Tagore, the artist

Versatility was Rabindranath Tagore's middle name. A tribute to the artist in Gurudev, as we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, musician and artist.

June 04, 2010 06:23 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 09:11 pm IST

A master's masterpieces: Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A master's masterpieces: Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

As the nation celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of ‘Gurudev' Rabindranath Tagore, one has to mention the cultural icon's contribution to art in India. Versatility was Tagore's middle name. He was poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, musician and artist. Egged on by an insatiable urge for creativity, Tagore began wielding the brush at the age of 67.

He had said: “We who have traded in lyrics should know that these will not find acceptance at another time. This is inevitable. So I often think that only painting has a deathless quality.” And he spoke of his foray into art as thus: “Now in the evening of my life my mind is filled with forms and colours.” Tagore also often described his art as ‘Sesh boisher priya' (an affair in the evening of life).

Lines and colours

Lines and colours thus became a passion for him and from 1926 onwards he devoted more and more time to painting. So prolific a painter was Tagore, that he held nine exhibitions in major cities in Europe and also in Boston and New York between May and December 1930.

His paintings are stark images of man and nature. They are not bound by known canons of art but are instead expressions of freedom. Many of the maestro's works are doodles that resemble birds, faces and monsters. The subsequent phase shows figural compositions in which human figures are placed in vertical positions undertaking varied actions that make them seem more dramatic. The works of his next phase are based on a simple scheme of arranging figures in a single horizontal row, almost like a frieze. He made individual heads where one sees a variety of physiognomic features with distortions and varied facial expressions such as a grimace, one of disgust, one of laughter and so on.

Of the ‘Head' series, his female figures are more graceful. The masculine heads, meanwhile, have a greater variety ranging from the comic to tragic.

Pen-and-ink drawing of heads, which Tagore painted towards his later years, shows his mastery over line and tone. In fact some of his best works such as ‘Bird' are in pen and ink.

Landscapes constitute a major theme of his artistic oeuvre. In them, one can observe a steady growth towards maturity and enriched vision. They indicate his growing sensibility and feeling for the pictorial medium – his deep understanding of the medium, of colour, of texture, of the beauty and rhythm of lines and how their potential could be used for expressing the myriad moods and mystery of nature. However some of them were inspired by the lush, green environment of Shantiniketan. Like his other works, his early landscapes too were in black ink.

When he started using colours for landscapes, Tagore tried to capture the spirit of nature and the mood it evoked in his heart. The common feature of these landscapes are silhouetted trees placed against the sky on either side of the painted surface and the open middle through which the glow of the sky is seen. This serves as a compositional focal point and also as a means of leading the eye into the pictorial space.

Absence of human figures in his landscape gives them a mysterious look. Reddish, brownish and yellowish tones that are imbued with expressive power often contrast with a black ground.

Tagore never made preparatory sketches. The images flowed through his figures on to the paper or canvas.

It is the sheer force of rhythm that let imageries flow on to the canvas. Distortions are not deliberate. Whatever anatomical changes or variations of form and proportions that take place happen rather through the process of rhythmic automatism.

Tagore never faced the hindrance that formal training can sometimes bring in the way of freedom and vitality of imagination of the artist.

Tagore did not come under the spell of any specific artist. Nor did he adopt any school of style. Yet one finds elements of Art Nouvea and Expressionism in his works. Dr. Stell Kramrisch, art historian, sums up Tagore's works: “A shade of expressionism is especially in it which shows the character of Nolde – hardly a sign of influence, but rather a document of tendency they have in common.”

Each of the hundreds of drawings and paintings is a living and balanced artistic organism. The total oeuvre of approximately 3,000 drawings and paintings done between 1926 and 1940 trace the extraordinary journey of a great man – Gurudev.

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