Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in the Modern Review, Vol- 24, No. 1-66, July to December, 1918, pp 388-397

We thought that we knew India. Writers, both good and bad, have taken pleasure in portraying movements of her peoples, as they crowd the high-roads of pilgrimages, gather together round temples of bloody rites, or seek along the Ganges for the road that leads to heaven - the third world. An India sumptuous and sordid by turns, animated and passive, and always baffling to the eye of the European.

And here today India comes to us, no longer transfigured by the imagination of travellers but translated directly by her own artists. She is no longer the tawdry East with her bazars, her dancing girls and her acrobatic ascetics, who impressed Jules Bois and Andre Chevrillon among so many others. The fierce light, the agitation out of all proportion, and the ready sensuality - the only treasures that hasty tourists carry away - are absent from the well-regulated, charming and serious work of Abanindranath Tagore and his disciples. [1] As the result of a life devoted almost entirely to meditation, these artists have brought clearly before us a vision of a vision of a harmonious civilization, rallied sadly round ancient cults and legends.

The word “Renaissance” has been used to describe this awakening of a people thought to be for ever doomed to sterility. It is correct, if it undergo a renaissance is to create again a period of rest and seeming death. It is, however, incorrect if it is used in the sense in which it is applied to the great artistic renewal of the 16th century. The India of today does not present to us a nation that has exhausted its ideal and denied it, and that produces once more from its still living forces a conception of the universe and things in general that humanity has not yet known. The Calcutta School neither innovates nor destroys. No more does it seek to draw India towards a complete rejuvenation of thought. It is under the sway of age-long traditions, and there is no rupture between it and the past. There is simply a resumption of continuity, -- the chain, broken for one instant, is joined again.

For India, in spite of her political vicissitudes has preserved the privilege of maintaining, in the very midst of conquest, the unity of thought and a faith that has slowly moulded her thought the centuries. Nothing has served those powerful links that served of old to unite her people - the philosophical doctrines of Buddha, and the Brahminical religion.

After so many centuries, Abanindranath Tagore and his pupils follow the principle of the idealism that has created the Hindu religions and can be briefly stated thus: Behind the world of appearances and illusion that Maya presents to men to lead them astray, resides the principles of permanence -the one to whom the soul attains at the end of her transmigrations. Hence the aim of art is not the expression of the real, but the search for the secret truth it hides and of which it is one of the most imperfect forms.

And for this reason, scenes of daily life, realistic portraits, the surging of the crowds round the market places, streets in Benares-and all that to which the European painters have accustomed us, -- are absent from the work of Tagore and his disciples. They copy nature and at the same time make her bend before the exigencies of the idealism that demands a preliminary choice and then an interpretation. That is to say they recreate nature from a vision of the mind. For them everyday life does not contain enough nobility nor a teaching sufficiently permanent, to be immortalized by art. The lives of the gods, the mystic adoration and the unchanging worthy of the artist. But these do not appear in their full meaning until they are stripped of the fierce light that surrounds them, and of all fleshly splendours. They need those shaded half-tones and those delicate harmonies that prepare the soul for mediation, and penetrate into the intimacy of the inner life.

The evolution of A. Tagore is significant in this respect. Moulded first by English masters, he yielded to the pleasure of the pursuit of light colouring [3] - then as he drew away from the European influences to imbue himself with the principles of ancient Hindu art he subdued and darkened his colouring to such a degree, that his last picture is simply a graduation of shades deepening from a pale grey to a violet grey; --only the blood-red light of the setting sun shines out, -- reduced to a line in the clouds.

Leaving, aside, any analysis for a moment, it is certainly by the unity of the colouring that the common character of the artists of the Calcutta school asserts itself. Not one of them has cared to represent that India full if light which imposes herself upon the superficial eye, but they show us an India full of shades, contemplative and grave, as it is expressed in the philosophy that has reached its limit. In fact their representation of the outer world is a synthesis of their spiritual thought.

This choice of a subdued colouring has, however, other causes besides the will of the artist. Abanindranath Tagore and his pupils have looked too long on the pale engravings in the Studio and have been too directly influenced by masters imbued with the principles of pre-Raphaelite art. No doubt, they have regained possession of themselves. When Tagore gave up the stool, the easel and the palette with its heavy oils, to paint in water colours, crouching at the foot of the vase where the champa flowers bloom [4], he bound himself to the traditions of his race, --to those of the Indo-Persian and Mogul art which for three centuries had furnished the rarest masterpieces, --and those of the incident art of India (when the painted caves of Ajanta and Cigiria were discovered). Each of these tendencies can be seen to predominate in turn in the work of Tagore, and that of his disciplines. [5] He painted charming figures of women after the Indo-Persian style: A young girl doing her hair and who stops suddenly - A long lock between her fingers -to follow her dream a young woman seated at the edge of the terrace, absorbed in the contemplation of the Message of Love graven on the lotus flower. Historical pictures: the Emperor Aurangzeb looking at the head of his brother Dara, whom he just caused to be killed by treachery. Placed on a tray and wrapped in a red turban, this cut-off head recalls the Saint John the Baptist’s of the Italian renaissance; The Dream of the Emperor Shah Jahan who saw one evening, rising on the horizon, the exquisite mausoleum where the body of his beloved wife Taj Mahal was to rest [6]; and finally an “illustration for a quatrain of Omar Khayam.” Kneeling on the prow of his bark the Sufi watches the water of the river as it flows on, symbolising the course of the lives of the sages, and the composes this meditative verse:

The ball no question makesof ayes or nos,

But here or there, as strikes the player goes.

But he cast us down into the field,

He knows about it all, he knows, he knows!

Pictures of Hindu inspiration, which portray episodes from the divine legends, are more numerous. Tagore has devoted pictures full of grace, and bright in tone, to the life of Krishna. He has not, certainly seen in him the supreme god of the Bhagvat-Gita - the source and end of all things -but only the harming shepherd of this Gita Govinda, who dances in the fields, plays on his flute to charm nature, and frolics and swings with the shepherdesses whom he intoxicates with his presence The mystic thought that animates the whole story of Krishna - the milkmaids who are in love with him symbolizing the union of the soul with the Divine-is absent from the work of Tagore, It is hardly to be trace in a picture with darker colours where he has shown us Radha seeking her lover in the forest. [7] Anxious, and as if already troubled by the divine presence, she does not see the God, who hides behind a big tree, embracing its dark trunk. In the shadow, the light of his forehead, crowned with an aureole, his blue arms and his glistering robe can be distinguished. It is the image of the God who hides himself from the souls after having possesses them and exacts from them a loving quest.

In a portrait, A. Tagore has painted a perfect distinction and charm the trouble that takes possession of the heart of young girls at the sight forth the despairing words of the Bengali poet - their gaze laden with desire and melancholy -

“I was happy in my house

Until the day I saw his picture.”

Shiva has inspired Abanindranath Tagore more than his pupils. K.N. Mazumdar has painted a Dance of Destruction with taste, but he does not give the god the ardent fire and the intoxicating passion of the dance, that the ancient sculptors were able to render with such striking realism. Tagore has placed Shiva and Parvati among the groves at nightfall-face to face with arms entwined - in whilst they gaze upon each other, the god provokes his wife - “Oh! Daughter of Himalayan, I am white as the moon, and thou art dark as the cloud that passes before her - I am the Sandal wood tree and thou the serpent that twines around it”. [9] But however charming these pictures may be, they do not equal in beauty a frescoes representing the divine couple that has been copied from the caves of Ajanta [10] by Nanda Lall Bose. Adorned with his rich coronet, the cord of the ascetic round his arm, and the emblematic chakra inn his right hand, Shiva clasps his beautiful wife, who is crowned with her diadem in the form of a crescent moon and a lotus flower. Entranced and as if possible by the god, Parvati leans, more supple than a creeper, towards her spouse. Cheek against cheek, grave and meditative, with their beautiful bodies vying in elegance, they make the most disturbing picture that art has presented, of the human couple troubled by the double mystery of the spiritual and the fleshy union.

The Buddhistic legends have not been a happy source of inspiration of the artists of the Calcutta School. O. Gangooly, modernising to excess his Buddha preaching has given him a Roman profile, and Gogenendra Nath Tagore has conceived the Nirvana under the appearance of a puerile symbol of a bluish ocean from illustrations of the life of Chaitanya the mystic reformer [11] he has drawn grave and noble pictures of him and in spite of clumsiness in the drawings, he has succeeded in communicating his emotion, in grief on the threshold of the unknown.

Nanda Lall Bose, the most gifted of Tagore’s pupils, has illustrated the principal episodes of the Hindu epics, the Ramayan and the Mahabharat. The engravings that represent the struggles of the Kuravas and the Pandavas, and that were drawn some years ago, bear traces of English influences in their coldness and banality. [12] The burning of the house of lac however, shrews a very sure sense of composition, and there is some nobility in the Last voyage of Judisthira. The history of Rama is drawn according to quite different ideas of technique. Freed from the imitation of European art, Bose has attached himself to the Old Hindu traditions-those of Ajanta - which the painters of the people cherish in their bazaar pictures and which women follow by instinct when painting the figure of gods on the inner doors of their houses. Here there is none of the Persian affectation, but strength, movement, warm colouring, and realism. Dressed in bright red, the subjects are shown in relief on a background of indigo blue. The Mother of Rama bearing in her arms the hero as a child is a Hindu woman in all her fullness, such as the Mahabharata describes to us under the form of Shakuntala. “She has passed this way, my sweet love, the track of her feet made deeper by the weight of her hips is imprinted in the ground.”-And “Rama lying down on the Sea shore” is one of the noblest pictures by which painting has added to poetry.

Tagore has only once turned from religious and symbolic subjects to attempt caricature. There also, however, he was guided by a desire to work for the education of his people. The personages that his ironical fancy has reproduced in the forms of “The Amorous Prince”, “The Great Goddess”, “The Captive Hero” -are actors who are to represent before an enthusiastic public the heroes and gods of ancient poems -true clowns who deck themselves with paper flowers and motley tinsel in the setting of an English music-hall.

Such is the work of the Calcutta painters-a work of charm, distinction and thought. It comes to prove to Europe, to whom it presents itself for the first time, what collective effort united round a common inspiration, can do. These sincere and gifted artists have subdued their own private temperaments to the necessity for reviving the techniques and the ideal peculiar to India. If to this they have sacrificed richness of colouring and the freedom of form, they have at least affirmed their will to live and the precision of their aim.

In order to produce great works, this little group must free themselves from foreign influences and try to translate more than episodes of the legends from Hindu thought. Grace and serenity have suppressed in them the gifts of force, movement and passion that belonged to ancient sculptors. They do not bring before us, India with her essential symbols. A country of wonderful dreams, in ancient days she incarnated in her multiform gods all the forces of nature. They have a thousand faces that they may enjoy with all senses. Conflicting elements minge in them, life and death, sensation and thought, enjoyment and asceticism. At the height of madness and confusion they tend towards a state of equilibrium andfrom the frenzy of the instincts they produce intellectual order. We shall see one day this diverse and abundant thought spring up in the works of the Calcutta school, unless India, having already advanced beyond the stage of intuitive thought and turning towards the world of experience -India, suddenly grown young again -reveals to us the forms of an art till now unknown.

Our sole duty today is to look upon the artistic awakening of India with sympathy implying an idea of knowledge. We must come prepared before these pictures and restores them to their civilization without trying to imitate them. Thus we shall not fall again into the mistake that for three years, for the pleasure of a dress maker, imposed upon us the Persian style and made of it a trumpery affair, taking away its true meaning and depriving it of its inner life.

Hindu art ought to be for us something other than a mental pastime. Abanindranath Tagore and his disciples are worthy of any effort we can make to understand them and to reach through them the precious civilization of India.


1. These are Gogonendranath Tagore, his brother; Nandalal Bose, Mukulchandra De, Sailendra De, Satyendranath Dutt. O.C. Gonguly, S.N. Ganguly, A.K Haldar, S.N. Kar, A.K. Mitter, K.N. Mazumdar, Iswari Prasad, Rameswhar Prasad, Sami-uz-Zama, D.C. Singa, Ukil, K.Venkatappa. 2. Certain exceptions, however, must be noted. Bose and the brothers Tagore have painted a few scenes of Hindu life, but of these some have to do with religious ceremonies: The Kajri Dance, to bring rain; The initiation to the Evening Arati ; and the others serve to express symbols: The Broken String; The End of the Voyage; The young girl with the Lotus, Life and Death; The Two Drunkards by Bose and the Clerks Leaving Office in the Rain by Gogenendranath Tagore are the only ones that have an appearance of Realism. And again this last sketch treated in the Japanese manner is more a clever adaptation than an original work. 3. A. Tagore first studied painting at the Art School in Calcutta, founded by the British Government about 1850. The teachers, convinced that there was no Hindu art, made the pupils from bad plaster copies and books of English designs. About 1906, Mr. Havell, the learned author of Indian Sculptures and Paintings, bought some ancient miniatures which replaced those pitiful models and encouraged Tagore in his attempt at self-liberation. 4. It is thus that Malle. A. Karpeles has represented him in a fine study exhibited at the Salon of Orientalist painters. 5. There are even some Mahommedans among his pupil. Sami-ur-Zama who has painted with grace episodes from the life of Nur-Jehan; Iswari Prosad who has illustrated in the style of Persian miniatures the poem of Saase, -- Leila and Majnun. 6. This movement built at Agra in the 17th century, and known by the name of Taj Mahal is one of the most perfect of the Islam-Mughal art. 7. The pictures of Radha that Tagore composed after a Bengali poem has the same inspiration: “She was passing by in the light of evening. I did not know who she was But the sight of her made glad my eyes.” 8. It is well known that the god who contains in himself both the male and the female elements, capable of assuring him totality of action over the universe can project outside of himself active energy and incarnate it in a goddess “Shakti”. 9. The legend relates that Parvati, humiliated by these reproaches fled into the woods and by means of penitence obtained a complexion as bright as the sunny sky. 10. The underground temples of Ajanta (situated to the west of central India) were built between the second century of the ancient era and the 6th Century of the modern era. The walls are adorned with paintings whose perfection has never been surpassed in India. 11. From 1485 to 1527 Chaitanya whose life is full of miraculous deeds became the apostle of divine love. Standing on the roofs of the town he used to cry to the excited crowd – Krishna, Krishna, love, love – and then fall ravished in an ecstasy. 12. They served to illuminate the book of sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswami Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists. A.Tagore and Venkatappa also helped to illustrate this book. Published in the Modern Review, Vol- 24, No. 1-66, July to December, 1918, pp 388-397
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