August 12, 2012


Feature by Anurima Das

The year was 1998. It was just another day at one of the Kolkata Metro platforms, where I went everyday on my way to the junior school. The train was late and my eyes fell on a piece of painting that adorned one of the walls of the platform. An unfamiliar set of eyes invited me to take a close look at her. Clothed in a white red bordered sari this woman is none other than Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Veiled Woman’. Painted in the year 1928, this watercolor painting is counted as one of the notable works of Tagore.

Born on the May 7, 1861, the virtuoso completed his 151 years birthday this year. While he has been performed, acted and orated many times, nothing significant has been done to celebrate the great artist he was. The man himself discovered his hidden talent and inclination towards painting at 63. While today I sit through to appreciate his work and try analyzing them in a more critical way, I am repeatedly drawn back to my childhood years. Tagore was not out of the copyright policies back then and was regarded with more respect, as compared to the present. But, his works made my journey more exciting, as I got enough time to imagine through his unruly strokes. It was my Metro ride to junior school every day, which gave me enough chance to brood over Tagore’s artistic endeavors. Most of the platforms in Kolkata Metro are dedicated to the great master and his scribbles, handwritten verses and his paintings adorn the walls of the station.

 He discovered himself as a painter in his early 1940s in 1903-04. After doodling in his manuscripts and turning his textual deletions into decorative motifs for over two decades almost all of a sudden in 1924 on the pages of the Purabi Manuscript it began to proliferate and assume more representational and expressive intent. Victoria Ocampo who spotted these during the poet’s stay in Argentina as her guest was impressed and found artistic merit in them. This in turn made him aware of their artistic potential. Compared to his early doodles it is clear that these were not entirely spontaneous but inspired by the examples of Primitive art he had been looking at. In these the decorative is conjoined with the grotesque and the fantastic as in many traditions of non-Western art gathered under the rubric of 'Primitive art' ”, as Prof.R.Sivakumar puts it.  This late discovery did not really come in the way of the artist and his fantasies and distinguished attitude towards life began getting projected through his unwavering work.

 But compared to the Thakurbari style of painting the artist had his own way of working with colors and lines and his work could never be categorized.  As independent Indian artist Prasenjit Kar puts it “He avoided the influence of Thakurbari, it is the Black zone of his subconscious that comes out through his paintings. He believed in the primitive way of painting and following the footsteps of the early man he used Simplistic tools and natural colors to paint and express his underlying blackzone”.

His use of colors in his painting reflects his insights and is also bound by his partial color blindness disorder. Tagore did not have an affinity towards the color Red; on the other hand it was Bronze, Amber Black and Green that dominated his paintings.  Be it the famous ‘Dancing Girl’ painting or even his self portrait (1936) his play with the colors presents for not only a visual treat but at the same time opens up the doors to another world. There is something definite yet indefinite in his works and it is poetic inclinations and insights that conjure up to evolve through the brush strokes and pencil tones in his paintings. The duality and the symbolic effects brought out through his works spells limitlessness and ideally reflect back to the natures of the master himself.

“Expressionists with whom he is often compared he did not cease to feel a deep empathy with nature even in his darkest moments and inner unfathomable depths of the soul, by restoring to the background fields that are carried toward infinity, and by inventing new colors of the flesh that seem to have baked in a kiln, and which rival ceramics. The poetic and structural sign of another immersion in an essentially fluid domain will take us a step further in the exploration of Tagore’s ingenious mystique meditations of myth, woe and allegory in ink. This is perhaps the stillness of the forms of his earliest work, now rendered to suggest a separation between his subjects in an active world. Above all, even if there is a promise of pleasure, the suggestion of pain is never far away invading our dreams and invoking meditative silence.”  An excerpt from Nanak Ganguly’s (an independent critic and curator) lecture on Tagore in Tokyo.

Grouping Tagore with other painters or simply trying to decipher the inner meanings of his works will only give rise to many questions. However, Tagore’s lack of formal training in painting is the only established truth associated with his works. His extraordinary determination and his efforts to turn the drawbacks into his stride helped him seek the inconceivable. “It was his spirit that never wanted to restrict or stop anywhere, this notion of breaking free and loosening the shackles to reach for the indefinable helped him give form to his paintings.  His works have always spoken of a visual revolution. His ideas of painting at one side of the Paper reflect his tendencies and push us to escape from the noted boundaries to travel towards an undefined, open space. “Author, Teacher Dr Protima Mukherjee describes Tagore the artist in his own words.

Though deriving subjects or themes of his works is not really possible but still, themes like enlightening, awakening and even women keeps recurring through his works time and again. His works have always been successful in invoking the human emotions but it was his paintings that added a new feather to his cap and, appealed to our senses at an entirely new level. The certain mysticism and the effects of color brought about a new dimension to his art form. The artist had his first stint with the public in May 1930, when he first held his exhibition at Gallerie Pigalle of Paris.  After a huge success of the exhibition Tagore toured all around Europe hosting several Art Exhibitions. It was only after his exhibition at Philadelphia in 1931 that Tagore hosted an exhibition in Kolkata.

Much like his other creations he worked wonders with pencil lines and brush strokes and his canvas never failed to play hide and seek with us. He has painted more than 2500 paintings in his lifetime and much of his work is restored and conserved in Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan. Today Tagore is priced at a throwaway rate and accessing his works is no more a problem as he is blissfully out of the copyright infringements. But, the charm of Tagore still embarks upon the glory of the master and never refuses to invoke that surprise element.