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Free as a child

Rabindranath Tagore had the advantage of never going to an art school. And Rupa's compilation of his works showcases this uncluttered spirit

IF YOU are among those clueless about how to view and understand modern art, what Rabindranath Tagore had to say might embolden you to venture into this esoteric world. The colossus of Indian literature, who burst into painting in the last decade of his life, once said: "The delight is in seeing... not in what we see." The Noble laureate had never formally learnt art and baffled the world by producing 2,500 works in a short span of time.

Rupa and Co.'s new publication, The Art of Tagore (Rs. 595), puts together a few of these works. Releasing the book at Oxford Bookstore, well-known artist S.G. Vasudev said: "Tagore could paint with the freedom of a child because he never went to an art school. He had the advantage of not learning." Talking about what inspired him to take to painting, Tagore himself once simply said: "Now in the evening of my life, my mind is filled with forms and colours."

Vasudev regretted that neither the government nor the corporate houses were doing enough to preserve these creative outpourings of Tagore. A corporate house, which was approached by the Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta, offered to help only if the company's name would figure more prominently than the academy's in display!

Brooding intensity

Yusuf Arakkal, another renowned painter of Bangalore, who spoke at the book launch, said Tagore's works are fascinating for he carried the intensity of his literary works to his lines and forms as well.

It is, in fact, a certain brooding intensity — something even the art illiterate can't miss — that makes The Art of Tagore a delight to posses. But for a short introduction (surprisingly unsigned) and a few comments by critics on Tagore's art at the end, the book leaves you alone with some very good reproductions of Tagore's works. There are no scholarly comments to guide you along, and so, you are free to make sense (or not) of a world of forms that are often grotesque, surreal, and bizarre.

Tagore once said about his works: "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... Appearance carries its ultimate worth... Love is kindred to art, it is inexplicable..."

Most works reproduced here are untitled and a few stray comments by the painter that go with a couple of works give us some clues about the world he was exploring. "The phantom of faces come unbidden into my vacant hours," goes a sentence that accompanies a work depicting a sullen woman.

Art critics have pointed out that Tagore was trying to express in his lines and colours something different from what he did in his poetry and songs. "If he sought peace and enlightenment in his songs, he seems to explore darkness and mystery in his drawings. Dark creatures and haunting landscapes of another, primordial and marvellous world which constituted Tagore's works puzzle and delight the world," writes one critic.

Vasudev also pointed to another interesting aspect when he said that though Tagore tried to give a certain direction to Indian art through Shantiniketan, his own style was distinctively different from the typical Shantiniketan style. The influence of European painters is evident in his works and Tagore held a one-man show in 1930, which makes him one of the earliest Indian artists to hold shows abroad.

Brickbats too

But that does not mean that Tagore's works were uniformly lauded in India or abroad. There was a mixed response to Tagore's works during his own lifetime. While some commended their "mesmerising brilliance" and ability to reveal the more intimate side of the man, some have dismissed them as "hash" and "abysmal". One particularly scathing British critic wrote: "He has as much idea of spatial judgement as an infant reaching for the breast..." That image is a bit baffling, for, even though they are completely untrained, infants do tend to hit the target right!

There could perhaps have been a livelier discussion on all these intriguing aspects of Tagore's works if more art students, artists and critics had filled the sparsely populated hall at Oxford Bookstore.

* * *

Tagore on art

"The world of sound is a tiny bubble in the silence of the infinite. The Universe has its only language of gesture, it talks in the voice of pictures and dance. Every object in this world proclaims in the dumb signal of lines and colours, the fact that it is not a mere logical abstraction or a mere thing of use, but it is unique in itself, it carries the miracle of its existence. In a picture the artist creates the language of undoubted reality, and we are satisfied that we see. It may not be the representation of a beautiful woman but that of a commonplace donkey or of something that has no external credential of truth in nature but only in its own inner artistic significance."


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