Published in Journal of South Asian Studies, 35:1, 2012, pp. 48-72

Perhaps the most fundamental conceptual division in the study of verbal narrative is that between discourse and story. Though initially formulated for narrative fiction, the distinction applies more broadly. Story is what happens. Discourse is the manner in which the story is presented. Discourse has two components, plot and narration. Plot is the ‘what’ of discourse-the events and characters as they are recounted. For example, the plot of a murder mystery will generally present us with the discovery of the victim’s corpse before giving us details of the murder itself. In the story, of course, the murder necessarily preceded there even being a corpse to discover. Narration is the ‘who’ of discourse, particularly the narrator and the implied author [1].

The implied author is a complex concept, given different definitions by different writers. As an initial approximation, we may say that authors read and respond to their own literary works as they are producing and revising them. Part of their response involves their sense of how readers in a target audience (‘implied readers’) might understand and respond to the work. The author is presumably aiming toward a certain sort of understanding and a certain sort of emotional response on the part of readers. This is not to say that authors formulate a set of criteria for their work. Rather, they have a sense of the sort of experience that would be ‘right’. In reading his or her own work, an author continually judges whether that work produces the right experience. When it does, the work is completed and they judge a work finished when that is the experience they themselves have when reading that work. This culminating readerly or receptive intent defines one type of norm for understanding and interpreting a work [2].

As with other aspects of discourse, the idea of an implied author should apply well beyond its original domain of narrative fiction. However, critics and theorists rarely extend the concept beyond novels and short stories. That is unfortunate, because a broader application should complicate and enhance our theoretical understanding of the implied author (and other aspects of discourse) while simultaneously deepening our comprehension of and response to these other works. This essay takes up the relevance of narratological discourse analysis for painting [3], particularly the idea of an implied author or, in this case, implied painter. Focusing on some of Rabindranath Tagore’s work, it considers such theoretical issues as what an implied painter may be and what relation the implied painter may have to a narrator in painting. Perhaps most importantly, it explores the consequences of ‘implied painter-ship’ for interpreting Tagore’s famously enigmatic works.

More exactly, the first section sketches some background concerns, setting out the main purposes of narrative in relation to interpretation and the story/ discourse distinction. The second section goes on to treat what representative painting shares with verbal narrative in terms of features relevant to narratological discourse analysis. It concludes with a central discursive and interpretive difference between visual and verbal art. The third section turns to two pieces by Tagore, proposing a preliminary analysis of these works in relation to the concerns of the preceding sections. It also elaborates on some general principles of interpretation bearing on narratological discourse analysis. The fourth section draws some theoretical conclusions about what might be called ‘perceptual narration’ and implied painter-ship. These conclusions are then further developed in the final sections, which seek to present a fuller account of some main concerns in Tagore’s visual art. This discussion has three main aims. One is to develop and advance narratological discourse theory through an extension of its concepts to painting. Another is to enhance our theoretical understanding of painting by bringing it into contact with narratological discourse analysis. Finally, and most significantly in the context of an issue devoted to the study of Rabindranath Tagore, the essay aims to enhance our understanding of and emotional response to some of Tagore’s paintings. These paintings have been widely admired, but infrequently analysed, and, it seems, rarely understood. Many years ago, Asok Mitra pointed out that the centre of Tagore’s creative work shifted to painting in his later years. For this reason, it is crucial to understand Tagore’s paintings if we wish to gain an understanding of Tagore. Moreover, Mitra maintained that Tagore is ‘one of the greatest painters we shall ever have’[4]. Thus understanding his painting is intrinsically important as well.

Discourse and the Purposes of Fictional Narrative

Before turning to implied painters, however, we need to understand the purposes readers have in approaching works of art-first of all, fictional narratives. These purposes guide what we (as critics) do with the story/ discourse distinction. They also guide how real authors understand and respond to their creations as implied authors. First, and most fundamentally, for any representation-whether in a narrative, a poem, a film, or a painting-we are concerned with what is represented. In standard narratological terms, we wish to reconstruct the story. We may borrow a term from hermeneutic theory, referring to this as ‘understanding’. The most obvious function of discourse is to enable-but also to selectively constrain-our understanding of the story.

Both the enabling and selective inhibition relate to the second concern that drives representative art. That is emotion. Here, we may distinguish the emotions of the story from the emotions of the discourse. Emotions of the story involve such things as our empathy with characters’ suffering. There are different types of discourse emotions. Some, such as suspense, relate to plot. The experience of such emotions in relation to story or discourse is ‘response’. The examination of such emotions is ‘response analysis’.

The final concern driving our cognitive understanding of and emotional response to a representational work may be called ‘theme.’ Theme is, roughly, any norm-particularly an ethical or political norm-that carries over from the narrative to the real world. We tend to think of themes as sentence-length statements. However, the establishment of a character as an ideal or a complex criticism of, say, patriarchal society counts as a theme in this sense, even though it would be impossible to encompass in a single sentence. Taking up another term from hermeneutic theory, but somewhat changing its definition, we may use ‘explication’ to refer to inferences concerning the themes of a work.

Given this account of understanding, response analysis, and explication, we may give atechnicaldefinitionof‘interpretation’. Interpretation is any explanatory inference regarding a feature of narrative that is a matter of understanding, response, or the establishment of norms. Conversely, we may consider any isolable feature of a narrative interpretable insofar as it falls into one of the following categories: 1) elements with consequences for the reconstruction of the story; 2) elements with emotional consequences (for story, plot, or narration); and 3) elements with thematic consequences. Insofar as a feature does not fall into one of these categories, we may say that it has not been selected by the implied author, but occurs incidentally. (For example, verbal stress patterns may be selected for aesthetic reasons by poets, but such features are unlikely to be relevant in a work of prose fiction.)

Representational Painting as Narrative Discourse

The differences between painting and verbal narrative appear so obvious and extensive that one may ask whether they should even be compared. What can be learned by bringing together such disparate phenomena? In fact, there are considerable continuities between verbal narrative and representational painting. Moreover, they are continuities that fit well with narratological concerns.

To see this, we need first to consider the main functions of visual art and their relation to the main functions of verbal art. For our purposes, the most fundamental connection between verbal and visual art is that representational works imply a represented world. Viewers do not simply see that represented world directly. They construe it by processing the information given on the canvas. In short, we have a discourse and we infer a world-perhaps not a story in the restricted, prototypical sense (we will return to this issue in a moment), but something at least parallel to a story-world. Moreover, the purposes of this construal are the same as in verbal art-emotional response and thematic reflection.

A wide range of examples could be cited to illustrate these points. Obviously didactic works come to mind, such Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s The Third of May. These are clearly painted to inspire aversive emotions in viewers-horror, anger, disgust, fear-and to connect those aversive emotions with a normative/ thematic condemnation of the violence they represent. The entire range of devotional paintings and sculptures fits here as well-Christian depictions of Jesus’s crucifixion, Hindu paintings of Rama or Krsna, and so on. These foster devotion (bhakti, in the Hindu lexicon) and thematically suggest the divinity, as well as the humanity, of their subjects.

Of course, the thematic point of a painting is not always entirely clear or open to formulation in precise, unequivocal terms. Perhaps it is never so, except in the crudest instances of propaganda. But that too only means that it is like literature.

Needless to say, not all works of visual art have thematic implications. But, if they do not have thematic implications, then their raison d’eˆtre derives from something else-emotional effect. Here, too, the emotional effect is of two sorts. The first relates to the story-world. I see a lover touching his beloved- say, a couple kissing in a painting by Chagall-and, due to emotional memories or facial mirroring[5], I feel some of their joy. The second is related to the discourse. In part, this is a matter of ‘narration’, for example the visual perspective-is the subject close or distant, facing toward or away from the viewer, looking at the viewer or somewhere else? It is also in part a matter of how much information we are given, thus, roughly, the plot-does the painting suggest events that preceded or will follow? To what extent are these unequivocal, and to what extent will any tension (or suspense) aroused by the work remain unresolved? [6]

Of course, there is still the issue of narrative as a sequence of causally linked events. After all, representational art is not necessarily narrative art. Indeed, narrative painting proper-in the sense of painting that sets out to represent even two or three episodes from a story-seems to be a somewhat marginal genre. It occurs. It may not even be rare. But it is clearly not the most ordinary form of painting. On the other hand, the paintings mentioned above are clearly embedded in narratives. Guernica and The Third of May depict moments from larger historical stories of violence. The point is obviously crucial for their thematic import. If the pain in Guernica simply arose, then disappeared, with no cause or consequence, it would be confusing rather than damnable. If there were no story of Fascist bombardment, there would be nothing to condemn. The point holds no less for the emotional impact of a work. The initial emotional force of a particular painting or sculpture may derive from a facial expression or bodily posture. But as we reflect on the work, we must be able to elaborate on it imaginatively, bringing it into connection with a wider range of precedents and consequences. The point holds no less obviously for the depictions of Jesus crucified, or paintings of Krsna and Radha, which suggest their surrounding stories.

Needless to say, not all such surrounding stories are elaborated and particularised. In some cases, any narrative reconstruction is more general and prototypical. But it is still there. It may seem that we do not engage in narrative elaboration around a work such as Chagall’s The Birthday. But in fact we do. We are simply not self-consciously aware of it. We so readily integrate the episode into a prototypical romantic narrative and a prototypical set of birthday events that we do not even notice we have done so. In this respect, paintings are very similar to lyric poems. Lyric poems often represent junctural moments in implicit narratives [7]. A junctural moment is a moment of particular emotional intensity associated with a change in a character’s pursuit of goals (e.g., when lovers are separated). It seems that moments of particular emotional intensity are often isolated for representation in paintings [8]. Moreover, these frequently do seem to be narrative junctures-as in the cases of the crucifixion, or the dance of Krsna and his beloved Gopi devotees.

In these respects, then, visual art is well suited for comparison with verbal art in terms of the components and operation of discourse. There are some clear and significant continuities across the two, continuities that are illuminated by narratological concepts. But, of course, this does not mean that there are not striking differences as well.

Perhaps the most significant difference between works of visual art and works of verbal art, even lyric poems-the difference stressed by Gotthold Lessing-is that paintings and sculptures are so severely limited in the time-frame of explicit information. A lyric poem may focus on lovers’ leave-taking. It may not eventellthereaderanything outside the time of that leave-taking. But it can at least spread across the minutes of that separation. A painting or sculpture is confined to an almost extension-less point in time. Of course, it may give much more information about that single moment. But it remains confined to the moment nonetheless. The result is not simply a loss of information, but often a loss of specifically disambiguating information. Moments may be embedded in many narratives. The differences in those narratives entail different understandings of the moment itself, different thematic implications, different emotional responses. Consider a photograph of people crying outside a church. Our understanding and response are quite different if we learn that this is after a funeral or if we learn that this is after a wedding [9].

Two Paintings by Tagore

To work out these implications of ambiguity in visual art, it is helpful to consider some concrete cases. In some ways, Tagore’s paintings are particularly well suited to this task. In 1932, Joseph Southall wrote that ‘Tagore’s drawings constrain us to pause and ask ourselves anew, what is the purpose of drawing, of painting, of art generally?’[10]

One reason for Southall’s question is that Tagore was generally very non-directive in orienting our interpretation of his works. He did not title his paintings, rarely dated them, and did not generally rely on standard stories, such as that of Krsna and his devoted Gopis. In considering Tagore’s paintings, a critic is likely to become acutely aware of just how important titles and shared topical allusions are. Knowing the story of Jesus, in the case of Michelangelo’s Pieta`, or having the title Guernica and the date of the painting, in the case of Picasso’s work, are crucial for understanding the depiction, explicating the thematic concerns, and emotionally responding to these works. Looking at Tagore’s art tends to highlight the ambiguity of individual paintings. At the same time, it may suggest ways to expand our understanding of individual works and further enrich our conception of discourse.

The first work we might consider is from Andrew Robinson’s The Art of Rabindranath Tagore. It is an ink and watercolour piece in black and shades of tan. The background, covering the top third of the paper, is a landscape, a horizon with foliage and hills. In the foreground, occupying the bottom two-thirds of the paper, there are nine figures. Though one or two may be female, these figures appear largely male. Immediately behind them is a black surface. The heads of the figures are just below the ground level of the landscape. This suggests either a cliff of some sort or a tunnel. Most of the figures are faceless; many are turned away from the viewer. Figure three (from the left) seems to be walking with a staff. Figure four seems to be sitting down or getting up, perhaps with difficulty. Figure six is tensing away from the central figure (figure five). The central figure (five) is also the highest, giving him an apparent position of authority. He sits with his hands on his thighs, his legs spread, looking in the direction of figures three and four. The smile on his relatively clear face does not appear benevolent. Figure eight, the lowest, also has a clear face. He is concentrating on his work, which seems to involve hammering.

A careful description of the picture suggests a few things. There may be some sort of hierarchy here. There is a dominant figure who is not working and who appears to have a rather unempathic attitude toward the other figures. The face of figure eight is likely to draw a viewer’s attention and interest. But his facial expression does not seem to have much emotional force. Indeed, figure six may be the most emotionally communicative. But it is difficult to say precisely what his apparently tensed muscles and withdrawal express-or even if they are genuinely tensed muscles and withdrawal. To complicate matters further, the seated figures seem to blend with blocks on which they are sitting as if they are not people at all but statues.

Different titles or stories would help us to disambiguate this work. But we do not have a title (say, ‘Johannesburg’, suggesting South African gold mines) or a story. Thus the picture remains disturbingly ambiguous. But that does not imply that we can make nothing of it. The figures are not, say, lovers; the place is not a battlefield. The painting allows a number of interpretations and a number of emotional responses. But some are normatively excluded. Moreover, of those that are not excluded, some seem more likely than others.

Of course, works of art-both verbal and visual-are all to some extent ambiguous. That ambiguity may involve a limited range of closely related and highly plausible interpretations, a broad range of interpretations with low plausibility, or some other configuration. Put differently, each work has a ‘profile of ambiguity’ rather than a strict, unequivocal meaning. Indeed, some of the effects of artworks rely on just that ambiguity. My own engagement with Figure 1 is in part a matter of the way my mind runs through the different alternative construals of the figures, their relations and possible actions.

Needless to say, this does not mean that ambiguity is a good in itself. In fact, generally, when viewing paintings, we engage in strategies to reduce ambiguity. After all, when it becomes too great, ambiguity ceases to be intriguing and becomes simply disorienting. Most of these strategies involve embedding the work in a larger, relatively well-established set of meanings, usually linguistic or semi-linguistic. Again, titles and well-known stories come to mind. The stories may be signaled by various sorts of allusion or by iconography (e.g., in Indian tradition, blue skin and a flute indicate Krsna).

Another obvious alternative is symbolism. This operates most straightforwardly when the symbols are already socially established and fairly clear. For example, the use of a halo to represent a saint or Buddha is immediately identifiable. Such a symbol is, in fact, virtually linguistic since it has been assigned a conventional meaning. Interpretation of putative symbolism that does not rely on established convention is more problematic. The lack of disambiguating information in Tagore’s paintings has led a number of critics to rely on symbolism. But, as Robinson rightly remarks, the results are questionable [11].

Two concepts that seem potentially more appropriate for interpreting paintings are metaphor and dhvani. Dhvani, or ‘suggestion’, is a fundamental concept of Sanskrit literary theory. It refers to the associative network that surrounds a word, image, event, or any other topic. That associative network includes emotional memory and therefore it is a crucial component in producing rasa (usually translated as ‘sentiment’), our emotional response to a workofart.Thedifficulty with both metaphor and dhvani (including rasadhvani) is that these are as ambiguous as the rest of the work. It seems very likely that the cave-like area in Tagore’s painting has metaphorical resonances. We can begin to suggest what some of those resonances might be (e.g., burial). But we need a better sense of the painting as a whole before we can infer which possible metaphorical meanings are plausible and which are not-or even just what their target might be, what any metaphor might apply to (e.g., just what might be buried).

Here, we may turn to the another work, an ink drawing of six women. The background is black, suggesting a night sky. The foreground is black and white suggesting the ground at night. The women are all seated on the ground. Each is clothed in an apparently single piece of cloth. Figures one, two, four and five have their heads uncovered. The colours of their clothes are also similar. Figures one and four have a sort of batik print. Figures two and five have a blackened red garment. Figures three and six stand out from the rest. They have their heads covered. Moreover, their clothing is distinctive. Figure three is in dark blue; figure six is in a bright rose and red. These figures are also placed highest on the paper. Figure six is further differentiated by the fact that her skin is significantly darker than that of the other women. More significantly, figure three is the only one who is facing the viewer. The other five women are turned away. Figure three draws particular attention. She rests her head in her hand in a gesture that seems sorrowful. But there is no face beneath her head covering, just a tan oval. So, here again, we encounter ambiguity or at least uncertainty. This woman is not precisely central (the number of figures being even). But she is approximately centered and is, very slightly, the highest on the paper, the tip of her head rising just above that of figure six. She is thus roughly parallel to the central figure in the first work we considered.But the differences are striking. While the central man is genuinely central, the ‘central’ woman is not. While the central man sits erect and angular, the woman gently curves downward. While the central man smiles as he looks at the others (who may be in pain), the woman presents us with no face, but a sorrowful gesture.

Moreover, the figure to the right of the central man seemed to be pulling away painfully. In contrast, the woman to the right of our focal female figure is actually leaning toward her, pressing her shoulder against the focal figure’s back. The relation between the contiguous male figures seems to suggest fear. In contrast, the relation between the contiguous female figures seems to suggest warmth, comfort, solidarity, attachment.

We may begin to get a sense here that the first work is, narratively and thematically, a painting about the world of hierarchy and mutual isolation-largely the world of men. It is also about labour, as we see from the man with the hammer. In contrast, the second work suggests relative equality and mutual connection, a world of women. This fits with our broader sense of Tagore as an author. His stories, poems, plays, and novels refer continually to the condition of women in India, to their constraints and sorrows. Thus we would expect to find these concerns once more in his paintings. As Satyajit Ray wrote, in painting, Tagore’s ‘special field remained the study of women’[13].

One recurring motif in Tagore’s treatment of women was their physical confinement within the home, their constraint to live in the inner rooms, away from light and life [14].Once one remembers this, the blank darkness of the background in the second work takes on new resonances. The background for the men is the open horizon of the world. Even if they have sunk themselves in some sort of tunnel, the light is there, available to them. The women face only an impenetrable wall of black.

Of course, none of this entirely disambiguates either work. However, it begins to give us a sense of what their thematic concerns are, as well as their implied narratives. The story of the men, it seems, concerns pride in social hierarchy-perhaps even schadenfreude-and interpersonal fear in the public world; the story of the women, it seems, concerns empathy and comfort in the home.

Canonical Implied Authors, Motifs, and Other Complications of Visual Discourse

We will return to these feelings and themes below, and to other aspects of the second work particularly. For now, we might isolate a few implications of the analysis thus far. The first and most crucial involves the scope of evidence cited in the preceding interpretations. Most obviously, we looked to recurring issues in Tagore’s writing and painting. Does this mean that we are simply returning to the real, biographical author and rejecting the implied author? In fact, it does not. It is very different to look at Tagore’s other works for disambiguating information and to look at, say, his private family life [15].

In effect, when looking at Tagore’s other works, we are appealing to the implied authorship of those works and assuming a certain degree of continuity across that implied authorship. In this way, it is an extension of the idea of implied authorship to an entire canon of works. We may refer to this as canonical implied authorship.

The second implication of the preceding analysis is related. Indeed, it is the converse or ‘objective’ side of the continuity in (subjective) implied authorship. In our examination of Tagore’s two pieces, we drew on recurring features in order to group the two works together. For example, both involve a planar composition of figures forming a single line parallel to the viewing space. This is in part a feature of the story-world, since the men and women are arranged in that formation in the represented world. But it is also a discursive feature because it relies on a particular perspective given in the discourse. In this way, it is a recurring complex of interrelated story-world features and discourse features. We may refer to such recurring complexes as motifs. Motifs may be of particular significance for interpretation, particularly in cases where a work is highly ambiguous, as in Tagore’s paintings.

The mention of point of view brings us to a further feature of paintings that is important and requires development before we continue with Tagore’s paintings. The precise point of view on the subject of a painting, like the precise choice of words in a text, is that of a narrator. Here we need to draw a couple of distinctions. First, we need to distinguish perceptual from verbal narrators. Films may have both, though they always have perceptual narrators. Literary works have only verbal narrators. What about paintings? It may seem that paintings have only perceptual (specifically,visual)narrators.Butthings are more complicated. First, there are ways in which a work of visual art may suggest narratorial commentary through visual means. In other words, there are often suggestions that a visual image has been organised verbally, that it is not purely perceptual, but gives the viewer a perception designed in relation to speech. The use of well-established symbols, such as halos, provides a simple case of this sort.

More significantly, a work of visual art may use some amount of text. This occurs most obviously in titles. Our default assumption about titles tends to be that they are the product of the implied author. But we can and do interpret titles ironically. That fact alone suggests that titles are best understood as spoken by a narrator, since they can be evaluated relative to an implied authorial standard. (In narratology, irony is generally viewed as a discrepancy between narrator and implied author.)

Tagore’s Narration: Three Captions

Here, we should return to Tagore. The absence of titles in Tagore’s work has the effect of making us particularly aware of the interpretive value of titles generally, and their function in orienting the ‘implied viewer’. Tagore did, however, sometimes include sentences with his paintings.16 These are much more evidently and consistently equivocal than titles, much more complex in their relation to the paintings. Yet as such, they serve to highlight some of the issues surrounding the relation of titles to narrative voice, including the issue of irony.

The first problem with Tagore’s sentences is that it is not entirely clear what their status is. They undoubtedly represent some sort of voice commenting on the paintings. But the precise status of that voice is not self-evident. Tagore decided that it would be valuable to pair some paintings with sentences when they were published in Chitralipi. Thus he made a judgment that the sentences should bear on viewers’ response to the works, at least in that context. However, just how they should bear on our responses is far from obvious. For example, though the sentences are paired with individual paintings, they sometimes seem to bear on a larger set of works and to provide a broad context for the viewer’s emotional or thematic orientation, rather than a particular interpretive orientation. More generally, they rarely seem to be parts of the painting in the way that a title is part of the painting. Rather, they seem more like the sort of commentary a painter might give when asked about his or her work in an interview. Indeed, these sentences sometimes even point toward Tagore’s inability to articulate what he experienced when faced with his own paintings.

A good instance of this concerns is another third work [17]. An s ink and watercolour work is a portrait of a woman’s face, blotchy and darkened, wrapped in a black chadar. Her expression involves a subdued sadness, like that in so many of Tagore’s portraits of women. The quality of the emotion suggests an enduring condition, not an acute episode. She looks off to her right, without turning her head. It is as if she is avoiding a potentially confrontational meeting of eyes. But at the same time, she is not signaling submission, for she does not turn her face or head down. Tagore’s sentence for this painting is ‘The phantoms of faces come unbidden into my vacant hours’ [18]. The simple fact that this refers to faces (plural) suggests that the comment is more general than this particular painting. More importantly, the reference to ‘unbidden’ indicates that the appearance of the faces is not something in the artist’s self-reflective control. Indeed, it is not something that Tagore himself can fully explain or evaluate. Here, we have the peculiar situation that the apparent narrator converges with the real author and both are distinct from the implied author. They are not distinct by irony, however. Rather, they are distinct by ignorance. Recall that the implied author is, so to speak, the real author’s receptive intent, his or her experience of the work as a reader-or, in this case, his or her experience of the painting as a viewer. That implied painter judges that the painting is somehow ‘right’, that it produces the desired effect. But that does not mean that the real author can articulate precisely why or how that is the case. Indeed, typically the real author cannot do this. The point is particularly obvious in an author’s or painter’s commentary on his or her work. Such commentary commonly arises in a creator’s post facto pronouncements about a work. Those pronouncements are often taken as untrustworthy. Tagore’s sentences here begin to point toward that commentatorial unreliability. At a theoretical level, what is perhaps most striking here is that this real authorial unreliability with respect to implied authorship is directly parallel to the well-known unreliability of narrators.

In other cases, the sentences suggest a post facto attempt to interpret the principles guiding implied authorial judgments at the time of the painting. These may provide a broader context, particularly some elements of a story. We find an example of this in his paintings. A a red and black ink drawing. In the middle, there is a couple in profile, facing left. The faces of the figures are outlined in white against the black background (a recurring technique in Tagore, as several critics have noted [20]. To some extent, this recalls photographic ‘edge lighting’, where the contour of a figure is more brightly illuminated than the rest of the figure. Among other things, this technique allows the viewer to see the figures distinctly, while at the same time placing them in near total darkness, with its usual hints of either threat or intimacy.The man’s features are sharply angular with straight lines and right angles. The woman’s features are more curved. She wears a chadar over her head. He wears a shawl over his shoulders. Neither face is strongly expressive, but the slight elevation of the pupil in the woman’s eye may hint at wateriness, and her lips seem less tight than those of the man. Thus there may be a hint of sorrow in her face that is absent from that of the man. The background is primarily black. But the left third of the work has an irregular column of red. It is easy to see this as either dawn or sunset.

Tagore’s sentence for this painting is ‘The day’s gains and losses are lost to their sight when they gaze at an unrevealed promise gleaming out from the dark’[21].

Here, one is tempted to say that Tagore has not done a very good job of interpreting his own painting. The sentence seems to suggest a certain amount of hope. But it is not clear that the two people are experiencing any hope. On the other hand, the sentence itself is so obscure that it is difficult to say if it really does suggest hope. The couple forgets not only temporary ‘losses’, but also temporary‘gains’.Thereissomething ‘gleaming out of the dark’, but it is also ‘unrevealed’. We would probably be inclined to connect a ‘promise gleaming out from the dark’ as dawn. But why would dawn be contrasted with the day? That contrast suggests that the glow is sunset-but then why is it a promise? These apparent inconsistencies suggest that the narrator here is not really reliable. Perhaps all we can draw from the sentence is a vague sense of movement. The painting is hauntingly beautiful, but opaque. Tagore’s narratorial comment does not render it less opaque. On the other hand, the unreliability of this comment does help to raise questions about the work and the world it depicts. Such raising of questions is presumably one of the prime functions of an unreliable narrator.

A related example may be found in one more of his works. The sentence reads: ‘The eyes seeking for the enigma of things explore the boundless nothing’ [23]. A black and white etched print gives us a seated woman beneath a black sky and beside or above the swirling currents of a river. She is turned away from the viewer, staring, in seems, into the black void. The figure forms a soft arc, which is a recurring motif in Tagore’s depictions of women. The caption is as obscure as the work itself. Both suggest some sort of sorrow. But the statement provides us with few clues as to the nature of the sorrow. Indeed, one almost wonders if the author is making fun of the viewer here, saying, in effect, ‘You want profound meaning-here’s some’. In other words, the caption may be ironic. But it seems unlikely that it is simply suggesting the opposite, as irony sometimes does. Rather, the unreliability is primarily a matter of concealing information from us, ‘underreading’, as James Phelan would put it [24]. The sentence indicates that the woman is searching for an answer to some question. But to say that the question concerns ‘the enigma of things’ is only to render it more enigmatic. It may contribute to the sense of sadness. But that sadness remains vague, if nonetheless affecting.

A peculiar feature of the drawing is that the woman’s breast is lighter than her clothing, as is her face and the exposed part of her neck. The slight hint of an areola at the end of the breast may suggest that it is uncovered. If so, this may give us some indication of the precise nature of her suffering. To explore this further, however, we need to turn again to the canonical implied author and the recurring motifs in Tagore’s work. Indeed, these are precisely what we need to consider in further exploring the second work we discussed earlier.

The Grieving Woman

We have already noted that, according to Satyajit Ray, the condition of women was of preeminent importance in Tagore’s painting. Ray was not the first to notice this. In his valuable study of Tagore as a painter, the eminent novelist Mulk Raj Anand wrote that ‘Always there were echoes of the silences of women before the patriarch’[25], 5 and that ‘The pathos’ of Tagore’s characteristic ‘oval faced woman came back again and again’ [26].

Ray and Anand were, of course, referring to the paintings. But both were also familiar with Tagore’s literary works. In our terms, they were making reference to recurring thematic concerns of Tagore as a canonical implied author (or, more broadly, canonical implied creator).

As Ray and Anand indicate, the condition of women is one of the most persistent topics in Tagore’s literary works. Yet, it is arguably overshadowed by another concern-attachment, the bonding relationship that most prominently characterises the relations of parents and small children. In Tagore’s work, the tragedies of women are, more often than not, the tragedies of broken attachments-frequently the attachments of romantic love, but also attachments to parents or children.

Unsurprisingly, then, Tagore’s narratives often treat attachments that are shattered-and, perhaps, rebuilt. The destruction is often the result of social identities, dividing people by nation, race, sex, caste; but they may also be more personal, as in the scapegoating of someone who is vulnerable. In keeping with this, perhaps the most prominent emotions in Tagore’s work are those that involve attachments-romantic love (or s´ringara , in rasa theory) and parent/child love (vatsalya )-along with empathy. Indeed, empathy is already associated with attachment, since attachment tends to focus our attention on and intensify our sensitivity to the emotions of the person we love [27].

In the context of Tagore’s concerns, we may return to another work discussed earlier, the woman by the river. Even the mention of love makes one realise immediately that the most common significance of a representation of this sort involves romantic love. The ‘enigma’ would then appear to be the absence of the beloved; the ‘nothingness’ would be his absence.

But, on reflection, this does not seem right. Except for the swirls of the river, the piece does not seem to convey passion (e.g., in the woman’s posture). The breast may seem to sway the interpretation. But the woman does not appear to be in a condition of sexual undress.

Suppose, then, that we consider the etching to concern some other form of attachment. We might in that case imagine that the bare breast refers to the nurturing of a child-a child who is absent, perhaps dead or unborn. Of course, here too there is not much in the way of evidence. Either interpretation is plausible.

This leads us back to the canonical implied painter. There are recurring motifs in Tagore’s paintings that point toward enduring narrative, emotional, and thematic concerns. One of these motifs is the smooth arc of the seated woman, an arc rendered even more salient by its contrast with the angular bodies of men.

A striking case of this sort is yet another work [28]. This ink drawing in orange and black depicts a woman curved into a rocking-chair shape (perhaps in a rocking chair). We see the soft arc from legs to shoulders. In this case the woman leans forward as well. Her face is black, the features outlined in ochre. One aspect of the piece is particularly anomalous. A swath of black begins at the woman’s head, suggesting a lock of hair. But it ends in flattened breast with a clear nipple. The woman stares down at her lap and seems to be smiling. There is nothing to suggest eroticism. Perhaps we are to envision a child below the arm of the chair.

Another work also seems to point us toward related concerns [29]. An ink on paper drawing. This work gives us only the woman’s upper body. For this reason, we cannot directly link it with the arcing seated figures. But the woman leans over, about to rest her head on hand, balled into a fist. Her eyes are nearly closed; her face is blackened. Though she seems to be wearing her scarf and shawl, her breast is bare. The resonance is, again, more maternal than sexual. The fistsuggestsanger.Theface could communicate exhaustion or despair. One thing is clear from the fisted arm-the woman is not holding a child.

The suggestions we have drawn from the preceding paintings appear to be confirmed by a particular work by Tagore. In the painting, we have another seated young woman. An arc curves around from her legs to her neck. Her head bends forward. She rests her cheek on the head of a child turned toward her breast.Narratively, then, these works point toward some relation of mother and child. This does not mean that they are unambiguous. They remain ambiguous. But, considered together, they suggest variations on a story, along with an associated set of emotions-empathy, compassion for lost attachment, a shared feeling of warmth in attachment.

Having discussed these works, allows us to go back to the second work mentioned earlier. one cannot help but notice that the central figure is a seated and partially curved figure. Moreover, she is tilting her head, leaning against her hand. She has her left arm raised as if she is cradling something. Here, too, then, we have the dhvani of maternal attachment in figure two and maternal loss or separation in the third figure. Here, darkness operates differently for the two women. It is isolating for both. But in the case of the maternal figure, it points toward intimacy rather than loneliness. Indeed, on inspection, we see that one could interpret figures one and five as preoccupied with something in their laps as well.

One might worry here about the thematic implications of these paintings. Do they suggest that women find fulfilment only in giving birth and raising children? Certainly, the two works with which we began seem to contrast male labour-perhaps the creative labour of sculpture-with the female labour of reproduction.

Anand maintains that, at least in some of Tagore’s pictures, ‘The feminine principle’ is ‘asserted in the Mother and Child’ [31]. However, in the context of Tagore’s other works, it seems much more likely that he is suggesting the central importance of attachment in human life. The contrast with the men is not primarily one of reproduction versus production. It is, rather, a contrast between relations of hierarchy and relations of attachment, or violence and nurturance. Note, for example, that one male figure hammers between his legs, at precisely the place where the women cradle their children.

Moreover, as Anand noted, other works by Tagore are highly critical of patriarchy and its effects on individual women. Indeed, this is connected with another potentially troublesome feature Is the faceless of the central figure in one of his works discussed earlier. . Tagore used this motif elsewhere, at least at times to suggest the anonymous labours of women, concealed within the house, unacknowledged and unrewarded [32]. In one of the works discussed earlier we see a seated man looking on as a faceless woman serves him.


An examination of visual art in relation to narratological discourse analysis leads to several enhancements of our account of discourse. First, and most significantly, we may recognise the importance of canonical implied authorship, separating the implied author of the entire oeuvre from the ‘subordinate’ implied authors of specific works (as well as the real, biographical author). In correlation with this, we may also distinguish ‘motifs’, recurring discourse features that are interwoven with story concerns. The recognition of motifs and canonical implied authorship may contribute to our understanding of the represented world and the thematic concerns of a work. They may also play a role in criticism that operates to enhance or modulate emotional response. These points hold for both literature and painting.

We may also draw further distinctions at the level of the narrator and the narrator/implied creator relationship (using ‘creator’ as neutral between ‘author’, ‘painter’, etc.). Specifically, we may distinguish the visual narrator, who presents us with the visual perspective of the painting, from the verbal narrator. Visual art highlights some of the complexities in the way a narrator may relate to an implied author. Perhaps most significantly, it suggests that an apparent narration may be better understood as post facto commentary from the real author in his or her own limited understanding of the work. More exactly, the implied author is the real author’s receptive sense that the work should produce the ‘right’ effects on an implied reader or viewer. These effects include story understanding, emotional response, and thematic comprehension. The real author is often unable to explain why the work is ‘right’ in these ways. One result of this is that the real author may be unreliable (with respect to the implied author) in precisely the ways a narrator may be unreliable.

Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings are particularly well suited for exploration via narratological discourse analysis, due in part to their great ambiguity. They highlight something that is true of all works, but is not always so obvious. Specifically, a painting does not really involve a single expressive meaning. The meaning of a work is better characterized as a profile of ambiguity shaped by the unarticulated receptive intent of an implied painter. That ambiguity is sometimes enhanced by narratorial texts (such as titles) or post facto commentaries by the painter. Those texts and commentaries manifest different sorts of unreliability and irony. In Tagore’s case, our sense of this profile of ambiguity changes as we locate his works in the various levels of receptive intent defined by the implied painter and implied author. Recurring narrative, emotional, and thematic commitments-here, recurring concerns bearing on attachment relations-suggest possible inferences about the depicted world while simultaneously altering our encoding of the paintings themselves. Recurring motifs also suggest that some thematic interpretations are less plausible than they might have seemed initially, while others are more plausible. In connection with this, the paintings indicate that the study of narrative discourse may contribute to the theory and criticism of visual art, just as the study of visual art may contribute to the theory and practice of narrative discourse analysis. Moreover, both sorts of study may enhance our sense that Tagore’s paintings are not only aesthetically affecting and interpretively rich, but valuable sources for theoretical reflection as well.



[1] For an accessible introduction to some of these ideas, see Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).

[2] This formulation of the idea of an implied author is related to, but rather distinct from, those of other writers. For some of the main approaches, see Ansgar Nu¨nning, ‘Implied Author’, in David Herman, Manfred Jahn, and Marie-Laure Ryan (eds), Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp.239–40. On this form of authorial intent as one norm for interpretation, see Chapter 5 of Patrick Colm Hogan, On Interpretation: Meaning and Inference in Law, Psychoanalysis, and Literature (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008).

[3] For simplicity, this essay will use the word ‘painting’ to refer to a range of two-dimensional works of visual art, including for example ink drawings.

[4] Asok Mitra, Four Painters (Calcutta: New Age Publishers, 1965), p.62.

[5] 5 On emotional memories, see Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (New York: Touchstone, 1996). On mirroring, see Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

[6] Due to constraints of space, this essay omits discussion of emotional responses to style in both verbal and visual art.

[7] 7 See Chapter 5 of Patrick Colm Hogan, The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[8] 8 The point was famously emphasised by Lessing, in a different theoretical context. See Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoo¨n (trans. Robert Phillimore) (London: Macmillan, 1874).

[9] On the function of context in interpreting emotion expressions, see James Carroll and James Russell, ‘Do Facial Expressions Signal Specific Emotions? Judging Emotion from the Face in Context’, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.70, no.2 (1996), pp.205–18.

[10] Quoted in Andrew Robinson, The Art of Rabindranath Tagore (London: Andre Deutsch, 1989), p.49.

[11] Ibid., p.56.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Satyajit Ray, ‘Forward’, in Robinson, The Art of Rabindranath Tagore, p.13.

[14] 4 See, for example, the description of the women’s quarters in ‘The Wife’s Letter’, in Sukanta Chaudhuri (ed.), Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.208.

[15] This is a common approach to Tagore’s paintings, particularly in relation to his sister-in-law. See Amrit Sen, ‘‘‘Beyond Borders’’: Rabindranath Tagore’s Paintings and Visva-Bharati’, in Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Vol.2, no.1 (2010)

[, accessed 16 May 2010].

[16] 6 Robinson, The Art of Rabindranath Tagore, p.71

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 202.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p.61.

[21] Ibid., p. 208

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.,p.205.

[24] 4 James Phelan, ‘Rhetoric/Ethics’, in David Herman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[25] 5 Mulk Raj Anand, Poet: Painter (Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore; Interpetation by Mulk Raj Anand) (New York: Facet Books, 1985), p.60.

[26] Ibid., p.74. In keeping with this idea of pathos, Amrit Sen notes that critics such as W.G. Archer and K.G. Subramanyan link the ‘ovoid face’ with ‘the desolate woman’. See Sen, ‘‘‘Beyond Borders’’: Rabindranath Tagore’s Paintings and Visva-Bharati’.

[27] On Tagore and attachment, see Chapter 7 in Patrick Colm Hogan, What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; and Patrick Colm Hogan, ‘Reading Tagore Today’, in Malobika Chaudhuri (ed.), Tagore’s Best Short Stories (Kolkata: Frontpage Publications, 2011), pp.1–7.

[28] Robinson, The Art of Rabindranath Tagore

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Anand, Poet: Painter, p.61

[32] Robinson, The Art of Rabindranath Tagore.
Published in Journal of South Asian Studies, 35:1, 2012, pp. 48-72
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