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The Art of Tagore

The key to Rabindranath’s mystery lies in the realm from where light springs forth out of the heart of darkness transforming everything, every event into
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The answer can be just and well defined only when the inquiry is relevant and without any shade of ambiguity. This is true for any inquiry in the field of science, as well as in the field of sociology.

Why did Rabindranath, who from the his early teens, fourteen to be precise, having thoroughly investigated all manner of creative activities, manifest in his thoughts on education, social development and so on, receiving the reverence as well as condemnation of millions and till the end of his life remaining amazingly innovative in the expressiveness of the written and the spoken language, suddenly revert to the language of the visual when he turned sixty two or sixty three? And till the end of his life, for the last seventeen years, he sketched and painted, as if possessed; producing, among other creative pursuits, more than two thousand paintings, and establishing himself as an unprecedented painter of modern India!

Through the answer to the above query we can find a clue to Rabindranath’s visual art – its creative impulse, its source, its inspiration, as well as its relevance today. According to many Tagore-scholars, it is commonly known that in 1924, aged sixty three, sitting in far away Argentina, Tagore was engrossed in playing around with his numerous cancellations in his manuscripts and created spectacular new forms, which marked the beginning of his artistic adventure – but this is not true.  In support of their argument they cite examples of sketches and drawings Tagore created during his teens and in his youth. But these can hardly be cited as examples of the early stages of Tagore as a painter for two reasons.

Doodles created by Tagore

In the first place, it cannot be proved from such examples the successive trend through the practice of which Rabindranath established his own Tagorean art form; and more importantly, the visualization of the sketches of his early years and those of the more matured works (including the black and white sketches) of his later years is the result of two different, even opposing nature of conception. The former sketches portray the wish to record the description of the external world; while those of his more matured later years, create a symbol of the resonance of the external world deep within our souls. Consequently, such archeological evidence of Tagore’s sketches of his early years can hardly assist in the correct assessment or appreciation of Tagorean paintings. 

Landscape by Rabindranath Tagore

However, can it not be said with a certain amount of certainty that during the onset of the second decade of the last century, the poet, before cultivating a reflective inclination, a design orientation through his various doodles and cancellations within himself, had been engaged in the art of static scenery? There is no doubt about the fact that he had been doing this as an observer ever since he was in his teens. On one occasion, in Santiniketan, as an acharya or preceptor in the prayer hall of all communities which gathered every Wednesday, he delivered a sermon emphasizing the fact that it was necessary to discover the world of forms through the naked eye stripped of the turbidity of the materialistic mind.

He had cultivated this eye right from the time when he was a teenager. In both the houses of the Tagores at Jorasanko, along with literary pursuits both in the literary and oral traditions, there is ample proof of the nurturing of various sights and sounds (especially those of theatrical productions), as well as that of inculcating the habit of observing static art forms of which there are both direct and indirect accounts of witnesses. It is not without logic to ascertain that during his innumerable foreign sojourns, starting from the time when was sixteen, he had continuously furthered the boundary of his experience in viewing various art forms, both paintings and sculptures.

The vast experience that he gathered can be testified by a letter he wrote from Japan in 1926 to his nephew Abanindranath Tagore. In it he ascertained that we should liberate our vision from the mire of petty national vanity and take lessons from various art forms the world over. (It must be noted here that the example he cited was not from the world of western art). Had he not visited both the Americas twice, especially his second visit to South America, where he was hosted by Vittoria Ocampo at San Isidro on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where he spent a prolonged time, it is doubtful whether we would have understood the early paintings of the artist Rabindranath or even his later paintings – the paintings of Rabindranath Tagore.

It is not without logic to ascertain that during his innumerable foreign sojourns, starting from the time when was sixteen, he had continuously furthered the boundary of his experience in viewing various art forms, both paintings and sculptures.

The numerous doodles and cancellations of Rabindranath with which he toyed around creating designs (which the authors of scripture call ‘leela’ –the source of creative inspiration where winning is not the aim), had from the initial stages of his paintings reflected the idea of animalistic forms – which found expression through the rhythmic patterns of lines. these are symptomatic of a pre-Columbian American art, which, through careful observation, can easily be proved. But the question is, Rabindranath had observed the art forms of various cultures and countries of diverse ages. Why then did the pre-Columbian art become his source of inspiration for visual art forms in his initial stage of creative life? Rabindranath himself had provided a clue to the way he uses lines in his art. The lines are rhythmic. The most remarkable of pre-Columbian art that draws our unmitigated attention is rhythm. But there is more to say.

A specific kind of brutal force, spontaneous in nature, could be discerned within the rhythmic nuance of art in almost any cultural environment of the pre-Columbian era. The theme and the rhythm were also seen to be quite inseparable.

Untitled abstract by Tagore

From the close of the First World War right up to the inception of the Second World War, in the restless world torn asunder by revolutionary forces, Rabindranath, as a global citizen and a benefactor to his countrymen sequestered between colonialism and nationalism, witnessed and understood how the evils of brutal power rides over man’s sense of national welfare; and this thought left him not only anxious, but also apprehensive, in due course of time, about the power of consorted effort. Such instances are abound in his writings of that time.

We can, then, safely assume that the primeval brutish force latent in the pre-Columbian art of America found resonance in the mind of the poet, which later inspired him to create his own visual idiom. Had he not discovered the significance of that rhythmic cadence, it would not have been possible for him to create the idiom. In other words, the language structure imbibed externally must strike a harmonious chord deep within the soul to satisfy expression, without which it is impossible to assimilate the language of the visual, however important it may seem to be. To him, the orient and the occident, primitive and the contemporary notions of the assimilated and internalized language of the visual was extraneous and irrelevant.

Many scholars are of the opinion that Rabindranath’s artistic creativity was inspired by ‘contemporary’ European art, especially Expressionism of  Northern Europe; and to prove this point, they cite examples of formalist tendencies in Expressionist art to compare with that of Rabindranath’s art. This is a half-truth. The philosophic basis of Expressionism was already known to Rabindranath, on his own, independently. He had reached this conclusion by making art a manifestation of the artist’s mind and soul. In his novel ‘The Home and the World’ (Ghare- Baire) written in 1915, he made his characters speak their minds in the third person to emphasize the wrap and woof of their mental state. When Nikhilesh finds out that his wife Bimala was being enchanted by the flirtations of Sandip, he speaks his mind out saying, ‘the image of Sandip that is being conjured in my mind, is composed of lines that have been warped by the heat of my intense sorrow.’ It sums up completely the basic philosophy of Expressionist art as never before. But this line was written long before Rabindranath was exposed to Expressionist art. It was written even before the exhibition of Bauhaus artists, organized and hosted by Rabindranath and his nephews in 1922-23.

Dancing Girl by Rabindranath Tagore

It stands to reason then, that if we give priority to the fact that art is nothing but the manifestation of the artist’s soul, then art assumes the characteristics of Expressionism. It is amazing to note that even if Rabindranath had come to know about the rationale of Expressionist art sometime between 1915 and 1922, it reflects, with great accuracy, his portrayal of Nikhilesh’s heart-rending sorrow whose fiery core twisted and bended the lines of Sandip’s portrayal. And this amazing discovery of his caused him to construct a method of visual language, where, in the sphere of art, the use of lines and their accumulation, colours and their expressive potencies, result in separating the proposed world and the portrayal of a condition, the external world and its events and occurances, conjuring in the minds of the observer the manifestation of the creator’s mental state. In matters of organizing a painting with all its pulsating and rhythmic components, Rabindranath came close to Expressionism not by portraying the self-evident external world, but by constructing a symbolic image of his passionate ideas intrinsic in his soul. Not only this, the urge and inspiration of creating a work of art stems from his discovery of the act of imbibing such signs and assimilating them. 

Head Study (geometric)

He was far from the then Anglo-Saxon established order of painting practiced in India. Even the formal Modernist art ( Post-impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Geometric Abstractism) could not inspire him in his artistic creations. It is a doubtful notion whether the distinguished rhythmic pattern of lines Rabindranath has used in his paintings were modeled on techniques evolved in Britain’s artistic models, or the Art Nouveau of Audrey Beardsley and others. The rhythmic curves used in British Art Nouveau were intensely ornamental. On the other hand, it can be safely assumed that the vibrant energetic and rhythmical lines of Rabindranath were inspired by Germany’s Jugendstil artists of the Art Nouveau, especially the works of Gustav Kimt and Egon Schiele. Here also, the assimilation was subservient to intrinsic yearning.

Peacock Skirt by Audrey Beardsley

The reason for discussing Rabindranath as an artist is singular. He followed neither the supremacy of the visual language nor any established notion of modernity in terms of painting. He sought the refuge of the visual mode only when his soul felt thwarted at expressing itself through any other medium of utterance. Let us cite an example to illustrate the point.

In his symbolic plays like Dakghar, Raja, Muktadhara and Raktakarabi, Rabindranath has shown that the wish to live a life of liberated freedom can only be wrought through an intense struggle between the forces of evil coupled with their intoxicating power along with the destructive power of pride and the will to live with a profound sense of love and welfare for others. 

In matters of organizing a painting with all its pulsating and rhythmic components, Rabindranath came close to Expressionism not by portraying the self-evident external world, but by constructing a symbolic image of his passionate ideas intrinsic in his soul.

Sometimes, in order to conquer the innate forces of evil intrinsically inherent in the heart of the vanquished, he secretly desired for the dark forces himself – a fact seldom overlooked. The forces of the dark and the blindness of power can be found in many of Rabindranath’s dramas written in the twenties and in his poetry of the thirties. Though torn apart in his personal life by many misfortunes and stress such as the death of loved ones, malice, jealousy, as well as mortifications, he was far more anxious and apprehensive about the struggle between imperialism and narrow nationalism, between consolidated irrationalism winning over the rationale of cooperative welfare and the hindrance of spontaneous freedom of thought ravaged by the wish to embrace the might of state.

Anxiety and fear are not always external. The ominous forces of evil can find resonance within the heart of the affected. Such forces, in course of time, can instigate the affected towards self-annihilation. The incapacity, which the poet might have felt of voicing such deep-rooted anxieties through his poetry, plays and songs, could have been the reason for his choosing the medium of painting as a more suitable mode of self-expression. Let us examine this idea.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) – Two Figures, 1934, Water colour and ink on board, 1703 x 25 cms, (Acc. No. 1232) , National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

From the beginning of the thirties to the very onset of the forties, the portraits bearing human characteristics are presented much like the scene of a dramatic production. Two paintings come to the mind as fitting examples. The first one reveals a bare room resembling a dark and empty stage where a strange couch can be seen at a distance. It is night. A wave of light defines the presence of darkness. Again, this same brutal light makes the shadowy couch look rather like the faint image of a beast roused from slumber. Lying on the back of the beast is an unadorned human form, possibly that of a woman, half reclined. The lines depicting the lower part of her body give a suggestion of a part of her dress, representing either a reptile or that of a flaccid penis loosely resting on the posterior of the beast. The entire picture brings to mind a desultory moment in a dramatic sequence illuminated by Tapas Sen.

He sought the refuge of the visual mode only when his soul felt thwarted at expressing itself through any other medium of utterance.

The painting reveals some of the principle characteristics of a Tagorean work of art. The contemporary setting of a majority of Tagore’s paintings range either from the hazy twilight to the gloom of the evening or from the dark depths of the night to the first faint stirrings of the early dawn. The significance or purport of this visual is vital. The contours of elements become blurred in the light emanating from the darkness as they assume bewildering illusory shapes. From which secret source does such light shed its diffused radiance upon such darkness making the forms visible as well as bewildering at the same time? The key to Rabindranath’s mystery lies in the realm from where light springs forth out of the heart of darkness transforming everything, every event into a strange presence.

Disregarding the notion of the renaissance that the material world is illumined by a specific source of light, the ‘unlettered’ artist symbolizes universalism through his own remarkable interplay of light and darkness. Did the preference for light and darkness, warmth and cool textures of his paintings had nothing to do with the experience of observing the unknown? Be that as it may.

Coloured ink on paper, Victoria And Albert Museum

The other characteristic that can be found in the painting is a metaphor of the image. The interplay of light and shade reveals the hint of a beast on a couch and a human figure reclining on its back, the loose ends of whose garment at the lower end of the torso resembling that of a reptile or a flaccid penis. But we have no idea what the painter wished to convey only through the imagery. The meaning is conveyed through the metaphor. Even though the female figure sits on top of the beast, their faces are turned in opposite directions. A certain duality can be sensed here; a terrible relation concerning a duality between a lonely soul engulfed in desire and a lifeless object touched by life. This can embitter human relationship if not destroy it.

Another dramatic painting can cited as an example. The painting is more cinematographic than dramatic. One can discern, as if in close shot, a man and a woman wrapped in embrace, in a frame devoid of any background. The posture of their necks and faces is worth observing. Neither of them is looking at each other. Their necks and faces are turned away in opposite directions. Both desire to place their faces as far from one another as possible. Their gazes are turned upwards in a stance opposing desire. They are locked in embrace only physically, that the man and woman are self-centered and do not crave the company of one another. They are solitary beings.

Two Figures by Rabindranath Tagore

The duality between self-centredness and the social code, sanctioned by society is a matter of great dislike for the painter as exemplified by the image. The painting is a satirical exaggeration. The raised forehead and nose with curved lips mounted on an elongated neck is busy towards an evil course. This painting criticizes the materialistic world and the symbolic presence of an engrossed spectator mocking the duality of human relationship using caricature as a formidable weapon. 

The pretense of a dramatic description which is expressed in both the paintings discussed above, find resonance in the early Expressionist paintings of Emile Nolde, Oskar Kokoscha, Georg Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz and Max Beckmann. But such resonance can hardly be found in the works of the later Expressionists, as well as the mainstream Modernist painters. 

Self-portrait by Emile Nolde

According to the Modernists, the description of incidents and situations are solely dependent on literature. These are supposedly detrimental and contrary to the visual art. The artistic creations of Rabindranath may not be dependent upon literature but his paintings are replete with transmutation of ideas through poetic devices. This has made his paintings truly the creations of a poet. If we analyze it, we may come to the conclusion that such a method of thematic construction of a work of art has a co-relation with the literary mode. Through this method, the subject matter becomes more suggestive, more of a hint than a statement. Rabindranath’s paintings violate the conditions of European modality but still remain contemporary in its intrinsic individualism and exposition of ideas. 

This modernity is based on the creators personalized mode of self-construction, the relation of his soul with the external world as well as with a candid expression of thought borne out of the relationship he shares with others. In other words, Tagore’s modernity rests in his constructed ‘self’ in relation with the external world which moves in deeply. This is contrary to the exclusiveness of Euro art.

This practiced mode of self-construction, this vision of the exalted self serves as critique of the external world and the uniqueness of his creation is far removed from the traditional method of self-construction, so common in the western world (post-Renaissance, post-industrial Revolution, post-Enlightenment, post-Bourgeoisie Democratic Revolution). The constant game of bridging the self-construct with that of the mutable external world underscores Tagore’s practice of modernity amply exemplified through his self-portrait.

Self-portrait by Rabindranath, 1935

We can get a glimpse of Tagore’s creative impulse as well as his purpose in his self-portraits. It is a specific genre. The portrait, as a genre, was common in Renaissance Europe to lend importance to individuals. This was not a common practice in the continent of Asia. Portrait painting gave birth to the self-portrait. The self-conscious artist’s inherent desire to discover himself beyond himself and to let others know about himself gave rise to the genre of self-portrait. It was absent in India where individuals traditionally lived in holdings. The western influence in art came to India at a later period. Rabindranath is the earliest known painter who, drew and painted several self-portraits. He is the first among painters in India to lend the special dignity of his own in the portraiture of the self.

To him, the work of art, should primarily and most importantly bring out the inherent individual of the self and this was vital for any self-portrait; though in other parts of the world, self-portraits have been painted for different reasons. But for painters like Rabindranath whose primary aim was to bring out the invisible essence of the self to light, self-portrait was never meant to be the photographic depiction of the external appearance.

The self-conscious artist’s inherent desire to discover himself beyond himself and to let others know about himself gave rise to the genre of self-portrait.

The scribbles that Rabindranath drew in ink on his own photographs gave rise to his desire to draw self-portraits. There is no doubt that this scribbling on his own photographs stems from his desire to express his inner self through symbolic references. But one must not fail to observe that in each of his ten or twelve such drawings, he is seen to be in different moods altogether. Each of his paintings reflects a different idea. And, precisely for that reason, each of his photographs undergoes changes.

The duality between a photograph and that which is not a photograph is the primary inspiration of his painting self-portraits. It is the universal extension of this duality that can be said to be his prime inspiration for all his works of art. Had this duality been the chief cause of anxiety for the materialistic world, then his art would have become political or social. The sense of duality of Tagore’s painting which causes deep anxiety to the poet himself makes him vascilitate, grips him with a sense of foreboding, is nothing but a profound sense of anticipation arising out of the destructive forces that directs the course of events in our lives. This can be amply proved by a study of his self-portraits. 

The most significant idea that can be discerned from Rabindranath’s self-portrait is the study of his head and the position of his face delicately defined by strokes of carefully positioned lines. This is hardly a characteristic because it is prevalent in all self-portraits painted by several artists. What stand out in Rabindranath’s portrait are the expressive nuances of his eyes, nose and lips. Rabindranath as a man observes the external world, the world outside him. The reaction is encoded deep within his inner self. He feels anxious. He feels apprehensive. Greed, the conflict of jealousy, the force of envy threatens his entire conscience. He laughs at or ridicules the powerful at his self satisfaction which he calls utter obtuseness or stupidity. The artist Rabindranath gives utterance to all feelings and sensitivities of the man Rabindranath through the perceptive symbols of his self-portraits. 

Self-portrait by Rabindranath Tagore

The gaze of Rabindranath in his self-portrait, which Rabindranath the artist visualizes is aimed at satirizing obtuseness despite the fact that he is portrayed as someone who is anxious, doubtful and wary. In other words, his self-portrait is the manifestation of his introspection. The formation of the eyes, nose and lips portrays the manifestation of his being. The opening and closing of the eyelids, the position of the pupils, the light reflecting on the pupils, the direction of the gaze, the depth of vision, the expansion and contraction of the nostrils and lips, the parting and the pressing of lips, the point of observation and the mental state affected thereby – all these symbolize a manifestation which brings to the observer Rabindranath’s the then mental condition which can be apprehended through the senses.

Rabindranath would hardly be considered a Modernist artist should the eyes, nose and the formation of the lips along with their proportions, positions and postures had been the source or manifestation of his art. The facial expressions may have been influenced to a great extent, by the classical dance forms of India. Unless we have a fair idea of the postural bearing present in the structure of painting, we would not have been able to comprehend the representation of modernity in Rabindranath as a painter. 

Let us, for once, turn our attention to Rabindranath and his supernatural gaze. The painter Rabindranath is observing that Rabindranath who is observing the material world through his penetrating vision filled with anxiety and oblique in gaze. And what he sees fills him with wide array of feelings – sometimes wonder, sometimes fear, sometimes anguish, sometimes pain, sorrow, grief, despair, disappointment and sometimes that of a jest or even a mixed feeling – stage by stage or simultaneously play around his countenance revealing his character. A passionate feeling emanating from the depths of his character, unlike any ordinary characteristics, finding vent not through a deformity of the mind,  but rather the result of a vision vindicated by observing worldly matters (though it is hardly possible to portray worldly matters in our self-portrait). So, we can say that Rabindranath’s modernity stems from the world in motion, a self-reconstruction affected by the external world – a new self-realization. And the body of his self-portrait reveals to us through the visual sign, a new experience. The reflection of the painted body transmits a new idea to us. The lines warped by the heat of passion lend a certain form to the image which conveys to the observer a symbol of fiery ardour.

Self-portrait by Rabindranath Tagore, Museum of Art and Photography Bangalore

Let us now discuss two or three of his self-portraits to clarify the point. 

The first portrait is done in black and white. There is no backdrop. The portrait seems to be bending his head a little and through wide, open, piercing eyes observing something outside with a questioning gaze. The random strokes of the brush suggest disheveled hair and the long, even brushed strokes bring to life his moustache and wavy beard hiding a tight lipped mouth, suggesting inflexible firmness. The poet here is a traveler on a dark and ominous road in storm and stress. It reminds us of his poem ‘Tirthajatri’ written about the same time. 

The second self-portrait is done in colour, again without a backdrop. The face is painted with a thick, flat brush in rhythmic strokes, long tress falling loosely over the shoulders, the moustache and beard done in different rhythmic strokes. The same colour is used with varying tints lending a certain density to the portrait resembling a chiaroscuro effect.  The eyes have a sparkle. The extended lines of the lip suggest a smile. The countenance is suggestive of a ripened fruit, both in its shape as well as in its hue. The shock of wavy hair seem to suggest the rhythm of a reptile while the beard and moustache that of a simple rhythmic motion. The self-portrait is quite an enigma – ambiguous, anagrammatic. A convergence of opposite elements, replete with symbolic suggestiveness. Just as the dual role of the hunter and the hunted provide a metaphor of the natural world, so is the mindlessness of the greedy inhuman society. The wise poet is amused by it. This ‘dark humour’ is spread across is middle and the last period of his paintings. The sense of humour is social, brought to light by observing the follies of the people. We see that Rabindranath in his self portrait is one who observes man incorporated in groups and is anxious, troubled, alarmed while feeling amused. 

Self-portrait in colour, Rabindranath Tagore

The third portrait is also done in colour. From its first viewing, we are assured of its metaphoric character. Unlike the first two, this portrait is not so secretive, not so suggestive of a delicate smile. Just as the indomitable brook with its turbulent waterfalls, bursting down the mountain slope, adorns the lofty Himalayan summits with a rare beauty that is serene and tranquil resembling Mahadeva, silent and vast in profound meditation, so is the poet’s lustrous head and shoulders, bedazzled with glittering light, showered with numerous restless foamy flakes which are brightened by tiny sporadic brush strokes interlaced with warm colours. Half his face turned slightly towards the right, is clothed in darkness resembling the mossy overgrown wall of a mountain. The effect is brought out by round patches of colour dark and sombre in tinge. This element of light and shade, brightness and gloom, heart full of secret aggression and overflowing with surging emotion – all such dualities are intrinsic to the poet. One cannot but observe that the treatment of the elements of artistic language and its usage are as apt as the treatment of the imagery taken from nature. And this is precisely what constitutes the modernity as varied and different from that of the Eurocentric western hemisphere. Rabindranath’s modernity does not turn its face away from the world of men; it is not the self-centered absolute world of art. It is a memorial of the newly discovered self and its relation and appreciation of the world constantly on the move.

The self-portrait of Rabindranath is the key to understanding this. Reaching the threshold of old age, the poet speaks to us in the language of colours and shades. We can only guess at its meaning. The written language which fails in its rambling discourse to touch our hearts, the language of song with its mellifluous sound which touches us, fills us but fails to make us ponder, the language of art replete with visual symbols, on the other hand, vindicates our vision and brings to our heart through the pathways of feeling, complicated and incomprehensible tidings, which are created by the visual symbols of assumption and realization. 

Pranabranjan Ray a well-known art critic and author who has also worked as a social scientist for the government of West Bengal and has taught at several universities across India. He is a founder-member and former secretary of the Society of Contemporary Artists, Calcutta. He is the author of ‘Ganesh Pyne: A Painter of Eloquent Solitude’, ‘Meera Mukherjee: Purity of Vision’ and several other books.

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