The 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore has triggered a deluge of cultural events and exhibitions worldwide. The sesquicentennial year has also been marked with coincidental events, indicating a flush of interest in his paintings and graphical adventures.
For all Tagore's fame as a poet, novelist, musician, playwright and philosopher, it was an exhibition of the paintings of the “accidental artist,” opened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on May 9, that set the ball rolling for the series of cultural events planned by the government of India.
This was immediately followed by the announcement that 12 paintings of Tagore would go under the hammer as a part of Sotheby's annual auction of Indian art. The auctioneers described them as “arguably the most important group of works by Tagore ever to appear at an auction.”
The news triggered protests from art lovers in India, who demanded that the priceless works be acquired by the government. West Bengal Chief Minster Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wrote to Dr. Singh, urging him to intervene. But the efforts of the Ministry of Culture did not bear fruit, and the paintings were sold for £1.5 million, three times the estimated price. While it was Tagore's writings and songs that catapulted him to international fame, the Nobel Laureate believed that it was his art that allowed him to communicate with a universal audience.
At the inauguration of an exhibition of his paintings in Moscow in 1930, he said: “My most intimate gifts to you are my pictures…Let me hope that my pictures will be messengers of thought between us and bring us close to each other on the plane of harmonious understanding.”
Yet, his art, which has excited academic interest, has remained an enigma to many.
Most scholars agree that it was in 1924 that Tagore, at the age of 63, began to adopt painting as a medium of creative expression, though there were earlier instances of sporadic attempts at a few pencil and ink sketches.
“When the scratches in my manuscript cried, like sinners for salvation, and assailed my eyes with the ugliness of their irrelevance, I often took more time in rescuing them into a merciful finality of rhythm than carrying on what was my obvious task,” Tagore wrote in an introduction to a brochure of an exhibition.
“Rabindranath discovered himself as a painter in the pages of his manuscript,” writes R. Siva Kumar in My Pictures, a book of a collection of his paintings.
From an aesthetic transformation of the scratches and corrections in his manuscript, he started primitivist form-making, making bizarre zoomorphic patterns in black and white. Experiments with colours, the media and themes followed. In 1930, the first public exhibition of his works was held.
D.R. Kowshik, in a chronological analysis of Tagore's paintings, argues that his interest in visual arts was there all his life. But it is in this period “when he came out of his shell to seek an audience.”
His encouragement of nephews Abanindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore and young artists Mukul Dey, Suren Kar and Nandalal Bose is well known. But his diffidence in picking up the brush himself until so late in life is not fully explained. As early as 1893, Tagore wrote to his niece Indira Devi Chaudhurani: “Very often I cast looks of longing, after the fashion of a disappointed lover, towards the Muse of Art. But alas! She is difficult to win, for I am past the age I could woo her.” It took another 30 years for him to muster the courage to woo her. Researchers Ketaki Kushari Dyson and Sushobhan Adhikary, with the scientific collaboration of Adrian Hill and Robert Dyson, have put forward an unusual explanation for this delay.
After a colorimetric analysis of Tagore's paintings, they have concluded that he suffered from a partial colour vision deficiency — protanopia, in which red cannot be perceived by the human eye and there is a confusion over perception of red and green.
“Tagore's colour vision deficiency almost certainly inhibited and delayed his development as a visual artist. He never had the confidence to take formal lessons in art,” claims Ms. Dyson in an article on their book Ronger Rabindranath (Tagore of Colours). She further argues that the influence of Expressionism, a style Tagore could adopt with a greater ease given his vision deficiency, gave him the confidence to emerge as a visual artist.
The lack of formal training in art that is speculated as the reason for this delay was also liberating to him. In a letter to William Rothenstein in 1934, he boasts “a daring technique and style that only an untrained and persistently impulsive dreamer can achieve.”
The fact that Tagore took so long to arrive on the scene as a painter did not mean that he was in any way less prolific. Composing thousands of works (the archives at Visva- Bharati, the largest collection of his paintings anywhere in the world, have a repository of 1,500 ) in a multitude of styles — pen-and-ink figurations, coloured productions with inks, crayons, pastels, vegetable colours and even varnishes, and finally his monochrome drawings.
A bulk of his creations was from human inspirations, including several self-portraits. He has a repertoire of faces — funny, cynical, sad, youthful, mask-like, resigned — as well as full figured forms which include even a few nudes.
“The phantoms of faces, Come unbidden into my vacant hours,” Tagore wrote of his inspiration in Chitralipi, the book of his paintings that appeared in his lifetime.
“He made experiments with male faces — some of them looking like distortions or caricatures…The female faces, on the other hand, were less amenable to such extreme distortions and were invariably gloomy, depressed and sad,” writes Jayanta Chakrabarti in a book culled from an art collection of Kala Bhavan, the department for visual arts at Visva Bharati.
The artist himself has not aided his audience in the interpretation of his works, desisting from even giving a title to most. “People often ask me about the meaning of my pictures. I remain silent even as my pictures are. It is for them to express and not to explain,” is what he famously said of his works.