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“Early in the day it was whispered that we should sail in
a boat, only you and I, and never a soul in the world
would know of this pilgrimage to no country and no end.
In that shoreless ocean, at thy silently listening smile
my songs would swell in melodies, free as waves,
free from all bondage of words.” – Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath’s journey and fascination towards the arts truly transcended any form of expression. Even as a poet he craved for expression that was “free from all bondage of words.” Songs, plays, stories, poetry – in Bangladesh our infamous Nobel laureate is appreciated for these; but one attribute that we are yet to give him the apt acknowledgement him for him artwork. In fact, many of my friends were astonished when I first introduced them to his arts.

The reason’s I find Tagore’s play of strokes fascinating is because he “discovered” his ability to draw at a very later age in life, and within a span of a little less than two decades, from 1924 till 1941, he produced over 2,500 pieces. Not only that he did so without any formal education is art and had managed to develop a relatively modern art form on his own. Interestingly, his journey towards art began as a consequence of his establishment of the Bishwa-Bharati University at Shantiniketan.

The First Strokes

In 1924, while writing “Purabi,” Tagore started “doodling” on the pages of his manuscript – crossing out lines that he did not like and turning them into forms and shapes. Rabindranath creatively used his lack of formal training in art by experimenting new horizons in the use of line and color. He would delete unwanted words or even whole lines by creating strange intriguing images so that the whole page became a work of art. Although, monochromatic to start with, which always carried a mysterious signature, his paintings began to acquire color as be became surer of his style. Pen and ink drawings came first, followed by the use of one or more colors in landscapes, figures and portraits – he tried his hand at everything.

In spring 1930, Tagore went on a tour to France and was advised, by some art critics of local newspapers who saw his paintings, to hold an exhibition in Paris. Many say that Tagore himself was skeptical as to how people at home in India would take to his paintings which is why he was more inclined towards having the exhibition at Paris. He held the first public and international exhibition of his paintings in Paris in May 1930, at the Gallerie Pigalle. The exhibition remained open to public for 14 days and the Duchess Anna de Noailles, is known to remark regarding the exhibition as “like climbing a staircase of dreamland.”

Not only in Paris, exhibitions were held in England, Denmark, Sweden, Rome, Russia, and finally in Calcutta in 1931. Later exhibitions were also held in USA and Canada. However, it received the most reverence in Germany moving student to mass frenzy; it was shown in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart and other places. Not only did the then German President attend the exhibition but that is also where Tagore met Albert Einstein, and the famous picture of the radical duo was taken.

The Dancing of the Strokes

It would have been one thing had Tagore not taken artwork seriously; but that certainly was not the case. In a series of letters written in the 1930’s we find Tagore conveying feelings more inclined towards painting rather than writing. In a letter to Indira Devi from Santiniketan, Tagore writes, “I was very busy. Now Holidays have begun. I am thinking of just to sit in a corner and paint. I don’t feel like using my pen…”

Rajdeep Konar takes this as a hint that possibly when Tagore began painting, he felt unable to express his mind freely in words and was looking forward to painting seriously as an alternative. In Konar’s academic paper, ‘Tagore’s Paintings: a Creation of Genius,’ he mentions this as an indication of a void which was getting created in Tagore’s thoughts, “a sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction with the potentialities of the written word.”

Regarding the ‘doodles’ that Tagore shaped while correcting his poems in his manuscript, Tagore writes – “I try to make my corrections dance, connect them in a rhythmic relationship and transform accumulation into adornment. This has been my unconscious training in drawings.” As though the poet and its romanticism reverberating within him, in Tagore’s paintings, although landscapes recurred, the pensive, ovoid face of a woman with large unwavering soulful eyes was perhaps the most obsessive theme.

The Defiance

Rajdeep Konar further notes that Tagore was a well-known rebel. He rebelled against the prevailing colonial education system, abandoned the contemporary urban colonial theater tradition; he introduced women into dancing in his theatre when dancing for women was considered an obscene act and when he saw the national freedom movement being appropriated by the opportunists who were strangling it, he criticized it and distanced himself from what seemed to him a meaningless activity.

Tagore thus had innate in him a revolutionary nature, a natural urge to refute all clichés and what he understood as not right. In this light painting was an ultimate act of rebellion – a rebellion against the self. If he sought peace and enlightenment in his songs, he seems to explore darkness and mystery in his drawings – yet even that imbued with its own sense of aesthetic dominance. One truly has to watch to understand the dominance.

This rebellion or as Konar puts it, “act of ultimate defiance” is Tagore way for growth of the ‘universal being’. A being whose competitor does not reside in his external other but in his internal other which is what he already is. Greeks eluded this as the genius of a person and Tagore’s act of painting celebrates this “genius”.

Link to Article in Daily Sun