Timeless Tagores

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SUBTLE Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Landscape’. Photo by author

He was untrained as an artist but belonged to the distinguished Tagore family of Jorsanko, North Calcutta which, through three generations of intense creative activity, fostered a new Bengali culture in the late 18th century. 

The amazing artistic experiments of a single family — which had philosophers, poets, playwrights and artists amongst its distinguished sons and daughters — were nurtured by the cultural stirrings that began in Bengal towards the end of the 18th century. The search for a new political, social and cultural identity had a profound impact on the
Tagore family. Added to this ferment, there was the influence of the awakening national consciousness. Rabindranath’s individual genius, as also those of his nephews Gaganendranath and Abanindranath, were rooted in this milieu but were also stimulated by the dynamics and expressions of the different cultures of the world.

Now, in a fitting tribute to the impact of the illustrious trio on modern Indian visual culture, an exhibition titled Circle of Art: The Three Tagores, as part of Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations, is being shown at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi till June 15. While over 200 works by the three masters of Bengal School — who along with Raja Ravi Varma, Nandalal Bose, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sailoz Mukherjea figure in the list of India’s national treasures — have been part of the NGMA collection since late 50s, it is this tenderly curated show by Ella Dutta, a Tagore National Research Fellow at NGMA, that puts back the spotlight on their individual styles and their search for a new visual language in the backdrop of a growing nationalist movement of pre-independence.

Says Ella Datta, “What prompted us to mount this exhibition was the need to highlight the creative milieu that nurtured the three geniuses. NGMA has an admirable collection of works by the three artists but not many people have seen these works.”

It took over six months for Datta to select the 111 works that are now on display in different sections —- portraits and head studies, landscapes, animals, theatre and fantasy —- while choosing evocative text from books written on the artists, famous quotes by well-known people on the pioneers and rare photographs that add admirably to the show. 

The curator has made sure that some of the rarely seen masterpieces by the three Tagores are part of the exhibit — the section devoted to portraits and head studies being the most fascinating of the lot. Looking at Rabindranath’s dark, brooding head studies of unknown faces “that he mostly painted out of imagination with rhythmic brush strokes that are strong and intense”, it is hard to believe that he had no formal training in art. “And yet he created such powerful imagery in merely coloured ink,” says Datta, “Abanindranath’s style is more subtle and softer.”

In fact, it is Abanindranath’s delicate studies of family members, of a young Mahatma Gandhi, and even of his uncle Rabindranath dressed as a baul singer, that bring into light his comfort with the miniature style of Mughal art. At the time Rabindranath blossomed as an artist to reckon with in 1928 — painting images laden with memory and fantasy and using every available paper in coloured ink, crayon and gouache with frenzy — Abanindranath was already a well-established painter and writer. Unlike his uncle and elder brother Gaganendranath, Abanindranath had formal training in art from Olinto Ghilardi and Charles Palmer, but was instinctively drawn towards the delicacy and subtlety of Mughal miniatures and to the wash and calligraphy technique that he learned from visiting Japanese artists.

In the late twenties of the last century, when Rabindranath poured out haunting images from the deep recesses of his imagination, Abanindranath had emerged from his nationalist phase and was painting portraits of people, both historical and imaginary. He was also painting landscapes and images of animals and birds.

Gaganendranath, also a photographer of repute, on the other hand, painted for his own pleasure and attempted a wide range of subjects, from satirical caricatures of the society of his times that was changing under a western influence, theatre sets that he designed for uncle Rabindranath’s plays and landscape studies that utilised the effect created by light and shade. Some works that stand out for the playfulness with which Gaganendranath approaches his subjects are ‘Ball Room Dance’ (ink and watercolour on paper) and ‘Chemical Scream: Out Damned Spot Out I Say’, the latter being a cartoon of a Bengali chemist trying to work with a special ink.

The technique of photography, in fact, is most evident in Gaganendranath’s semi-abstract, geometric work of a “seemingly cubist nature”, especially in those paintings inspired by their famous house of Jorsanko — now a museum and gallery — which was a melting pot of creativity, every member of the large joint family being involved in literature, philosophy, music, dance and visual arts. A few portions of the house, mainly the staircase and the rooftop, also emerge in some of his paintings like ‘Twilight’ and ‘Meeting At The Staircase’. 

“It is because of this influence that I decided to put up old photographs of the house as well. The house played an important part in their lives,” says Datta.
Interestingly, although the three Tagores were open to influences of other art traditions — in one of Rabindranath’s work titled ‘Vase’, one can see a Chinese influence of totemic, primitive art — they were rooted to their own culture. Each one of them had an individual style of expression but certain common threads seem to bind their work, for instance, fantasy and deep romanticism. All three have painted landscapes, but while Rabindranath painted landscapes of the mind, the two nephews had some reference to a real place that they had seen.

The section on landscapes begins with a black-and-white photograph by Shambhu Saha titled ‘Sal Bithi’, that shows an open air class amidst towering sal trees. “While one cannot make out who the teacher is, it could be Rabindranath Tagore. I chose this picture to establish the environment in which these works were created,” says Datta.
Vast green fields, scenes from the rainy season, open blue skies, moonlit nights and mist-covered mountains — all form part of this section. In the section dedicated to fantasy and animal studies, the three Tagores have explored what the subconscious mind can create — a complex web of simple details.

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