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The Portrait of a Poet

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Atul Bose was an artist of the European academic school who is most strongly remembered for his portraits. The anti-British nationalist movement of the early 20th century shaped his identity as an artist to a great extent. He received his formal education in Kolkata and England. Ilora Basu, the daughter-in-law of the legendary artist shares her views on his last portrait.

The pastel portrait of Rabindranath Tagore was created by the legendary painter late Atul Bose, my father-in-law. This portrait is very different from other portraits of Tagore that we usually see. This brilliant, lively, “Baul Rabindranath” was sketched when Bose was 80 years old and had nearly lost his vision. He did many portraits of Tagore, either bust or life size, using different media like pencil, charcoal, and oil. This is the last one of them.

I remember the evening in 1976 when I first set my eyes on this vibrant piece of art. My husband Abhijit and I had returned to Kolkata with our son Joy after spending five years in the US. As we entered the house, he took us to his studio and showed us his latest creation. He captioned this picture ‘aji hote shoto borsho pore’ (A Hundred Years Hence), the first line of a poem by Tagore written in February 1896.

The original portrait is part of the family collection in Kolkata. Unfortunately, the condition of this painting is deteriorating. The pastels are crumbled and stuck to the glass. We are happy to have this photograph in our house in Bloomington. It was taken though the framed glass pane of the original.

Atul Bose painted his first portrait of Tagore from life in the 1930s in Santiniketan, for which Tagore had agreed to sit. Nandalal Bose and a few others were also present. Upon seeing the portrait Tagore had famously exclaimed “how could you capture my inner self?”.

This last portrait in pastel is the result of a single frenzied dawn to dusk sitting on May 8, 1976, the poet’s birth anniversary. This portrait reveals layers of mood, emotion, and persona in the eyes of a beholder. One might ask, does it convey the personality of the carefree grandpa of The Post Office? Or, does it reflect the despair of Tagore about to pen Crisis in Civilization? Are the eyes and the subtle facial twitch expressing gratitude for the unparalleled gifts he had received in life? Or, is he apprehensive that his works will not survive the test of time? Perhaps dedicating his poetry to that revering soul who may pick them up in awe from the dusts of time. 

The artist’s choice for the title of the painting, “A Hundred Years Hence”, however, is from a poem that conveys happy lyrical anticipation.

Ilora Basu was raised in Kolkata and moved to the US post marriage. She pursued environmental chemistry at the Indiana University for her PhD and currently resides in Bloomington with her family. Ilora actively participates in cultural events to stay in touch and nurture her roots in Bengal.

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