Rabindranath Tagore the painter – a less-explored aspect

Rabindranath Tagore the painter – a less-explored aspect

May 9, 2014

Rabindranath Tagore – the name invokes a feeling of awe and respect in every heart which has had the opportunity to explore his works. Remembered mostly for his songs (he wrote about 2,500 of them), this man’s talents knew no bounds. A second standard dropout, he composed his first poem at the age of thirteen. Rabindranath was a connoisseur of words. He promulgated a range of new spellings for Bengali words, doing away with a system which was more confusing for users of the Bengali language.

Dancing woman. Ink on paper

Going against the tide

Since early childhood, the little boy was brought up by the ‘servants’ of the royal Thakur or Tagore family of Jorasanko, probably the reason why he loved nature. Breaking away from the shackles of a ‘royal’ life, he escaped into the soothing company of trees, the caress of the clouds, and the reticence of the rain.

Tagore is well-known for his songs and poems. But what set him apart from his contemporaries are his short stories and paintings. An artist par excellence, his creativity is well-defined by the fact that whenever he sat to compose a poem or a song, if he did not find the satisfactory words, he would strike them out and create a pattern out of those words.

A doodle by Tagore

Abstract does not define his work, yet his subtle statements drive life into the surreal. From the romantic Bolai to the effeminate Ginni, from Chhuti to Kshudhito Pashan, life finds a new meaning in each of Tagore’s short stories. The classic irony of social life and stigma is summed up in his stories.

On this occasion of the 153rd birth anniversary of the Bard of Bengal, Team M3.tv wishes to introduce a different Rabindranath to the people: the painter Rabindranath.

Landscape. Pastel on paper

In Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan, 1,580 paintings of Rabindranath Tagore are conserved at the Art Museum, housed inside Rabindra Bhavan. The details of the paintings are as follows:
  • Face study of male: 408
  • Face study of female: 186
  • Nature study: 58
  • Self-portrait: 9
  • Portrait: 9
  • Animals: 89
  • Birds: 89
  • Trees: 116
  • Dancing figures: 47
  • Others: 517

Tagore was often influenced by artefacts: (L) A Malanggan mask from Papua New Guinea, (R) Pastel on paper

Early signs of a painter

The painter in Tagore lay dormant since his childhood. In his autobiography and in his letters from Shilaidaha (now in Bangladesh), there are sporadic references to his initial efforts at drawing and painting. In 1900, he had mentioned in a letter written from Shilaidaha to his friend, the famous scientist Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, that “You will be surprised to hear that I am sitting with a sketchbook drawing,” but also admitting, “… I feel secretly drawn to the very skill that comes to me least easily.” In the same letter, he also admits to his initial lack of skill in a part-humorous vein: “… I use the pencil rather less often than the rubber and have thus made myself quite an expert in erasure. So Raphael can rest undisturbed in his grave: my efforts will not decrease his renown.”

During the period of his adolescence, as is evident from Malati Puthi or Pocket Book, a manuscript so called because it was used for casual scribbling of stray poems, doodling and jotting down expenses (which spanned the years 1874-1883), he created many designs in the form of doodles. Those were probably not conscious efforts but sketched in a lighter mood. Later, when he was in total indulgence with paintings, it was not easy to find out any particular known idioms. As he was entirely self-educated, his paintings and sketches reflected his matured idealism, experience and subconscious thoughts. However, in a conscious effort, he made a sketch of his wife as far back as 1909, which he showed to the then young artist, Mukul Dey. Tagore had a sketchbook bound in black leather.

Two pages of sketches from Malati Puthi

An early landscape. Coloured ink on paper

Rabindranath’s style of painting

Nandalal Bose, the eminent artist in Santiniketan during Tagore’s tenure, wrote: “There are three major factors in Tagore’s paintings – rhythm, balance and indulgence. These qualities he acquired during his vast period of writing poems and songs.”

Rabindranath was modest about his expressions in his own paintings. He told Jamini Roy: “I have no formal training in any school of art. Maybe my paintings are not complete in the sense they should have been.” But Jamini Roy was all praise on his paintings: “I adore Tagore’s paintings for their inner strength, their inherent rhythm and for the reflection of an artistic beauty.”

During corrections in the manuscript of Raktakarabi, strange bird and animal figures with a prehistoric touch were emerging out of the doodles. They bore no resemblance to the present species as if they have come from an unknown world.

A beastly construct in the Raktakarabi manuscript

His use of colours

Like his unique style, he was free and open-minded in selecting the medium for his paintings. He used black lead pencils, colour pencils, pastel colour, coloured ink, water colours and colours extracted from leaves and flowers. He made paintings very fast, mostly in one sitting.

While drawing, he made use of pen, brush, fingertips and even the sleeves of his loose garments, whatever used to come in handy at that moment. From morning to noon was his favourite period for painting and as he felt paintings should dry fast, oil was not the medium of his liking since it takes a lot of time to dry.

Golden yellow was Tagore’s favorite colour as it is the colour that resembles the golden rice fields of autumn, for which Tagore has an appreciative space in his mindset. Dark chocolate and black also have been profusely used in many of his paintings. He admitted that he was colour-blind to red and green – the colours he sparsely used.

Untitled. Coloured ink and watercolour on paper

Pioneer of modern painting

Rabindranath Tagore is the pioneer of modern painting in India but during the early years of his paintings, the response from his countrymen was lukewarm. He was touchy on this point and decided not to exhibit his paintings in India. Of course, after they won accolades in foreign lands, the local critics started taking interest in his paintings and an exhibition was held in Kolkata in 1932.

Like in his writings, he had an international outlook in his paintings. Long before van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse had earned superstar status, he had known about their works, and enquired about their paintings during his European tour of 1924. So it is no surprise that later his paintings could touch the international chord; the Russians and the Germans found similarities between his style and those of their own master painters.

This untitled portrait was sold at a London auction in 2010 for £313,250 - the highest for a Tagore painting at an auction

A self-portrait by Rabindranath Tagore

Written by: Agnivo Niyogi for Team M3.tv

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