Tagore show

Print edition : July 29, 2011

Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore and his nephews Gaganendranath and Abanindranath bear striking contrasts and similarities.

India is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and the National Gallery for Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, is celebrating it with a unique art exhibition titled Circle of Art: The Three Tagores. Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore and his nephews Gaganendranath (1867-1938) and Abanindranath (1871-1951) are displayed together at the exhibition.

Curated by Ella Dutta, a Tagore national research fellow at the NGMA, the show explores the artists' milieu and individual personalities and their search for a new visual language, using, among other techniques, fantasy, mystery and romanticism. Dutta, in order not to straitjacket them, has avoided mounting their works chronologically. For the uninitiated, she has made a family tree of the key members of the Tagore family and procured photographs of the Tagore household from the collections of Samit Das and Sankho Das, photographers famous for their images of the Tagores.

The show, put together from the NGMA's rich permanent collection, includes pieces never put on display before. There are sketches, drawings, photographs and sculptures. The exhibition is neatly divided into three sections. One room is dedicated to highlighting the diversity and similarities in the works of the three artists, while the other two display their figures, landscapes, animals, theatre and other subjects they involved themselves in. The exhibition captures their varied temperaments.While portraits of the three Tagores by Mukul Dey and others welcome the viewers, a cement bust by Ram Kinkar Baij, known as the pioneer of modern Indian sculpture, installed at the entrance of the gallery sobers the the mood. Sculpted during Rabindranath's last days, the bust reflects the poet's mental and physical health at 80. It is a gloomy figure, burdened with grief, loneliness and old age.

When Rabindranath came into his own as an artist in 1928, Abanindranath was already a well-established painter. Unlike his uncle and elder brother, he had formal training in art from Olinto Ghilardi and Charles Palmer. Gaganendranath also began painting at an advanced age; he painted for his own pleasure. While Rabindranath's works seems to be the expressions of a lonely life, his nephews' are largely playful, flamboyant and even satirical.

Rabindranath's work expresses the loneliness of his advanced age and reflect an urge to break free through strong brush strokes, powerful lines and a few bird' figures. Abanindranath's works mirrored his instinctive drive towards the delicacy and subtlety of Mughal miniatures and to the wash technique that he learned from visiting Japanese artists. Most of the paintings by Gaganendranath are influenced by the theatrical representations of his times the play of light and shade in dramatic sets and caricatures drawn from the society.

Dutta delightfully sums up the similarities and differences between the three Tagores thus: Although the three Tagores were open to influences of other art traditions, 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 differently. While Rabindranath painted landscapes of the mind, the two nephews had reference to a real place that they had seen.

Since, Rabindranath started painting very late, it is assumed that what he could not express through his music and writings he tried to express with his brush. He had suffered a great many personal losses and bereavements by the time he started painting, just about 18 years before his death at the age of 80. He had lost his wife, younger son, two daughters, and, long before these losses, his favourite sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, who committed suicide.

Though he had started doing sketches in his manuscripts by 1924, in the following four years he started doing it separately, says Dutta. There is an interesting story about how he got hooked to painting. He fell during a trip to South America and was a guest at the home of Victoria Ocampo in Argentina. That was where he started making sketches. Victoria Ocampo noticed this, and suggested that he start painting. What followed was Tagore's most prolific painting period; he painted portraits and head studies, landscapes, animal studies, and pictures based on fantasy and theatre.

He painted heads out of his own imagination, most of which are almost mutilated, grim and pensive. Even his landscapes, such as A Tree in pen and ink, are gloomy. Among his landscapes in crayon is a picture of two trees, divided by a deserted road and a lonely house, bearing the effect of a storm. Brooding, a pensive, sombre female figure, reflects the poet's state of mind. Though he also made some funny or comic sketches, those were few and far between.

Says Dutta, From 1928 onwards, Rabindranath began to paint images laden with memory and fantasy. He used very simple material any available paper, coloured ink, crayon, gouache pigment, brush, rags and fingers with frenzy. He painted heads, figures, bizarre animals and flora, and landscapes of the mind.

It took India time to accept' him as an artist. Tagore had his first show of painting in the early 1930s in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to a lukewarm response. Though he was very well received and reviewed in European countries including Russia, England, France and Germany, America did not give him a positive response. The art critic Subramanian, who has written extensively on Tagore's works, attributes it to Americans' inability to understand an artistic expression that they were not used to.

In June 2010, Tagore's painting at Sotheby's auction in London fetched Rs.2.13 crore. in June, 2010. Dutta says, This must be considered as acceptance of Rabindranath Tagore as a painter.

Back to the exhibition, before we compare and contrast the three geniuses, it is important to know that the amazing artistic experiments of a single family were nurtured by the cultural stirrings that began in Bengal towards the end of the 18th century and dominated the mindscape of the Bengali elite through the 19th 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.

Nephews' works

Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore tried to create an artistic language of their own, resisting the colonial influence that dominated art in India in their time. The NGMA exhibition bears this out.

Most of Abanindranath's creations are a pleasure to watch. They are marked by a unique delicacy, humour, subtlety and human emotions even the paintings of animals. Abanindranath painted his uncle Rabindranath repeatedly, His Twilight, wash and tempera on paper, is a spectacular representation of the two men in conversation at the roof top of their home in Jorasanko, Calcutta. A close scrutiny shows an aged and stooped Rabindranath with his hands resting on his back while Abanindranath seems listening to him inquisitively with his hands united in front. Abanindranath's Journey's End, tempera on paper, Dhobie's Donkey, and The Deer and the Crow, both water-colour on paper, bear remarkable human expressions on the painted camel and donkey.

Dutta says, Abanindranath's works have a childlike whimsicality. A writer, aesthetician, artist and educationist, he was very close to his mother whom he, however, had never seen but heard much about. So, out of his imagination, he painted her face looking out of a window in miniature style. This became one of his most famous works.

Abanindranth's portraits were characteristically second to landscapes. He represents ironically different personalities in landscapes and portraits. If his landscapes (those displayed) are about Stormy Night and Haunted Woodlands, his figures/portraits are delicate, humane and animated.

It is interesting to note that the Tagore family was a pioneer in experimental theatre and Gaganendranath took an active part in it. Hence Gaganendranath's paintings are almost an extension of theatrical images/sets in which he remarkably blended satire and humour. A staircase overlooking a palatial house, two women meeting on the staircase at the dead of the night, and his Madane Theatre by Night display spectacular interplay of light and shade.

His occasional flair for the macabre was a reflection of his disagreement with the forced colonial influence on contemporary art. The art critic R. Sivakumar aptly describes his works thus: Abani saw the mask as a camouflage that one wore to hide the real face behind; mask becomes character and character becomes portrait in mask. His Ballroom Dance, made in 1921 on ink and watercolour on paper, is a perfect example. The well thought-out show is on view for most of July.

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