ARTWORK: Head series
ARTIST: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
WHERE CAN IT BE SEEN: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi
A polymath, it was when he was in his 70s that Rabindranath Tagore took to painting. I still remember the first time I saw a work from his Head series at the Town Hall in Ahmedabad in 1963. At 82, I am still spellbound by it as I was back then.
One should study his portraits because of the sheer clarity of depiction and humanism they reflect. The quality exists in works of several artists of the Bengal School, but there was a unique element in the Tagore portraits — there was an affection with which he saw and painted his protagonists, which probably came from the fact that he was also a writer. His first solo exhibition was at Galerie Pigalle in Paris in 1930, where they were extremely well-received.
His works also need to be viewed in context of the period when these were made. His contemporaries Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore were primarily using wash technique (water-based technique which results in semi-transparent layer of colour and uniform area with no visible brush strokes), but Rabindranath chose to tread a different path, primarily using ink and poster colours on rough paper. Painted with thick and rhythmic brush strokes, his portraits were rooted in Bengal yet they represented a world view.
His journey as an artist might have begun with the drawings he made to accompany his writings, but he took those very seriously. He complained how some people felt there was nothing to paint in Bengal, and through his landscapes he introduced them to its pristine surroundings.
Posted in Kolkata in the 1960s, I often travelled to Santiniketan to view his works. It was a great experience to hold them in the hand and view them up close. Now, of course, his artworks have been published in a set of books (Rabindrachitravali), and I would recommend viewing these to everyone interested in art. In the short duration, he made more than 3,000 paintings and drawings, and each of them is a testament to the discipline with which he worked. Though passionate, he was also detached from his work in some ways, destroying and repainting if he thought it was repetitive. An admirable trait, this pushes one to reinvent and improve.
As told to Vandana Kalra
(Beginning this week, a new fortnightly series on important artworks that can serve as an introduction for children into the world of art)