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When the Tagores painted

Amongst the very influential families that led at the forefront of reformist movement were the Tagores. Indubitably the most illustrious of all families to have had its roots in Bengal, the Tagores produced a number of luminary scholars, beaming champions of the modern Bengali culture and way of life.

After a decisive victory of the British at Plassey and a widespread penetration of the European way of life into the stereotypical Bengali customs by the early nineteenth century, Brahmanism, that preached the doctrine of the superiority of the Brahmanas alongside social evils in the likes of child marriage, sati and polygamy (many of which, as pointed out by reformers like Raja Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar, were in fact unscientific and never, in whatever manner that be, backed by the original Hindu sacred texts), was supplanted by a very popular reformist movement that aimed to supersede these evil ideals, in order to bring about a gradual amelioration in the minds of the orthodox Bengali Hindu, who had until then, kept his life and his means of life surrendered, to the ritualistically demanding and hierarchically ‘superior’ Brahmana.
The ‘Bengal Renaissance’ as it was termed by scholars, can broadly be considered to be a radical transformation in the late nineteenth century Bengali society (in the light of the Western ideals), that gave rise to what we call the Indian intelligentsia, besides in the words of Lord William Bentinck, “a vast body of rich landed proprietors deeply interested in the continuance of the British Dominion and having complete command over the mass of the people.” Amit Chaudhuri, in his “The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature” further states that the Bengal Renaissance “represents, largely, a record of the intellectual, and above all, the creative response of Indians coming to terms with, and shaping, changes in their history and identity. It involved, on the one hand, unprecedented leaps in technique and of the imagination of literature, and, on the other, issues of social and religious reform, of nationalism, education and the mother tongue.”
Amongst the very influential and well admired families that led and stood at the forefront of this reformist movement then, were the Tagores. Indubitably the most illustrious of all families to have had its roots in Bengal, the Tagores, through the centuries that taught the Bengalis to detach themselves from the orthodox societal norms, produced a number of luminary scholars, among them prominent literary geniuses, beaming champions of the modern Bengali culture and way of life, fabled philosophers and astounding painters who expressed more interest in the facets of humanism than the venerate divinity of the theological Hindu!
While Rabindranath, probably the most revered of all the Jorasanko Tagores, penned down an approximate fifty volumes of poetry, composed around two thousand songs and wrote another fifty dramatic masterpieces besides taking upto casual painting and prose writing at times, in his career spanning nearly six decades, Abanindranath, Gaganendranath and Sunayani Devi, his nephews and one among his many multifaceted nieces, led the avant garde movement in the Bengali painting (which Rabindranath himself also popularised), giving rise to the nationalistic Bengal School of Art and the Indian Society of Oriental Art, later accepted, lauded at and promoted by the British administrators of their time as well.
Abanindranath Tagore, fondly called ‘Aban Thakur’ in his close circles, was an artist whose primary ambitions lay in reviving the lost glory of the medieval Rajput and Mughal paintings and revitalising them in the light of the Western models of art, thereby enhancing the prestige of the native Indian schools of art and in support for the Swadeshi movement, including in it the nationalistic designs inspired from the Caves at Ajanta.
Art historian and critic Dr. Debashish Banerji, himself a great grandson of the artist and an exhibition curator, in his book ‘The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore’ has sought to establish Abanindranath’s paintings as being “embedded in communitarian practices like kirtan, alpona, pet naming, syncretism and story telling through oral allegories”, thereby making “a hermeneutic negotiation between modernity and community, geared toward the fashioning of an alternate nation, resistant to the stereotyping identity formation of the nation state.”
Among the many popular paintings of his, Abanindranath is widely known for the famed Bharat Mata, which in the words of his great grandson again, “is particularly significant for our consideration, since it becomes one of the keynotes of political activity in turn-of-the-century Bengal, Bankim’s poem Vande Mataram (hailthe Mother) becoming the anthem of Bengali revolutionary extremism. Significant too, since as part of the anti-partition movement of 1905, Abanindranath’s iconizing of the figure of Bharat Mataand the utilization of his painting in a political rally, has been held as a sign of his complicity with the project of Hindu Nationalism. This form of unthinking monolithic Hindu inclusivism would leave the Muslim alienated and disenfranchised, it is argued, leading inexorably to communal confrontation and national fragmentation.” In the painting, Tagore shows Bharat Mata to be a saffron clad (saffron being the epitome of strength and courage) divinity, holding a sheaf of paddy (symbol of love for nature) in her lower right hand, a rudraksha rosary (Hindu spiritual bead; often used to mean teardrops of the Lord Rudra) in the lower left, a manuscript (representing education) in the upper right, and a piece of white cloth (white symbolising peace) in the upper left. Drawn in 1905, in the backdrop of the Bengal partition and the rise of Swadeshi sentiments among the intellectuals and the commoners alike, the Bharat Mata indirectly highlights the then socio-cultural economy (education, agriculture, spinning), besides evoking the Hindu divine imagery with the central figure having four hands and a rudraksha rosary, as aforementioned, being held in her lower left.
Another of his most well heard of paintings is ‘The Passing of Shah Jahan’, a miniature artwork drawn in 1902, that depicts the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan on his deathbed at the Muasamman Burj with his daughter Jahanara at his feet and the emperor’s head slightly bent towards the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum of his beloved wife Mumtaz and a “tear-drop on the cheek of time” as the artist’s uncle Rabindranath profoundly called it! The painting has been acclaimed by critics for bearing one of the finest ever depiction of ‘the Mughal marble inlay work decoration and complex railing patterns’.
Abanindranath’s inclination towards the European naturalistic style, apart from the Mughal and Rajput styles, had been indoctrinated in him after his meet with the great painter and his later mentor EB Havell, which had been, for this purpose, set-up by Jnanadanandini Devi, another member of the Tagore family, herself a well acknowledged social reformer (pioneer of the modern day Bengali saree draping called the Brahmika) and spouse of the first Indian ICS officer, Satyendranath Tagore.
Abanindranath’s brother Gaganendranath Tagore is another equally renowned painter and cartoonist of the Bengal school of art. Collectively, the brothers are considered to have been two of the earliest modern painters in India. Having been the mind behind the publication of the influential journal Rupam (published by the Indian Society of Oriental Art), Gaganendranath is also reputed for being the first to use Japanese brush techniques in his illustrations. This technique, admired worldwide by art historians, was seen in illustrations of Rabindranath Tagore’s autobiography ‘Jeevan Smriti’ and others such as Kabuliwala, Phalguni, besides some poems from the Nobel winning Gitanjali.
It is said that Gaganendranath initially started from pencil sketches, as evident from the sketch studies of his sister Sunayani Devi, art critic Dr. Ananda Coomaraswami and Okakura, the man behind his atypical interest for Chinese and Japanese art (more precisely, for the Ink wash or the SUMI-E type of monochrome painting, introduced during the Tang Dynasty in China). Other than the illustrations in his uncle’s autobiographical work, the ‘Crow’, ‘Abanindranath Tagore Painting while smoking hooka’ and ‘Portrait study of Mrs. Gaganendranath Tagore’ are some notable examples of the SUMI-E style painting.
At one point, probably as scholars dement, after the illustrations of the ‘Jeevansmriti’ had been done, Gaganendranath embarked on telling stories through paintings and sketches and one of the finest works produced during this period was the Chaitanya Charitamala, throughout which the artist narrates the tale of Sri Chaitanya Prabhu’s life and times, in the form of pencil sketches.
Although more sketches than any other style, can be observed among Gaganendranath’s collections today, he did practise three other methods of painting as well: the first, watercolour, the second, density painting and the third, cubism, of which he has been regarded to be the first Indian proponent.
The most famed of his watercolour paintings is the Pratima Visarjan, published in the ‘Rupam’ in 1922. As for density painting, the ‘Banyan tree of Jorasanko’ proves to be the finest of all illustrations. The Banyan tree, a realistic painting, is a pencil sketch diagram which had been drawn by the application of the exact proportion of darkness (through shading) as it was, on the original tree, thereby upheaving it to be one of the most well known works of his time!
In his work ‘The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-garde, 1922-47’, Partha Mitter calls Gaganendranath ‘a poetic cubist’ and goes on to describe him as “the only Indian painter before the 1940s who made use of the language and syntax of Cubism in his painting.” Notable cubistic paintings made by him included ‘the City of Dwarka’, ‘Aladdin and His Lamp’ and the ‘House of Mysteries’ (earliest of them all).
After years reviving the Bengal School of Art, like his brother and sister Sunayani (who, as described by Stella Kramrisch, was the first modern painter in India and the founder of the Bengal School of Art, inspirited by Sister Nivedita and the Pata style of cloth painting, for which she usually painted on topics pertaining to the Indian folklores, mythical tales and narratives), Gaganendranath disassociated himself from the society and took up what he is most well known for, today: his satirical lithographs. The first few of his cartoons were published in The Modern Review in 1917, followed by a series of satirical books that included Birupa bajra, Naba Hullod and Adbhut Lok.
From 1925 until his death in 1938, Gaganendranath, almost abandoning his satirical lithographs, focussed more on modernist patterns and tried experimenting with the complex geometrical cubistic style, a form of painting also made popular by his contemporaries, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and the French artist Georges Braque.
This avant garde Bengali school of art (a style that incorporated the earlier Mughal and Rajput styles with European naturalisation and Japanese brush techniques, hence being truly globalised in its character) that emerged from the plafonds of the Jorasanko mansion and was incorporated into the Shantiniketan syllabi, went on to influence and be practised by people in Bengal as well as throughout independent India (being truly nationalistic in its nature and style), also paving the path for the rise of the successive Modern Indian Schools of Painting and affirming that art, for its own rationale (l’art pour l’art), is what Rabindranath aptly described as “the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real.”

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture.De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in