Rabindranath Tagore’s multifaceted talent ranged over the varied genres of poetry, drama, novel, short story, non-fictional prose including criticism and travelogue. In his mature years he also turned to painting and achieved an individual style which though close to European modernism, especially Expressionism, inaugurated an era of Indian modernity in the realm of art. This article seeks to discuss the special features of his paintings and focuses on the distinctive characteristics of his paintings of women in relation to other artists of his time.
Tagore the Artist
Rabindranath Tagore had never had much formal training in art, although there was a drawing teacher of the Tagore family who gave him preliminary lessons. Towards the end of his life he became prolific and produced over 2500 landscapes, faces and sketches within a decade. He was immensely attracted to primitive art, European Expressionism and Japanese art. Distortion of form, aberrant use of colour and sensitive handling of lines characterized his paintings. His paintings had a strange surrealism and bizarre expression very novel in Indian art at the time.
In the spring of 1930, when on a tour of France, Tagore was advised by some art critics of local newspapers to hold an exhibition in Paris. Thereafter in May 1930 he held the first public and international exhibition of his paintings in Paris, at the Gallerie Pigalle. The exhibition travelled to different countries in Europe in the same year. India and his home town Calcutta hosted an exhibition only in 1931, a year after the Paris exhibition.
Rabindranath Tagore’s eclecticism led to his amalgamation of diverse influences in his artistic output. But whatever cultural values he accepted as his raw material, it was turned into creations uniquely his own. Most critics seek to connect his paintings to his writings. But the paintings also impact strongly upon modern Indian art and have independent significance. The recent four volume publication of his artistic output would doubtless open new windows upon Tagore the artist.
The inner eye peeps through his landscapes suggesting a dream world of lyricism. The grotesque and the weird in his animals redefine beauty and ugliness in the age of modernism. The eastern world resonates with a sensuous spirituality both renouncing and embracing the material world. The western style is married to eastern stylization. The doodles new-create the lines of his written poetry and re-create a new text.
The portraits gaze at us with psychological intensity. His palette is restricted, his lines simple but his vision is complex. It transgresses the borders of narrow nationalism and trumpets the destruction of the restrictive borders of clime and time. The art historian should take into account Tagore’s affinity with the German Expressionists, his originality in defying the canons of art, the social relevance of his paintings of women and his attitude to gender.
Rabindranath Tagore’s career as artist spanned just 17 years, if we take it to begin in 1924 with the doodles with which he embellished the manuscript of his book of poems, Purabi, although his first dated painting is of 1928. It was from then that he started doing independent paintings, though he continued to doodle.
Although, as Siva Kumar points out, doodling at first was not a conscious artistic activity, they acquired greater expressiveness with time, transcending the mere need for decorating the erasures in his manuscripts, they acquired independent life, often a parallel, sometimes even a subversive life of their own. Among later manuscripts, doodles are to be seen in drafts of Raktakarabi (1923-24), Tapati (1929) and Banashree (1933) among his plays, and Jogajog (1928), Shesher Kabita (1928), Dui Bon (1932-33) and Malancha (1933) among his novels and in his travel writing, such as Java Jatrir Patra and Paschim Jatrir Diary — but never as complex as in the draft of his poems.
In later manuscripts the printed text is wholly submerged beneath doodles, which now become like flowing water, a shimmering translucent body, heralding the emergence of the painter. He continued to doodle alongside painting, often turning them into an independent means of expression. As in much of his paintings so also in his doodles he appears quite absorbed in both the decorative and the grotesque, strange imaginary creatures. He found himself engrossed in depicting the rhythm of lines and their movement. In fact, rhythm and movement are the two fundamental concepts that seem to motivate his art. These two aspects are also at the basis of the artist’s conception of the universe.
Masks and Faces
Tagore’s fascination with the unusual, the odd and conventionally un-beautiful is expressed in his depiction of diverse masks and faces and portraits. Art historian Siva Kumar (Chitravali, Vol. 2) points out that “although there is some chronological overlap, and one can find works that can only be described as masks which are dated 1939 or 1940 and portrait like images of the face that can be dated as early as 1929 or 30, most of his early representations of the human face belong to the category of masks, and the later ones to what may be called portraits and characters. Through his travels, Tagore was exposed to other cultures, the theatre, masked dances and ritualistic performances of Japan, Indonesia, Bali.”
Tagore’s interest in human beings, variations of character traits, led to his fascinating range of faces in portrait-like sketches and paintings. Faces that smile, grimace, express sorrow, fear, anger. Faces that inhabit a fantasy world of humour, wit and dreams. There were also pencil sketches done as illustrations to the texts of Shey and Khapchhara. These latter especially show his command over anatomy and technique.
The Human Form
As a writer, Tagore was intensely interested in human beings and nature. As an artist, this fascination expressed itself through his fascination with the human body, which he painted as variously postured: sitting, standing, squatting, walking, dancing, in groups and in solitude, and in multidimensional moods. In all his artistic oeuvre, be it faces, full figures or landscapes, he is aware of the importance of the rhythm lines, even fascinated by cross-hatchings, curves, circles, cones, the harshness of sharp corners, the smoothness of gentle turns and twists.
Tagore’s landscapes are noted for their architectonic spatial compactness. They are marked by an almost geometrical flatness — a monotony that is sometimes broken by adventure into perspectival depth. Painted as they were with the simple media of coloured ink on paper, there was not much scope for experimenting in tonal modulation. But strangely enough, in some paintings one can see attempts at mixing different hues. In most landscapes nature exists in solitary grandeur, its primeval infinity untampered by human mediation. But there are paintings in which it serves as a backdrop to humanity.
One finds that in the last phase of his life, Tagore, through the visual arts, was entering a new world of form, colour and line, discovering a new identity which was perhaps more universal in language than the literary realm of narrative and more specific cultural references. Therefore he endowed to it a status and dignity by incorporating it in the education system he propagated in Visva-Bharati University and sought to introduce it in the art of daily life, in the architecture of Santiniketan and even in the furniture he used. His patronage and encouragement helped to shape the minds of great artists.
Tagore had always been fascinated by the expressive quality of lines. From a very young age he learned to observe the world as a spectacle made up of line and shape. In his Chinese ink drawings the lines criss-cross and crosshatch creating a sense of movement and a unity in diversity. Just as in his landscapes he seeks to distil the essence of nature rather than its details so too in his line drawings he expresses the essence of all creation that is, rhythm.
The quest for rhythm and essence seems to me to be the motivating force of his paintings. This is the quest that lends character to Chinese and Japanese art. In Tagore, there is both stasis and movement, scintillating dynamism as well as piercing stillness: in the strange grimacing creatures, the placid sunset trees, the sad, soul-piercing eyes, the expressionistic screaming colours and the agonized swirling lines creating new horizons of knowledge and self-realization. His paintings have a closed depthless and flat perspective. This is not only the new style of a new era in painting; it also connotes a new intensity of focus.
Tagore versus the Bengal School of Art
Through his paintings, Tagore introduced a new inwardness to Indian art, distinct from the revivalist narrativism of his famous nephews Abanindranath and the cubist detachment of Gaganendranath. By the time Tagore started painting, the Bengal School, led by Abanindranath Tagore, had already launched its revivalist movement. In fact, Tagore himself had advised his nephew Abanindranath to develop the Indian technique in his art.
Yet ironically, against the backdrop of this resurgence of a nationalistic movement, Tagore’s art seemed strange and outlandish to viewers used to the pretty ornamentation and stylized romanticism of the Bengal School. Rabindranath preferred to open his windows to the world. He was consciously or unconsciously unifying through his work the ethos of both the West and the East but readjusting everything to suit his purpose of subjective self realization.
Breaking the Mould: Women in Tagore’s Paintings
Tagore’s radicalism and the iconoclastic nature of his art is perhaps most pronounced in his paintings of women. Tagore’s paintings of women are of infinite variety: some dreamy, some bold, some turn away from the world, some asexual, others enjoy male company. They are not all young and pretty. Some are wrinkled like dry vegetables.
Tagore’s women mark a remarkable volte-face from the conceptualized Mother India figure of India’s great nationalistic era; the concept of Bharat Mata or woman-as-nation, as visualized by Abanindranath in his painting Bharat Mata 1902-5. “A unique icon of the woman is introduced early in the 20th century, investing her with the powers of the new goddess.” (She has 4 hands). Sister Nivedita wrote in Prabasi: “We have here a picture which bids fair to prove the beginning of a new age of Indian art” Nivedita finds the image archetypically Indian: the pale lotuses, the four arms, the shankha, that is the white bangles made of conch shell that she wears in her arms.
There is an ambiguity between the woman as a goddess but also as shahadharmini, being demure, chaste and wearing the conventional red and white bangles that Bengali wives wear. Her doubly idealized status secures the political-emotive purpose. But she is treated as an object. As Tagore observes, in India, the idea of woman is associated with the Devi (goddess). Womanliness and godliness are synonymous.
Yet how is it that Tagore does not paint such devis? Why does he want to create an alternative? Why does he deviate from his own stated ideal? Is he painting Mother India in pain? The sentiment evoked in his song ‘keno cheye aachho go ma’ (why are you staring, o, mother)? It is obvious that he paints an antithesis of a goddess. Are his women goddesses in agony? If Munch’s famous expressionist painting ‘The Scream’ shouts at social injustice, so do Tagore’s women, only less loudly.
In Abanindranath, propagator of the Bengal School style, the picture plane is flat (this is characteristic of the traditional Indian miniature painting style), and the references are objective. His Bharat Mata wears vermillion in her hair, the mark of marriage, yet also a saffron sari, the symbol of religiosity.
What is her actual identity? Human or divine? Virgin or married? She is the goddess mother in the guise of the docile Indian wife who mingles desire with devotion. She does not raise her eyes to the viewer like the traditional Indian coy lady. Yet Tagore’s women look at us, see us, stare at us, pleadingly, agonisedly, both bold and demure.
Tagore’s women are un-placed, un-mapped and of varied complexions. Tagore de-politicizes woman from the pedestal of the mother goddess or Mother India. In the concept of the mother goddess woman is utilized, commodified. In Tagore’s paintings, she is her own self, pained at being utilised. In his novel Ghare Baire, Tagore speaks out directly against the iconization of women as Mother India.
In his paintings, women are his own conception: Expressionistic in representation and in painterly technique. In Tagore’s poetry and paintings, women emerge as individuals demanding serious attention. So long the object of male gaze, they now become the gazers staring out at us. Siv Kumar observes that with Tagore’s faces we exchange looks!
The key to an understanding of Tagore’s visual depiction of women lies in his utterance in ‘Woman’: “women have the vital power more strongly in them than men have.” And what he says about beauty : …”beauty is not a mere fact; it cannot be accounted for, it cannot be surveyed and mapped. It is an expression.”
Representation of this vital power required a more vital language than the decorativeness of the Bengal School, or the volumetric naturalism of Ravi Varma’s or Hemen Majumdar’s women. The West, getting accustomed to Expressionist and Fauvistic distortions in form and colour, was ready to accept the modernism of the Indian poet, as evidenced in the exhibition in Paris. To people at home, perhaps, his paintings were rather disturbing.
The paintings of Rabindranath inaugurate a different chapter in the history of Indian art and look forward to the contemporary artist’s search for an autonomous creative self, the autonomy that according to Adorno, is the goal of art. It is futile and unnecessary to try to identify the women he paints as some critics keep doing.
Geeti Sen, Feminine Fables: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography and Cinema, Mapen Publishing Ltd. Ahmedabad, 2002 p.17.
Ibid. p. 28.
‘A unifying Experience: Rabindranath the Poet-Artist’, ed. Krishna Sen & Tapati Gupta, Tagore & Modernity, Das Gupta & Co. Kolkata, 2006, pp.149-162.
See Vol.I, Rabindra Chitravali, Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore, published by Paratikshan in association with Visva-Bharati & the Ministry of Culture, Government of Inida, 2011.
Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Woman’, Personality, Macmillan Pocket Edition, New Delhi, 1980, 174.
Rabindranath Tagore, ‘What is Art?’ Ibid., p 34.
Dr Tapati Gupta is retired professor and HOD English of Calcutta University. She has several publications on literature and the fine arts and is also an art critic and translator.