Given our scant regard for restoration and conservation, any attempt to that effect, however small or inadequate, is probably a cause for jubilation. In September 2022, a restored heritage building associated with the Bengali author and artist Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) in West Bengal’s Konnagar (a town 22 kilometres from Kolkata in Serampore subdivision of Hooghly district) was reopened to the public after a pandemic-induced shutdown of two years. Abanindranath spent many happy days of his childhood in this one-storey house with a sprawling garden overlooking the Hooghly river. It is also here that he started his lifelong pursuit of art. He writes in his memoir, Jorasankor Dhare (“By the Side of Jorasanko”):
“That time in Konnagar [at the garden house] I learnt to draw a hut. I used to fiddle around with a pencil, making marks here and there. A few huts were visible from the garden. I noticed that the roof of the hut descended in a curve. I used to draw huts earlier—following English drawing books. Our elder brothers had taught us sometime. I learnt what a Bengal hut is like, and till now I have not made any mistake.”
Unique Indian style
Abanindranath Tagore, like his elder brother, Gaganendranath (1867-1938)—both belonging to the illustrious Tagore family of Kolkata’s Jorasanko area and nephews of Rabindranath—sought to create a unique Indian style in art and literature freed from the strictures of Western aesthetics. Abanindranath had a talent for retelling stories set in foreign climes in Bengali in a way that they seemed to have sprouted from this land of green paddy fields embroidered with silver rivers. The same can be said about his paintings, which go back to Mughal and Rajput traditions as well as to the Ajanta murals as a counter to Western artistic styles.
Abanindranath transformed The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by the Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize winner, Selma Lagerlöf, into the evergreen children’s storybook, Buro Angla. And in his wonderfully witty Arabian Nights series of paintings, Abanindranath turned the exotic Orient into his familiar Chitpur in north Kolkata, where he lived in one of the Jorasanko mansions with Rabindranath as his neighbour.
Art historian Stella Kramrisch had hailed him with these words: “Abanindranath Tagore is the first modern Indian painter. His genius relies on his personal authority. It leads him upstream, a return voyage to the sources with his back turned on the present.”
“Unlike Rabindranath, Abanindranath is a relatively neglected figure in spite of his contributions as a pioneer of modern Indian art. His 150th birth anniversary passed in 2021 without the West Bengal government making any special effort to celebrate it.”
And if one excuses the slight exaggeration, artist Mukul Dey had written: “Abanindranath had a wide recognition in Europe as an artist of great merit long before Rabindranath Tagore was known there.” Abanindranath’s paintings were first published in The Studio magazine in 1910, and Rabindranath’s Gitanjali was published in 1912.
An online gallery of the paintings of the three Tagores that also walks viewers through the nine rooms of the Konnagar house will be launched soon. The University of Liverpool has collaborated with Intach, Hooghly chapter, and Konnagar Municipality to create this offsite and onsite exhibition, where about 60 paintings by Abanindranath, divided into four sections—River Garden, Modernity, Narrating the Nation, and Realms of the Unconscious—will be on view. To contextualise Abanindranath, Rabindranath and Gaganendranath have been brought in. Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial Hall, which has a wealth of works by Gaganendranath and Abanindranath, is a key collaborator in this bilingual project. Victoria and Albert Museum of London has also allowed access to its digital material.
The chequered history of the Konnagar house has been brought to light by Soumyen Bandyopadhyay, Sir James Stirling Chair in Architecture at Liverpool University; Purba Chatterjee, chief researcher and translator; and members of the Centre for the Study of Architecture and Cultural Heritage of India, Arabia and the Maghreb at Liverpool University, which Bandyopadhyay directs. Bandyopadhyay said in a Zoom interview that they found out more about the Konnagar garden house when Liverpool University launched the project, “Hugli River of Cultures,” in 2018.
Bappaditya Chatterjee, former chairman of Konnagar Municipality who was instrumental in saving the Konnagar house, says Pratap Chandra Chunder, founder-chairman of the West Bengal Heritage Commission, had in 2007 identified it as the garden house frequented by Abanindranath and mentioned in his memoir. At that time the structure was in ruins and the garden ran wild. The very next year a developer bought the plot, but after a prolonged court battle, a deed was made in favour of Konnagar Municipality. The 12 bigha plot was cleared and opened to the public on March 3, 2020. Soon after, it was locked up again because of the pandemic.
Under the jackfruit tree
Abanindranath has left behind a charming account of a family trip to the Konnagar garden house accompanied by his parents, cousins, and aunt during summer holidays in Jorasankor Dhare. The house, which had changed many hands, then belonged to Joggesh Prakash Gangopadhyay, who was married to Kadambini, Abanindranath’s paternal aunt.
While describing their journey to the Konnagar garden house, Abanindranath says that they left the Jorasanko house at 5 am in their phaeton [a horse-drawn carriage], crossed the Howrah pontoon bridge, and left behind villages to reach the small, white house built on a mound on the west bank of the Hooghly. On the north of the Konnagar house was a jackfruit tree, its foliage spread out like a huge umbrella. In the evening, swarms of fireflies danced beneath the tree—the children believed it was for a squirrel’s wedding. Occasionally, the blind old raja of Uttarpara would pass by in his carriage and enquire after them. In the evenings, the family would sit on the steps leading to the river.
The ancient jackfruit tree has survived.
It is speculated that the house was constructed sometime in the 1820s by East India Company engineers to house its soldiers as they moved to and from Kolkata. The family of Joy Krishna Mukherjee, zamindars of neighbouring Uttarpara, which piggybacked on the Company to build up its wealth, was the original owner of the land. Joggesh Prakash had taken the house on lease from Joy Krishna. While the restoration, if it can be termed so, of the building should have been better planned, the house’s survival is important as grassroots efforts made that possible.
Unlike Rabindranath, whom Bengalis have deified but allowed his Visva-Bharati University to degenerate into a cesspool of politics, Abanindranath is a relatively neglected figure in spite of his contributions as a pioneer of modern Indian art. His 150th birth anniversary passed in 2021 without the West Bengal government making any special effort to celebrate it.
A visit to the sprawling Gupta Nibas in Belgharia (a Kolkata suburb) provides enough evidence of neglect and our general unconcern about cultural legacies. This house had witnessed some significant historical events besides being Abanindranath’s last abode. In striking contrast to the Konnagar garden house, Gupta Nibas is dying a slow death, thanks to the apathy of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), which owns the land on which it was constructed. The house is quite close to the ISI main campus in Baranagar, on the northern outskirts of Kolkata.
Gupta Nibas is a double-storeyed building with wide louvred verandahs running along the southern side on both floors that remind one of the famous “ dakshiner baranda” (southern verandah, also the title of a book of childhood reminiscences by Abanindranath’s grandson, Mohanlal Gangopadhyay) of the Tagores’ Jorasanko house. The three brothers, Gaganendranath, Samarendranath, and Abanindranath, used the space as their study, studio, and lounge, and Rabindranath too joined them sometimes. Gaganendranath and Abanindranath could effortlessly turn the foreign into the familiar in their works perhaps because, unlike their famous uncle, they rarely stirred from the south-facing verandah of their section of the Jorasanko home at No. 5 Dwarkanath Tagore Lane. When it was demolished in 1941, Abanindranath moved to Gupta Nibas, which had a similar verandah.
Today, only strips of wood survive in place of the louvres, and the brickwork shows no trace of the plaster that would have covered it once. Props hold up the structure that threatens to collapse as one enters it. Dense shrubbery is swallowing up the house. The adjacent pond is full of algae.
The property belongs to the ISI but the house is still known by its old name, Gupta Nibas—it originally belonged to one of the many branches of the family of Dwarkanath Gooptu of Jorasanko. Rabindranath named it Ghargharia (an onomatopoeic word imitating the sound of carriage wheels) as trains once chugged past it.
Before 2010, an artists’ group demanded that Gupta Nibas be turned into an Abanindranath museum, and inscribed their demand on its walls. That is lost without a trace. The ISI had signed an agreement with the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC), a government of India enterprise, to restore Gupta Nibas and construct a cryptology centre, office buildings, staff quarters, and a hostel on the plot. The site was handed over to NBCC, but work came to a halt during the pandemic. Now it is a deserted place, crowded with half-built high-rises, which seem eerie even in the middle of the afternoon.
History in the walls
After the death of his wife, Suhasini, in 1942, Abanindranath stopped painting, but his creativity branched out in other directions as he started creating the playful and idiosyncratic kutum katam with found objects in Gupta Nibas—his first experiment with assemblage sculpture. And here he finished the amazing Khuddur Jatra, a contemporary take on the Ramayana, that proves his merit as an artist way beyond his time.
Abanindranath’s grandson, Amitendranath Tagore, said in an interview in 2010 that his grandfather, “the man who wrote pictures”, had painted a fresco of Siva’s family in the Himalaya on a wall of Gupta Nibas. The painting was later washed away by monsoon rains.
Many distinguished visitors dropped by at Gupta Nibas in its heyday. Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, who treated Abanindranath, had installed a phone in the house, but Abanindranath was far from happy. In 1942, Abanindranath moved to Santiniketan as vice chancellor of Visva-Bharati and stayed there for four years before returning to Gupta Nibas. He spent his last days in the house surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, who established the ISI, rented Gupta Nibas in the 1930s. In October 1937, when a special session of the All India Congress Committee was held in Calcutta, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Sarojini Naidu came on a visit to Gupta Nibas, where Rabindranath was staying as Mahalanobis’ guest.
It was here that “Vande Mataram” with its allusions to goddess Durga was rejected as the national anthem as it could be unacceptable to Muslims. Rabindranath wrote to both Bose and Nehru to this effect. Three days later, the working committee made its decision on “Vande Mataram” saying, “The Committee recognises the validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song,” adding that “only the first two stanzas should be sung” since these do not have religious connotation.
After Abanindranath’s death, his family continued to live there until their tenancy contract expired around 1958, when the government acquired the building.
Soumitra Das is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.
- A heritage building associated with the Bengali author and artist Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) in West Bengal’s Konnagar has been restored
- An online gallery of the paintings of Abanindranath, Rabindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore that also walks viewers through the nine rooms of the Konnagar house will be launched soon
- Gupta Nibas, the house where Abanindranath died and some important events of history happened, is falling apart