Rabindranath Tagore was the youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, which was a new religious sect in nineteenth-century Bengal and which attempted a revival of the ultimate monistic basis of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads. He was educated at home; and although at seventeen he was sent to England for formal schooling, he did not finish his studies there.
In his mature years, in addition to his many-sided literary activities, he managed the family estates, a project which brought him into close touch with common humanity and increased his interest in social reforms. He also started an experimental school at Shantiniketan where he tried his Upanishadic ideals of education. From time to time he participated in the Indian nationalist movement, though in his own non-sentimental and visionary way; and Gandhi, the political father of modern India, was his devoted friend. Tagore was knighted by the ruling British Government in 1915, but within a few years he resigned the honour as a protest against British policies in India.Tagore had early success as a writer in his native Bengal. With his translations of some of his poems he became rapidly known in the West. In fact his fame attained a luminous height, taking him across continents on lecture tours and tours of friendship. For the world he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for Bengal, he became a great living institution.Ra-Tha: Tagore came to art via primitivistic form-making, making grotesque zoomorphic patterns in black and white. In the context of our investigation, it is important to note that he entered art through the corridor of black and white form-making. He must have studied a lot of artifacts, masks and other ritual-cum-decorative objects from tribal cultures, in life and in reproduction. These gave him some of the ideas for his famous MS doodling, out of which his art emerged. The Kala Bhavana library still holds a richly illustrated book called The Art of Old Peru (1924), which could have well accompanied him on his voyage on the Andes that year, when he started the doodlings in the famous ‘Purabi manuscript’. Not knowing Bengali, Ratan Parimoo had imagined that Tagore had not mentioned primitive art in any of his writings. But actually Tagore was aware of the theoretical importance of returning to primitive art; he talks about it in his journal Paschim-yatrir Diary in an entry (14 February 1925) written on the last leg of his journey home from South America. Parimoo was also unsure if Tagore had expressed any interest in the art of the South American cultures. But the picture of this part of Tagore’s life is much clearer since the publication of researches on his Argentine adventure. Tagore did wish to explore the art of the Amerindians and was vexed at not being able to go to Peru and Mexico. In Argentina he saw books about the Incas, expressed his interest in their art and his sadness at the destruction of their artifacts, and also examined a rich collection of Quechua images and textiles. Artefacts continued to inspire him even when he had made good progress in art and had started working in colour. In Ronger Rabindranath we have demonstrated resemblances between his works and a wide range of artefacts, of a truly global provenance: African, Malanggan, Chinese (bronzes), Peruvian, Haida, Tlingit. The resemblance between his famous signature-seal designed by himself, made out of his initials in Bengali, and the salmon-trout head motif of Haida folk art is revealing. This was one of the most marvellous resemblances which trace the incline of the Tagore towards his subconscious mind.
Tagore’s colour vision deficiency almost certainly inhibited and delayed his development as a visual artist. He never had the confidence to take formal lessons in art, though he encouraged his nephews, Abanindranath and Gaganendranth, to do so. He did not try to learn European-style naturalistic painting, though his own poetry of the 1890’s and the writings of his nephew Balendranath Tagore from the same period, which were closely supervised and monitored by him, clearly show the influence of the female nude of classical Western art. But the transfiguration of the forms on primitive measures visualizes the creative aspect of the artist and which sourced from the subconscious mind and reveals his surreal background.
Contributed by: Debabrota Das