Kolkata hosts a major exhibition of the paintings of Abanindranath Tagore, a pioneer of modern Indian painting who led the revivalist movement that came to be known as the Bengal School of Art. By SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
ART lovers of Kolkata received a visual treat when one of the biggest exhibitions of Abanindranath Tagore’s paintings was held recently in the city. The 122 paintings by Abanindranath, displayed at the Victoria Memorial Gallery, spanned more than half a century of the great master’s works and represented all the important periods and phases of his artistic career. They included not only his most iconic works such as “Bharat Mata”, “The Passing of Shah Jahan” and “The Arabian Nights” but also his lesser-known masterpieces and early paintings that shed light on the development of his style.
Born in 1871, Abanindranath was the nephew of Rabindranath Tagore and the younger brother of the celebrated artist Gaganendranath Tagore. Although in his early days he was trained in the Western tradition of painting, later he became the first artist to incorporate Indian motifs and swadeshi values in his works and is widely considered the father of modern Indian painting. According to the eminent art historian and artist Ratan Parimoo, the exhibition in Kolkata showed the evolution of Abanindranath’s art. The early works displayed there, which date back to 1887, clearly show the influence of the naturalistic style of the European masters in the budding artist’s works. This is evident in paintings like “The Armoury”, which he painted when he was just 16.
Then there was a shift in his approach, which can be perceived in the chronological display of the paintings at the exhibition. This change came about around the turn of the 19th century following his association with the art historian Ernest Binfield Havell, who was the superintendent of the Government School of Art, Calcutta (now Kolkata), from 1896 to 1905. It was Havell who first suggested that Indian paintings ought to be Indian in attitude and spirit. Under his influence, Abanindranath began to develop his own style. “On the basis of the European naturalistic style, he began incorporating Indian themes and traditions,” Parimoo told Frontline. Abanindranath himself later acknowledged that Havell had “shaped his vision”.
According to Parimoo, the painting “‘The Passing of Shah Jahan” (1902) was the first major work that brought in the new movement in Indian art. The poignantly beautiful painting depicts in minute detail the old emperor lying on his deathbed, gazing upon the Taj Mahal as it glows across the Yamuna river. “This painting is significant as it was widely acclaimed, and because of the recognition it received, it encouraged the beginning of the revival style. By 1910, Abanindranath Tagore had already got a whole group of disciples, including Nandalal Bose, following him in this style,” said Parimoo.
This new Indian style of painting, which served as a counter to the Western styles taught in the art colleges of the time, revived and modernised the old Mughal, Rajasthani and Ajanta styles. This revivalist movement came to be known as the Bengal School of Art, which was instrumental in shaping modern Indian art. “Abanindranath Tagore was the fountainhead of this new art movement; but equally important in its formation was the atmosphere prevalent in Calcutta at that time created particularly by Rabindranath Tagore, Havell and others,” said Parimoo.
The Indian nationalist movement, especially after the partition of Bengal in 1905, also began to influence the subject matter of Abanindranath’s paintings. In 1906, the year after the partition, he painted the iconic “Bharat Mata”. This painting was a complete departure from the earlier representations of India by other artists. “The other paintings depicted Mother India as a powerful goddess. But in Abanindranath’s painting, if one does not take into account the four arms, she is like any Indian woman,” Jayanta Sengupta, secretary and curator, Victoria Memorial Hall, told Frontline. This gentle yet vulnerable and subjugated figure became a symbol of the nationalist movement. The exhibition represented the entire range of themes he used in relation to the nationalist movement: from historical figures of Mughals and Rajputs to scenes and characters from Indian mythology. Every series that he painted—be it the “Krishna” series or “The Arabian Nights” or the “Mangal Kavya”—was stylistically unique and displayed his immense creative range.
The paintings are so evocative and powerful that they can draw a viewer right into the stories that they tell. For example, in “Sindbad the Sailor”, one sees Sindbad as an old man telling stories of his wondrous adventures to an audience made up of different races and nationalities. His expression is kindly and gentle, but at the same time, there is a sense of sadness and nostalgia as though all that he is now left with are memories to share. In the background is a picture of his ship. An interesting aspect here that may go unnoticed is Abanindranath’s signature on the side of the low stool on which Sindbad is seated.
Upon a glance it looks like something written in Persian, but closer scrutiny reveals it is in fact in Bengali, inscribed ingeniously in a manner to resemble Persian calligraphy. The verses that he composed on the top of the painting are also written in a similar style.
His themes varied from the vibrant and colourful “Marriage of Nuruddin”, with its funny caricature-like figures, to the melancholy “Grave of Mokhdum Saheb”, where a traveller on horseback seems lost in thought, looking upon a mausoleum in the falling dusk. Abanindranath also loved to paint the world around him—nature, birds and the lives of the common people were his favourite subjects.
As diverse as his themes were the sources of his inspiration and style. In his early days, he wished to be the “Titian of Bengal”. However, this changed with the influence of other styles in his work, particularly Mughal and Rajput miniature, Ajanta, and the Japanese “wash technique”.
It was this Japanese technique—which he may have picked up from his interactions with Okakura, the Japanese scholar who had come to live in Santiniketan—that lent a soft, misty quality to his works, which became one of his trademarks.
In his “Mangal Kavya” series, which he did in 1938, he adopted a completely new style. The paintings tell the stories of the Mangal Kavyas, which were based on old folklore from rural Bengal. “Here we see him adopting a rural style of painting, which is free-flowing and a departure from the disciplined structure of his other works,” said Parimoo. The paintings resemble pictures on the walls of village huts and are executed in such a skilful manner that they look as though they have been drawn with coloured chalk or crayons. The figures too are drawn from everyday rural life and look more like common people than goddesses or deities. Although he has several celebrated oil paintings to his credit, including the famous “The Passing of Shah Jahan”, it was watercolours that Abanindranath was most comfortable with.
Abanindranath also worked closely with his uncle Rabindranath Tagore and made key contributions in designing sets and props for the staging of the latter’s plays. He would often draw and paint the look a particular role required. His series on “Masks” is an interesting exploration of this aspect of his art.
“There are many more paintings of Abanindranath, but we chose these 122 as a comprehensive account of his genius and his works. This is the first time that such a large number of his works have been out on display, and the public reception was so tremendous that we are even considering setting up a permanent gallery of Abanindranath’s works,” said Sengupta.