First published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1964

Indian painting reached almost a dead end towards the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Patna and Tanjore painters of the Anglo-Indian school and even Ravi Varma’s disciples reached a point where they produced a little more than worthless posters. It was as though the life went out of Indian painting, leaving only the dry bones of artisanship. The old masters of the Pahari school passes away, too, one by one. Painting stepped into a dark age, as it were.

Fortunately enough, this was precisely the hour of high tide in literature, music, political and economic thought. The nation long steeped in forgetfulness began to stir, moved by its urge to recover its soul. Even as in the world of literature, history, politics and patriotism, English intellectuals helped their Indian counterparts in a co-operative endeavour to retrieve their questing spirit and self-esteem, so, too, in the world of painting did people like E.B. Havell, William Rothenstein, Percy Brown, Sister Nivedita and Laurence Binyon play an active role. Already Government Schools of Art had been established in Calcutta and Bombay. They were followed by the founding of the Indian School of Oriental Art which undertook Anglo-Indian research into our artistic heritage.

Every educated and thoughtful person presently felt the need of breaking new ground. It was realized that the proper expression for the new society, the new consciousness, the new learning and the new self-esteem was neither Mughal technique nor Rajput nor Pahari, nor certainly European. There was much aimless groping to start with, following by mixtures of many styles, confusion and bewilderment. Among the first self-conscious and artists of that age must be named those who came from Travancore and Mysore. The dissatisfaction and impatience that showed through their work also betrayed a certain degree of pictorial form. Then came the age of Nationalism, when Abanindranath, Isvariprasad and others harked back to ancient Indian tradition in an effort to live down the nineteenth century. This was the age of much heart-searching and revaluation, of research into the past. As a result, the Indian artist, even if he did not find his way to the aesthetic principles of the golden age of Indian painting, still realized that form and content in painting are indivisible, and that the true work of art is shaped by one’s own cultural heritage, and is the expression of a people’s hopes and desires, social and economic urges: that it hardly pays to strut about in borrowed feathers. There were many who set out on this thorny path and Gaganendranath Tagore was certainly one of the foremost. He undoubtedly enlarged our contemporary vision and broke new ground.

Gaganendranath Tagore is primarily a painter of the modern city. A big modern city like Calcutta hardly seems to exist for most of our great artists. They feel ill at ease, for even if they take up the city for a subject ever, they invariably decide on the themes that are on the borderline between city and small country town or even the village. It is rather difficult to make out the precise area of the city they have painted: the theme becomes so elusive and indefinite. But Gaganendranath plumped or the city entirely, for his upbringing was wholly urban, his mood and temper nurtured on the city alone. Thus, when he paints the evening sky from the top of a roof, one instantly recognises the Calcutta sky, the city that is dirty and ugly, narrow and cramped and yet full of mystery, which still holds the entire range of human joys and sorrows in its palm. The two house-wives you see leaning on the parapet of a roof with their backs to you looking out at the sea of houses, windows, roads and the stream of lights, are city wives; not village brides: they stand so erect and look so self-conscious and confident. The sun that streams through the mansion window and lights up the furniture, shines on the city. The architecture is wholly metropolitan. The tall mysterious figure in the half light behind the column is a city woman: the cat and the dog, too -- her pets -- are bred in an aristocratic city home, there is such an air of cool unconcern about them. Again when he paints a Durga Puja immersion procession, the spirited chiaroscuro upholds visions of a real city street, it might as well be Cornwallis Street. Or, when he paints a rain soaked crowd under a forest of umbrellas, vaguely recalling Daumier and one thinks of a knot of city workers crossing Curzon Park on their way home after office from Dalhousie Square or from the IFA football tournament. Even when he is painting a village alleyway, it is quite possible to think of it as a city lane.

But despite his being solidly rooted in the city in every way, when he paints the Bengal village, his brush attains a boundless expanse, the sky reaches beyond the horizon as it were, over rice fields and meadows into infinity: even as one who has been long in city pent readily loses himself in the peace, quietness and ecstasy of a country holiday. Gaganendranath has painted the boundless rice fields, the temple on the river, the rows of palm and coconut, the hills shrouded in storm and mist, the village in the evening, or the punting boatman, with the same sympathy and skill as he has painted city roofs bathed in moonlight. It was this intimate communion with both worlds that lent such mystery to his Bengal landscapes and human types; for instance, his series on Chaitanya’s Renunciation. It is this again which makes possible another genre of pictures that is purely romantic, literary, mysterious, even if somewhat nebulous, indistinct, remote. The patterns of light and shade, that sunlight seeping through the window creates, the world of mystery and changing colour that a flickering light conjures, were matters of endless curiosity to Gaganendranath Tagore. This is what gave birth to his mysterious and romantic subjects.

Having thus centred themselves on the city, his pictures acquired a certain nervous tension, a geometric beauty through the architecture of brick and stone, which gave his human figures a three-dimensional feel, solidity and strength. His Natir Puja is a fine example of how the architecture of house and temple holds his human figures together and gives them unity of composition: the dancing woman in the red sari on the threshold of the temple, with its ageing black walls showing off on a black yellow ground, is tall, straight, bony, architectural. It is his interest in architecture and modern city life, again, which invests his cubistic pictures with a certain urgency and saves the from degenerating into lifeless or merely fashionable imitations. At any rate, they succeed in creating new relationships among external forms even if they fail to force out the innermost structure of the subject through the arrangement of cubes. This is how his and Rabindranath Tagore’s pictures in the cubisticmannerhaveachieved a certain measure of significance all their own.

Let us have a closer look at what may have been Gagnendranath’s particular contribution to modern Bengal and therefore, Indian painting. I have just said that Gaganendranath’s cubistic pictures did not satisfy the European definition of cubism despite superficial association. But this association cannot be entirely an error of the eye, for Gaganendranath happened to be undoubtedly the most skilful and perhaps successful among Indian artists in their learning how to analyse pictorial space in the European manner. And it is precisely this competence which gave him a temper and eye of a contemporary painter. India has no lack of ancient cities like Delhi, Agra or Varanasi, but their structure and even their temper are quite different from those of the great moderns like Calcutta, Bombay or Madras. The first group of cities quite clearly belongs to the past, while the second plainly belongs to modern commerce, being the fruit of contact with the West. Naturally, therefore, the anatomy, the architecture, the forms of houses and neighbourhoods of civic life of the second group is a mixture of the East and the West. In other words, it is Anglo-Indian. And since Gaganendranath’s technique was frankly European, his use of space, colour and light plainly Western, which did not have even the pretence of coming to terms with the Eastern technique, it came to be a very suitable vehicle, indeed, for portraying the externals of the Anglo-Indian city. This is how it managed to achieve a peculiar fusion of form and content. This is also how the mood and temper of the modern Indian city took shape in his work through the successful European use of water colour, chiaroscuro and the European frame. Not the physical frame of wood and cardboard, of course, but the invisible frame that a valid pictorial composition automatically creates. To take but a crude example: a lone kite flying in the wide blue sky does not have a frame, but a group of kites floating about at once create a tension around themselves even in that vast emptiness, and this, a frame. In other words, if a number of objects succeed in a self-sufficient relationship among themselves they establish a closed composition or an invisible frame around themselves. We find little enthusiasm for the frame in Indian pictorial composition after the great reliefs of the middle ages, which thereafter went into decline. On the other hand, the frame came to acquire increasing importance at this time in Europe. There could possibly be an explanation for this state of affairs. Mathematical or geometric perspective came to occupy a very important place in European painting in the fifteenth century, when the artist felt called upon to draw his picture with such precision that it should be possible to deduce, almost mathematically, how distant the object painted was from the viewer, how high and low, and whether would have the same view of the subject as the artist himself. In short the European painter came to lean on geometric analysis and to accept perspective as dictated by physical science. Consequently, most paintings came to be conceived as arranged on a stage with the figures in the foreground, the middle depths and the receding background, all viewed from the stalls as it were, or through a window. This came to stay as a central fact of European perspective. The Indian painter, on the other hand, never felt himself bound by this rigid perspective in which the relative positions of the subject and the viewer seemed fixed for ever. He, too, of course, had his own laws of perspective, but those laws upheld the mind’s eye much more than the physical scene. He therefore refused to be bound by pure representation and often placed his spectator plonk into the middle of his subject, as a result of which a bed would look narrower at the near end than at the far, which is contrary to European perspective where the near end of the bed will always be wider than the far end and that always in a certain mathematical ratio, depending upon the field of the perspective itself. Further, not only did the Indian painter put his spectator right in the middle of his picture, but he gave him mobility and freedom, so that the latter, placed right inside, could turn round and enjoy more than one view or perspective at will. Such a technique, needless to say, does not favour the European perspective. Consequently, any Indian painting tended to become but a part of a bigger arrangement, an open-ended segment, as it were. This is why the Indian miniature is very much in the manner of a segment of an imaginary film strip, and looks as though it has been clipped from a sequence. There is much similarity between the Indian miniature and the traditional jatra stage, where the play is enacted right in the heart of the audience and can be viewed in the round and which goes on continuously from start to finish. In In short, after the fifteenth century, European perspective was built on the closed composition, being confined mainly to easel painting, while until our time Indian courtly painting was primarily based on the frameless open composition. It is only in the illuminated manuscript or folk painting that we come across the frame, on account of the fact that a picture is drawn upon a usable article which necessarily calls for it.

Faced with this problem, Abanindranath Tagore, the father of modern Indian painting, never seemed quite able to make up his mind. He was born into a family which, as early as 1870, had produced such an excellent draughtsman as Jyotindranath Tagore, whose genius as a portrait painter had long come into its own. It is curious that no one so far has remarked upon the extent of Jyotindranath’s Tagore’s probable influence on the education of the Tagore children in drawing and painting, how they must have unconsciously imbibed the principles of European drawing as they grew up in his presence. For more than sixty years, Jyotindranath steadily continued to draw hundreds of subjects. Rabindra Bharati has recently acquired more than 2000 of Jyotindranath’s portraits, which provide an uninterrupted record of his drawing from 1870 until his death in 1926. Nor was portrait painting a mere pastime with Jyotindranath. He would begin by taking the most careful measurements of his subject again and again and it only after he had got his measurements of the head and face perfectly right that he would proceed to invest it with life: the unique character and the intensely individual solid form. I wonder if even Abanindranath Tagore ever took such great pains over his great portraits. Jyotindranath had the true European discipline in this regard and his work is easily on a level with that of the best of his European contemporaries. Having grown up close to Jyotindranath, Abanindranath went to learn from a European teacher in the European manner; a technique in which the framewas themaintheme, the subject without a story, the distilled moment, independent of what went before or after, the interest being more on still life than on living or moving objects. On the other hand, however, the stuff of his mind was truly Indian, with its preference for the story, its desire to let the imagination roam unhindered; to sit back at ease and talk of cabbages and kings. Then again, he felt the urge to revive the Indian manner in painting. All this conspired in his case to produce a mixed technique. Perhaps the point calls for illustration. Let us take, for example, his famous Abhisarika: the love-tryst. It is quite obvious that Abanindranath intended it as an experiment in the Mughal miniature technique: for proof one has to look not only at the signature in Persian calligraphy but to the background, the flowers under the feet, the ornamental border and even the pictorial mood. But that is about all there is to it of the Mughal technique. In other words, but for several readily recognisable external modes, the picture remains entirely European. For, the way he achieves liveliness and tension by projecting the lone figure of the Abhisarika on to the black background is about as European as it is Indian. Moreover, the Abhisarika’s figure is really in the tradition of the true European miniature, it is drawn either from memory, still fresh with a visual image, or a live model and is not the result of stylisation or of contemplation of the ideal female form. It is an outright representation of a particular human figure, complete from head to toe, the form is organic and not in the least stylised. The most un-Indian part of it is the Abhisarika’s head and face which, in its skill and competence is conceived and drawn wholly in the European manner. This interweaving crept into his subjects also. Thus his pictures could not always claim to be well framed, they often leant on a story, abundant, spilling over: they took their place on the border-line between painting and literature. This is why the form and content of much of his work, strangely enough, so often were one. Thus, while the pattern of construction of his pictures was generally Eastern, his drawing and use of the brush, colour and chiaroscuro was European, as a result of which his use of space, deep space and perspective was tentative, uncertain. At any rate, Abanindranath hardly ever analysed or constructed his space in the true European way. Here was, on the one hand, his Indian experience and Indian eye. On the other, were his European technique and skill in the use of paper, paint and brush. And suspended between the two, his draughtsmanship was occasionally weak and halting, inclined to wander in the realms of literature rather than stay firm in the authentic world of painting. Quite often his figures lost their hard pictorial structure and leant on literary crutches.

It was quite a different story with Gaganendranath. Not only did he use water colour in the frank European manner, he brought up in light and shade, chiaroscuro. What was more, his objects and figures cast their own shadows on the picture itself, something quite novel in Indian painting. He did not go in for chiaroscuro in the Indian manner such as we find in Deer-hunting or Travellers around the fire in an inn of Mughal miniatures : for even in them darkness around the light does not make a pattern like petals around the centre of a flower; on the other hand the light diffuses itself and reaches out beyond the frame in all directions. But when, for instance, Rembrandt, studies Mughal chiaroscuro and carefully recreates it in Woman Taken in Adultery, or Woman Paring her Nails, he creates an entirely closed composition, its affinity being more with Titian’s Entombment of Christ than with the Mughal miniature it superficially resembles. Despite the handiness of Mughal chiaroscuro, Gaganendranth elected for European light and shade. For example, his Welcoming the Bride bears a great deal of technical and superficial similarity with Correggio’s Birth of Jesus or Titian’s Entombment of Christ or Rembrandt’s Woman Paring her Nails even though they have nothing else in common. His use of brush and paint, too, was European; so, too, and that quite unreservedly, was his analysis of space and the use of it. The way he mathematically divided up his ground according to the pattern of his subject and placed his objects in each compartment, served to bring about a geometric order, cohesion, a taut and nervous tension peculiar to European drawing, which is worlds apart from what one gets from West Indian illuminated manuscripts or Indian miniatures. But since his drawing was found on geometry, it displayed qualities of construction all its own. And it is precisely because his drawing had this virtue, that his figures held together firm, united in a certain tension created by the geometric pattern itself, even if the figures severally did not stand on their own. In the result, even when it was not unusual for his pictures to lack strength and design in their several parts, they yet invariably held together and managed to construct a pleasing pattern. All this would not add up to great design, perhaps, but would nonetheless win it a place in the world of painting.

Having thus openly and without reservation elected for the European technique, he did not hesitate to use it as his medium to paint Calcutta. His technique held the mirror up to the modern city and thus was entirely suitable, logical. Form met content on common ground, for modern urbanism, too, is new to India, as much a foreign and unaccustomed commodity as the European technique of painting. This is how most of his pictures came to be successful as such, for their body and soul were one and complementary. But even as he himself was merciless in his satire on the affected Bengali sahib and his mincing ways, he, too, was a victim of his own caricature and distortion. His flair for exaggeration became a fault. There are numerous pictures in his Hara Parvati, for example -- where his chiaroscuro become meretricious and degenrates to over-dramatization, a mere mannerism. But his use of colour was almost always successful; the soft tones of European water colour and pastel made fantastic harmony with the bright, strangely colourful, quiltwork of the Indian miniature, and gave his pictures a joyous and brilliantly-lit air. He showed great daring and carefree nonchalance in borrowing colour from both worlds, which he invariably puts to competent use.

But despite all this solid achievement, his pictures still seem to lack something somewhere. Every country evolves its own pictorial technique, impelled by the demands of its own civilization, in a challenge to find pictorial solutions to its own problems. The problems of Indian painting are not the same as those of European painting. Even withthebest ofunderstanding of the English literary tradition, an Indian will never get his Shelly or Keats the way an Englishman will. And, therefore, even as Gaganendranath attained mastery over the European technique, yet when he came to apply it to his own country, it still remained, in the final analysis, a thing superimposed, grafted, superficial, not quite deep enough. It is this which gave his work its lyrical, romantic mood, a kind of poetic enthusiasm for external form. It skimmed the surface of Indian life and confined itself to the upper layer. This also explains why his cubism came to be not much more than an echo of European cubism and failed to lend new richness and to the European manner itself.

His second important gift to Indian painting is caricature, the cartoon or satire. His satire on Anglo-Indian life, the modern educational system, the nationalism of English barristers-at-law, the spinning wheel as the key to civilization, was as deep as it was trenchant. Ordinarily, the cartoon fails to leave its mark on memory: the morning‘s cartoon is forgotten without a trace in the evening. But Gaganendranath’s cartoon worked like a surgeon’s lancet: it left its mark as it let out the poison. His satire attained a special edge whenever something offended his poetic mind. This, too, was the fruit of his urbane, metropolitan breeding: even Dwijendralal Roy’s literary satires do not really compare with his drawings. And this is what has won his Birup Bajra (The Wry Thunderbolt), Naba Hullorh (The New Vogue), Adhbut Lok (The Strange Men) a very special niche in the history of Indian painting.

Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now

The Photography Timeline is currently under construction.

Our apologies for the inconvenience.