Rabindranath painted mostly by instinct. He never liked to learn conventionally, by practice. This was even more apparent in the last years of his life when he became a prolific painter. He once fell very ill in 1937 and slipped into a coma. At the time his passion for painting was such that the first thing he did on regaining consciousness was to paint a landscape. He himself explained why painting was important to him as an altogether separate language of articulation. He wrote:
“A large part of man can never find its expression in the mere language of words. It must, therefore, seek for its expression other languages – lines and colours, sounds and movements. Through our mastery of these we not only make our whole nature articulate but also understand man in all his attempts to reveal his innermost being in every age and clime…
It is the duty of every human being to master, at least to some extent, not only the language of the intellect, but also the language of the personality which is the language of Art.”
What also pleased him about his activity as a painter was that he could overcome the barrier of language through his paintings. When he travelled to different parts of the world and his ‘words’ needed the help of interpreters. But his art could speak without the medium of an interpreter.
That did not mean questions were not asked about the ‘meaning’ of his paintings. Many asked if these pictures had a ‘mystic’ meaning. He did not himself want to see meaning in them nor did he want others to do so. He asserted that everything of this earth outside the human world was silent. The stars did not utter words, the planets and clouds and trees did not, nor the green grass and flowers.
Why therefore should we tie meaning to art, he asked. When there was a Revivalist movement in art to link art with nationalism and some of his contemporaries were attempting to glorify the past through their art, Rabindranath spoke out against the idea and likened it to a ‘smothering of the soul’. He wrote:
“It is the element of unpredictability in art which seems to fascinate me strongly. The subject matter of a poem can be traced back to some dim thought in the mind. Once it leaves the matted crown of Siva, the stream of poetry flows along its measured course – well-defined by its two banks. While painting, the process adopted by me is quite the reverse.
First there is the hint of a line, then the line becomes a form. The more pronounced the form becomes the clearer becomes the picture to my conception. This creation of form is a source of wonder. If I were a finished artist I would probably have a preconceived idea to be made into a picture. This is no doubt a rewarding experience. But it is greater fund when the mind is seized upon by something outside of it, some surprise element which gradually evolves into an understandable shape.”
This article was written by Uma Das Gupta
Professor Uma Das Gupta is a historian and a renowned Tagore biographer. She is the author of many books and articles on Tagore. Some of the most recent are: Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2010; Rabindranath Tagore: An Illustrated Life. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2013.