Rabindranath Tagore's Emergence as an Artist

By Kshitis Roy




A lively imagination, a natural dexterity, a fine flowing hand for calligraphy and the accidental discovery of a hidden talent for self expression through lines and colours -these are probably the reasons which explain the emergence of Rabindranath Tagore as a creative exponent of the graphic art at the improbable age of sixty-seven (1928).

As a child Tagore moved within a restricted circle. Those familiar with his writings in a reminiscent vein know very well how restricted that life was, and the manner in which the highly imaginative boy would make up for the loss of any living intercourse with the world outside. The visual world which he saw through the shuttered windows of his prison­ house had for him a fascination which lasted all through his life. He never wearied of using his eye, and much of what he saw he found to be beautiful because it existed, because it was true. Alongside this visible world of reality was the world of imagination-of ghosts and spirits, of dark forests and storm-tossed seas, of characters out of epics and legends.

The fact that Tagore, as a boy felt drawn more to the world of rhythm than to this other world of visual rhythm, was a matter of environment and training.

At that time music was in the air at the Jorasanko house of the Tagores and the boy absorbed it out of the atmosphere as also from the sporadic but futile attempts that were made to teach him the grammer of music. Comparatively, drawing was relegated to an obscure and secondary position in the daily routine:

"At half past four I return from school. The gymnastic master has come, and for about an hour I exercise my body on the parallel bars. He has no sooner gone than the drawing master arrives..."

No wonder that when young Tagore blossomed forth as a poet, his visual imagination had to remain content with elaborate world-pictures. But not entirely so. There is to be seen in a manuscript*  of this teenager-a few pages of which have survived time's ravages-line-drawings of faces, doodled designs which must have called forth not a little dexterity.

(*This is known as Malati Puthi and forms part of the Museum-collection) at Rabindra-Sadana (Tagore Museum) at Santiniketan.)

Tagores of the past generation must have been quite clever with their fingers. There is the example of the "Big Brother", Dwijendranath who, in the intervals of his study of Kant and Hegel and Higher Mathematics, dabbled with what he called the art of Boxometry - an elaborate affair of manufacturing receptacles of an endless variety with paper folded in accordance with set codes and formula e­very much in the nature of Euclidean principles. The second brother, Satyendranath on retirement from the Indian Civil Service, took to typewriting as a hobby, and made of his scrap-book a marvel of lay-out and typography. The most artistic of them all, Jyotirindranath divided his time between translating Sanskrit and French classics on the one hand and preparing a galaxy of family­ portraits in pencil, on the other.

Up to the nineties of the last century, the creative talent of the Tagores flowed mainly along the channels of literature, music and drama. Round about that time, the youngest scion of the other branch, Abanindranath in his twenties started taking formal lessons in painting from a visiting Italian art-teacher. Quite early in his apprenticeship, he gave unmistakable evidence of his talent in this new field. The elders took note, and received the youngster within their magic circle with enthusiasm.

There is an album of riddle-pictures come down from old. times which go to show how childlike the Tagores could be. Rabindranath was at that time (1893) holidaying in Simla with the family of his second brother, Satyendranath. Two of his nephews, Surendranath in Simla and Abanindranath in Calcutta took it into their heads to exchange letters in the form of pictures with a story. Much nimbleness of wit and fingers was required to devise these puzzle-pictures. With their cha­racteristic fervor, two of the uncles, Jyotirindranath and Rabindranath joined their nephews in this prank, and, in the result we have some of the earliest pencil­ sketches by the poet. Unlike much of his later works some of these are brilliant miniatures and a marvel of accurate draughtsmanship.

The Simla visit was actually an interlude of the Shelida period (1890-1900) when the poet was administering the family estates in riverine Bengal. To this period belong the letters of the Chhinnapatra (Glimpses of Bengal) series-beautiful vignettes of life and nature, which have few parallels in world literature.

It was about this time that we come across the first pointed reference by Tagore to his 'dabbling' with painting. Writing to his niece. Indira under the date July, 1893 he says:

"To tell you the honest truth, 1 do not quite know what my real vocation is or should be. I am very much in the position of a young woman who, in the pride of her youth, would not like to part with any of her suitors. I have not the heart to baulk any of the muses... If I were to confess without fear or shame, I may as well tell you that very often I cast looks of longing, after the fashion of a disap­pointed lover, towards the Muse of Art. But, alas, she is difficult to win, for, I am past that age when I could woo her         "

Several years later writing to his scien­tist-friend, J.C.Bose in London on 17th September, 1900 he says:

"It will be some surprise to you to hear that I have been painting in a sketch book. Needless to say, my pictures are not meant for any salon of Paris, nor do I have the least apprehension that the National Gallery of some countries would suddenly take it into their head to acquire these paintings with money extorted from the tax-payers. One feels strongly drawn to an alien art even as a mother towards an ungainly offspring. That is why when I made up my mind this time to devote myself entirely to laziness, I hit upon this occupation of an artist to while time away. The trouble is that my progress is retarded by the exigency of erasing more than I can ever draw-with the result that I have become more an adept with the eraser than with the pencil. So, Raphael dead can rest in peace in his grave-at least I shall not be the rival to lower his colours".

The decade 1901-11 saw Tagore busy establishing his School at Santiniketan and leading Bengal's protest against partition. This was also the time when death, bereavement and financial diffi­culties buffeted him time and again. No wonder, therefore, that the period is barren of (at least, we do not have the record of any) any creative activity in the realm of graphic art.

Tagore's 1912-13 visit to the West, culminating with the Nobel Award, proved really the prelude to an ampler life. What he had gained in depth during the first fifty years of his life now branched out in wide directions of travels and cultural contacts all over the world. The visit he paid to Japan in 1916 and the impact the life and art of Japan made on him made him critical of the way in which he thought the Indian Society of Oriental Art was settling down in its own grooves.

It gave him great pleasure, therefore, to find on his return home to India in 1917, a new art movement taking shape, with his own Calcutta residence (Vichitra) as its centre. When this too proved a short-lived venture, he hit upon the idea of estab­lishing his own art school at Santi­niketan with Nandalal Bose, Abanindra­nath's principal disciple, as its Director. That was in 1919. It was about his time that Tagore began to hold discussions with the teachers and students of the newly established Kala-Bhavan; or in other words deliberately and cons­ciously to take interest in graphic art as a medium of self-expression.

1920-1921 saw him making an extensive tour of Europe and America. It is seen than in quite a few places he took time off to visit picture-galleries and museums.

On his return home to Santiniketan in the autumn of 1921, Edward Thompson asked him, "Do you expect to have many more years?" He smiled, and replied very quickly, "Eight No. Seven now. I shall die at 68. "That was what was written in his horoscope. The sands of time were fast running away. He must, therefore, establish Visva-Bharati as a visible symbol of the way his life was opening out to new horizons.

Three years after the formal inaugu­ration of Visva-Bharati, in 1924-25 Tagore visited first China and Japan and then South America. The story of his sojourn to Buenos Aires in Argentina has to be told in some detail because it has direct connection with his adventure in the new field of self-expression.

When his boat S.S. Andes left port at Cherbourg on 11th October, Tagore was in no proper condition of health. Four days later, the boat crossed over the equatorial line. By then Tagore had fallen violently ill and had to keep himself inside the cabin all the while. The crossing was rough and his mind was despondent with the saddest thoughts of the tragedy of love and death.

It was in this mood of mind that he strove to while away the painfully dragging hours in his cabin, writing poetry. These are the well-known poems of Puravi with their calligraphic erasures about which the Poet says: “When the scratches in my manuscript cried, like sinners, for salvation, and assailed my eyes with the ugliness of irrelevance, I often took more time in rescuing them into a merciful finality of rhythm than in carrying on what was my obvious task.” And explaining the reason why he did so, he says: “The only training which I had from my young days was the training in rhythm, rhythm in thought, rhythm in sound. I had come to know that rhythm gives reality to that which is desultory.”

And some of the first drafts of the Puravi poems in manuscript give the evidence of a degree of ‘desultoriness’ induced probably by the state of his mind and health during the crossing. In trying to salvage the 'erring lines and erasures... into a rhythmic inter­relationship' there emerged unique forms and characters. Some assumed the shape of a probable animal that had un­accountably missed its chance of existence, some a bird that could only soar in our dreams…. Some lines showed anger, some benevolence, through some lines ran an essential laughter…. These lines often expressed passions that were abstract, evolved characters that hung upon subtle suggestions."

There is at least one poem in Puravi where the Poet directly refers to these 'apparitions of non-deliberate origin':

Hark, where in the formless limbs, ghosts of sights and weepings haunt the night... A time was when they had a form and a voice... The fruitless sorrow of all that has been and is now nameless, amorphous, unremembered, haunt the dim recesses of my mind seeking a form, a shelter.

It will, however, be a mistake to suppose that the decorative erasures which abound in Puravi are the first incidence of a phenomenon. Similar rhythmic patterns are occasionally to be found in some of the earlier manuscripts also-but limited to poems only and probably those poems alone which were written under some stress or quite casually. There is another important difference in that while the earlier erasures mostly assumed delicately floriated or vine like patterns, the ones of Puravi often show an orgy of violent forms-grotesque and primitive shapes ­that are almost in conflict with the words and the lines, and, at times very nearly obliterating a whole stanza or a complete poem.

Why should this be so? Why did he not stay content by I simply scoring out an erring line or an obtruding thought? I believe this was because of his inherent love for rhythm. One who wrote such a beautifully flowering hand could hardly suffer the body of his poem or song to be marked with ugly scratches. It is perhaps true that the art of calligraphy was not given the same care and heed in India, as in China. If it had been, Tagore would have compared favourably - although in a somewhat different way-with the poet ­painters of China about whose work it is said that when you enjoy yourself with the poems you find pictures in them and when looking at the pictures you find in them poems.

And, now to resume our story: when Tagore landed in Buenos Aires, he was a tired and exhausted man. There could be no question of his undertaking an arduous train-journey to Peru-his original destination-across the high Andes range. His doctors were against it and so was Victoria Ocampo - his Argentinian hostess-who with a quite authority born of a loving concern, whisked him away to her suburban home at San Isidro. The country-side, reminding him of his native Bengal, the salubrious climate, and, above all, the self-effacing ministration of Victoria Ocampo who found an able aide in Leonard Elmhirst who had accompanied the Poet as his private secretary on this trip, worked a miracle. Tagore felt rested and restored and he took himself to his usual poetry-making, with picture ­making thrown in.

It was about this time that the miracle happened: Victoria, for whom the Poet started entertaining a very high regard, one day discovered one of his doodles and found it a work of art. Here is how he describes the incident in a letter to his daughter-in-law, Pratima who had sent him a picture of lines' and scratches from her adoptive daughter:

"Poupe's letter has just arrived. Luckily, you have provided explanation as to the idea behind. But, meaning is the least part of it: her letter is as devoid of import as her dancing is-it is a dance of the doodles. As you must know, I too have a weakness for this art of doodling. I have had to draw upon my bag of tricks in this gentle art, to be able to send her an appropriate reply. When our hostess here (Victoria Ocampo) happened to see the result this morning (December 1924) as it lay on my table, she had the surprise of her life. Lest it should get spoilt in the folding, she has arranged for a large size cover to send it in."

Here was his first recognition as a painter and it came from one whose acumen, judgment and far-sightedness deserve the unstinted gratitude of all admirers of Tagore as an artist.*

*(It was a matter of happy coincidence that when in May 1930 the first exhibition of Tagore's paintings was opened at Galerie Pigalle in Paris, Victoria Ocampo became its principal sponsor-thus sharing her delight in these creations with the world at large.)

Tagore came back to India in the early part of 1925 to resume the thread of his activities at Santiniketan. The next two years - I926 and 1927 - were spent virtually in further travels abroad - in Europe first and then in South East Asia.

It was only towards the end of 1928 (a fateful year, if his reported conversation with Thompson is taken as accurate)* that he began to apply himself, with all the fervor of a borrowed life, to picture­ making in right earnest. He abandoned the starting point of converting erasures into designs and commenced painting pictures for their own sake. Writing to Rani Mahalanobis under the date November 7, 1928, Tagore says:

"The most important item in the bulletin of my daily news, is my painting. I am hopelessly entangled in the spell that the lines have cast all around me       .... I have almost managed to forget that there used to be a time when I wrote poetry. The subject matter of a poem can be traced back to some dim thought in the mind.... While painting, the process adopted by me is quite the reverse. First, there is the hint of a line, then the line becomes a form. The more pronounced the form the clearer becomes the picture of my conception. This creation of form is an endless wonder. If I were a finished artist I would probably have followed a pre­conceived idea in making a picture.... But it is far more exciting when the mind is seized by something outside of it, some compulsive surprise element gradually assuming an understandable form"

(* And there is no reason why it should not be so­ seeing that the last years of Tagore's life showed a fine frenzy of creative self-expression in a richly diverse media - in music free from orthodoxy, in verse libre, in lyric - like works of fiction, in a ballet ­like ensemble of music and dance and mime, in his drawings and paintings and what not. Not only the output but also the striking originality of feeling and colour of most of his later work, show that like the Sun (Rabi) after whom he was named, he must have felt like squandering his largesse in a last sunset-glow. It almost appeared as if he was racing against time.)

In another letter written a few days after (29 November 1928) he says: "At last I seem to have come to know the mind of the creator who is an artist himself. Infinite himself he delights in drawing a line and setting a limit to himself. Limited in space though they are, there is an unlimited variety of forms all around. Nor should we forget that it is definition which makes for perfection. When the measureless finds its own measure -it realises itself. The joy in a picture is the joy of a perfect sense of proportion. The restraint of lines makes a picture distinct and definite. To see it is to see the thing itself-whatever it may be a piece of stone, as ass, a cactus, an old woman-it does not matter what... "

By 1930 when the first exhibition of his paintings was presented first in Paris and thereafter in England, Germany, Denmark, Russia and in America, he had quite a tidy collection. This was added to in the years that followed-not in bits and trickles but in a steady and glorious profusion, so that by the end of 1940 when he very nearly lost his old nimbleness of fingers he had created well over two thousand drawings and paintings - a stupendous output which did not, however, interfere with his other abundant and multifarious activities.

It is not proposed to deal here with the technicalities of Tagore's work as an artist. Such analysis, we feel, will be out of spirit with the distinctness and individualism of Tagore's Art. Various people have written on the subject and many more will surely write thereafter. We wish to offer here, however, snippets from Tagore's reminiscent conver­sations wherein he tells Rani Chanda about his work as an artist. These bits are selected at random and woven together in a date-wise sequence-solely as a revelation of what he himself thought about his own art:


July 11th 1939

I make pictures as my fancy pleases. Paper and pigments are before me. The spirit is willing. So, hey presto! my mind has its play with brush and paints. That is how my pictures are made.

When I draw a nice picture, that is when other people call it a 'beauty', I forthwith manage to spoil it. I spill ink on it or scratch haphazard lines after it is thoroughly spoilt, I start salvaging it until it assumes some other aspect.

July 13, 1939


My pencils need constant mending or sharpening-they get broken in such quick succession. It is because I press the head of my pencils a little too hard...to keep pace with my thoughts. I believe my mind has a tendency to put on speed.

July 24, 1939


My mind has no part to play in my painting. To paint or to try to paint deliberately-is not to my taste. Most often it is my doodles which assume some form.

Would you call such one an artist? You are flatterers-one and all of you! Look at this now-just a number of faces. Some with moustache, some clean-shaven, some twisted out of shape, some grotes­que-isn't this sheer non­sense!

July 31, 1939

Now, look at this picture. It is done in fading light by an artist whose eyesight has nearly failed. Just a few lines, and the picture is done; it speaks. I don't think it should have a touch more or an additional line-although it is in my nature deliberately to spoil the - first attempt and build it a new. The picture has about it a sense of brooding melancholy-don't you notice it! Most of my pictures are like that they lack laughter. I do not know why this should be so when I like a good laugh myself and love to make others la ugh: Probably I have a touch of sadness-deep down.

January 10, 1941

If I do not have all the ingre­dients of painting near at hand, I do not feel like making any picture. Give me a few brushes. and a few pens with a large sheet of paper-and I can manage to produce something strange and unusual by an admixture of all the inks and all the colours

April 24,        1941


Comparatively speaking, the language of lines and colours which has commerce with the tangible, concrete world has a much better prospect of survival. There is all the difference between concrete visual perception and arriving at a meaning through sound­symbols printed in a book... That is why I often feel that as between a work of graphic art and literary art the former may well outlast the latter.

May 25, 1941


When God created man He endowed him with a little beauty of form and grace of features. After His work was done, said He: Thus far and no further. The rest you have to make for yourself. Art is nothing- other than man's ceaseless endeavour to reach perfection.

Creation is not repetition, or correspondence in every parti­cular between the object and its 'artistic presentation. The world of reality is all around us. When I look at these pheno­mena with my artist's eye, things are revealed in a diffe­rent light which I try and re­capture in my pictures-call them realistic or not. There is a world of dreams and fanta­sies which exists only in man's imagination. If I can but depict this in my pictures, I can beat the creator at his own game: even. He was not able to make place for these figments of imagination in the world of his creation. 

May 26, 1941

I have nothing to say about my own pictures. I do not really know what I have done, or wanted to say, Nandalal has watched me paint, day after day. He has written on my paintings and said ‘we have a great deal to learn from these pictures’. I really do not understand what they have to teach. They used to say in France: 'You have achieved something that we have vainly been seeking to do. When I asked what that something was, they retorted: 'Would you understand if you were told?'


It may not perhaps be inappropriate to mention here the impact that Tagore made as an exponent of Graphic Art on a perceptive art-critic like Henri Bidou of France when his pictures were placed on display for the first time at Galerie Pigalle in Paris in May 1930. This is what Henri Bidou said in an article:

"Rabindranath Tagore says that there is no connection between his work as a poet and his work as a painter. As a poet, he has before his eyes a vision which he describes, or, as he calls it, a mental representation. He sees a landscape, a garden or a face; he imitates, as a painter imitates, this model impressed upon his mind. His verses communicate images seen or created. On the contrary, when he becomes a painter (and this is the strongest part of the story), exactly at the point at which others begin to copy, he ceases to copy. His pictures do not represent a scheme preconceived .in his mind. So far from seeing them before hand, he actually does not know, while he is doing them, what they are going to be. So, in producing his poetry, he worked as a painter; now that he is a painter, he works like a poet. The whole of this new work is on the borderline of two sciences or two arts.

It is as it were an organic law held the Poet's hand in its control. Far from realising the pre-conceived idea of a decoration, he merely aided in the birth of a line of which he knew nothing, and which was waiting to be born. This line was not foreseen by the mind. On the contrary, in the infinite number of possible figures, all that the mind could do was to recognise the particular one which was striving to appear in that particular space, and which was, so to speak, already completely traced and only needed to be made visible. Naturally the reasoning mind with the sub-division of its calculations and the experimental nature of its researches, is incapable of discovering all at once so subtle a truth, and so it was simply the hand itself animated by its own elemental spirit, the hand which has inscribed so many verses and in which, rhythm is already inherent, which, without consulting the Poet, produced from the immense number of possibilities, the one predestined design.

All these shapes are like so many little souls which expect their salvation from him, and which he has to lead to their fruition. It was a touching spectacle, this of the aged Poet with all his glory on him, turned shepherd of arabesques and gently leading them from the limbs in which they had slept until the moment of the determination of their form; and what mysterious beings are these curves in, which Nature has hidden the most subtle secrets of Mathematics.

One line has scarcely been drawn before another follows it, as though called into existence by it, and demanding to be created in its turn. So, they begin a kind of canticle and response, and even in the singing they are modified and changed. They draw together, they draw apart, they become enriched with ornament, they blossom, they arrive eventually at having traced upon the page the outline of a vase decorated with incisions and designs and whose lines, in their movement towards and apart from one another, retain a marvelous purity.

There is always, to begin with, a given cell a nucleus, around which the work develops itself and from this moment, onwards, the unknown laws which govern the evolution of forms direct the hand of the creator. These forms begin by having an abstract character. Little by little whether by a kind of self-produced evolution or because the influence which guides them is touched by some memory of the common world, they acquire a certain resemblance to what we call nature. They become a face. Sometimes they hesitate to choose their destiny. A very curious design shows curves lying across the page, which seemed to be shaping into an orchid, but they changed their minds, and, the petal becoming a wing at the foot a claw, a fantastic bird was born from the flower. The resem­blances so created, reduced to their mathematical elements, are sometimes astonishing in their firmness and truth. At other times, they posses a pathetic strength which is very touching. The curves which form them, moving freely, reinvent every style and recall every kind of genius.

Only those who have never ymbolizin these mysterious currents of thought and feeling, the outcome of the age itself, which penetrate all souls as by osmosis, and give its direction to a whole epoch, will be surprised that this pure painting, absolutely sincere and wholly unin­fluenced by our studio customs, should resemble now and then the most recent researches of the painters of the west. There can be no question of imitation, but the convergence of spirit is remarkable.

This work is not a hobby or a plaything. This new vocation is not so mysterious after all.

A latent genius was asleep; that is made plain by the sureness of the design, the beauty of the tones, the liveliness of every detail, the sense of ornament. For almost a. lifetime, this genius has been kept in the shadows, for the highly developed faculties of the conscious mind left no room for .the expression of this hidden force. One fine day it revealed itself, and the poet felt that another person was being manifested in him, but the new minister has not changed the laws of the State.”

Western connoisseurs have discovered affinities of style and theme between the works of Tagore and those of Modiglani, Pollaiuvolo, Munch, Nolde, Paul Klee, Morgenstern, Kubin, Franz Marc, and a host of other ‘moderns’. Some have read into them ‘fundamental spiritual trend of the present day’. Yet others have discovered in Tagore’s pictures an urge ‘to revert to primitive sources of inspiration in order that imaginative fertility might be renewed and the hateful routine of cut-and-dried realism be abandoned.

Apart from the accidental resemblances and the osmosis of the time-spirit to which Bidou refers, it would perhaps be a mistake to try to relate Tagore’s work as an artist to any contemporary movement-indigenous or foreign. As Ananda Coomaraswamy put is, “This (Tagore’s art) is a genuinely original, genuinely naïve expression; extraordinary evidence of eternal youth. Persistent in a hoary and venerable personage”.

But this, too, does not tell the whole story. There is undoubtedly in a number of ‘problem’ pictures of Tagore a reflection of the staccato rhythm of our puzzled times-of the stress and strain, conflict and confusion of a ‘proud civilization’ crumbling into a vast and world wide ruin. There are also luminous landscapes ymbolizing the poet-painter’s hope of a new dawn arising out of the East ‘Where the sun rises’. In such works as these we see his awareness and acceptance of ‘those mysterious currents of thoughts and feelings’ which are the outcome of the modern age. While it is true that as an artist he was utterly and indubitably a child of his own times, it can hardly be denied that like the child he also belongs to all times.


(From Rabindranath Tagore, Published by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi)