Tagore the Painter

Rabindranath Tagore as a painter


Over one thousand poems; nearly two dozen plays and play-lets; eight novels; eight or more volumes of short stories; more than two thousands songs, of which he wrote both the words and the music; and a mass of prose on literary, social, religious, political, and other topics. On top of these, his English translations; his paintings; his travels and lecture-tours in Asia, America, and Europe; and his activities as educationist, as social and religious reformer, and politician. The life’s work of Ravindranath Tagore is the accomplishment of a titan.

 Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore – mystic, visionary, painter and Nobel laureate for literature– was India’s grand old man of letters. But Tagore has been immortalised not only by his poetry but also by his paintings and his important contribution to Indian Art through Viswa-Bharati.

 Born in Jorasanko on 7th May 1861, seventh in a family of fourteen. The Tagores were a cultured and wealthy family, and Rabindranath’s father, Devendranath, was one of the leaders of the Brahma Samaj. The poet’s early life was spent in an atmosphere of religion and arts, principally literature, music and painting. In religion his inspiration was derived from the Vedas and the Upanishads, but with him as with many Hindus the Upanisadicmonoism was diversified by the Vaisnava dualism.

 Rabindranath learnt drawing in his childhood and was attracted to the sketches drawn by his elder brother Jyotirindranath. At the age of seventeen, his first book of poems was published. In 1878, he went to England for further studies but returned back in just seventeen months as he was disappointed with the studies. In music Tagore’s training was classical Indian, though as a composer he rebelled against the tyranny of classical orthodoxy, and introduced many variations of form and phrase, notably from Bengali folk-music.

 In 1911, on revisiting England, Tagore brought the English Gitanjali, which was published in 1912. Gitanjali saw him winning, in 1913, at the age of 52, the Nobel Prize for literature. The first Nobel prize ever awarded to an Asiatic, made him world-famous. Following this, he was knighted by the British in 1915.

 In 1917, Tagore founded the innovative ‘Viswa-Bharati’ university in the rural settings of Shantiniketan, thus realizing a life-long dream- to create a context for a genuine all-round development of human faculties. Far from the neurosis of the city life, this was not to be a degree-oriented establishment, but an attempt, in his own words “to study the mind of Man in it’s realization of different aspects of truth from diverse points of view.”

Two years later, in protest against the ghastly massacre of hundreds of innocent Indians at the ‘Jallianwallah Bagh’ by Genral Dyer, Sir Ravindranath returned his title to the British and quietly opened the art wing of his university called ‘Kala Bhavan’.

 He invited the like-minded painter Nandlal Bose to run the wing with a free hand, thus encouraging the evolution of an original vision, reflecting the intuition and expression of the students, unleashed from the bounds of tradition and the stifling rigours of conventional training. The opening of the ‘Kala Bhavan’ proved to be a decisive landmark in the history of evolution of Indian Art.

 Tagore spent the rest of his life at Santiniketan, except for several travels and lecture-tours in which he carried his message of human integrity to many countries in Asia, America and Europe.

 In 1924, while writing “Purabi” he started doodling on the pages of his manuscript. However, Rabindra Nath Tagore’s famous world appearance as painter in France in 1930 was not sudden. Long before the Paris exhibition which vaulted him to worldwide painterly fame, in 1926, Tagore had long discussions on his art with Romain Rolland. Himself a Nobel laureate Romain Rolland wrote in his book ‘Inde-journal’, on 3rd July, 1926 “ŠŠother day Tagore was discussing on his application of colour in paintings. He likes very little red colour, the dominance of red colour in Italian village did not attract him. His love goes violet and blue. and he has more liking for green.” Tagore had discussions about art with another Nobel Laureate, French poet Saint John Perse over their several meetings in 1920’s.

 Rabindranath transformed his lack of formal training of art into an advantage and opened new horizons in the use of line and colour. He was prolific in his paintings and sketches as he was in his writing, producing over 2500 of these within a decade. Over 1500 of them are preserved in Viswa-Bharati, Santiniketan. It is evident that in his search of newer form of expression in line and colour Rabindranath was trying to express something different from what he did in his poetry and songs. If he sought peace and enlightenment in his songs, he seems to explore darkness and mystery in his drawings.

 Dark creatures and haunting landscapes of another, primordial and marvelous world, which constituted Tagore’s works puzzle and delight the world. With the passage of time, critics and art lovers have been discovering in these outpourings from the depths of his fanciful mind a more modern and disquieting Tagore than they see elsewhere.

 Tagore himself, in his article ‘My Pictures’, explains his paintings as follows “The world of sound is a tiny bubble in the silence of the infinite. The Universe has its only language of gesture, it talks in the voice of pictures and dance. Every object in this world proclaims in the dumb signal of lines and colours, the fact that it is not a mere logical abstraction or a mere thing of use, but it is unique in itself, it carries the miracle of its existence. In a picture the artist creates the language of undoubted reality, and we are satisfied that we see. It may not be the representation of a beautiful woman but that of a common place donkey or of something that has no external credential of truth in nature but only in its own inner artistic significance.

 “People often ask me about the meaning of my pictures. I remain silent even as my pictures are. It is for them to express and not to explain.

 They have nothing ulterior behind their own appearance for the thoughts to explore and words to describe, and that appearance carries its ultimate worth. Then they remain, otherwise they are rejected and forgotten even though they may have some scientific truth or ethical justification. Love is kindred to art, it is inexplicable.

 Duty can be measured by the degree of its benefit, utility by the profit and power it may bring, but art by nothing but itself. There are other factors of life which are visitors that come and go. Art is the guest that comes and remains. The dithers may be important, but Art is inevitable.”

 In spring 1930, when on a tour to France, Tagore was advised, by some art critics of local newspapers who saw his paintings, to hold an exhibition in Paris. He held the first public and international exhibition of his paintings in Paris in May 1930, at the Gallerie Pigalle. The exhibition was later held in different countries in Europe in the same year. But India and his home town Calcutta had the honour of hosting it only in 1931, a year later of Paris exhibition.

 The exhibition remained open to public from the 5th to the 19th May, 1930. Duchess Anna de Noailles, in her introductory remarks in the catalogue of the exhibition of Tagore’s paintings “To me it is like climbing a staircase of dreamland”

 After the conclusion of Paris exhibition, exhibitions were held in England, Denmark, Sweden, Rome, Germany and Russia in Europe. Later exhibitions were also held in USA and Canada. The exhibition of paintings drew an unprecedented overwhelming admiration in Germany. It was shown in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart and other places in Germany. The then German President and ministers and also Albert Einstein, the great scientist, attended Tagore’s exhibition.

 Tagore’s paintings and sketches fascinated young German students to mass hysteria. Among them a student of the Art Academy of Munich Oswald Malura, at the age of 20, received a Mond travel scholarship of the academy to study Indian art and philosophy. Malura stayed in India for three years (1929-1932) and visited Bombay, Agra, Delhi, Kashmir, Benaras, Himalayas, Santiniketan and Calcutta and he met Annie Besant, Mahatma Gandhi and poet Tagore.

 At Santiniketan, this amateur cinematogarpher recorded a 12 minute-film on Tagore as a painter and teacher in the open-air classes. There are some still photographs that showed how Tagore drew and painted but this movie film or cinema on Tagore as an artist is indeed rare.

 Malura revisited Calcutta in 1986 and presented this short silent film on Tagore as painter to the Visva Bharati University in December 1986. Mr. Malura said, “my impression was that Tagore was to me like a Godsent man. I liked so much his sketches and colouring that I could not resist myself to photograph it. But alas! it was in black and white.”

 In Tagore’s own words, “The world speaks to me in colours, my soul answers in music”. Obviously, the soul was very articulate with colours too.

 In later years, as Tagore reached his sixties, he tried to finance his Vishwa-Bharati University personally, relying on royalties and proceeds from his lecture tours. By 1941, Tagore’s health had seriously deteriorated. Tagore died peacefully, after an operation in Calcutta on August 7, 1941.

 In his life, he embodied the quintessence of Indian culture, combining an abundant intellect with a devout passion to his cause, and his inspirational compositions have stood the passage of time. Tagore’s contribution to the art of India remains one of the most important till date.

From: Bangladesh – Independent


(Tagore)      (Tagore Poems)       (Gitanjali)