Catalogue essay, Lalit Kala Akademi, 1964, pp. 1-15.

Such a sensitive mind as Gaganendranath’s I had indeed rarely met with, for his mind ranged over every field of culture. Each subject touched on brought from his some quiet comment, showing an unfailing critical discernment. In his own paintings I observed a similar sensitiveness. He has a beautiful touch… a refinement of insight which gave quality to all his handwork.’

The above quotation from an obituary by Rothenstein is much more than a conventional tribute. It is a critical judgement comprehending the work and the personality of Gaganendranath Tagore. Gaganendranath was an epitome of what Rabindranath used to describe as an ideal of completeness of life. There was no compartmentalisation in his artistic makeup. Whatever aspect of life he touched upon, he gave it an artistic organisation. An aristocratic of the spirit, he would perhaps have been most at home in the Florence of the Medicis. That does not mean, however, that he was out of step with the life and manners of his own times.

Gaganendranath was born in 1867, the eldest son of Rabindranath’s cousin, Gunendranath. Lest there be some confusion as to the inter-relationship among the better-known of the Tagores, appended is a selective list of names from the genealogical tree of the family.

Gaganendranath’s father, Gunendranath, is remembered as a pioneer for his patronage of the arts-notably theatre arts. Here is a vignette Rabindranath gives of his elder cousin in his My Reminiscenes:

‘His large gracious heart embraced alike relations, friends, guests and departments. Whether in his broad south verandah, or on the lawn by the fountain or at the tank-edge on the fishing platform, he presided over self-invited gatherings like hospitality incarnate. His wide appreciation of art and talent kept him constantly radiant with enthusiasm. New ideas of festivity or frolic… found in him a ready patron, and with his help would flourish and find fruition. After the mid-day meal cousin Gunendra would attend the estate offices in our part of the house. The office room of our elders was a sort of club where laughter and conversation were freely mixed with business.’

Compare the above with what the Poet’s son, Rabindranath, has to say about his cousin Gaganendra and the picture of inherited traits is complete:

‘There sat the three brothers, Gaganendra, Samarendra and Abanindra on three easy chairs in a long verandah facing south, and there they painted, carried on office work, entertained visitors and held their court in a truly oriental atmosphere of simplicity and repose…’

This then was the kind of environement in which Gaganendra was nurtured.

As to formal schooling, he had little of it except for a spell at St. Xavier’s School where he took a brief interest in drawing and painting and briefer in academic studies. Like Rabindranath, he too was destined to play the truant so as to be able to self-educate himself. In the Poet’s case his mother’s death provided a convenient excuse, in Gaganendra’s his father’s / Gunendranath’s premature death in 1881 left Gaganendra at 14 the potential head of the junior branch of the Tagores of Jarosanko - a position which his widowed mother took seriously. From all accounts she was a remarkable lady -at once austere and kind, with a wealth sound common sense and practical wisdom. Under her careful tutelage, Gaganendra was groomed so well in the art of gracious living that when in 1896 the family estates were partitioned and he had to take up responsibilities, he did it as to the manner born-as a scion of the ‘princely’ house of Dwarkanath of grand seigneur tradition. He presided over the stately ‘outer’ house Dwarkanath had built to entertain his friends and guests, on the land adjoining the family mansion proper. There was something of the ‘Prince’ in Gaganendra in that he, too, loved to have people around to help or entertain, and not only people but also ‘causes’ and ‘movements’.

By the Gaganendra had come to his guddee, his youngest brother Abanindra was already on the way to becoming a master artist. Havelli was soon to discover him and team up with him to usher in the revival of Indian art. Gaganendra took up the brush years later. And no wonder; as the head of the family his time was naturally taken up with the affairs of the estates and his many social obligations. True, he never failed to give a word of cheer and encouragement to Abanindra, or to open out opportunities for him. But Gaganendra’s own interest in art, at that time, was limited to, and conditioned by, his craze for everything Swadeshi. He, too, had caught the contagion of that first phase of the self-assertive nationalism of Bengal at the turn of the century. On the one hand he became deeply involved in the activities of the terrorists of the Anusilan party, on the other, he and Abanindra sat for long hours designing oriental style furniture to replace the heavy Victorian pieces handed down from Dwarkanath’s days. To Gaganendra, at the time, offering financial aid to Dinesh Chandra Sen for his services to the language and literature of Bengal was tantamount to the patronage he extended to the revival of indigenous weaving, or synonymous with the art collection he and his brothers were steadily building up. Amongst his other interests, the three that claimed his time and attention most were photography, play-acting and the reading of books. It might be interesting to speculate that it was probably with the magic eye of the camera that he first learnt to observe the mysterious world of light and shade which continued to intrigue him even when he took up the brush and ink in his later days. As to play-acting, this was probably inherited arts, and partly from family environment. He displayed an inborn talent for the stage which Rabindranath was quick enough to recognise and provide scope for. Reminiscing on how his cousins bestrode the stage, Rathindranath testifies, ‘A born actor, he had his part cut out in any new play that was produced in our family.’ And the part usually assigned him was that of the king - a part he filled to perfection as to his reading, Gaganendra was a voracious reader of Indian and Western literature. He collected a huge library in his home. Recalling his memories of Gaganendranath Marquess of Zetland writes:

‘The quiet dignity which was naturally upon him told of a life spent in an atmosphere of unusual intellectual refinement.’

Continuing, Zetland says:

‘I was, indeed, always conscious in his presence of a suggestion of that sublime peace which radiates from the conventional image of the seated Buddha. Yet. There was a dynamic quality in his make-up, for he possessed an attraction which invited immediate response and which banished those barriers and restrictions which so often hamper the relations between people of different races and upbringing.’

Now were Zetland andRothenstein the only ones on whom Gaganendranath cast his spell. The more distinguished among those who came into close and admiring contact with him included Sister Nivedita, Justice Woodroffe, Blount Mueller, Lord Carmichael, Count Keyserling, Golobew, Andree Karpeles, Sylvain Levi, Anna Pavlova, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Count Okakura. These few names surely go to show how cosmopolitan his outlook.

What exactly led to the discovery of his latent for art remains a matter of speculation. Perhaps the visit of Okakura to Calcutta at the turn of the century, and his and Sister Nivedita’s powerful advocacy for discarding the ersatz European in favour of the genuinely indigenous in every type of nation articulation, provided the first stimulas. But the active impulse came several years later from Gaganendranath’s direct contact with Taikan of Japanese paintins-well-known exponents of Okakura’s Bijuitsen Schook liaison with Indian artists. Naturally, it was the Jorasanko house visiting artists, with cousin Surendranath to extend an occasional helping hand. The Jorasanko house had by then become a true temple of Indian art with Abanindra acting as the high priest. Sri Aurobindo acclaimed this revival of Indian art as an earnest of a renaissance. It is unlikely that all this ferment should have left Gaganendra cold. When Taikan started initiating Abanindra in the technique of Japanese brush work, in the spacious south verandah, Gaganendra must have adapted it and made it his own can be seen, for example, in the series of illustrations he did for Rabindranath’s Jivansmriti [My Reminiscences] -the first edition of which came out in 1912. The remarkable blend of skill and sensitivity of the Jivansmriti series shows unmistakably that Gaganendra’s minerva was born in panoply.

His earliest sketches and landscape date, however, from 1905. While the landscapes bear the Japanese stamp, the sketch-portraits look as though the inspiration came from Jyotirindranath whose output in this field was a source of wonder to no less a portraitist than Rothenstein himself. Gaganendra’s earliest attempts at portraiture have an interesting history. During 1906-7, he used to receive frequent summons to serve on the special jury. During the interminable rigmarole of legal inanities, Gaganendra would while away his time making surreptitious sketches of the presiding judge, his fellow jurors, the learned counsels, the witness in their stand and the accused on the dock. That was probably how the artist and the cartoonist revolved round the same axle simultaneously, but on parallel lines.

It was about this time [1907], too, that the Indian Society of Oriental Art was born. Gaganendra became the moving spirit of this organisation. The charm of his personality as well as his unerring discernment for picking up the ‘genuine goods’ in any medium or form, drew the elite as well as the crowd to the exhibitions the Society organised in Calcutta, every winter.

Here a word must be said about his versatility. The artist in Gaganendra was not content to remain tethered to the brush alone. Mention has already been made of the oriental style furniture Abanindranath and he designed for their house. Gaganendra had a penchant for stage décor and interior decoration. His drawing-room with its tatami-covered walls, restful divans, brass lamp-stands diffusing discreet light, interspersed with curios and some of the choicest specimens of indigenous arts and crafts, used to be an object of envy and emulation.

No less remarkable was his pioneering zeal for the revival of the artistic crafts of Bengal, notably the silk industry of Murshidabad. It was his advocacy which induced Lord Carmichael to lend Government aid to the establishment of the Bengal Home Industries Association. What this association has dome towards reviving interest in the beautiful handicrafts of Bengal is now common knowledge.

Experimenting with dress was a family trait with the Tagores. The peaked velvet cap and the somewhat sophisticated adaptation of the Tibetan boku became the distinctive dress not only of the artist brothers but also of their responsive uncle, Rabindranath. The dress was first designed by Gaganendra.

Lithograph was one more hobby which the two brothers shared. Some of the reproductions of their works, litho-printed at their Jorasanko hme, have justifiably become collector’s pieces. Recalling the heyday of the Vichitra Club in the organisation of which the artist brothers lent a helping hand to Rathindranath, the latter writes:

‘During the period [1916-18] Gaganendranath discovered a new medium for giving expressions to his fund of humour and satire in caricature. The few that found their way into newspapers and magazines established his popularity at once. The demand for reproductions helped to create another department of the Vichitra Club. A second-hand litho press was purchased and the services of an old Mohammedan printer was enlisted. In the morning Gaganendranath would paint a caricature, the same afternoon would find him transfer it to some stones and then supervise the printing of the copies. In this way two volumes [1] of reproductions were published.’

Here, a word must be said about the book Bhodar Bahadur [2] [Otter the Great] which is the only literary work in Bengali Gaganendra left behind. It is a Lewis Caroll type story for children, exquisitely reproducing in its word-pictures the distinctively style of Gaganendra as an artist.

It is hardly possible within the limits of a short sketch to attempt even a bare appraisal of Gaganendranath’s art. Other and more competent persons have attempted this analysis.

The successive stages of Gaganendra’s artistic career was marked by daring originality of conception, and execution of a bewildering variety of themes in different styles and techniques. The broad phases are: [1] Brush drawings in Japanese style-some of them with exquisite gold backgrounds; [2] Portrait sketches; [3] Illustrations for Jivansmriti ; [4] Water-colour sketches of Rural Bengal, Ranchi and Puri ; [5] Himalayan studies ; [6] Chaitanya Series ; [7] Caricatures of Indian life ; [8] Semi-Cubistic experiments; [9] Folk-lore pictures ; [10] Symbolic pictures of death and the other world. A remarkable thing about these phases is that they did not follow in strict chronological order, nor were they mutually exclusive episodes. Gaganendra was a virtuoso in his many-sidedness.

He was also a non-conformist. In spite of his family’s close association with revivalism, Gaganendra kept outside the pale of the parochial orthodoxy of Modern Indian Art.. he remained a free painter all through, free from fetish of all kinds-oriental or occidental. Unless one recognises his essential uniqueness, one can hardly understand this remarkable artist for whom art was an intensely subjective and almost personal experience, the social content of his cartoonsnotwithstanding. His artistic motivation was a curious amalgam of deliberate intellection penetrated and surcharged by a romanticism of the emotional-impulsive type. Nirad C. Chaudhuri has, therefore, characterised Gaganendra’s inspiration as psychological rather than artistic. His preoccupation was more with the emotional and ideological significance of things than with the material aspects of form and structure. To try to explain him with the help of formulas or canons of modern Indian art or of the Cubist school would be ridiculous in the extreme.

A few examples from his works might probably make the point more comprehensible.

Take Gaganendra’s sketch of a group of crows - the commonest and the most prosaic species of scavenger birds in India. With a few delicate strokes of his brush, tonal variations of the Chinese ink, skill of composition, and, above all, a quality of sympathy-the crows are metamorphosed into a thing of beauty.

Then, there are the Jivansmriti illustration, in which Gaganendra seems to interpret, or rather reflect, the moods and emotions of Rabindranath than reduce his word-pictures into painted ones. Take, for example, Gaganendra’s illustration of Our Inner Garden.

‘Our Inner Garden was my paradise… I will remember how in the early autumn dawn I would run there as soon as I was awake. A scent of dewy grass and foliage would rush to meet me, and the morning, with its cool fresh sunlight, would peep out at me over the top of the eastern garden wall, from below the trembling tassels of the cocoa-nut palms’.

Gaganendra puts the imaginative boy in each one of us right at the threshold of this paradise of the inner garden.

Or, let us for a change, consider the inner court of a house bathed in moonlight done in the semi-cubist style. With its chairascuro of pale light and deep shadows it looks almost like a somnambulist dream-steeped in sleep and enveloped in a kind of mystery and premonition. Only Blake and Rabindranath seem to match to some degree this evocative quality of Gaganendra’s painting.

Let us now travel around a little with the artist. He was much too home-loving to wish to wander about much. His sorties outside Calcutta were mostly limited to the riverine Bengal where the Tagore estates were located, the hill-resort of Darjeeling, Ranchu and the beach at Puri. The romantic that he was, even this limited movement was enough for him to get the feel of, and to convey, his thirst ‘for far-away things’.

Look at the magnificent example from the Himalayan series, and observe how Gaganendra succeeded in his imagination not only in scaling the height of the Kanchanjunga but also in delving deep into the Himalayas of the epics and legends. The snowy range had worked out an upturned face of Shiva like serenity in the skyline of Kanchanjungha.

‘Father loved the river Padma’, says Rabindranath-writing about Rabindranath’s inordinate love for a roving life in a boat. ‘It is no wonder that he named his favourite houseboat after the river… This boat Padma was cherished by Father as one of his most prized possessions’. In the light of this, let us view Gaganendra’s portrait of the boat and the river, and I have no doubt the spirit of this riverscape would seep through our mind and fill it with a kind of Nostalgia for the Rabindranath of his early short stories and those exquisite letter that he wrote on board the Padma.

Gaganendra’s outstanding ability to create perspective out of line and space is most impressively brought out in his painting, Puri Temple. The temple of the picture is how Sri Chaitanya must have viewed it nearly five hundered years ago.

For the sake of variety let us turn to one of his better-known cartoons, Garden Party at an Indian House. The bitterness of his satire is matched at every point with the sharpness of his eye. The ineptitude and extravaganza is sartorial matters, which the tribe called Indo-Bungo of Calcutta sported early in the century, are brought out with an almost photographic exactitude. And the question the cartoon poses, ‘Find the Indian’ is much more than a sly dig-it is a devastating piece of self-criticism.

The Coolie’s Funeral is a striking picture in symbolic style. A sad procession plods along the street of a great city, bearing the dead body of a coolie in a bier. The mourners are seen emerging out of the gates of a prison-like factory-building above which glow with a fierce glare, reflected from the furnaces within, two circular vents symbolising a monster with bloodshot eyes gorging itself on the body and soul of the coolie.

There is also that intricate design, a curious combination of a labyrinth and a spider’s web, which Gaganendra did for the jacket-cover of Rakta-Karabi [Red oleanders] -that powerful symbolic okay of Rabindranath’s. Within the tangled web is seen a blob of red symbolising the red oleanders of life and love caught in the toils of the floundering power of the industrial tycoon.

Briefly, let us go over two of the portraits sketches-the Sleepy Old Man curled up in a sofa, and the Pundits enraged in an endless disputation. Both the sketches are a marvel of economy of lines and strokes.

Let us now stand before the tall majesty of Rabindranath reading his India’s Player at the open session of Indian National Congress [Calcutta, 1917]. We see only the velvet-capped magnificent head of the poet and the boku-covered breadth of his shoulders. Although it is a back-view of the standing figure of the Poet, such is the illusion created by a wide shaft of light which goes past the peaked cap, past the Poet’s hands holding the paper, that we get diffused and lost-in the same way as the light does-amidst the vast throng of the audience. We feel almost like basking in a kind of reflected glory. Here is the cinematic trick of highlighting the central theme, anticipated years ago.

There is also a kind of imaginative portraiture in the pictures of the Chaitanya series. Let us take up the sole example of the Chaitanya series. Let us take up the sole example of Chaitanya’s initiation. The scene is set on the banks of the Ganga bathed in the pale gold of the early morning sun. Chaitanya, with shaven head, is seen in the act of performing the rituals of a havan seated on a clay altar topped with a red canopy. Around him sit figures in their hierarchic order of relationship, all of them with the faces and features of the Tagores. The known and the familiar in faces and scenes are juxtaposed in such a way, in association or dissociation, as to claim the tribute of an instantaneous surprise of recognition.

While Gaganendra never ceased trying to discover the romantic in the visible and the material, he was not loth to range beyond the realm of hard realities in order that he might create his own fairy-tale world the sharply contrasted light and shade, an eerie combinations of black andgold, and at times an abundance of refracted light seen in a kind of prismatic coruscation. As examples of these, we may cite the Palace of snow, the Fairy Land, the Desolate House and Sat Bhai Champa.

Paralysis struck him a few years before his death in 1938. It is difficult and painful to imagine his well-poised calm of face and features racked by agaony his supple limbs rendered immobile by the affliction. Writing the deep feeling after his death, his old friend and admirer, the Marquess of Zetland, said:

‘It is not in any case of these things that we now think, but rather of his joyous spirit winging its way through the realms of light…’

Yes, that is the kind of soul’s crossing which would have most appealed to Gaganendranath, and it is this that Rabindranath had in his mind when he wrote the following few lines in memoriam:

You ranged from shore to shore

Of colour and line,

You were merged deep

In the very heart

of Beauty.

The boat of your life has now passed beyond line’s bourn,

To the pure white mystery

Of the Viewless Form.


[1] Virupa and Vajra and Advoot Lok A third collection was later brought out by Thacker Spinks, under the title Nava Hullor.

[2] Published by the Signet Press, Calcutta.

[3] The writer is indebted to Sri Alokedranath Tagore for facts and information on the life of Gaganendranath.
Catalogue essay, Lalit Kala Akademi, 1964, pp. 1-15
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