Published in Roop Lekha, volume 28, no. 1-2, March, 1958, pp. 66-74

The emergence of Rabindranath Tagore as a painter in the early’ thirties was destined to be a great event in the history of Indian painting. In this country, however, this fact was not immediately recognized. On the contrary, his pictures gave a shock to many, who, when they got over it, tended to look indulgently over the poet’s “play with brush and paint” as a venerable man’s whim, a sign of approach to a second childhood. For what were they?-these daubs of paint on paper, the strange figures and the formless forms which correspond more perhaps to the fantasy of our dreams than to anything known or seen in reality? They appeared to be full of chaos and disorder, indeed absurd in their novelty and grotesqueness. His admiring countrymen had always associated the poet with the feeling of rest and peace, with all that was noble and elevating to the soul. It is true, Rabindranath was a fighter also, but he fought against all that was ignoble and inhuman, ugly and indecent; and he fought with clean weapons and clean hands, for he had always been a worshipper of Truth, the Beautiful and the Sublime. How could one reconcile the poet Tagore with the painter Rabindranath? Barring The Modern Review, almost the whole Calcutta press and public showed little appreciation; indeed, some even went to the extent of making fun of his performances.

And yet across the seas in the galleries of Europe his paintings, as they were exhibited in 1930 and later, earned great praise from critics and painters.

How to explain the difference in reaction? It will not be fair to put it down to the perversity of his countrymen. To be frank and personal, I myself, as a student of art, did not find anything serious or attractive about his paintings when I saw them exhibited for the first time in Calcutta in 1931, on the occasion of his birthday celebration when he attained the age of 70. I do not remember to have found anybody showing keenness about the exhibits and indeed in the heavy programme of the celebrations, the paintings were ignored and people were not conscious of their significance at all.

Again, in 1932, an exhibition of his paintings was organized in the Government School of Arts, Calcutta, but we did not find anything to appreciate in them. They only shocked and outraged our sense of what we had come to regard as art. We could not make any head or tail of his paintings.

It was only a few years later that his paintings started revealing their significance to me. It was the winter of 1937, and I was visiting an exhibition of paintings done by the teachers and students of the Kala Bhavan of Santiniketan, organized in Calcutta. There were so many fine paintings and woodcuts included Nandalal Bose’s famous painting “The Golden Pitcher” and his drawing of Arjuna. I was making notes of them one after another then I came across a painting - a landscape of glorious sunset - most unexpectedly. It was magnificent in expression but somewhat faltering in execution. I was charmed by the colour and depth of this painting. It was a surprise when I was told that the artist was Rabindranath Tagore.

It gave a rude shock to my old ideas about painting. As I was coming back from the exhibition I was asking myself - what exactly was the really important thing in a painting? Was it true representation of life and nature executed with great technical skill that made a painting great, or could it also be something more than, even different from, realistic representation - something which expressed only form and colour in a perfect rhythm?

Indeed, in a sense, Tagore may be said to be the father and pioneer of non-representational painting in India which had to wait for two decades before any serious attempt was made to discover and create it.

It will be rash, however, to conclude from this that the source of Tagore’s inspiration for his paintings was the modern non-representational art in Europe or that he attempted deliberately to head a movement in favour of that form of art in India. Quite the contrary: it was only an accident that he found his style corresponding to the latest experiments in progress in the studios of Europe, and that what he was doing in more or less unplanned profusion, almost unconsciously and certainly without deliberation, was being practiced deliberately and with plan for certain effects by European painters. He had arrived at his results independently. One has to go to these beginnings in order to make the point clear and to understand the source of his inspiration.

The fountainhead of Tagore’s inspiration, whether in poetry or in painting or in music or in any of the other arts, was the family environment in which he had been brought up. One of his elder brothers, to whom he was mostly indebted for his artistic life, Jyotirindranath Tagore, was not only a distinguished writer but a good painter as well. Two of his nephews, Gaganendranath Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore, become famous as painters. Like literature and music, the art of painting was also cultivated in the family, and Rabindranath developed a deep love for it, too, from his childhood. As a result of this early influence, he always stressed the great importance of art - music, poetry, dance, and painting - in his scheme of education, and he gave a prominent place to the study of the arts in his school at Santiniketan. That is why the ‘Sangeet Bhavan’ or the Academy of Music and the ‘Kala Bhavan’ or the School of Painting became an important part of the Visvabharati University.

It is interesting to note how he started his career as a painter. As a conscious and conscientious artist of words, he always took pains to change and correct his first draft, sometimes considerably. The erasures and marks of corrections naturally appeared unpleasing to sight and he tried to remove the unpleasing look of the corrected manuscript by adding lines and curves to his markings turning them into beautiful patterns.

Gradually, the beauty of these patterns began to attract him and to create in him a desire to draw even outside his manuscript. There was no conscious desire to represent life or any other objects in these efforts; he was guided only by his strong sense of rhythm. He had no academic training in painting. As he himself says, “My pictures did not have their origin in trained discipline, in tradition and deliberate attempts at illustrations.” Whatever pictures ultimately resulted, were not an outcome of any preconceived ideas or design. Indeed, he himself did not know what would ultimately emerge. His only guide was his native sense of rhythm which he had cultivated since his boyhood, not only in the composing of his poems and songs but also in the very living of his life.

One can see the contrast between the method of evolution of Tagore’s technique and that of thetechnique of the European painters since the last decade of the 19th century. In the case of the latter, it was a movement of revolt against photographic reproduction of reality, carried to perfection by their predecessors. Representational art having attained its perfection in the 19th century, the later artists found that they had nothing further to contribute to it. They had to break new ground or perish as artists. So modern art in Europe had to go in search of new rhythms and to experiment on new forms of structure and pattern. In the beginning it failed to find it, and succeeded only in creating an impression of escapism. The most apparent characteristic of the modern artist was his effort not to soothe but to jar the senses. Gradually, however, after hard discipline, he succeeded in discovering new forms and new idioms of expression. But all their researches and experiments started only after they had a full and formal academic training.

As we have seen Tagore’s case was completely different. From an attempt to beautify the corrected pages of his manuscripts, he grew into a painter without any formal or academic training. His paintings, are, therefore, absolutely his own, and quite imitable technically as otherwise. It will be unwise, therefore, to look for any direct influence of any European painter or of any modern school of art on his paintings, though we can find their affinity with the works of some contemporary German painters like Munch, Marx and Paul Klee.

Tagore’s is, of course, not a unique case of a great poet being at the same time a painter also. Lin-Yu-Tang has said: “Poetry and painting come from the same human spirit, and it is natural that the spirit and inner technique of both should be the same. The painter shows the same impression, the same method of suggestion, the same emphasis on an indefinable atmosphere, the same fantastic union with nature, which characterize Chinese poetry. For the poetic mood and picturesque moment are often the same, and the artist’s mind which can seize the one and give it form in poetry, can also, with a little cultivation, express the other in painting.” This is true of the genius of Rabindranath Tagore, Victor Hugo, Michelangelo, and several other versatile artists.

From what has been said before, one may infer that painting was a child’s play with Tagore, that it did not involve any discipline or hard work on his part, that he painted his pictures easily without effort. It is true, it all started as a play, but soon Tagore grew serious about it and ceaselessly toiled to develop his technique. It will, therefore, be very wrong to suppose that painting came to him one morning as a divine inspiration and he suddenly became a great painter. On the contrary, he continued his practice in his own way very silently and seriously for about 30 years before even his closest friends came to know about it. He was very shy and hesitant about showing them to anybody, let alone exhibiting them to the public. I do not know how and under what circumstances people first came to know about his paintings. Maybe he sought the opinion of some painter and critic friend of his during his stay in Europe. But once it was known, he could not keep them back exclusively for himself anymore. And the first exhibition of his pictures was held in Galerie Pigalle in Paris in 1930 which quite unexpectedly created a sensation.

Herr Ferdinand Muller, the well-known Director of an Art Gallery at Koln told me how after great difficulties, he persuaded the poet in 1930 to let him arrange the exhibition of his paintings in Munich and Berlin. He was all praise for Tagore’s paintings and enquired of me if a permanent gallery had been built in India to house them.

One is struck not only by the quality but also by the quantity of these wonderful paintings. Today in Rabindra Bhavan alone there are about 2000 paintings by him, many of which are of fairly big size. One is also struck by the variety of his techniques. Indeed, for each painting he had a new technique, so that he had to invent his technique at every stage. To a few scribbles, he would give a form, and from a form he would build up a whole painting with balance and rhythm as their strong points. About the selection of his pigments and painting material he was singularly unconventional. He used whatever colouring material he could find: waterproof inks, colours for leather work, water and poster colours, and at times even the juice of leaves and flower petals.

It will be wrong to suppose that his paintings can be equated with the works of abstract painters or those of surrealists. He saw the world around him steadily, and of the impressions filtering through his imagination all the time, he created a powerful fantasy of line and colour. His pictures are not any interpretation of ideas or representation of facts; yet they convey a message and a mood unfalteringly. Without a formal training in painting, without submitting himself to the discipline of tradition, Tagore has emerged as a painter of great significance and value. It will, I think, be appropriate to conclude with a statement Tagore himself made as to how he started to draw and paint and what were his feelings about his creation:

“An apology is due from me for my intrusion in the world of pictures, and thus those who do not know that they know not are apt to be rash where angles are timidly careful. I, as an artist, cannot claim any merit for my courage, for it is the unconscious courage of the unsophisticated, like that of one who walks in dream on perilous path, who is saved only because he is blind to the risk.

“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 insignificant in itself. And, therefore, when the scratches in my manuscript cried like sinners for salvation and assailed my eyes with the ugliness of their irrelevance, I often took more time in rescuing them into a merciful finality of rhythm than in carrying on what was my obvious task.

“In the process of the salvage work I came to discover one fact, that in the Universe of forms there is a perpetual activity of natural selection in lines, and only the fittest survives which has in itself the fitness of cadence, and I felt that to solve the unemployment problems of the homeless heterogeneous into a interrelated balance of fulfillment in creation itself.

“My pictures are my verification in lines. If by chance they are entitled to claim recognition it must be primarily for some rhythmic significance of form which is ultimate, and not for any interpretation of an idea or representation of fact.”

Not my way of salvation, to surrender the world!

Rather for me the taste of Infinite Freedom

While yet I am bound by a thousandbonds to the wheel…

In each glory of sound and sight and scent

I shall find Thy infinite joy abiding :

My passion shall burn as the flame of salvation,

The flower of my love shall become the ripe fruit of devotion.

- Rabindranath Tagore

Published in Roop Lekha, volume 28, no. 1-2, March, 1958, pp. 66-74
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