Many people wonder how the poet Rabindranath produced numerous paintings towards the end of his life, although he had never learnt the art. The story of his painting need not, however, be considered mysterious, in this respect.
If we mark carefully enough, we may see that there is an affinity in skill between the shaping out of letters and the drawing of pictures. In languages like English, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu there are many letters which it is not easy to write well, if a sense of the line is completely absent.
The fact that there is much similarity between the writing of letters and the drawing of pictures was found out very long ago by people in the East. Hence, in China and Japan, the importance of the art of penmanship equals that of paintings. In these countries, therefore, the ideal and excellency of calligraphy are judged by standards used in judging paintings. In other words, for a person who can give right forms to various letters with the point of a pen, it is not impossible with some effort, though-to imitate the form of an object.
Now, the question arises, “Do we often find a poet painting pictures?” From this point of view, too, we cannot say that Rabindranath was unique. In Europe there have been many literary personalities who have drawn pictures in the intervals of literary productions. Victor Hugo, Tennyson, Strindberg, the dramatist, Thackaray, and many other men of letters are examples of those who could also draw pictures-though their excellence in painting was not so unique as their literary genius. But the example of one who has earned reputation in both literature and painting is not also wanting. The English poet Blake is an example of such an extraordinary combination, the immortality of whose genius has been recognised equally in both the worlds of literature and painting.
It is, again, peculiar to the culture of China that it has established such an intimate relationship between the literary and the pictorial art that examples of people who had genius in both are much more numerous than in Europe. In our country Abanindranath has been able to touch our hearts deeply, both as a painter and as a writer.
But the really strange and remarkable fact in Rabindranath's life was the history of his passing from the world of poetry to that of painting. I do not know another example of just the way in which another artist entered the world of painting as Rabindranath did.
Those who want to discuss the paintings of Rabindranath should specially bear in mind a few facts.
Firstly, one should remember that Rabindranath's desire to paint or the fundamental urge in his painting, did not arise from an impulse to express any artistic feeling. Secondly, in his painting sentiment was secondary. For a long time we do not observe in his paintings any effort to intimate or follow the forms of objects. The earliest form of Rabindranath's paintings consists in mere combination of a few lines.
While correcting his manuscripts, Rabindranath observed a few characteristics inherent in lines. He discovered that as soon as one line was drawn beside another there was a relation established between the two. How the relationship between a line and a line impressed Rabindranath one can understand from his own statement. He says: “In the process of this salvage work, I came to discover one fact that in the universe of form there is a perpetual activity of natural selection in line and only the fittest survives, which has in itself the fitness of cadence.”
This statement of Rabindranath may be illustrated by an example. When we see the English word "S", we do not think whether it is beautiful or not; for separated from every kind of form it is neither beautiful nor ugly. But, as soon as another letter is written beside it natural selection starts. It is only then that the question arises as to which of the two letters does or does not agree.
The problem of congruity or harmony is found in rhythms -in combination of sounds, lines and words. In other words, what Rabindranath calls “perpetual selection” is going on in thee of sound also. Hence, Rabindranath was not unaware of the fact that every kind of rhythm is formed out of the “perpetual selection” to realise this process of elimination and survival i.e., of natural selection, among lines, and their rhythm. Records of that enquiry and discovery of his are left in the pages of his many manuscripts.
Just as Rabindranath discovered this perpetual activity of perpetual selection in the world of lines, so also, he came across another truth in the world. He saw that the world of lines is not self-contained in itself. Just as each line is the product of a so, too, each line has got some gesture or other. In other words, organically connected with the world of lines, there are suggestions of some gesture, called, by Rabindranath, “the world of gesture”.
Rabindranath's efforts, from an early age, were concerned with the world of words. He occupied himself in giving expression to his personal realisations with the help of words associated with meanings. Therefore, a great curiosity is aroused when we hear Rabindranath say: “The world of sound is a tiny bubble in of the infinite. The universe has its own language of and it talks in the voice of picture and dance.”
Following the world of gesture he discovered, Rabindranath gradually entered another world. After getting the abstract qualities of the rhythms of lines while correcting his manuscripts, he next endeavoured to arrange separately the rhythms of lines with reference to the world of gesture. At this second stage of Rabindranath's paintings we get some such forms as are proclaiming, through suggestive gestures, their independence, but no sentiments are expressed through these forms. Varieties of forms there are but they do not resemble any form familiar to us. Just as the elements of matter are determined by some qualities, so, too, the forms produced by Rabindranath at this stage are determined by some qualities and not by any sentiments.
We have already shown how Rabindranath discovered some peculiarities of lines while correcting his manuscripts-how of the world of lines he gradually realised the world of gesture having an independent existence. But his curiosity did not come to an end here. He gradually entered a strange World of Forms. His mind full of curiosity spoke out in wonder-“I clearly see that the world is a great procession of forms. It is the play of forms that wants to appear on my pen-no sentiment, no thought, but an assemblage of forms”.
Entering this world of forms Rabindranath created many hideous forms. That world of hideous forms presents itself before us in various ways-with various gestures. Thus we face a grotesque world of forms made of a combination of the fearful and the ludicrous. A part of this world we can recognise, but much of it remains unrecognised.
Justbeforethisdevelopment,abstractelements intervened between the boundaries of lines and gestures. Now, those gestures adorned with lines, being imbued with the quality of partial resemblance, manifested themselves between the known and the unknown.
This is a very short history of evolution of Rabindranath's painting upto 1930.
After this Rabindranath produced many landscape and portrait paintings as also of flowers and birds, decorated with bright colours. Before discussing these, it is necessary to know a few more facts about the fundamentals of Rabindranath's artistic drive. From the three sayings of Rabindranath we have already quoted, we can no doubt conclude that while proceeding to paint, Rabindranath arrived at a truth which was never before revealed within the borders of his conscious knowledge. Like the scientists, Rabindranath discovered the elementary ingredients of the science of art or of the language of art. Patterns of rhythm in the forms of lines, gestures, without meaning or resemblance, with the help of lines and rhythm; and the immense variety of forms intimately associated with gestures-attracted the analytical mind of Rabindranath. Painting did not attract him as a means of expressing sentiments.
With his extraordinary power of discovery Rabindranath wanted to bring out the various secrets of this world of abstract gesture composed of lines and of these forms, by means of the curiosity of a scientist and the vision of a sage. As a consequence of this investigation he could find out several such forms, gestures and relations of lines, which have no counterpart in realistic forms, but which are as true as the existence of real objects. This world of forms, drawn by Rabindranath, which were alive with gestures adorned by lines, is complete in itself.
So long as Rabindranath’s power of discovery was wide awake in the abstract world-so long as he was self-conscious about it-there was no end in his curiosity, there was no fatigue in his composition of lines. But the moment his power of discovery was baffled by the forms of real objects, we hear him complaining “I haven’t learnt painting”.
We notice a peculiarity in the history of evolution of Rabindranath’s paintings. The relations of lines and the harmony of forms and gestures, which he could create in the beginning of his artistic urge, and found reproduced in many of his latter productions. In other words, the animals, the human facial expressions, which Rabindranath produced subsequently, gave variety to the elementary forms discovered by him, but we find no effort to create new forms, new lines, or new rhythms, in these paintings of his.
We come across many paintings of animals and architectural forms in the period intervening between Rabindranath’s earliest paintings, consisting of unions of abstract lines, and the realistic productions towards the end of his life.
Referring to these paintings of grotesque animals of Rabindranath, a German critic made a remark to the effect that these animals could not be seen in any zoo, but that they could be seen in the weird dreams. Whatever their origin it is through the medium of these grotesque animals that Rabindranath’s fundamental impulse, power of discovery, and vision arrived at the familiar world of realistic forms, leaving the abstract world.
After this we find Rabindranath’s paintings gradually become realistic. These realistic paintings are, in many cases, repetitions of the earlier ones. But the paintings have, nevertheless, taken on a new form through a novelty of colours.
There are many paintings of the nature of portraits produced by Rabindranath toward the end, which possess an intensely attractive power. By looking at these paintings we see how great is the attraction of the sensuous world for Rabindranath. Many people consider the pictures painted by Rabindranath towards the end of his life as his best productions.
I should now state the reason why I do not want to include Rabindranath’s realistic paintings among his best productions.
In the sphere of literature Rabindranath had an extraordinary competence with regard to language-he had a deep knowledge of the science of language. He did not possess, however, a correspondingly deep knowledge about the composition and technique of the pictorial art. In spite of his ignorance of the grammar of the pictorial art, however, he was able to grasp the essential qualities of the language of painting. Just as the objective world is revealed before our eyes by the action and reaction of light and shade, so, too, the world of pictures is revealed by the action and reaction of black and white. It is by discovering lines that man has been able to put together, in definite rhythms, the world of light and shade coloured in black and white. It is by virtue of being bound by bonds of lines that the pictorial world, different though it is from the objective ones, is also true. Had there not been the bonds of lines in pictures, this difference between the objective world and the pictorial could not have been found out-it would not have been possible to recognise a picture as a picture.
Just as Rabindranath could perceive the forms and sentiments of the objective world by the light of his poetic genius, so, too, he could easily recognise the essence of the language of lines by the light of his understanding. Hence we see that Rabindranath’s pictures are clear in the world of black and white-well-defined by bonds of lines.
In Rabindranath’s technique of pictures there is not even the least effort to follow or imitate any technique, old or new, of any country whatsoever. His technique developed under the stress of needs. By scratching with a pen, or by daubing with colour soaked in cloth, by rubbing with a finger, Rabindranath all along tried to give life to pictures.
In contrast with the unprecedented character of his artistic impulse, the novelty of the various forms drawn by him and the charm of his combination of colours, Rabindranath’s technique of drawing is devoid of novelty. The language of Rabindranath’s pictures is simple. Just as the language of popular literature is devoid of ornaments but has an easy flow, a force, so also the language of Rabindranath’s pictures is simple, easy and forceful.
So long as the language of popular literature flows carrying a sentiment, it remains living. As soon as it loses that purpose it gets contaminated with various defects. So long as Rabindranath’s language of pictures, like the language of popular literature, has its gaze fixed upon the abstract world, its straightforward movement has remained unhampered. But the moment Rabindranath turned his eyes away from abstract world towards the realistic world, various defects became apparent in the language of his pictures.
Published in Roopa-Lekha, Illustrated Journal of Indian arts & crafts, Vol XXIII, Nos. 1 & 2, 1952