The Nobel prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore,is the father figure of Bengal culture, timeless
global phenomena as poet and author. But did you know Tagore was also an accidental painter?
Rabindranath Tagore’s artistic adventure began with doodles that turned crossed-out words
and lines into images that assumed expressive and sometimes grotesque forms. They were unplanned and shaped by accidents and intuitive decisions but often seem to carry memories of ‘primitive’ art objects which he would have probably seen in books and museums. They made their way into his early paintings.
In this article, India’s famous contemporary artist, Shantala Palat shares her insight on the paintings of Rabindranath Tagore.
To celebrate the 157th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in 2018, his paintings were exhibited in Egypt. The exhibition was titled ‘Rabindranath Tagore: Rhythm In Colors’ and was inaugurated by India’s ambassador to Egypt.
Tagore began painting much later in his life when he was into his 60s. He made more than 3,000 paintings and drawings in the last 17 years of his life. He was the first Indian artist to exhibit his works across Europe, Russia, and the United States in 1930. His painting style was individualistic, characterised by simple bold forms and rhythmic quality, and later served to inspire many modern Indian artists.
Tagore’s initial paintings are highly imaginative works, revolving around animals or imaginary creatures, which are infused with vitality and humor. Human figures are shown either as individuals with expressive gestures or in groups in theatrical settings. Landscape subjects are the least output among Tagore’s works.
The finest Tagore paintings consist of the following:
Many of Tagore’s paintings represent animals, but they are never of the real ones we know of. Most often, they represent what he has described as ‘a probable animal that had
unaccountably missed its chance of existence’ or ‘a bird that only can soar in our dreams’. This led him to the creation of an antediluvian menagerie. Guided by the same spirit of inventiveness, he also took to cross - projecting the movement of a living animal on to an imagined body, or a human gesture onto an animal body and vice versa. This exchange between the familiar and the unknown, the inhabitation of one in the other has led him to designs that are as expressive as they are inventive.
The human face is a clear constant in Tagore’s work. As a motif that persists right through his
artistic career, it shows his undiminished interest in human persona. Here again, as in his dramatic juxtaposition of figures, without turning literary, his paintings show an overlap with one of his literary concerns and is enriched by them. As a writer, especially as a writer of short stories, he was used to linking human appearance with an inner human essence. When he started painting he found a similar opportunity in the representation of the human face. In the beginning, this usually led him to turn the face into a mask or a hieratic symbol of a social type. Later, as his representational skills and expressive assurance grew, the shadows of faces he encountered or remembered, he began to play with the painted faces and give them the resonance and expansiveness of characters.
Even though he was an untrained artist and sometimes referred to his paintings as foundlings, the painting also made Rabindranath more observant and sensitive to the visible world. More than ever before, he now saw it ‘as a vast procession of forms.’ This new involvement with the visible world found a definite expression in his landscapes, which in turn also linked up with one of his older passions. As a child confined to a large home and left to himself, Tagore spent most of his time observing nature through the windows. The world outside gave him a sense of companionship and freedom, and later when he wandered around the vast rural landscapes of Bengal, he felt he was in contact with the infinite. It was also his regular practice to get up before sunrise and watch the world wrapped in the morning twilight. In these landscape paintings done during the latter part of his life, he often painted nature bathed in the evening light, with radiant skies and forms melting into ominous silhouettes, thus invoking mystery and foreboding silence.
Gesticulating Figures/Dramatic Scenes
Rabindranath Tagore never named his paintings and by leaving them untitled ,he tried to free
them from literary imagination and to free them from his own issues as a writer. He also wanted the viewers to see his paintings with their own sensibility and fund of experience and read them in their light. Yet his rendering of the figures is informed by his experience of the theatre as a playwright, director, and actor. Animated by gestures which do not suggest everyday activities, even his individual figures have a dramatic form. Sometimes, their costumes, the furniture and the objects that surround them play a role in this transformation of the ordinary into a dramatic motif. They do not move into narration but invoke narrative potentiality, especially when one figure is placed side by side with another or when they are shown in groups. The wordless theatre they conjure does not mimic life. Movements and gestures in his paintings are usually more somber than mime; they tease us into thinking and empathetic immersion rather than mere recognition.