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The poet who scribbles his mindscape - a painterly, volcanic burst: A brief appreciation on Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore & his work of art

Raj Kumar Mazinder
Image source - Wikipedia

It was a great privilege and fortunate for myself as to view ‘Tagoreana in the National Library’ an exhibition of select books, illustrations, portraits, paintings and manuscripts from its collection at Art Gallery, Bhasa Bhavan, National Library, Kolkata, 06- 17 June 2011(which has been curated by Prof. Swapan Majumdar), during my brief tenure at the historic premise in last month. As mention in the brochure, “The exhibition mounted here as a humble tribute to Rabindranath Tagore as revealed through the world of his manuscripts and books in the possession in the National Library, Kolkata. Again, as worth to quote from the brochure - “The National Library, Kolkata, has been one of the greatest repositories of printed materials collected in India over almost the last two centuries. Tagore items constitute a respectable part of that collection.” After that intense experience, of course, certainly it is an enchantment to write about Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, an epoch making poet sage and his work of art. Here my intention is to study, appreciate the text/visual, process and inner man behind of his image- making predominantly beside his prolific literary works.

Poetry and paintings have elective affinities At least poets and painters have thought so. In the Chinese tradition the painters had in- built poems within the painterly composition. In the west poets like Goethe, Hugo and Mayokovosky had seriously tried to draw and sketch. Blake and Rabindranath showed equal interest in art and poet. Their achievement in both the fields demands equal attention from us.

In Rabindranath case, however his prolific literary output which includes great bulk of prose and poetry as well as the three thousand and some odd drawings and paintings that he did during the last ten years of his life, which seem to some to be of totally different in  kind and nature. As Sandip Sarkar writes, “Rabindranath literary works have a harmonious interrelationship of highly idealized form worked out with great precision and cohesion sometimes with monumental classicism, at other times with lyrical romanticism and often with effects of simplified yet subtle tones of naturalism. Contrastingly his painterly renderings seem disorganized and chaotic, disharmonious and primitive, destructive, demonic and expressionistic. How to account for the disturbing and confusing extreme polarity of the two?”

W. G. Archer, an Englishman, suggested, it was Rabindranath repressed psyche that that manifested itself in his paintings. In 1982 Somendranath Banerjee published his monumental book in Bengali: “Rabindra Chitrakala, Rabindra Sahityar Potobumi” which argues that Tagore’s literary and artistic works are complimentary. Banerjee’s work is analytical and he has shown that Rabindranath had prepared himself for the plunge. There is evidence that Tagore doodled and drew from childhood. In the forward of 1932 illustrated catalogue Mukul Dey reports about a black leather bound drawing book of Tagore, which he received from the poet as a gift in April 1909 at Santiniketan. This drawing book contained the earlier artistic effort of Rabindranath Tagore. In the pocket book that he kept as landlord overseeing large property at the age of twenty eight, we see a lot of sketches drawn independently along with his poems. At a later stage only, scratched out bits of writing took on strange visual form. These were much more than just doodle. He has said: “I must give them a decent burial.” This playful act which in the beginning was horizontal soon became vertical. Finally he began to paint in right earnest.

In fact Rabindranath Tagore started painting seriously in his old age. The earliest work of course comprises of scribbles of pen on unwanted word or whole lines in his manuscript of poems, what have been termed as doodles have been traced as far back as in the first decade of twentieth century, profusely filled manuscript with erasures is the one containing the collection of poems later published in ‘Purabi’’, which was published in 1925 and dedicated to Victoria Ocampo in whose house in Argentina he stopped for convalescence when he fell ill in the previous year on way to Peru. Victoria Ocampo herself has described how she saw the poet at work both at the poems and the erasures; making lines that suddenly jumped in life of this play; prehistoric monsters, birds, faces, appeared.”

Prof. Ratan Parimoo refers a few random selections from Tagore’s poem showing painterly as well as emphatically visual imagery:

I . “The sun is hidden, the stars are lost;

The red line of the road is merged in the
mist of the rain;”

II. “Thou art a glimmer of gold from the

 dawn on my life’s shore,
a dew drops on the first white flower of autumn,
Thou art a rainbow from the distant
Sky bending o’er the dust,
A dream of the crescent moon
touched with a white cloud.”

III. “The dark masses of cloud had spread

Before him
A purple shadow on the distant
Rain dimmed forest;

(Taken from Rabindranath Tagore, poems edited by Krishna Kripalini, Visva Bharati, Calcutta 1942)

The opening sentence of “My Reminiscences” begins with an allusion to painter’s art, “I know not who paints the pictures on memory’s canvas; but whoever he may be, what he is painting are pictures; by which I mean that he is not there with his brush simply to make a faithful copy of all that is happening. He takes in and leaves out according to his taste. He makes many a big thing small and small thing big. He has no compunction in putting into the background that which was to the fore or bringing to the front that which was behind. In short, he is painting pictures and not writing history.” …….”  The variegated colours scattered about are not reflections of outside lights, but belong to the painter himself, and come passion-tinged his heart.”

In this juncture many queries has come to our mind as why did Tagore take to painting during the last years of his life or was it a mere past time? Or did Tagore feel unable to express in words i.e. did his poetic genius get  exhausted or did he feel the poetic medium insufficient for giving vent to and concretizing his bursting creative energy? Since he continued to be productive side by side simultaneously in poetry too, the latter observation is probably true.

His “intoxication with the game inventing forms” he considered as turning the full cycle of his mind and a comeback to those irresponsible early days. “When my eyes hungry for the world of forms.” When he wrote reminiscences, he called them his memory pictures.

Mention also must be made of experience that Rabindranath had gained of European art including the trends of his time which he had seen during numerous European tours. The exhibition of modern masters of Bauhaus School at Weimer (including the works of Klee and Kandinsky) which was held in Calcutta in 1922 was an outcome of his visit of Germany and probably at his insistence. So when embarked on his painterly activity, it has to believed that, though technically he was a novice, yet he had had a rich visual experience of modern painting, more profound than any  Indian painter could have had  at that time.

In the Purabi manuscript, most of which is intact, are also a number of whole pages completely covered with erasures which do not certain just simply single images but consist of a well organized design, possessing unity of theme and form in balance and harmony. Thus, there is reason to accept them as complete work of art-whether one could call them paintings or drawings does not alter this fact. Thus, it is completely unacceptable to continue to call them erasures or   doodles. They are more than that. Most of the types of images which persist  in his entire oeuvre are already, fully, or partially, single or in  groups , present in pages-goggle  eyed creatures, beaky or with  growing teeth, quizzical human heads, curvy sinuous snakes and also birds and human heads in angular stylization.

The other important landmark in Rabindranath’s career as a painter is the exhibitions of his works held in many European cities (Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Birmingham) and in New York during the year 1930. Worth to mention that, the first ever Tagore exhibition took place in Gallerie Pigalle, Paris from May 5, 1930 till May 19, 1930. Prof. Satyasri Ukil writes about another remarkable landmark of Tagore’s art; “In February, 1932 (initially from Feb. 1932, but later on extended till March 7, 1932), audience of Calcutta had witnessed the grand spectacle of an exhibition of Drawings, Paintings, Engravings, Poetry, and leather work by Rabindranath Tagore at Government School of Art at 28, Chowringhee Road. It consisted of two hundred and sixty five original works by Tagore in various mediums, apart from seventeen craft work by his son Rathindranath and daughter in law Pratima Devi…. Artist Mukul Dey, first Indian Principal of Government School of art, Calcutta (Dec. 13, 19170) and the sponsor of this historic exhibition, was a student of Tagore’s school at Santiniketan during the year 1905 till 1911. In the illustrated catalogue published on the eve of this event Principal Dey had introduced Tagore the artist in no uncertain terms.”

Apart from Tagore’s natural propensity for visual imagery, and the artistic convictions and credo, the basic skill he was armed with to begin with was the masterly control of the writer’s pen and beautiful calligraphy. There are many examples where he specially wrote down certain poems and statements in beautiful hand-writing and his drawings were only extension of it. These meanders seem to have grown through the process of repeating line upon line, curve upon curve, extended or deflected in flowing or quick jerks. It is the sense of rhythm that has lead the movement of the pen. As Tagore himself explained: From my childhood I think I had an inborn sense of rhythm. The only training which I had from my young days, was the training in rhythm, the rhythm in thought, the rhythm in sound, I had come to know that rhythm gives reality to that which is desultory, which is insignificance in itself. And, therefore, when the scratches in my manuscript cried like sinners, for salvation and assailed my eyes with ugliness of their irrelevance, I often took more time in rescuing them into a merciful finality of rhythm……”

The enigmatic world of Rabindranath’s doodles and early paintings are peopled with predominantly animals and birds so grotesque that it is difficult to specify species. To an extent they do derive from his childhood memories suggested numerous times in his “My Reminiscences”. They are a sort of personal zoology for both creator and vice versa. One may draw an analogy between child art and Tagore’s painting which had in earlier years been more linear and flat pattern quality and the later work, which is more painterly, where the image are built in terms of colour masses and conceive in space. But the growth of child’s image does not place in Tagore. He is already an old man, confident and mature, with fully developed all round sensibilities. His scribbling is accompanied by the exercising of the unconscious and is directed towards giving concrete forms to images. In fact image making seems to be the whole basis of his paintings from the beginning to the end. There is no schematic element but conscious serious process in Rabindranath’s early works at all.

When Tagore left the manuscript page and faces a sheet of blank paper it is only single images that he placed on the surface, leaving the background empty. They also mostly happen to have been done in black ink- which is used more like filler extending right up to the sinuous contours of the image. Occasionally dabs of brush are used or variation in tone. Perhaps it is only toward 1930 that he started the use of colour. As he produced more paintings he grew bolder in attempting varied use of colour. His growing control over the handling of colour and chromatic relationship which accompanies the transition between C. 1930 and C. 1934 from linear flat pattern to conceiving the images in masses standing space we could take up spectacular images of singular female figure. It may be noted Rabindranath’s image of woman is not that sensual physical beauty but it is something intimate and more enigmatic. As Geeta Kapoor writes, “The sad monumentality of Tagore’s pictorial image of Indian woman can be linked with those of Amrita Sher-gil and M. F. Hussain. This tendency, through nearer to European Expressionism, may be termed as Romantic Expressionism, to distinguished it from its western counter part.”  Talking of figure compositions of the first phase, to begin with the figures simply stand in vertical position with their arms is raised and legs outs stretched. They may be called paintings with a subject but what subject is depicted is again difficult to guess. Probably, even such “dramatic” paintings have emerged spontaneously. Thus he was the master of the single image- which strengths the conclusions that he was primarily an ‘imagist’.

From the late years are some more pen and heads which are among his very remarkable works showing great mastery of line and tone. The masculine and expressionistic heads have a greater variety ranging from comic to tragic.

Landscape constitutes a major and constant theme in Rabindranath’s oeuvre. And some of the most interesting, refined, expressive and mature paintings were done in this genre. When he painted a landscape he is always total atmosphere that he is seeking for. The common features of the late landscape are: silhouetted trees against glowing sky arranged on either side of the painting surface, the middle opened up through which the glow of the sky is seen. This serves as compositional focal point and also as means of leading the eye into pictorial space. There are no local colours and no realistic details but spontaneous brush work of restricted palette. In its treatment of light it has a plain-air quality like the Impressionist. In fact that they are rarely occupied with human figures given them an added air of peculiarity.

Rabindranath discovered the techniques and media along with his inner mind and worldly vision , through the course of his years of painterly activity and the practice gave him control over them as golden touch so that initial handicap of technical skill became actually an advantage. In this he was guided by his instinct and the force of his creative intuition which was truly volcanic... Watching his growth is fascinating indeed. What Croce says about intuition- that every intuition is also expression- at least appears true with regard to Rabindranath. He is certainly a true visionary and serious thinker for future generation, as Prof R. Shivakumar writes, “Rabindranath had wanted Kala Bhavan to be different from other art schools. In the beginning he had envisaged for it as nationalist orientation like the rest of Santiniketan. He had expected Indian artists to be informed about their cultural antecedents, but later he also went on to warn them against being shackled by the past. He urged them to be open to the world, not to fearful about losing their identity and consequently becoming insular.” (R. Shivakumar, catalogue on K. G. Subramanyan, A retrospective, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi)

Before I finish , reminding the exhibition at National Library, Kolkata on Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, my immediate comment on the scrap-book in the entrance of the gallery hall, had been written in Bengali as, as again I might be, returning back for a re-look, re-read……….


Parimoo, Dr. Ratan, The Paintings of the Three Tagores Abanindranath Gaganendrannath Rabindrannath Chronology and Comparative study, published by Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, 1973

Sarkar, Sandip,  The Paintings of  Rabindranath Tagore, published in Art & Deal (A Bi-Monthly Art News), Vol.1, Issue II, 1999

Ukil, Prof. Satyasri, Rabindranath Tagore’s Exhibition at Government School of Art, Calcutta, 1932, published in Art & Deal (A Bi-Monthly Art News), Vol.1, Issue ii, 1999

W. G. Archer, India and Modern Art

Rabindranath Tagore, My Reminiscences, 1917

Art & Tradition, 1926 in Tagore, on Art & Aesthetics

Kapoor, Geeta, Indian Art in the 1960s, Marg, Vol. XXI, No.1, Dec. 1967

Shivakumar, Prof. R., Catalogue on K. G. Subramanyan, A Retrospective, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

Majumdar, Prof. Swapan ed., ‘Tagoreana in the National Library’, brochure, published by Prof. Swapan Chakravorty, Director General, The National Library, Kolkata, 2011

Raj Kumar Mazinder
Assistant Professor in Dept. of Visual Art, Assam University, Silchar, India

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