Artists: Notes on Art Making

Abanindranath Tagore

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the elite of the Indian society were fully under the spell of Western art, Raja Ravi Varma was acclaimed to be the unrivalled painter of the country. It was at that time Abanindranath’s training as an artist started under a European teacher. Both the first teacher Gilardi and other Palmer, were Professors in the then Calcutta Art School. Whatever the ideal or technique Abanindranath followed under the guidance these two teachers, (who themselves had been influenced greatly by the South Kennington style) was, in fact, not very different from the contemporary ideal or technique. At that stage, when the artistic mind of Abanindranath was following the routine course, conditioned by the nineteenth century art ideal, he came across a few Irish illuminations and an album of Mughal miniatures.

Between the two art trends - one indigenous and other altogether foreign, -- the discerning eye of Abanindranath found out some strange affinity. Never before could be imagine that artistic expression could convey ideas rooted deeply within human minds. A new gate to the world of art opened wide before him. Abanindranath created a new series of Radha-krishna paintings, born out of this new feeling. It would be proper to term the new artistic expression as a mixed language. For the first time in these paintings, devoted to the Radha- Krishna theme, one comes across both the world of light and shade, as conceived by European standards and the Indian ideals of aesthetic. Throughout Asia, at that time, realism of the European type was the ideal of art and the trends of tradition were scattered. The genius of Abanindranath made a significant beginning by bringing close two altogether different traditions through the paintings of Radha-Krishna. It was a memorable achievement not only in the annals of artistic endeavours in India but in the history of Asia as well.

It was during the period, when the Radha-Krishna series were being painted, Abanindranath met and became acquainted with E.B. Havell. Though the sincere efforts of Havell, Abanindranath was appointed in 1898, the Vice-Principal of the then Calcutta School of Arts. Havell started a movement of revival of handicrafts, while he was at Madras. After coming to Calcutta, he further intensified his efforts in the realm of art. He endeavoured much to impress upon educated society the futility of the Indians following the European ideals of art. Abanindranath came to known to the educated society as a champion of the national art through this art movement started by Havell. Because he was so associated with it, many in the subsequent decades took Abanindranath to be revivalist. Of course, it cannot be said conclusively that he was not a revivalist temperamentally. In a way Abanindranath’s career as an artist started after he had come into direct contact with E.B. Havell. Inspired by Havell, Abanindranath had attained artistic maturity in ideas and execution, when his works had reached some fullness, he became acquainted with the famous Japanese connoisseur, Okakura. Within a short term of this acquaintanceship, the young promising painter, Yokohama Taikan, came to India from Japan.

During his stay in Calcutta, pictures painted by Taikan, were primarily on Indian themes and ideas, like Rama Lila, Kali, etc.

From Okakura, Abanindranath did get an opportunity to know and understand the art and culture of China and Japan. On the other hand, in Taikan he studied the development of the art movement in modern Japan. Abanindranath also desired to paint on silk after he had seen silk paintings. The effort is evident in the paintings like the Moonlight Serenade, Bharat Mata (Mother India), Yaksha couple etc.

Quite often one comes across an extreme view stressing the impact of Japanese influence on the work of Abanindranath. Incidentally, it may be pointed out that The Death of Shah Jahan, Bahadur Shah, The Prisoner and such other paintings had been painted long before the artist came into contact with Taikan or Okakura. A study of techniques as applied in the Death of Shah Jahan - done on a wooden plaque in oil, or those to be noticed in later works, reveals the evolution of the style. Traits of stray Japanese influence can be seen here and there, which is more in the nature of an incidental decoration. In short the technique of Abanindranath has more of the transparent and liquid quality of the western water-colour paintings. From the Mughal tradition, he inherited the qualities of line and sensitive modelling. To these had been added the peculiarities of Chinese and Japanese Schools. But those never formed the technical base exclusively. In support of the statement made above, the series of paintings on Omar Khayyam between 1905 and 1907, can be mentioned as examples. The paintings were no doubt inspired by literary themes, but the artist’s experience of the reality is abundantly clear in each of the paintings. In other words the artist has presented us a series of heroes and heroines on the pretext of illustrating the verses. On one side is the bright world full of colour, while the other is woven in a texture of deep or dim darkness. In such an atmosphere we meet the characters. The paintings deserve mention as heralding the advent of the genius of Abanindranath through their powerful technique, dramatic presentation and unique application of colour. It can be easily noticed that the artist has already mastered the western attitude towards the play of light and shade. But, at the same time, in these cases, there is no attempt altogether to copy realism fully. Here Abanindranath has created to his liking and temperament and has taken equally from the eastern and western traditions according to need. The attitude, a glimpse of which is revealed in the paintings on the Radha-Krishna theme, attains further maturity in the Omar Khayyam series. In the post 1910 compositions of Abanindranath, hardly any sign of dependence on literature is traceable. This mental change reaches its climax after the artist completed his Orissan tour.

The visit to Orissa is significant in the life of Abanindranath. So far his knowledge of Indian tradition had been acquired only from museums. We know from his literary works the deep impression made by the temple of Konarak on his mind. On the other hand, he expressed his experience pictorially in the works like Devadasi (Temple Dancer), Kajari dance, Kathak Thakur (the narrator priest) and other paintings. On the contrary, influence of real worldly life found expression in the works. Hardly does one come across any literary appeal in his works of this period. In short, with the Orissan tour, the artistic life of Abanindranath took a new direction.

Between 1920 and 1930, the style of Abanindranath showed signs of further evolution. Works of the period are marked by a widevariety and expressed themselves in so many ways. Almost in every work of this phase, experiments with newer techniques are evident.

Abanindranath did a number of pastel portraits at that time. In the mask drawing can be traced the latest effort at painting portraits. Here is clearly visible an effort to show the form as distinct from matter. On the other side of many of the compositions of the period the texture can be seen treated as they are done in still-life studies. These attempts at various directions can merely be indicated here. Abanindranath became directly conscious of the fact that there exists some unbreakable tension amongst the forms and shapes of various objects, more than mere superficiality in dimensions. We see in almost all the works belonging to the period what is otherwise known as surface tension. For example mention may be made of the big-size paintings like Visvakarma or Java Dancer, Trio, Alamgir, etc., done during the period. In many a work is distinguishable a peculiar outlook, which is akin to what is to be found in still-life studies. Objects like clay dolls, candle sticks have been primarily introduced with a view to augment the effects of texture. In the Playmate series (on birds and animals) the texture has often attained the character of Dutch still life. In the paintings belonging to the second instalment of the Playmate series, the component factors have a stronger quality and are more dependent on forms. The new element in the pictures of this phase is distinctly visible in the scenes of Bengal paintings. His landscapes (1926-27) are the most important among the paintings done during these years. In spite of some suggestions of thickness, the appeal of these works by Abanindranath is primarily of colour. The colourful brilliance, applications of tome, line, etc. or the array of loud colours -all these have not been followed in the strict conformity with the Indian tradition. The architectural solidity attributed to the paintings, through geometrical drawing with diverse forms, has essentially an eastern basis. Both in colour and composition a synthesis is clearly evident. Memories or feeling inherited likewise, about places seen or heard of in the past, have been to inspiration of these paintings drawn in the city of Calcutta. These landscapes, not having any direct bearing to either the traditional technique or outlook, are more to be accepted as outcome of some contemporary influence.

The genius of Abanindranath can be said to have reached its zenith during the time when he illustrated the series on the Arabian Nights (1930). Strangely enough, in these works, the artist succeeded in fully projecting his own personality. Although the theme is the Arabian Nights, Abanindranath has depicted in the illustrations the experience of his time. Abanindranath has bridged up the old Baghdad and modern Calcutta so imaginatively that his known city has come out in a very convincing relief of the Arabian background. On the other hand, the people of Baghdad, the strange imageries in the Arabian Nights, the possible and impossible in it, have all found expression through the known Calcutta and its people. We come across in the Arabian Nights Series illustrated by Abanindranath, a very new existence altogether, created out of the real and the unreal. Each of the paintings on Arabian Night has been rendered with a strength which is rather architectonic. Even though not quite big in size, these paintings suggest an expanse, a quality which is often absent in the big works by Abanindranath. Both in and out, in these paintings Abanindranath has taken recourse to a technique, which is equally vital and effective like the tradition itself.

As for the further transformation of the artistic mind of Abanindranath after the illustrations of the Arabian Nights, direct reference can be made to the post-1938 compositions, depicting Kavi Kankan Chandi or Krishna-mangal. In the works of the period, we come across altogether new atmosphere, which is completely different from what had been presented so far. Here in the composition, Abanindranath stresses fully on forms. Expressive lines and economy of colour, are the peculiarities of the works belonging to this phase. The whole attitude of the artist towards the light and shade undergoes a complete change. The paintings referred to above fully bear out the fact.

It may be said that leaving the world of light and shade, Abanindranath now enters another realm of forms. A new feeling of touch began to make his works strong and constructive. The application of colour during the phase also become subservient completely to forms. In other words, application of shinning colour to forms, was used to enhance the appeal and to evoke particular emotions. Use of colour as noticeable in these works has been somewhat similar to appeal aimed at painted sculpture.

One can hardly think after noticing in particular the composition, strength as well the use of colour, that the works like Kaliya Daman or Nami chor that these are the works by artist of Omar Khayyam or Arabian Nights. Animals and bird, men and women that Abanindranath created in his Kavi Kankan Chandi had for their appeal, the dual qualities of straightforward and simplicity. In all its aspects of technique, one can very well notice the ease with which the paintings have been rendered. This simple attitude and creative imagination of the artist further found expression in the toys designed by him. Gradually, Abanindranath devoted his attention from painting to making of one peculiar set of toys -known popularly as Katum-Kutum (bizarre forms). During this particular phase, while busy making toys, his life was moving from one vicissitude to another. In the midst of these catastrophes, Abanindranath emerges before us as the true creator of beauty.

Although broadly defined as toys, these achievements of Abanindranath, during the fag end of his life, essentially creation of abstract nature, have not been so far discussed in detail. These works can be well termed as either, abstract, non-objective or constructive. Shoots from trees collected casually, seeds of fruits, tiny sheets and such other insignificant material went into making of the toys. Architectonic beauty, balance and symmetry and an unprecedented texture - all these combined together so sincerely that hardly there is anything which can be cited for a comparison. At least this writer cannot easily think of any example to offer. Not necessarily toys, although these have been created in a playful mood, it is far more correct to look at them as the outcome of deep sometimes appears to be quite durable, immediately seem so brittle. In other words, in these toys is noticeable a very queer combination of the temporal and the eternal. It has already been pointed out that the material used in these toys by Abanindranath are of a very fragmentary nature. Anobject so brittle in nature attains permanent character through mere association. Otherwise as examples of Abanindranath’s efforts at creating three - dimensional objects, expressive of his rare genius, these works deserve to be remembered.

Abanindranath was a keenly intimate with western art and culture, as he was thoroughly acquainted with art and culture of ancient India. He drew freely from both the tradition and pointed out to the possibility of bringing them up before the artists of the coming generation. It is thus through his influence the neo-Indian (contemporary) tradition has been created. From the experience of his lifeline, Abanindranath realised the necessity of a tree atmosphere. Hence we see that Abanindranath never tried to lay down any routine course or syllabus, for his pupils and followers. Neither did he ask them to follow the style of painting evolved by him. Due to this liberal outlook of Abanindranath is respecting of training, the renaissance in the field of Indian art has been possible. In short, Abanindranath succeeded in bringing to life the latent artistic talent. As to any efforts at following or imitating the technique, style or an old tradition, it all depend entirely on the personal likes, disliked and temperament of the artist. On account of this concession of freedom allowed to them, the works by the artists of the post- Abanindranath period could come before us in all their variety.

It was Nandalal who tried to forge a close link between the ideals of Abanindranath and the Indian tradition.

Nandalal Bose

Of all the followers of Abanindranath, Nandalal has the most complex type of mental make-up. The ideals of old India have inspired him as much as the progressive ideas of Rabindranath, Gandhi and others. These peculiar mental traits find expression in his art. The way Nandalal has tried to express himself, combining art with nationalism, hardly finds any parallel in the other early followers of Abanindranath.

In his early efforts, depicting the Ramayana scenes, Nala Damayanti, Agni, etc., this endeavour to master the Indian tradition with the ideal of nationalism is very clear. On the other hand, we meet his own style in the works like Jagai Madhai, Gokul Brata (Ritual) and Kumari Brata (a ritual by the virgins). A close analysis of many of the works of the early days of Nandalal’s career shows signs of two major influences of the artist.

Paintings on Puranic themes by Nandalal, which are the outcome of influence on the artist of the nationalist movement of the time and innate tendencies of social and spiritual nature, became particularly popular. Even today the reputation enjoyed by this artist depends on these works. In later life, Nandalal began to be attracted less by the Puranic subject matters. About 1916 Nandalal became acquainted with Arai-Kampo, a prominent member of the Okakura group. Through this Japanese painter, Nandalal acquired some new elements of technique. From 1916 onward, the skill of his brush and varieties of strokes and lines became clearer.

Nandalal arrived at Santiniketan in 1920, at the invitation of Rabindranath. Initiated to Rabindranath’s educational ideal and through environmental influence, a new chapter opened in the life of Nandalal. And a new consciousness and attempts at a bolder technique became noticeable in his works.

In Parvati Pratyakhan (Refusal by Parvati) (1921), the newness of the attitude and technique employed become evident. Here Nandalal succeeds inn using brush in his own way for drawing lines with the peculiarity of the Far East. Gradually, the strokes of the brush become a special ingredient of the paintings by Nandalal. All the works like Poye Damfe, Basant (spring), Dupur (Mid-day), Sandhya (Dusk) have their textures and formal compositions subordinated to the wielding of the brush. In these paintings, there is a perfect combination of the decorative attitude of Nandalal and touches of reality. Side by side with the technique employed in these paintings, we come across Kurukshetra, Arjun and other paintings, where a definite attempt at following the Indian tradition is noticeable.

Nandalal’s works, done between 1930 and 1940, are both full of vigour and variety. He has already mastered completely the fundamental traits of the Indian tradition. Example - Svarna Kumbha (Golden pot), Landscape and Savarir Pratiksha (waiting of Savari). From all these works, it can be clearly understood that Nandalal has moved far away where he started. In almost all his works of this period, a special effort is evident as to the conscious use of a limited palette. The sculpturesque strength of composition, as well as simplicity and architectural characteristics appear to be the chief features of the works belonging to this phase. The most memorable event in the life of Nandalal, between 1930 and 1940, is his acquaintance with Mahatma Gandhi.

Abanindranath and his followers have painted in most cases in comparatively small sizes. Their works carried some appeal to the elite and art lovers. Their works carried some appeal to the elite and art lovers. The people in general looked at all efforts from a nationalist point of view. There was no proper arrangement at that time to place the work of art before the common mass. Gandhji asked Nandalal for such a pandal decoration which the public in general would be in a position to appreciate. Inspired by this demand, Nandala produced about 60 paintings, which are better known today as Haripur posters. The very common aspects of Indian life have been rendered in this series: Folk musicians, artisans, and agriculturists. Technically, these are patterns in bright colour scheme and drawn in sharp calligraphic lines. But the two combinations succeeded equally in rousing the spirit both of the intellectual as well the mass. Folk art is creation, directly related to heart of the masses. We realise this truth from the Haripura Congress Posters by Nandalal. By and by, the peculiarities and techniques in Nandalal’s works crystallized so completely, that one can hardly notice any default, Natir Puja (worship by a dancer), the frescoes on the walls of China Bhavan at Santialketan can be regarded as example of such mature work. The apparent simplicity and vitality of this work has its beginning in Basanta, Sandhya or Savarir Pratiksha and other early works.

Nandalal has experimented with a variety of techniques, during the course of his artistic career. A study of his style shows in particular the innate skill of Nandalal in producing works with an economy of materials. With a combination of his two peculiarities (economic use of material as well the decorative quality), many of the works of Nandalal express the speed of calligraphic lines and a comprehensive, decorative character. Possibly due to this, the works of later years are both economical in use of colour and simple inconstruction. Possibly due to this, the works of later years are both economical in use of colour and simple in construction. This tendency develops further in his brush and ink drawings. The series of Nandalal on life and scenes at Puri and Gopalpur is easily his greatest achievement during the mature phase of his life. Along with these works, in brush and ink, mention should be made of the innumerable sketches and drawing by him.

As it is important to know the besplendoured genius of Rembrandt, without his drawing, similarly for Nandalal. His numerous drawings are the best introduction to his talent. Nandalal’s drawing and sketches are both great n number and the variations. Like the daily diary or notebook, in these drawings too one easily gets a glimpse of the artistic life of Nandalal. Here one gets acquainted with a vision, viewing the material world from a particular angle. One also glimpse a great analytical power, which possesses the capacity of filtering out the basic ingredients of objects seen.

Nandalal started to paint afresh after 1950. Use if very meagre material and simplicity of technique are the characteristic of his recent work. These works are composed on papers of a particular size and are completed within a limited time. Whatever he has seen throughout his life, whichever inspiration has touched off his imagination, all these find expression in these works. No doubt there has been a great deal of repetition in subject matter, but at the same time there are some themes the artist never cared to depict earlier. In his recent works, subjects are mere pretexts. More than any specific feeling or idea - human imagination or natural beauty - some peculiar abstract aspect of realization has, off and on, been expressed in these works. Objects do exist as definite entities but without any particular association.


Lalit Kala Contemporary
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