It is now well-known that Rabindranath Tagore took to drawing and painting at a very late stage of life and came to be recognised as a painter by his own right, with an originality of conception and execution that still defies objective analysis. Indeed from 1928 onwards, drawing and painting came to be one of the strongest passions that absorbed much of his energy, vision and imagination of the last thirteen years or so of his life (1928-41) in the short intervals of his intensive literary life of the period that produced more than fifty titles of books of poems, short stories, novels, dramas, essays and letters -- some of them being most significant -- with travels and public activities thrown in between. His physical and creative power even when he was past sixty-five, was amazingly tremendous indeed.
Though somewhat uncommon, history has nevertheless quite a few significant examples of poets and men of letters releasing their creative urges in line and colour with as much zest and integrity as they do in words and sounds. Tagore has been one of them, perhaps the latest in a fairly long line. But a muse has to be wooed with patience and constancy, and every art has its own discipline which one has to go through in a period of probation. The poet-painters I have just referred to, have been no exception, and their success and significance have been up to the measure of their discipline, the integrity of their creative urge and their vision and imagination. Tagore the painter has provided us with an exception to this fairly general rule.
We have a full record of the poet’s own words to testify as to how he walked into the realm of painting and drawing. From his boyhood he had a fascination for this art, and there was a time when inspired by his elder brother Jyotirindranath who was a talented artist, he with a sketch book in hand, attempted to draw. It was more like ‘toying with picture-making’ as he himself says in Reminiscences. To his niece Indira he confessed (1893) that very often he used to ‘cast looks of longing, after the fashion of a disappointed lover, towards the muse of Fine Art’. Still later, he extended his enthusiastic support and patronage to his nephews, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath and much later to Nandalal in their movement for reviving the traditional art of the Orient. On many an occasion he used to watch them draw or paint. But there is hardly any evidence to show that he ever wielded a brush.
But we have record of his playing freely with his pen (the earliest one of such plays that I have seen, belongs to 1905), with the scratches and erasures strewn over the pages of his manuscripts, and since he has long been a master of rhythm and balance, this play resulted in finding a rhythmic relationship connecting the haphazard, scattered and desultory scratches and corrections into a perfect unity. “…The scattered scratches and corrections in my manuscripts cause me annoyance. They represent regrettable mischance, like a gapingly foolish crowd stuck in a wrong place, undecided as to how or where to move on. But if the spirit of a dance is inspired in the heart of that crowd, the unrelated many would find a perfect unity… I try to make my corrections dance, connect them in a rhythmic relationship and make transform accumulation into adornment… This has been my unconscious training in drawing… It interests me deeply to watch how lines find their life and character as their connection with each other develops in varied cadences, and how they begin to speak in gesticulations … And this was my experience with casualties in my manuscripts, when the vagaries of the ostracised mistakes had their conversion into a rhythmic inter-relationship, giving birth to unique forms and characters. Some assumed the temperate exaggeration of a probably animal had unaccountably missed its chance of existence, some of a bird who can soar in our dreams and find its nest in some hospitable lines that we may offer it on our canvas. Some lines showed anger, some placid benevolence, through some lines ran an essential laughter… These lines often expressed passions that were abstract, evolved characters that hung upon subtle suggestions…”
I have allowed myself this rather long quotation to show what importance the poet attaches to the line in this ‘play’ of his, the line that binds every disjointed thing in a rhythmic relationship, the line that forms objects and give them their meaning and expression. The passage also reveals that there is no pre-vision or pre-conception, not even the slightest idea or hint of what the artist is going to show or reveal; he simply chooses one line, presumably for its natural cadence or rhythm and as if automatically, guided by some inner law or compulsion, and as he repeats the rhythm of the line it calls forth other lines, singly or in bunches, and they slowly but inevitably proceed to bind themselves in a harmonious inter-relationship.
This explains the drawings that grew out automatically, as it were, of the scratches and erasures on the pages of his manuscripts. But then there soon came a time when the artist came out of his manuscript pages and began to draw freely on blank sheets, as freely as he pleased and paint in colours, and thus grew to be an artist on his own right. A number of such drawings that are creative exercises in rhythm, cadence and harmony resulting in clearly recognisable and easily pleasing forms because of their facile and flexible curves and rounded plastic volumes, can be explained by the importance of the artist attached to the line and its function in bringing about his cherished feeling for rhythmic unity in a given composition. But simultaneously there are other forms emerging out of the rhythmic relationship of lines, forms equally recognisable but not altogether depending on the line and its movement, forms that reveal a face or a mask or a group of them, fantastic animals, grotesque and monstrous figures, dark denizens of the deep, fictional architectural fragments, or landscapes -- all with solid bodies given by ink in various tones or criss-cross scratches. In most of such examples the unknown and unforeseen appearances have resemblances of a sort, with one or the other object created by Nature and men, but in no case is such resemblance the result of a pre-vision or preconception.
But a stage is soon reached when rhythmic lines are more or less solid bodies of ink were not considered adequate enough for the purpose of the artist. He therefore started using colour and colour in all its hues and tones, in all their varieties and blending, and when masses in their full play of light and shade and in all their rich and vibrating glow stepped in, the images and appearances I have just referred to, were invested with a mystery and dynamism that the artist’s pen and ink studies could never achieve.
There is enough evidence on record to show that the artist’s drawings and paintingswereall done in great hurry which indeed they were. He used to finish one drawing or painting in a single sitting, and not unoften two or three of them in a day, working on each like one possessed, in a frenzied urge and for creative expression, often impatient of the time that had to be given for choosing the right pen or brush or ink or colour wanted at the moment for his purpose. A dozen or more of fountain pens used to lie on the table, a few dozens of brushes upside down in more than one vase and a few dozens of bottles of ink and colour in a couple of trays, all within easy reach of his chair. But butts of fountains pens, the nails and tips of his long tapering fingers, all kinds of dyes, pieces of rags etc., also served him equally well. He used to work with an intense joy and passion, a sense of freedom, and in all seriousness, but very fast as I have indicated, as fast as I have indicated, so fast and so impatiently, it seems, that he did not even take care to test the material he was working on or with, which explains why the fragile paper today is crumbling in many cases and the colours fading.
Yet these drawings and paintings are unique. These are unique because they reveal to us an aspect of Tagore’s personality which would have otherwise remained undiscovered and unknown. Here is an altogether new Tagore, one arising out of the depths of the mysterious subconscious and laying himself bare before the visible world -- naïve, innocent, uninhibited, earthly, unrooted to tradition; sometimes grotesque and even sinister, and still at other times mysteriously beautiful or innocently humorous or wonderfully mystical. Before us stretches a world of intense drama into which have gone countless experiences of life, childhood and boyhood memories, knowledge of arts and sciences, many fleeting visions and images, all in terms of fantasies transmuted into realities. Here in this world there are moods that are tender this moment and then aggressive at the next, now humorous and grave, and forbidding next, now nostalgic and at the next relentlessly cruel. These drawings and paintings have a wide range: fruits, flowers, vegetation and landscape that botany and geography know nothing of, birds and beasts with faces and shapes that zoology or prehistoric archaeology has no record of, and human types anthropology is ignorant of. Yet without being representational, they have a resemblance with objects known to all these sciences. Side by side there are also shapes and forms of objects that are clearly known to the history of science and human civilization or are recognisable in life and nature. Then presumably there are also torn leaves from the book of personal life of the artist. There is, for instance, the mysteriously glowing face of a woman with a veil half drawn over her head and a border of her sari lining her oval face set with a pair of wistful eyes looking out, that appears four or five times in these paintings. The artist seems to come back again and again to the luminosity, charm and magic of this face, presumably because he did not feel satisfied with his previous attempts (this he used to do with his songs, poems and plays as well). Here is evidently a reflection of a deep personal experience which I have just referred to. Then there are certain drawings and paintings of men and women in his books Sey (He, 1937) and Khapchhada (Patternless Nonsense, 1937), whom he may have seen or heard of, men and women of local life and history, myth and legend transformed and transmuted by his imagination and transfixed in his vision. In his childhood he had often been uncannily thrilled by stories of ghosts and evil spirits as of fanciful birds and feasts, of tales, myths and legends, or fearfully curious of the furtive things’ that dwelt in the huge earthen pitchers intended for storing water for the family. In his late boyhood and early youth he used to be a voracious reader of prehistoric zoology, and anthropology, and thus had come to the knowledge of prehistoric birds, beasts and men. All these lay submerged and hidden in his subconscious only to come up on the surface of the stream of his subconscious only to come up on the surface of the stream of his consciousness when he was well-nigh seventy and after, and they must have been responsible for many a shape and form in these drawings and paintings.
Historically, these drawings and paintings are altogether unconnected with the tradition of Indian painting, classical or medieval or contemporary revivalist Bengal School of Abanindranath and Nandalal or the modernist tendencies of Gaganendranath, or as a matter of that with contemporary European tendencies in painting though he may not have been ignorant of our unresponsive to them. Critics have often characterised his drawings and paintings as having the charm and wonder of children’s art, or the nature and character of the modern ‘primitives’. Nothing could have been further from truth. Tagore was much too experienced and sophisticated a personality and much too conversant with the best of the culture of a generation to be a child expressing himself in innocence of anything. Nor was he like the modern artist working out ‘primitive’ in a conscious and premeditated manner, or like the surrealists consciously creating forms with unconscious symbolism, dream, vision and imaginations. Nor should they be approached as a side issue.’ No, these paintings and drawings have to be taken seriously, if we want to understand the poet’s personality in its totality and acquaint ourselves with a new vision and dimension of the art of painting itself.
Thematically and ideologically these paintings and drawings are also from the general tenor, spirit and atmosphere of his poetry and music, drama and short stories. In the latter his themes and contents and their atmosphere have always the sanction of the flowing tradition of his country and people; he brings in technical innovations and introduces new ideas and situations to deepen and expand the tradition, impart new meaning to it, mould and model it to respond to the needs of his age and the demands of his personal urges, but never breaks away from it. In his literary creations he avoids the ugly and the cruel and the grotesque; he keeps away from the tense nerves, boiling blood and flaming passion, whether in love or anger or hate. Reference to pure physical love occurs not more than half-a-dozen times in the entire corpus of his works, and there too only very suggestively. The total attitude there is one of high sensitivity, of fine polish and sophistication. But in these drawings and paintings, all this is different; it is a different world different in spirit, outlook and atmosphere. Countless denizens of the deep with the whole story of their primordial origins writ large on their bodies and cruel, hideous, aggressive or fantastic faces and forms, appear on hundreds of these drawings and drawings inclearoutline, contour and colour; they are all live beings with their undeniable claim of existence. The ugly, cruel, hideous and grotesque experiences of life as much as the pangs of passion and agony and love that must have been the artist’s lot as of any other, but which he had disciplined himself against or turned his eyes away from or sublimated to a high level of consciousness since they believed they were discordant with life’s essential harmony, now asserted themselves with redoubled force and cramorously wanted to be given recognition by the artist. He still believed they were discordant, but could no longer ignore their reality and deny their recognition by the artist. He still believed they were discordant, but could no longer ignore their reality and deny their recognition. Therefore he had to grapple with himself to be able to bring all these discordant notes of life into the discipline of line, volume, colour, rhythm and harmonious design. These drawings and paintings are not strictly speaking finished objects of art of a professional artist, they are rather forms in the process of emergence from the dark depths of consciousness of a person seeking to realise himself in an aspect of life that he had discarded or kept away from so long. The firm and sure sweep of the lines, the deep reds and blues laid layer on layer, the portrait like flowers, the tallness or heavy earthiness of dark human figures ignorant of their destiny, the paleness of feminine faces biding behind them the unspeakable agony of their lives, all these are not so much reasoned out and concretised with deliberate intent as are brought forth explodingly, spontaneously, automatically as if it were, by an irresistible urge for self-expression pressing outwards from within. Fresh and informal, drawn and painted with evident passion, lively in their simplifications and distortions and utter disregard of anatomy or perspective, vivid in rich, glowing colours, unified and integrated in harmonious designs, the impact of these drawings and paintings is direct and immediate. The best paintings seem to have been designed with some amount of consciousness since they show a very skilful manipulation of tonal effects, ornamental devices and compositional arrangements. Whatever shapes and forms are worked out, they are all firm and strong, clear and precise, and without the slightest trace of vague limpness or airy uncertainty; all exist, all are real. In each case the materials he uses and the techniques he employs are quite adequate for his purposes.
Despite these drawings and paintings being non-‘representational’, quite a few of them have nevertheless echoes of their mood and feeling in a good number of poems and songs and other writings of the period (1928-41). That in these paintings and drawings the artist was grappling with by far the most dominant aspects of his personality -- his overall love and attachment to the finer and more cultured sentiments, feelings, emotions and patterns of behaviour, his relative performance for softer and more delicate harmonies of life, for joy and bliss, for balance and proportion etc. is evident in such novels of the period as Dui Bon (Two Sisters, 1933) and Malancha (The Bower, 1934), where he creates characters that are cruel and situations that are relentlessly aggressive, yet objectively real and true. In Sey and Khapchhada for instance, most of the poems were inspired by the drawings and paintings themselves; that they would therefore have reflections of the attitude of the latter is only in the nature of things. But darker shadows are cast and deeper echoes are heard of them in the poems of Prantik (The Borderland, 1938) and a few other poems in his latter books of poems. These are poems that speak of the troubled history of man, the blind fury of destruction, the days of normal nihilism, the giant wheel of pain, the anguish of existence caught in primordial net; the instruments of torture, gaping bleeding wounds, the scream of storm winds, hunger and bleated voracity of man, and perilously cracking pillars of triumph; again and again in these poems he speaks of suffering, he speaks of death. Life and love and faith in humanity eventually triumph over them all, without doubt; the poet declares it in no uncertain terms and accents; but in the process pain, sorrow, suffering and death inflicted by all that is cruel, hideous, ugly, aggressive, lusty, greedy and destructive in men and Nature, shake his nerves and create these paintings and drawings as they do the poems just referred to. In 1937 he was seriously ill, near death’s door, and a destructive world war was already in the making. Here was direct and immediate confrontation with suffering and death. Personally I cannot but feel that this confrontation has much to do with these poems on the one hand and the paintings on the other. The deep blues and reds, the darkness that haunts the paintings, are a direct reflection of this confrontation. These paintings are his struggles with suffering and death before he could set his sail to the ‘ocean of peace’ which was his final destination.
Published in Pushpanjali, Vol. 2, No.1, December, 1965