A note in the exhibition “Gurudev: The Journey of a Maestro”, informs us how, as a child, Rabindranath Tagore spent hours observing the forms of nature from his window. “This love for nature and his silent conversations with it can be seen reflected in different but powerful visual forms as landscapes, doodles of animals and other composite creatures,” says the text. While the memories from these nascent years would have impacted his choices, the polymath forayed into art rather late — in his late sixties, when he was already recognised the world over for his writings.
“He was only painting for around 20 years but has left his mark even as an artist,” says Shashi Bala, curator of the exhibition organised by Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) to commemorate Tagore’s birth anniversary earlier this month. “His worldview is evident in his works, where one also sees influences of him as a writer and playwright,” says Bala. For a man known to have given India one of its most prestigious art institutions, Santiniketan, it is only befitting that an exhibition celebrating his works has a bust of him designed by a student from the very institution. So right at the entrance of the exhibition hall is a bearded Tagore, cast in bronze, with his head tilted down — a KS Radhakrishnan work.
We are then introduced to Tagore’s portraits, where he experiments with human faces to produce varying forms, borrowing from cubist as well as abstract genres. If in one head study, he depicts angular features, in another, we see a turban-clad man, and another ink-on-paper has thin lines coming together to form a human head. In Sitting Woman, the black of the attire is in stark contrast with the deep red background. A reclining woman occupies the centre of a frame with swirls of ochre, and a mother and child represent maternal love. In Namaz, we see influences of Chinese calligraphy.
The noted poet and writer, though, was a reluctant artist. In a letter reportedly written to artist William Rothenstein in 1930, talking about his art, Tagore had said, “(They) certainly possess psychological interest being products of untutored fingers and untrained mind. I am sure they do not represent what they call Indian Art, and in one sense they may be original, revealing a strangeness born of my utter inexperience and individual limitations.”
The reluctance did not show in his thought and expression, as the effortless strokes indicate in the exhibition. “These artworks give a glimpse of his precious contributions to the visual language,” says Adwaita Gadanayak, Director-General, NGMA, introducing the 50 works in the exhibition curated from the gallery collection of 120 works. “For Tagore, art was the bridge that connected the individual with the world. Being the modernist he was, Tagore completely belonged to the world of his time particularly in the realm of art. Expressionism in European art and the primitive art of ancient cultures inspired him. Fantasy, wild imagination and an innate feel for the absurd gave a distinctive character to his visual language,” he adds.
Bala takes us towards a section in the exhibition dominated by Tagore’s landscapes. “His love for nature is evident,” she says, looking at sparse landscapes. If a placid river flows in one frame, in another, Tagore hides a fox behind thick bushes. Another ink on paper has a swan not in its true form but one that belongs to Tagore’s fantasies. “He often experimented with the actual form,” says Bala. We are left with Tagore’s own words: “In art, man reveals himself and not his objects”. The exhibition is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, till June 10