Rabindranath Tagore: The Vivified Vision of Nature in Art

The Magnificence of Nature… Nature, the inexhaustible treasure trove of creativity, generated inspirations from the very onset of human civilization. Any visual culture is read, realized and recognized in the context of its land of origin, i.e geographical as well as the social environment. Society and culture are interwoven with nature, and art in its manifold forms, mediums and expressions represents such issues and realizations of our daily existence.

Ever since the advent of civilization, man has either been enamored of the beauty of nature or has worshipped it due to its antagonistic powers. Artists, poets, litterateurs and musicians around the globe, in different periods of history, have composed poems, painted pictures, and written essays on the immense stimulating orders of nature.

After all it is nature that instills the mystery and magnificence into our otherwise materialistically inclined society. Nature has all the spellbinding, captivating charm of the infinite. And visual arts and music are perhaps the only two media of expression to express the depth of such a feeling that can surmount cross- cultural barriers more easily than the written language in general. Often retaining to certain culture -specific idioms or icons by means of depiction, Art as a whole surpasses the cultural constraints of written or spoken language.

In recent years “nature”, environment’, “ecology” to name a few are much talked -about terms. It is so because the world at large has started questioning the ecological sustainability and the fragile environmental context of the human race, which thereafter has infiltrated into the artists awareness too.

As we all know such an idea about sustainable ecological entity was most appropriately conceived by none other than the multifaceted genius Rabindranath Tagore way back in the beginning of 20th century. Tagore perhaps was the first visionary in British India to consciously realize and relate the underlying synthesis between nature and culture ; a thought that later culminated into his establishment of Santiniketan.

The author of this article being an alumna of Visva Bharati University {as a student of Patha Bhavan(School) and later Kala Bhavan (Fine Arts Faculty)}, feels highly fortunate to have received her entire education amidst such an eclectic atmosphere where the wonders and beauties of nature strengthened the values and groomed the aesthetics of perceptivity in every spheres of life.

Having an immense reverence for nature and also being a practicing painter myself the present article thereby attempts to simply read Tagore’s nature representations along with the related technicalities as a painter , rather than critique the historical , social or psychological contexts against which he actually attempted to explore this virgin terrain of creativity.

 

Varied Interpretations of Nature in Art

Imbibing inspiration from nature or prakriti is, therefore, eternal to man. And to the versatile genius Rabindranath it was his childhood passion which had subjugated his literary and auditory domain entirely. It was only at the twilight of his life that this “nature” emerged in his visual territory, often as landscape paintings, amongst varied other items in terms of color, ink and brush.

As Sri Aurobindo said “there are double characters of intellectual activity, one imaginative and the other analytic and art which is imaginative arises from such a powerful stimulator of sympathetic insight”1. No wonder such a thoughtful vision had stimulated Tagore at the mature age of nearly sixty three to start his sojourn into the kingdom of forms, colors and lines. In his own words he mentions, “I had a deep sense almost from infancy of the beauty of Nature, an intimate feeling of companionship with the trees and the clouds, and felt in tune with musical touch of the seasons in the air.”2

Landscape painting had originated with significant historical, social, philosophical and topographical imageries and concepts in all the major styles of visual arts around the world. Broadly speaking the viewing of nature came to be identified mostly through three basic categories-
a) where nature is controlled with a sense of domination, b) where nature is nurtured and cared for c) where humans are part of nature.

While in India, landscapes mostly played the role of the backdrop stimuli to the numerous murals and miniature paintings, the Far Eastern art in general associated the elements of nature with a more metaphysical and spiritual dimension attuned to their age old philosophies of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. They manifested the magnitude and grandeur of the universal mystic laws often as reciprocal entities of Yin and Yang and thereby incorporated the essence of oneness between man and nature.

But, broadly speaking, this metaphysical identification completely differed with the Western ideologies which were more naturalistic in approach. Down the ages their visualization relied more upon the imitation of nature in its every detail and exactitude– mostly as an item of domination and control. Landscape paintings during the Renaissance, Neo- Classical , Romantic or Art Nouveau periods thereby appeared primarily for two reasons – either as a picturesque setting for some human drama or as a quasi-scientific reconstruction of the geo-physical landmasses of a particular area.

 

“Prakriti” as represented in Tagore’s Painting

The landscape paintings of Tagore which are not too many in number in his otherwise large repertoire of more than two thousand works, however do not fall into any of the above mentioned categories as they all emerged from a much different and deeper insight.

Over the years, works on Tagore’s paintings have received numerous evaluation, analysis and criticism by innumerable eminent scholars, authors and artists so very little may be added to it now. Though it is a much researched area, yet his expressive, eloquent and intuitive paintings, till today inspires us again and again to search for the key of the hidden chamber- the colorful fount of his imaginations, inspirations and emotions.

At times Tagore’s painting vocation is thought to be a prelude amidst his opulence of creative diversity. But such mature works in its plentitude could not be so, rather it only unlocked a new horizon in the artistic self of the multifaceted personality. His paintings may have derived from the vacuity which had emerged in his procession of words all through his intricate literary career, because words could never provide the instantaneous palpability and playfulness found in the language of line and color. “An understanding of this attitude of playfulness and soliloquy brings us closer to understanding Rabindranath’s art.”3

Tagore as a painter emerged in the early years of 20th century “…….the art scene he knew in his early years was a staid academic one whether of the Occidental or Oriental persuasion, concerned more with virtuosities of practice than vitality of imagery. Even if the Oriental enclosure accommodated visual poetry and imaginative license, it still did not admit freely the wild phantasmagoria of the mind.”4Within the milieu of such artistic happenings grew his self -taught, naïve art activities with an ardent urge to create, abiding no rules and set patterns of any academic art syllabus.

As he himself mentions “…… my pictures did not have their origin in trained discipline , in tradition and deliberate attempt to illustration but in my instinct for rhythm , my pleasure in harmonious combination of lines and colours.”5With an intense creative impulse thus surged his pictorial pulsation and landscape paintings here to be more precise , arrived at the pivotal point of this short lived , enriched artistic chapter ,mostly between 1924-1941.

This was the period when he experimented with all his untutored techniques and mediums and unveiled some of the most enthralling and exquisite mysteries of nature in the imaginative flow of forms and colors. When artists around him were trying to construct specific imageries and narratives with their well versed technicalities and skilled expertise, Tagore on the other hand was trying to deconstruct the so called artistic parameters and seek a very personal language of self enrichment. And to this search, nature as a whole bestowed that quintessential solace that he was struggling to attain.

From the artists own surroundings emerges his creation and such a response best appears in Tagore’s landscapes- the magnificent sunsets, the blooming sunrises, the mellowed moonlit nights of the lateritic, eroded lands of Santiniketan or the wistful memories of his estate at Shilaidaha on the banks of the river Padma where nature in broad expanse was calm, serene or at times stormy. In one of the letters from Chinnapatra we come across such a striking account of a raging storm.

In another letter he gives a vivid description of nature when he writes “Today I’ve been drifting all day on the river’s course … sitting alone, silent – on both sides of the river the villages, the landing-ghats, the fields of crops present ever-shifting scenes, and as they come, as they pass, the clouds float in the sky, taking on different colors at dusk, the boat drifts, the fishermen catch fish, the waters murmur ceaselessly as though in affection. But in the evening the vast spread-out mass of waters falls still, like a tired child falling asleep, and all the stars wake and gaze at me from the unbounded sky above my head … as I view all these changing pictures, the stream of imagination flows on, and on its two banks, like the distant scenes by the river, new desires are painted.

Perhaps the scene before my eyes is unremarkable, a yellow barren sandbank stretches ahead, a deserted boat is moored on it, and the light-blue river, reflecting the color of the sky, flows past, yet as I look at it, I can’t describe the feeling in my heart … in the human mind, imagination and reality weave such a complex web!”6 The description of all such pastoral scenes are blended with empathy, wonder and imagination making them more pictorial than literal. Later, all these teeming images, saturated feelings, and realizations burst out in abundance as elements of landscape often referring to the notion of sadrishya (similitude).

A kind of symbolism achieved through the association of form and spirit. Because of this approach his landscapes represent the essence of nature in all its totality with an atmospheric and environmental flavor. “In Tagore’s paintings external world objects are simplified to compounds of simple shapes and these sets of shapes and motifs live their lives however simplified do not become wholly non- representational.”7

 

Distinctive attributes of Tagore’s Landscapes

Tagore’s visual depictions of nature also ascertain three categories. The embryonic stage, merely rudimentary, reveals drawings in monochromes with more or less no tonal gradations. The composite organic forms emerging out of his erasures and doodles could often be compared with certain entities of nature.

At the second stage appears the use of scribbling and hatching for tonal variations. These textures crystallized the blank spaces of the paper as a specific color body of white, unified space and form and strengthened the interlocking expression of black and white in an extraordinary graphic sensibility. Or as Paul Klee’s famous description of drawing mentions, “taking a line for a walk” can aptly be attributed to Tagore’s linearism.

Only at the third stage apart from the numerous portraits, masks, still life, birds, beasts etc. did landscape appear with the use of transparent color inks, watercolors, crayons, pastels and pen and ink, creating excellent moods and atmospheric panoramas, unequalled by any modern Indian painter of the time. While his figural dispositions often appear with a grotesque expression, unpredictable and impulsive, the landscapes in comparison seems to be much more pre structured, disciplined and less rebellious. Perhaps his turbulent mind by then had found a recluse into these nature paintings where the elements as trees, rocks and rivers were already designed to its gravitational laws.

Tagore was all along charmed by the quick drying mediums of transparent color inks (He mostly preferred to use the imported Pelican inks) crayons, pastels etc. He had no preference for the oil medium which may have lacked the immediacy to grasp the elusive images of his transitory visions. However, colors played a very important role in his landscapes.

His palette revolved mostly within the shades of Cobalt and Prussian Blue, Orange, Red, Lemon, Chrome and Cadmium Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber , Black and Green though Greens were often obtained by overlapping blue and yellow. The Sanskrit words- “tamra”- the color of the lotus petal, babhru- yellowish red, etc. perhaps can best exemplify his subtle color nuances. Colors endowed his paintings with a heightened clarity and stimulated them with a novel and richer mystery.

It was by means of color juxtaposition, the darker shades of blue, brown or green against the lighter shades of yellow, orange and pink etc, that he obtained the necessary feeling of frontal plane, solidity, and desired depth. This was once again intuitive and spontaneous, dissolving the academic theory of converging perspective. Nature’s piquant colors which had soaked in his mind’s tapestry, wove out uninterruptedly in numerous landscapes representing an idiosyncrasy both very blithe and sedate.

Structurally his landscapes seem to look like mobile geometry- very lyrical, rhythmic and gyrating as if music meandering through colors but at the same time they were static and symmetrical as if frozen images of some primordial era. However the overall approach towards the pictorial uniformity seems to be predestined by his very accurate sense of balance and rhythm. This dual response of the static and the kinetic simultaneously appear in nature depictions, as the winding pathways, the taut tree trunks, the bulbous crown of foliages, the sharp edged mountains or the swirling water courses.

In this regard Tagore may be quoted once again, “One thing which is common to all arts is the principle of rhythm which transforms inert materials into living creations. My instinct for it and my training in its use led me to know that lines and colors in art are no carriers of information, they seek rhythmic incarnation in pictures.”8

Colors and textures functioned as reciprocating entities to his landscapes. They were interdependent on each other. To attain the same, as we all know, Tagore used the simplest of means with very limited vocabulary of method and material. Often the fountain pen, a piece of rag or cotton, an edge of a pen, or even his own finger tips, apart from the brushes and nibs, helped him to express his emotional turbulence on numerous sheets of paper.

By applying fugitive color inks in layers he acquired a remarkable pictorial body. And with the parallel usage of dots, dabs, textures and scribbles he evoked unaccountable rhythmic harmonies among the varied components of nature. By means of diffused and bright tonal and textural interactions he also achieved a kind of vibration in all his nature illuminations similar to perforation . In the words of K.G.Subramanyan, “the haunting woodlands with textured filigree of pen etchings and squiggles or dark and somber trees silhouetted against jewel –like sunrise or sunset, all these have a tantalizing fabric of texture, a mesmerizing brilliance of color and a striking graphic presence.”9

As it is known Tagore had a deep regard for the Far Eastern art and culture, especially of the art of Japan. While on his trip to Japan in 1916, he was deeply impressed to view the extraordinary representation of beauty and silence by the Japanese artists into their works “ This aesthetics of silence and emptiness, which he learned from Japanese art but belonged to the larger tradition of Far Eastern painting and literature, first seeped into the planning of Santiniketan, then into the presentation of his songs and plays and finally into his painting.” 10. Likewise, another very interesting aspect to note in these landscapes is the unique and instinctive technique to immure light within the skies, trees and waters.

Though the landscapes often appear in dark alleys, yet the interplay of light and dark is highly significant. On one hand light blinks through the foliage sparkling like blobs of sunshine and on the other mysterious sheets of fathomless shade are created beneath the trees. To delineate such effects into his “Logo-formic structures” 9a,the Japanese term of “notan” seems to be the most applicable one which refers to the proportionate distribution of lighter tones to darker ones in terms of pictorial unity and design, rather than the Western academic concept of light and shade referred to as chiaroscuro. As he himself mentions “as art creations are emotional representations of facts and ideas they can never be like the product of a photographic camera, which is passively receptive of lights and shadows in all their indiscriminate details.”11

The essential aspects of his landscape compositions are thereby the formal distortion, overlapping of colors and the phenomenal placement of objects. Specification of details in the pictorial context never inspired the poet- painter much. Perhaps it appeared as an obstacle to his creative force and rhythmic vitality.

As Henri Matisse had once mentioned that, details lessen the purity of lines and harms the emotional intensity. The very frequent features occurring in most of his nature depictions are, therefore, masses of silhouetted, monstrous trees standing single or in avenues, a still pond or a meandering river glistening in the soft rays of the sun, a pathway leading to an architectural set -up or else progressing towards the broad , bright luminous sky. Only occasionally trees like date- palm, plantain etc can be figured out due to the intuitive yet calligraphically structured handling of the brush, which was once again derived from his leanings towards the Far Eastern art.

Compositions with skies extraordinarily highlighted with transparent yellows, pinks or blues are once again a recurring feature to his landscapes. They are often reckoned to be the reflection of the Poet’s subconscious mind towards the unification of soul and nature. The realization of nature as an organic entity, as the eternal cycle of Being and Non Being projects a kind of universal imagery. And Tagore’s landscapes are perfect embodiment of such a spirit.

Mostly devoid of human presence, his landscapes, often uphold either an eerie, elusive rather surrealist character as if nature is brooding in silence or else manifest a mood of celebration. And in the process Tagore is often observed in moving away from the impersonal objectivity to an inwardly felt individuality. Yet on the other hand his nature renditions also radiate the human warmth, because he had an immense faith in humanism and professed the message of life through nature.

Tagore’s nature, therefore, is not a passive entity but a living world. “He had a vision of the Universe the mysteries of man, of nature and of the vast Universe have unfolded themselves before his vision, and the truth he has realized and expressed wells up from the bottom of this realization. This is a sort of philosophic vision akin to the Upanishadic seers which grasps the very basic truth of its roots.”12

 

Conceptual resonance between Rabindranath and Sri. Aurobindo:

Interestingly, to such an understanding it might not seem too irrelevant perhaps to trace a strange kind of a resonance between Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem “Savitri” and Tagore’s landscape paintings. Though Tagore never preferred to title his paintings because he felt words should not in any way become an “alien invasion” curbing the artistic space 13 yet the written verses of Savitri and the painted landscapes of Tagore often convey a similar kind of profound poetic expression.

Both amazingly seek the same spiritual awakening of the consciousness. In both instances, the elements of nature as the rising sun, dawn , twilight, evening or the night transcends time and seeks to capture the essence of timelessness. Both these prophetic, intellectual sages (who were contemporaries) either in verse or colors contemplated nature from the same spiritual , cosmic insights which had been deeply ingrained into their psyche. As for example, a few lines from Savitri may be quoted as “………

 

Persuading Nature into visible moods,
They lend a finite shape to infinite things.
(Canto XI : p. 266).
Or
“…………A Greater Spirit than the Self of Mind
Must answer to the questioning of his soul.
For here was no firm clue or no sure road;
High climbing pathways ceased in the unknown;
An artist sight constructed the Beyond
In contrary patterns and conflicting hues;
(Canto XIII,p.287)

While Tagore drew inspiration from his immediate surroundings, folk and the rural Sri Aurobindo’s thoughts dwelled in the religio -philosophic realm. But though contrary in their ideas Tagore’s landscapes, often appears as a graphic description , a true transcription of the verses of “Savitri”. While Sri Aurobindo’s verses were metaphorically attired to mythology, Rabindranath’s painted landscapes were ethereal feelings framed up in reality of his immediate locale and surroundings.

Interestingly, Tagore and Aurobindo perhaps only met once briefly at Pondicherry while on his way to Japan. But such similarities of thoughts only highlights the fact that great minds think alike because their ultimate search lies in locating the eternal truth. Or once again in the words of Tagore, “the sign of greatness in great geniuses is their enormous capacity for borrowing very often without their knowing it….. they have unlimited credit in the world market of culture”14

 

 

Conclusion: Exchange of Ideas

Rabindranath’s immensely resourceful creative flow embarked upon a new sail at the last chapter of his life by means of line and color. And to explore the same he remained an unorthodox individualist all along. Tagore as we all know travelled extensively all around the globe and was exposed to all kinds of art works right from the Primitive to the Modernists .But though he was highly liberal in outlook and eclectic in his absorptions yet he was otherwise quite inadvertent to any specific style or tradition.

Works by many of the great European artists of Modernism , as Emil Nolde , Pierre Bonnard, Camille Pissaro et al in the context of landscape renditions could have ,therefore, inspired Tagore’s perceptivity , or else the topographical intimacy conjured by the eminent Japanese artists Hokusai or Hiroshige might have encouraged him by means of the many similarities that appear in their thematic and pictorial representations .But such similarities and occurrences are understandable as painted parallels because Tagore as a global citizen was nurtured in the same ideologies and sensibilities as theirs irrespective of the geographical and cultural barriers.

As we know that during the first quarter of the 20th century, the pain and agonies of the devastating world wars, the human subjugation by the colonizers, the personal grief and challenges of life to most of these great creative minds made them finely tune in to the common cause of humanism. More or less they all went through similar experiences. So it is quite understandable that while depicting nature, instead of merely documenting the scenic views Tagore telescoped his imageries with a feeling of “intimate intensity”15 thereby manifesting the universal language which is eternal to any form of creativity.

It was not only the physical setting of the land and the pictorial space that he responded to but the mysticism of this universe also found expression in his paintings. His inspiration as a whole was derived from the environmental narratives of the Upanishads which proclaimed the essence of transcendental unity. His works do not fall under the accomplished spirituality of ancient Indian traditions, neither do they fall within the purview of the formal inventions carried out by the western modern artists of the era, but they represent a spiritual quest for a new experience of inwardness.

Tagore believed in the concept of wholeness in every sphere of his creativity. A wholeness between the physical and the spiritual, the mind and the matter. Along with his extraordinary poems such a synthesis can also be observed in his innumerable songs, especially the nature oriented songs or the (Prakriti parba) songs , which magnificently corroborates to the pictorial expression of his landscape paintings .As we all know painting had come to him as the beloved of his twilight years( shesh boyosher priya)16

But being a genius he never believed walking on the trodden path, but forged his own unique course ultimately establishing himself as a trend setter of modern Indian art. And that’s how the symbiotic relationship between man and nature made his landscapes, “……. real , though rarely realistic”. 17

 

Notes & References:

1. Sri Aurobindo, National Value of Art, Aurobindo Ashram,Pondicherry, August 1922, pp- 45-46
2. Rabindranath Tagore,On Art & Aesthetics, Orient Longman, 1961, p.40
3. Dinkar Kowshik,”Rabindranath Tagore and the challenges of today”, p-108, Ed: Bhudeb Cahudhuri & K.G.Subramanyan, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1988
4. K.G.Subramanyan, “An Assessment of Rabindranath’s painting”, Nandan, Viswa Bharati, VolXIV, 1994, p.6
5. Rabindranath Tagore,On Art & Aesthetics,p.102
6. Chinnapatrabali, Letter,21st June, 1892,Translation by Prof. Supriya Chaudhuri, Jadavpur University, Kolkata
7. Pranab Ranjan Ray,Rabindranath Tagore, Lalit Kala Contemporary,Vol 23,1977,
p-7.
8. Rabindranath Tagore,- My Pictures, Preface to Chitralipi 2, Viswa Bharati, 1962
9. K.G.Subramanyan”Tagore: The Poet Thinker and the West”, in Ratan Parimoo edited, Rabindranath Tagore: Collection of Essays, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 1989
10. R.Shiv Kumar, Nandan, XXX, Viswa Bharati, 2011
11. Rabindranath Tagore,Meaning of Art,p.10
12. Andrew Robinson,”The Art of Rabindranath Tagore”,Rupa & Co, 1989
13. Reba Som, Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and his Song, Penguin /Viking, 2009, New Delhi, p.162
14. Rabindranath Tagore. Meaning of Art,p.15
15. Supriya Chaudhury, Journal Of Victorian Culture Online, “Rabindranath Tagore: The poetics of Landscape”January, 2013
16. Reba Som,ibid, p.160
17. Nandalal Bose,The Paintings of Rabindranath, Visva Bharati Quarterly,Calcutta, Feb,1936, p.31

 

This article was written by:

Sohini Dhar,
Professor, History of Art Dept
Faculty of Visual Arts,
Rabindra Bharati University,
56A, B.T.Road,
Kolkata 700050

  • Subscribe to Blog via Email

    Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email