Rabindranath Tagore: The Other Artist in Indian Modernism

To many of us Rabindranath Tagore is a Nobel Laureate, poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher and a musician; very few of us know Rabindranath Tagore as the Artist – and one of National and International significance as far as the Pre-modern and Indian Modernism is concerned. His drawings and ink paintings are freely executed with brush, rag, cotton wool and even his fingers. ‘For Tagore, art was the bridge that connected the individual with the world’.

Tagore’s painting voyage commenced in the later part of sixties as an annexe to his poetry perceptions. Though he hardly took any proper education in visual-art, he outlined an extremely ingenious and creative visual terminology, boosted by a profound perspective of painting patterns like modern western, ancient and toddler art. Commenced as a intuitive course where squiggling and doodling within his handwritten scripts became some form, this exercise eventually grew into a body of thousands of works. He also became the first Indian artist whose paintings were exhibited across Europe, Russia, and the United States in 1930.Tagore progressively started producing an assortment of imageries including imaginary and distinctive creatures, facemasks, mystical human being faces, mystical sceneries, flora and fauna. Crossed-out lines and words would take unplanned and accidental shapes, driven by spontaneous decisions, usually growing from the memories of art and the objects he saw in museums and books, along with his various visits to countries abroad. Tagore tryst with art was not very different from his process in Poetry, and was greatly inspired by his observations of his surroundings. As a little boy growing up in the lap of nature, he often spent time enchanted in all that nature had to offer to man. It was an introspection of the larger relationship that man nurtured with the all-giving Mother Nature and her labyrinth that he lived in. He described the visible world around him ‘as a vast procession of forms.’ He spent hours observing the forms of nature from his window, often forming dialogues that formed the articulations of his poetry and literature as well as visuals to his drawings and paintings.

Flora and fauna also enamored him. Most of them depicted animals but hardly ever the ones we would easily come to recognize. Often imagined probably in the fantastical realm, his animals belonged to a different time, space and dimension altogether – a rather elaborate and free creative energy that knew only innovation or reappropriation. His works merged the familiar with the unknown. One would often see human gestures expressed through an animal’s body.The gesture was also dramatized in his many human studies, especially portraits. He spilled over his expertise in theater, often lending attributes in elaborate costumes, set designs and props. All his works in this series often come across as a large narrative when viewed in the expanse of his body of work.

Tagore had a strong voice that in many ways infected his rather striking visuals.The fact that Tagore was not a trained artist never came as a hurdle to his practice that embodied a great sense of fancy, tempo and vivacity. He created familiar spaces and then rendered them alien. It could be easily speculated that his lack of formal training in the arts in fact, helped his execution – that was innate and unrestrained.

Tagore is undisputedly a modernist, one who in distinct ways helped the nascent Indian Art Scene, understand its vocation in times where the country was itself reeling under its ambitions of development. His oeuvre was also a fresh and distinct rupture from his peers in Bengal who were creating largely political works, detailing the plight of the country and surviving in the post-Bengal famine phase. ‘Each of the hundreds of drawings and paintings is a living and balanced artistic organism that traces the extraordinary journey of a great man’ – ‘Gurudev’ himself.

Cover Graphic: Ketu Gamit

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