Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951); Rabindranath’s cousin once removed by Christine Kupfer

Abanindranath was Rabindranath’s nephew and an artist and writer of children’s books. Abanindranath was born at Jorasanko in Kolkata on 7 August 1871 to his father Gunendranath Tagore. He went to Normal School from 1876, then went on to Sanskrit College until 1889. In this year, he married Suhasini Devi (daughter of Bhujagendra Bhusan Chatterjee, a descendant of Prasanna Coomar Tagore).

Abanindranath Tagore
Abanindranath Tagore

Abanindranath continued his education for another year and a half to study English at St. Xavier’s College. Yet Abanindranath’s chief interest was painting. In 1890, Abanindranath attended the Calcutta School of Art where he learnt from the Italian artist O. Ghilardi how to use pastels, and took classes in oil paintings from Charles Palmer but particularly developed an interest in watercolour. He began to publish his works in the early 1890s in magazines and Rabindranath’s books.

Abanindranath was Rabindranath’s cousin once removed. He was an artist and writer of children’s books. He first published his works in Rabindranath’s books. Initially, Abanindranath painted in a Western style but then turned to Indian styles. He worked together with E.B. Havell and his brother Gaganendranath to revitalize the teaching of Indian arts at the Calcutta School of Art. In 1970, he created the “Indian Society of Oriental Art,” propagated swadeshi values with the arts, and heavily influenced the style of modern Indian paintings, later known as Bengal School of Art.

By modernizing the traditional styles of painting (Mughal and Rajput), he countered Western artistic influences that were taught in the Art schools of his times.

Abanindranath met other Asian artists and art historians such as the Japanese Okakura Kakuza and Yokoyama Taikan, and incorporated elements of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy in search of a pan-Asian art tradition.

"Ganasha-Janani" by Abanindranath Tagore. Depicts Parvati playing with baby Ganesha. 1908. Indian Museum, Kolkata.  Image: Public Domain.
“Ganasha-Janani” by Abanindranath Tagore. Depicts Parvati playing with baby Ganesha. 1908. Indian Museum, Kolkata.
Image: Public Domain.

Abanindranath was a close friend of William Rothenstein, who was a writer, an artist, and president of London’s Royal College of Art. They met, when Rothenstein travelled through India and painted and drew together to learn about the Bengal School of Art. Rothenstein later on played an important role for Rabindranath, because it was at Rothenstein’s London home that Rabindranath presented his Gitanjali that subsequently led to his fame in the West and to winning the Nobel Prize of Literature in 19913. This, in turn, also made Abanaindranath’s art more famous in the West. His paintings were displayed at exhibitions in London, Paris and Japan.

In 1898, Abanindranath became principal of the Art College of Kolkata. There, he taught arts until he became Bageshri professor at University of Calcutta in 1921. In 1942, he was announced chancellor of Rabindranath’s Visva-Bharati University. Famous students of Abanindranath include Nandalal Bose, who became principal of the Kala Bhavana (College of Arts) at Visva-Bharati in 1922.

"Journey's End" by Abanindranath Tagore  (circa 1913). Tempera on paper, 150 mm x 210 mm. National Gallery Of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi.  Image: Public Domain.
“Journey’s End” by Abanindranath Tagore
(circa 1913). Tempera on paper, 150 mm x 210 mm. National Gallery Of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi.
Image: Public Domain.

Abanindranath also wrote prolifically. His children’s books (e.g., Nalak, Budo Angla, Rajkahini) are considered to be landmarks in Bengali children’s literature, and he wrote numerous critical essays on the fine arts. He was, furthermore, an active member of the swasdeshi movement and denunciated foreign clothes, supported the development of local industries and the use of Bengali.

Gaganendranath and his brother Abanindranath are usually described as nephews of Rabindranath Tagore. Yet they were the sons of Gunendranath Tagore (who is a cousin of Rabindranath Tagore), grandson of Girindranath Tagore (who is an uncle of Rabindranath Tagore) and a great-grandson of Prince Dwarkanath Tagore (who is the grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore). They are therefore Rabindranath’s cousins once removed.

 

Bibliographical Notes

  • Appasamy, Jaya, and S A. Krishnan. Abanindranath Tagore and the Art of His Times. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1968.
  • Banerji, Debashish. The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore. New Delhi: SAGE, 2010.
  • Chakravorty, Ramendra N. Abanindranath Tagore: His Early Work. Calcutta: Indian Museum, 1964.
  • Chandra, Rai G. Abanindranath Tagore. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, 1951.
  • Dey, Mukul. “Abanindranath Tagore: A Survey of the Master’s Life and Work.”  Reprinted from “Abanindra Number,” The Visva-Bharati Quarterly, May – Oct. 1942.
  • Dutta, Ella. “Abanindranath Tagore: a new context”, Contemporary Indian Art: Other Realities, ed. Yashodhara Dalmia, Mumbai: Marg, vol.53 no.3, 2002, reprinted 2008.
  • Guha-Thakurta, Tapati, “Abanindranath, Known and Unknown: The Artist versus the Art of his Times”,  Art & Visual Culture in India 1857-2007, ed. Gayatri Sinha. Mumbai: Marg, 2009.
  • Majumdar, Soumik Nandy. “Abanindranath Tagore: a reappraisal.” In Art etc. News and Views.
  • Kumar, R. Siva. Paintings of Abanindranath Tagore. Kolkata: Pratikshan, Mumbai, 2008.
  • Tagore, Abanindranath. Abanindranath Tagore. Calcutta: Indian Society of Oriental Art, 1961.