearance was secondary and ‘reality was always in a state of flux, liable to change every other minute before our mortal gaze.’
It was WG Archer, who in a book titled ‘India and Modern Art’, first traced the influence of the unconscious on Rabindranath’s paintings. Archer’s article in Modern Review of Calcutta (January 1971), also pointed out that with art, Rabindranath Tagore went beyond the ‘humbug and adoration that surrounded him in Europe when he emerged on the international scene in flowing robe, bearded, looking like a prophet from the east.
There was, therefore, a vast gap between his words and the pictures,’ wrote Mulk Raj in the already-mentioned article of Marg. However, Rabindranath once insisted that there was a common factor between his poetry and his painting. In the foreword to the first catalogue, he wrote: The only training which I had from my young days, was the training in rhythm. I had come to know that rhythm gives reality to that which is desultory, which is insignificant in itself. And, therefore, when the scratches in my manuscript cried, like sinners, for salvation, and assailed my eyes with the ugliness of their irrelevance, I often took more time in rescuing them into a merciful finality of rhythm....’
In the introduction of Chitralipi, the book that showcased his art for the first time, the poet-painter wrote about how to reach what he referred to as ‘harmonious wholeness’. He went on to explain his art in relation to how the image leads us into our imagination. This is because it ‘neither questions our mind for meaning nor burden it with unmeaningness, for, it is above all, meaning. In the same write-up, in another passage, Rabindranath homes in on his inspiration: ‘God of my destiny has given me materials, for a grand finale.
Art for him was the grand finale. He had already penned his ambitious, somewhat satiric, novel, ‘Shesher Kabita’, and an investigation into nationalism in ‘Ghore Baire’, and needed to explore new territories.
On the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, there was worldwide avalanche of events ‘indicating a flush of interest in his paintings and graphical adventures,’ according an article in The Hindu on July 17, 2010, by Anananya Dutta.
For all Tagore’s fame as a poet, novelist, musician, playwright and philosopher, it was an exhibition of the paintings of the ‘accidental artist,’ opened by prime minister Manmohan Singh on May 9, that set the ball rolling, writes Dutta.
On the international scene, while Tagore buffs, including William Radice, who sought to ‘enhance the international understanding of his achievement’ in the literary circles across the world, 12 paintings of Tagore went under the hammer as a part of Sotheby’s annual auction of Indian art.
The auctioneers, according the Hindu article, described the works as ‘arguably the most important group of works by Tagore ever to appear at an auction.’
Way back in 1930, at the inauguration of his solo in Moscow, Rabindranath said: ‘My most intimate gifts to you are my pictures … Let me hope that my pictures will be messengers of thought between us and bring us close to each other on the plane of harmonious understanding.’
If the chasm between his literary realm and the art world seems irreconcilable, that is because of his rejection of typical features of Indian art. However, the language that he forged, however psychedelic, symbolic and suggestive of an otherworldly realm, also evoke lived experience. They also attest to his natural response to days and nights spent amidst the idyllic setting of Santiniketan. The wind that blows across many a landscape painting only seems ethereal, since the ‘energy and character’ he sought to achieve ‘according to his own ability in retail trade’, to use his unique phrase, lent it a universal dimension. The subjective and the objective came together in most of his paintings.
Cover image Rabibdranath Tagore by Dona Luisa Coomarswamy, 1930. Courtesy of the Paratapaditya Pal edited Marg publication on 150th birth anniversary of the poet.
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