Artists: Notes on Art Making

The only way to know Abanindranath, the artist, is to see his pictures. The other role that he plays in the history of modern Indian painting is that of the founder of a new movement. In this light his position is historically significant. The fame of Abanindranath as the reviver of Indian tradition and founder of a new movement is in no way less than that of Abanindranath the artist. It is possible to estimate by facts and figures the historical value of Abanindranath's genius. Although we may not enter into the heart of his creation through facts and their analysis, yet such discussion helps our appreciation and judgment by placing it in proper historical perspective.


The unique genius of Abanindranath was revealed for the first time in his Radha-Krishna series of paintings (1895). These pictures introduce a new epoch in his own life as well as in the field of modern Indian painting. When we compare them with the contemporary works, we appreciate the achievement of the artist and the historical value of the paintings. On the one hand, there were different schools such as Delhi qalam, Patna qalam, with their stereotyped tradition, conventional training, rigid rules, a certain amount of craftsmanship and the decorative structure of Indian painting. In the north the Kangra qalam in the Rajput tradition was more of a living character. But it will not be wrong to state that Indian painting as a whole had degenerated into an extravagance of decorativeness and was extremely lifeless and dry. On the other hand, the so-called European tradition that had just been imported from England did not either give us an insight into the real European art. The British academic convention taught us merely to imitate Nature. However different in their character, both these Indian and foreign works, though often full of skill, were stereotyped and lifeless. "Nowhere does Art," wrote Havell referring to the degenerated taste of this period, "suffer more from charlatanism than in lndia. There is no respect for Art in the millionaire who invests his surplus wealth in pictures and the costliest furniture so that his taste may be admired or his wealth envied by his poor brethren."[1]

In the paintings of Abanindranath we for the first time discover an aesthetic quality rare in contemporary works. But the young educated group of those days had neither the opportunity nor the training to distinguish artistic creation from slavish imitation, having been so long fed on works of mere craftsmanship. So when the paintings of Abanindranath first appeared before the public our connoisseurs were well-nigh obsessed with what seemed to them deficiencies in the technical knowledge of the artist. They were bewildered and asked, where was anatomy? Where was cast shadow and why was there no perspective? Let us give an example to show the light in which these critics viewed Abanindranath's painting with its novel technique:

"Is it the underlying principle of Indian pictorial art that one should paint such subjects, or distort them in such a way that they will not resemble in any way the real objects or people will not be able to recognize them? In other words, is it the soul of the so-called Indian painting to contradict nature? The only aim of traditional Indian painting seems to be the flouting of all naturalness. In conception of beauty as well as in their nauseating colour-schemes the works of the neo-Indian painters fall in no way short of the specimens one meets with in wayside shops and pages of old almanacs. Under the canons of Indian painting the limbs and fingers are made unnatural and extremely elongated. Any work that defies rules of anatomy becomes, eligible for the gallery of Indian paintings. Imagination that in its recklessness shrinks not to elongate endlessly the hands and feet is not worth its name. Why the pictures painted, according to Indian tradition are so much contrary to nature and bonelessly serpentine passes our understanding."[2]

Among the newly educated society everywhere there prevailed in art criticism sarcasm in place of argument and fascination for skill in place of aesthetic judgment. To them the -verdict of an Englishman used to be the last word in matters of art and accordingly there could not be a picture worth the name which did not conform to the rules of anatomy, perspective and cast shadow. This love for exact copy of nature and cast shadow had not only blinded the vision of the educated public; even the scholars, historians, archaeologists-people deeply conversant with Indian silpa-sastra and iconography-were not immune from it. Even they perhaps implicitly believed that a picture without cast shadow was an anomaly. Had it not been so, could ever a scholar pass the following remark?

"In Chinese painting there exists no trace to show an effort on the part of the artist to add an effect of light and shade. This should not induce us to presume that their teacher the Indian artist too was indifferent about it."[3]

Not only ignorance but wrong information had totally vitiated our taste.

It was Havell who first pointed out that we were imitating third-rate western painting only because we had no knowledge of real Indian art. So long there had been researches enough on Indian sculpture, architecture and painting from archaeological point of view, but none of the scholars had the boldness to emphasize the essential aesthetic quality of them. It is to Havell's undying credit that he was the first to do so.

"It has been always my endeavour, in the interpretation of Indian ideals, to obtain a direct insight into the artist's meaning, without relying on modern archaeological conclusions; and without searching for the clue which may be found in Indian literature."[4]

This statement of Havell's was criticized by a renowned archaeologist of Bengal is that of a conceited person averse to scholarly habit. Havell's view is indeed not free from fallacy. And it is true that he had to take recourse to history and ancient literature to interpret Indian ideals. But at that time such an assertion was necessary. Besides Havell, Sir John Woodroffe, Sister Nivedita and Coomaraswamy in course of their writings is directed the attention of the people towards the aesthetic tradition of India.

It was during this period when Havell was trying to revive the Indian artistic culture that he met in 1897 Abanindranath Tagore. It was Havell who proclaimed Abanindranath as a painter in the Indian tradition. Scholars, however, refused to acknowledge him as one. With quotations from silpa-sastras they never tired of showing that the work of Abanindranath and his group was absolutely non-Indian. Their paintings were not up to the Indian ideal, inasmuch as theydisregardedthetraditionalcanons of tala, mana, pramana, and so forth. Not that their position was entirely at fault, for Abanindranath never wholly belonged to any exclusive tradition. But that he had successfully expressed the modern mind in modern language did perhaps escape the notice of the scholars, though today we have no difficulty in appreciating the fact. Hence we find, by a strange irony of events, that while on the one hand his claim as an Indian artist was repudiated by the scholars, on the other hand he was being hailed by another group of critics, litterateurs and patriots, as the founder of neo-Indian Art. When Havell and Coomaraswamy discussed the works of Abanindranath and his followers they laid the greatest stress upon their Indianness.

"The work of the modern school of Indian painters in Calcutta is a phase of the national reawakening. The subjects chosen by the Calcutta painters are taken from Indian history, romance and epic, and from the mythology and religious literature and legends, as well as from the life of the people around them. Their significance lies in their distinctive Indianness. They are, however, by no means free from European and Japanese influence. The work is full of refinement and subtlety in colour, and of a deep love of all things Indian; but contrasted with the Ajanta and Mughal and Rajput paintings, which have in part inspired it, it is frequently lacking in strength. The work should be considered as a promise rather than a fulfilment."[5]

This same emphasis we notice also in the remarks of Havell:

"If neither Mr. Tagore nor his pupils have yet altogether attained to the splendid technique of the old Indian painters, they have certainly revived the spirit of Indian art, and besides, as every true artist will, invested their work with a charm distinctively their own. For their work is an indication of that happy blending of Eastern and Western thought..."[6]

Here, in these quotations, we have a clear statement of the position of the new experiments in Indian Art in Bengal up to the year 1911. While their effort at reviving the classical Indian ideal is acknowledged, it is significant that in none of these statements is there any claim made as to its success. As a matter of fact, the work of these artists became popular as part of the then national movement. Abanindranath's position as a national artist was of prime importance to his admirers, but the language he had evolved for the purpose was not yet grasped by them. Their conception of its significance was much too vague and nebulous. Since they were well-versed in the lore of religious philosophy and literature, they were naturally inclined to interpret the artist's work in the light of metaphysical conceptions, literary symbols and religious ideas. Let us cite an example:

"The leaders of the neo-Indian Art, in the freshness and vitality of their zeal, do not stop short at the ideal of art for art's sake; they are also keen on giving expression to the spiritual impulses which are rooted in the soul of the Hindu. Thus the present revivalist movement in Indian Art is in implicit harmony with the present thought movement, aspirations and the patriotic ideals of the country. In the present picture (Storm at Puri, 1911) of Mr. Tagore, there is a strip of sand in grey and a suggestion of the distant storm-tossed sea. But that is enough to impress on our mind the wild nature of India in all her fury and melancholy. Hence he who would look for bright sunlit landscapes in this exhibition would be disappointed. Here the artist is concerned with neither that outward appearance of India which the European tourists observe, nor her greenery which the beauty-seeking artists of Europe try to portray. Here is the real, essential India in her intimate sadness-symbolic, spiritual, ideal and ethereal.''[7]

Supporters of Abanindranath had all tried to view his work from this philosophic and literary angle. As a result, the general public has not yet risen above the temptation of believing that modern Indian painting is spiritual in its significance. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the early critics of this school. But unfortunately such exuberance blinds us to the simple fact that a painting is, above all, something to be looked at. It was enough satisfaction to the contemporary critics that Abanindranath and his group were engaged in the rediscovery of the aesthetic ideal of India. But they were forgetful of the fact that, as in literature so in art, idea has to be expressed through adequate language. Whatever the Indian ideal might have been, how it is expressed in the body of art would have been made known to them had they realized that

"The evolution of Indian art is organized by the rhythm which organizes the work of art, and nothing is left to chance, and little to extraneous influence. Its movements are strictly regulated. In no other civilization, therefore, we find such minute prescriptions for proportions and movements. The relation of the limbs, every bent and every turning of the figures represented, are of the deepest significance. This dogmatism, far from being sterile, conveys regulations how to be artistically tactful, so that no overstrain, no inadequate expression, and no weakness ever will become apparent. The regulations are a code of manners."[8]

Let us now leave behind all these controversies and acquaint ourselves directly with Abanindranath's paintings. That will help us to estimate the exact value of this discussion.


Abanindranath's fame in India and abroad mainly rests on the fact that he is the reviver of Indian Art, whereas, in fact, he never wanted to rediscover anything with any specific effort. He had studied the canons of aesthetics, had written on Sadanga (Six Limbs of Painting) and in his earliest book, Bharata-Silpa, had even pleaded for the Indian ideal; yet in his own creations he did not adhere to them. In a word, in spite of his immense enthusiasm and regard for Indian aesthetic ideal, he never adopted the mode of expression peculiar to Indian painting or sculpture.

The address that Abanindranath delivered to his pupils in 1909 clearly reveals his mind at that time:

"I have noticed that when you have to paint a beautiful landscape you go to a garden or a river-bank and start painting the trees, plants, flowers and animals from observation. I wonder at this effort of yours to capture beauty in such a cheap trap. Do you not realize that beauty is not something external and that it lies deep within? Soak your heart first in the shower of Kalidasa's poetry, then lift your eyes towards the sky. You will then appreciate the eternal rhythm of the everfresh cloud-messenger. First soak yourself in the great poet Valmiki's description of thesea,thenproceed to painta sea of your own."[9]

What was the object of this advice? It is obvious that he wanted to lead the mind of his pupils to the world of imagination and idea. Yet he did not suggest anything as to the mode by means of which they could express that idea. That the outer form of an object is everything, and that art consists in the imitation of that form, was ignored by his disciples and a contrary belief came into vogue. The form of an object, they believed, was nothing, and imitation had no place in the expression of idea. This belief May be termed as the extreme aesthetic ideal. It is a very personal faith and, since it does not belong to the nation as a whole, it cannot be called the National Ideal. Hence with least hesitation we may say that Abanindranath has followed the ideal neither of any nation nor of any time; he has been guided by his own individual taste. He has a thorough understanding of the canons of Indian art, his intellect comprehends them, but one feels that his heart has not accepted them. Let us quote a passage from his latest book:

"Vayu (Air) in Indian tradition is conceived as a god, but his representation in art is as much a child's toy as those of our other gods, Indra, Chandra (Moon), Varuna (Water). They are almost same in form and expression without: much difference Thirty-three crores in their number, they are shaped from the same mould, as it were, and represent the same type, the only difference being in vahana (the animal carrying the god), mudra (gesture of hands, etc.) and such details. A god when seated on Garuda is Vishnu; riding on seven horses is Surya (Sun God). A goddess when she sits on Makara (a mythological water animal) is recognized as Ganga (the Ganges represented as divinity); on a tortoise she is Yamuna. The Vedic deities, Indra, Chandra, Vayu, Varuna, for example, are distinct in the conception of their form and grandeur, just as the Greek deities, Apollo, Venus, Jupiter, Juno and others are. This variety of conception is rarely to be met with, however, in gods and goddesses as imaged in India. With negligible variations in asana, vahana, colouring and such other accessories, the same image is made to represent a variety of gods. Vayu (Air), and Varuna (Water) can on no account be identical in their thoughts and expression. As far as I know, it is only a Greek sculptor, a replica of whose work I came across in the collection of Jagadischandra Bose, who could carve in stone the movement of the wind. In the folds of the drapery of the goddess the breeze from the Mediterranean seemed to sing and play."[10]

Such is the considered opinion of Abanindranath in his mature age and one dare not overlook it. A study of the course of development of the artist's genius leads us to the same conclusion.

Once the decorative forms of Indian and foreign paintings had charmed Abanindranath. We see that expressed in his paintings of the Radha Krishna series (1895). But there his previous training in European technique had influenced the work and did not allow in them-the Indian decorative frame to remain absolutely pure. As a result these pictures had become something which was neither a true European miniature nor an Indian decorative painting. But, no doubt, in them we had a new type of work belonging to a new age, a type nowhere to be found in those days.

Both Indian and European styles of painting that had remained static so long were united in the paintings of Abanindranath and became vitally living. Herein lies the greatest contribution of Abanindranath. He gave us in painting the language of the modern age. However immature that language, we had at last the opportunity to express ourselves through it. When Abanindranath was painting the Radha-Krishna series (1895) he was hardly known. It was in 1897 that, through his contact with E.B. Havell, he became known to the public. Havell introduced him as the reviver of the Indian ideal of painting. We have already discussed how his critics were disappointed to notice in his work the lack of realism and naturalness. With the aid of Havell, Abanindranath studied very carefully and critically the paintings of the Mughal school. He was fascinated to see their wonderful workmanship and the delicate, decorative skill. "Infuse bhava (idea or feeling) in the picture," he exclaimed. What exactly he implied by the word bhava he never explained anywhere in those days. But a definite change was to be noticed in his paintings which first expressed itself in "Bharata Mata" (1902) and gradually matured in his illustrations from Omar Khayyam (1906-8). The first thing that we observe there is the loosening of the decorative compactness which was a characteristic of his earlier work. A quality of space has entered into them displacing the surface quality. This change was due, no doubt, to his recent contact with Mughal and Japanese paintings, yet we often fail to remember in this connection the influence of his knowledge of the European technique or what may better be termed the Academic science of painting.

The technique of Abanindranath got its ingredients from; Mughal, Japanese and European traditions. Amongst these the pre-eminent quality of the art traditions of Europe and of modern Japan is naturalistic; while, from the standpoint of expression, the style of the Mughal court-artists may be called realistic. To-day one need riot hesitate to admit that the technique of Abanindranath is of the realistic type. But this realism of his paintings is neither of the British academic type, nor of the Japanese, nor even of the Mughal type. It is a realism absolutely his own; to be more precise, one might say that he presented the decorative form of the Mughal school in all its meticulous delicacy in a light more real, and the technique he adopted for this purpose did not belong to any specific tradition. It was wholly a creation of his own in order to express his own idea. Thus Abanindranath is not the founder of any tradition in painting; he is the creator of a new style.

There are two reasons why Abanindranath's style, which is the most significant quality of his painting, has remained ignored. First, because of the tendency to attribute metaphysical arid symbolic meaning to his creations; and second, because in the days of his early fame, when there was most discussion about him, too much emphasis was laid on him as the Indian artist, and, instead of taking account of the character of his style, people compared it with the old styles and tried to discover how close he had approached the Mughal School. Disregarding his style, everyone in those days discussed the idea in his pictures.

From no standpoint can the name of Abanindranath be included among the artists of the traditional school of India. His extreme aesthetic opinion, hisrealistic(incontradistinction tonaturalistic) outlook, and above all his individual style leave no room for such inclusion. Abanindranath is the modern Indian artist of extraordinary genius, whose like did not long appear in the field of Indian painting. Here one may ask: Has then the Indian art ideal not yet been revived? Is not Abanindranath the reviver of the new age in Indian painting? A little more discussion on the artist will make these points clear.

Abanindranath has created nothing in the traditionally Indian line. But by dint of his wonderful talent he effected a fusion of western and oriental techniques and evolved a new style in painting. The problem of absorbing the western technique, without detriment to the character of their own art tradition, has been a serious one to modern artists, not only in India but also in China and Japan. The success with which Abanindranath solved it is perhaps unique in the history of modern oriental Art. It came very naturally to him. Mentally he seems to have been in tune with the attitude of the western artists, else how could one explain in his paintings such pre-eminence of the qualities of texture (not of the surface but of the objects), atmosphere and colour symphony, so typically western? The ease with which he exploited these was due to his early training in western technique. With this attitude and training he approached the oriental art which is inherently different in its kind as well as quality. The result was that in his paintings the oriental body received a western garb and the latter in its turn influenced the structure, of the body.

This will explain why we have called Abanindranath's achievement unique, but not strictly Indian. To his early admirers, who were extremely patriotic in their zeal and attitude, this analysis, I am sure, could, never have been palatable. But it must be candidly stated that we modern artists of Bengal are nevertheless grateful to him, for it is he who has directed and emboldened us to draw with least diffidence upon foreign sources. And for the turning of our mind and outlook towards the early Indian mythology and aesthetic culture, we are indebted to Havell and Coomaraswamy. The impress left upon this by the Swadeshi (national) movement is too deep to be overlooked. The modern mind could neither have been kept aesthetically alive by means of the stereotyped Orissan sculpture that is current to-day and the paintings of the Patna qalam, or similar other conventional schools, nor could the inroads of the English academic art have been checked, had not Abanindranath opened for us a new path of self-expression.

It is the influence of Abanindranath that has made us modern. And now that we have become modern we turn to understand the classical Indian art. It must be clearly realized that we have not become modern through the pursuance of the old. When in England, indeed almost everywhere in Europe, sheer academic jugglery in light and shade was being practised in the name of art, it was an achievement of no mean order for an Indian artist to have risen above the lure of naturalism and to have visualized the ideal of real creative art. Hence we repeat that Abanindranath was never the leader of a movement for the revival of the early Indian tradition. His was a movement that brought about a genuine aesthetic revival in our country. From this standpoint the position of Abanindranath in the cultural history of India is very high.


The deepest and the most lasting influence in Abanindranath's life was that of Rabindranath. Aesthetically, Abanindranath was born and brought up in an atmosphere of literature and his talent expressed itself simultaneously along the twin channels of literature and painting. So even is the bias that it is difficult to say which of the two is his main field. A poet's emotion, on the one hand, and an artist's outlook on the other, a blending as well as a conflict of these two, has given shape to Abanindranath's genius. When in his inimitable language Abanindranath, the story-teller, tells us stories, our mind enraptured is carried along the stream of words and is content to hear them and enjoy, and never stops a moment to catch their precise meaning. As we listen, there arise pictures before our eyes but the moment we try to grasp them they vanish in a mist of words, metaphors and similes, and out of that haze emerges a picture, perhaps quite new. But only for a while: then again everything melts away-words, metaphors and even pictures, and there rings only the music of the words. From this music we in no time oscillate back and begin to see bits of pictures again. This swing of the mind between word and picture is evident in all his writings such as, Raj-Kahini, Kshirer Putul, Bhut-Patrir Des, Budo Angla, etc. They are all pictures born of the cadence of words.

And what about the paintings of Abanindranath, the artist? One may very well say that they are forms arising out of the symphony of colour. Like the symphony of words in his writings, this symphony of colour is the chief attraction of his paintings. Whatever suggestion of form we catch remains concealed behind a veil of colour. Very rarely we meet the world of form face to face in Abanindranath. Considered in this light, the world that the Arabian Nights series reveal to us is a rarity in the wide realm of Abanindranath's work. The suggestion of form in most of his other paintings is so faint and delicate that even the artist-himself seems to doubt if it would reach the mind of others. Hence what a desperate effort we notice in him to explain the pictures beforehand! This gives us an insight into Abanindranath's practice of adding names to paintings and explains the importance he attaches to them.

Style is the chief attraction in Abanindranath's literary as well as pictorial composition; the most important point in them being, how he tells in the one and how he shows in the other. He does not tell to make us understand anything, nor does he paint to make us recognize anything. His aim and ideal in literature as well as in painting is best made clear by his own words:

"If words are pictures spoken, where sounds weld themselves into form, then painting is story in form (rup-katha) told by colour and line."

Truly the paintings of Abanindranath are rup-kathas[11] tales told by colour and the gesture of form, verging on the border of fairy tales.


[1] E. B. Havell, The Basis for Artistic and Industrial Revival in India.

[2] See Sahitya, April-May, 1910. Translation of this passage as well as other quotations from Bengali writings is mine—Tr.

[3] “Bharater Prachin Chitra-Kala” by Ramaprasad Chanda, in Pravasi, Nov.-Dec., 1913.

[4] E. B. Havell, The Ideals of Indian Art.

[5] A. K, Coomaraswamy: as quoted by V. Smith in his A History of Fine Art in India and Ceylon, ch. IX, p. 348.

[6] E. B. Havell, The Ideals of Indian Art.

[7] 'Charuchandra Bandyopadhyaya, in Pravasi, July-Aug., 1913.

[8] Stella Kramrisch, in The Modern Review, Dec, 1922.

[9] Pravasi, Oct-Nov., 1909.

[10] Abanindranath Tagore in Bageswari Silpa-Prabandhavali (pp. 74-75), published by the Calcutta University.

[11] There is a pun on the word rup-katha, which ordinarily means 'fairy tale' and may be literally rendered as rup, form; katha story or narration—Tr.
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
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.