Of soul & substance

Rabindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil had differing personalities and divergent styles but were united in passion for the painted canvas

Rabindranath Tagore

The year 1941 was a particularly cruel year for Indian art. Two prominent and enigmatic artists passed away during the year.

 They were born in different eras, had differing personalities, and practised their art in vastly divergent styles. Yet, they were united in their passion for the painted canvas. The rich harvest of their evocative works left an indelible mark on the country’s art scene and inspired generations of artists. The power and intensity of their work continue to motivate many. Interestingly, both the artists had relatively short careers in painting.

Rabindranath Tagore was 80 when he breathed his last on August 7, 1941 owing to health problems.  The first non-Westerner to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 had ventured into the world of painting pretty late in his life — when he was already 67 years old.

His first public and international exhibition of paintings in May 1930 in Paris was followed by shows in England, Denmark and Sweden. When shown in France, Germany and Russia, his paintings became a rage.  Scholars and critics were astonished by the raw power and symbolism of his graphically striking works.

Painting possessed him and continued its sway till his final days.  In the course of about 12 years, he produced no less than 2,000 works — a remarkable achievement for one who started so late and was almost completely self-taught in his art. Lack of formal art training perhaps even helped him in developing an unorthodox and independent style, and resulted in hauntingly seductive scapes, forms and faces. 

“The unorthodox ways in which Rabindranath realised his paintings opened up new vistas to younger artists,” observed eminent artist, scholar and writer K G Subramanyan. “His disregard for literary content and his treatment of a painting as a composite image also contributed to a radical change in the general outlook of art. These are not small contributions. They are basic and far-reaching.” 

Internationally renowned film director, Satyajit Ray, who began his career as a talented graphic designer, too, paid homage to Tagore’s ‘astonishing output of great fecundity’ when he wrote: “It is important to stress that Rabindranath was uninfluenced by any painter, Eastern or Western. His work does not stem from any tradition but is truly original. Whether one likes it or not, one has to admit its uniqueness. Personally, I feel it occupies a place of major importance beside his equally formidable output of novels, short stories, plays, essays, letters and songs.”

On his part, Tagore was modest about his achievements. He admitted that his works were products of ‘untutored fingers and untrained mind’; and ‘in one sense they may be original, revealing a strangeness born of my utter inexperience and individual limitations.’ He also thought that his paintings did not ‘represent what they call Indian Art’.  At the same time, he admitted to being “hopelessly entangled in the spell that the lines have cast all around me … It is the element of unpredictability in art that seems to fascinate me strongly … It is borne on me that this visible world is a vast procession of forms … And strangely enough this has become a source of great joy to me.”

Amrita’s tryst

Unlike Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil was not fortunate enough to enjoy a long life.  When she died in Lahore on December 5, 1941, she was just 28. Her first major solo show was just a few days away when she had become seriously ill and slipped into a coma. A mystery still hangs behind the real reason of her death.

Born to a part-Jewish Hungarian mother and a Sikh father, Sher-Gil received a proper European upbringing. As an art student in Paris from 1929 to 1934, she impressed her teachers and peers with her intelligence and talent. When she returned to India in her very early 20s, she was exhilarated at once by its physical forms and structures. She was also moved by the human situation. These impressions, coupled with a deep personal insight, helped her build a formidable body of work of remarkable quality and allure that amazed both the critic and the connoisseur alike. Sher-Gil was not unaware of her gifts. So confident was she about her own abilities that she once reportedly declared: “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me.”

 Sher-Gil’s smashing looks, flamboyant personality, seductive conduct and actions attracted ample attention (and got her many lovers!).

Writer Khushwant Singh, who was present at her cremation in Lahore, recalled: “I can hardly claim to have known Amrita. However, she left a lasting impression on my mind — not because she came to be recognised as a great painter, but as the most unusual woman I’d met.”

 In her art, Sher-Gil allowed many influences from both the East and the West.  Her travels in India helped her realise at once the power of Ajanta and Ellora murals; and comprehend the fascinating rhythms of Kathakali dancers of the South. 

The Moghul miniatures with their amazing perspectives and colours too left an impression on her. Having imbibed all these and more, she composed her multi-hued villagescapes as well as portraits featuring common people as well as herself, her family and friends.

“The span of Sher-Gil’s genius was limited to but seven years,” wrote her friend and chronicler, Karl Khandalavala. “The sheer power of her finest canvases transcended anything that had hitherto been achieved in modern painting even by the most notable pioneers of Bengal Renaissance.”

Lasting legacy

Both Tagore and Sher-Gil have left a long lasting legacy through their art. Any discussion on Indian modern art would be incomplete without acknowledging their contributions. During the 1970s, Tagore and Sher-Gil appeared prominently in the list of artists declared by the Government of India whose paintings were to be treated as national treasures.  Others who made it to the list were Raja Ravi Varma, Gaganendranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Nicholas Roerich and Sailoz Mukherjee. 

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