His brooding art
When Tagore entered the world of painting seriously in 1923, there seemed to be a harsh edge to nearly everything he painted

"The phantoms of faces,
Come unbidden into my
vacant hours."

"Fondly indulgent is my Mistress of the Line to the errant in the poet."
Rabindranath Tagore

It was at the insistence of Jawaharlal Nehru that, in 1961 — the year in which the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth was being celebrated — Satyajit Ray was asked to make a film on the poet. I remember seeing the film. Interestingly, however, nearly all of it I have forgotten, except the very last part. In that, as if winding up Tagore’s rich and crowded life, the great filmmaker dwelt on the rising, swirling disquiet in the poet’s mind in his last years — he died, one recalls, in 1941 — about what was happening all around him: the world was at war again; carnage on a scale undreamt of before was being witnessed; it was as if humanity had completely lost its hold upon sanity. He cited Tagore’s own words, quoted excerpts from his letters, showed him pacing up and down agitatedly in the balcony of his Jorasanko home. And then, suddenly, he moved on to flashing upon the screen the poet’s own paintings and drawings; no commentary, just soft melancholic music in the background, and one disturbing, haunting image piling upon another in leisured succession. Clearly, the selection of works was arbitrary, being Satyajit Ray’s own, but the images printed themselves upon the viewer’s mind: birds with long, predatory beaks, anguished faces tortured by thought, eyes smouldering ember-like with pain, dark presences.

A self-portrait

In nearly every other mind, Rabindranath remains a writer — more than 1000 poems; nearly two dozen plays and playlets; eight novels; eight or more volumes of short stories; and a mass of prose on diverse topics — even though he was no stranger to painting. And yet in many eyes, it is his paintings and drawings, more than his great literary output that broke completely fresh ground in the Indian context. There are casual references in his writings to his childhood interest in painting but then he did not pursue it with any seriousness. And it was not till as late as the early twenties of the last century, when he was more than 60 years old, that he returned to this art.

What touched it all off is a matter of speculation. In some part, one knows, it grew out of his doodles, his erasures, in fact. Pages of his manuscripts have survived, especially of his Purabi, which he was working on then, in which one sees him correcting or revising some lines or words in black ink and then, at some point of time, beginning to join those erasures and shaping them into strange, mysterious forms: crouching figures, fantastic animals, agitated limbs.

"When the scratches in my manuscript cried, like sinners for salvation", he wrote once in an introduction to an exhibition of his paintings, "and assailed my eyes with the ugliness of their irrelevance, I often took time in rescuing them into a merciful finality of rhythm...." This is beautifully said: a poet’s honest and evocative words.

She by Rabindranath Tagore

The question only is what it was that lay embedded in the lower strata of his mind that surfaced and took these mysterious, often disturbing, shapes. Without any doubt, Rabindranath was a citizen of the world — meaningfully, the institution he founded at Santiniketan was named Visvabharati — and as one he seems to have soaked in elements of other cultures. The enormous status he gained from the Nobel Prize that was conferred upon him in 1913 opened the world to him in many ways. He travelled extensively and in the process saw art everywhere. At the Chicago Art Institute, he encountered an astonishing number of works of modern painters, from the Impressionists to those by the German Expressionists like Kirchner and Pechstein.

In 1920, he attended lectures by distinguished scholar and art historian, Stella Kramrisch, whom he later invited to come to teach at Santiniketan and from whom he heard all about the art of Europe from the Gothic to Dada. In 1921, he went on what can only be called a triumphant tour of Germany, meeting artists, visiting museums. At the British Museum, he saw the art of the primitives of Ireland and Indonesia and North America. Everything left an impression upon him, and when he visited Japan, it is from there that he wrote to Abanindranath, admonishing him not to keep "squatting in the south verandah of his home", but to soak in the art of that ancient land "so that our own art may revive and flourish".

Erasures and forms on a page of a manuscript by Tagore
Erasures and forms on a page of a manuscript by Tagore

There is a reaching out in all this, and the desire to transcend boundaries. But was it only acquaintance with the art of other cultures that started it all, one wonders, or was there some dark bedrock inside himself that he was beginning to explore?

There are no easy answers. But it is clear that when he entered the world of painting seriously in 1923, everything started pouring forth in a furious rush as it were: those brilliantly rendered, haunting phantoms of the imagination, faces riven by fear and anxiety, Sphinx-like visages of women ravished by injustice, cheerless landscapes. There seemed to be a harsh edge to nearly everything he painted. It was, as Prithwish Neogy wrote, like the ‘eruption of a volcano’, the lava of thought sliding down and taking everything over.

The first exhibition of Rabindranath’s paintings and drawings was held in 1930: ironically however, not anywhere in India but in Paris. The show then travelled all over the world, from Berlin and Dresden to Copenhagen and Boston, opening to reviews that often bordered on the ecstatic.

To an audience in Moscow, Rabindranath said, "My most intimate gifts to you are my pictures ...." Stella Kramrisch wrote about his work with calm maturity. "That Rabindranath Tagore is a great poet", she said, "may stand in the way of acknowledging him as a great artist. But few, since time immemorial, were the masters, who gave dynamic form to their most personal vision. If this vision has for its background the depth of the poet’s mind, it is not difficult to know what place his work occupies in the world of art".

By now, a great deal has been written about Rabindranath’s paintings, both in India and abroad. Some of the most perceptive words came, however, from Rani Chanda, a close associate, who often saw the poet at work on his paintings. The impetuosity, the speed at which he sometimes worked, the fearful intensity with which he used to look out of his window at trees in which he discovered fanciful shapes and faces, the manner in which he often ‘talked to his pictures", especially to the portraits of his melancholy women, offering them colours as if to cheer them up, all tell of something that was constantly happening in his mind.

One almost senses that there were two different Tagores, the one of painting quite different from that of poetry. At any rate, there were two very different contrasting images of him: the one painted by his friend and admirer, William Rothenstein, which showed him as a saint and a poet-prophet, and the other that he painted of himself in 1935: a dark, brooding face against a backdrop of chrome yellow, ‘resembling the evening sky’, sombre with a sad gaze as if reflecting a disturbed mind.

But then, as Tagore himself said in the context of his art: "There are two kinds of reality in the world. One of them is true and the other truer. I seek to occupy myself with the truer."