Once criticised, painter Tagore now aesthetic icon

Madhusree Chatterjee

New Delhi, May 3 (IANS) He has inspired generations of painters, yet Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who began to paint at the late age of 67, was dismissed by peers and critics as a 'bad and untrained' artist during his lifetime.

'The first exhibition of Tagore's paintings in May 1930 in Paris that received an overwhelming response was later exhibited in Kolkata (in 1931 and 1932). But the audience there was strangely silent and I remember reading articles criticising his style and technique,' senior artist Niren Sengupta told IANS.

In 1931, Tagore displayed at the Kolkata Town Hall and in February 1932 at the Government School of Art with 265 art works.

'The critics did not like Tagore's childlike adaptation of global artistic practices - especially those from the Far East and Europe - to create a unique Indian language,' said Sengupta.

'The fact that no artist could copy Tagore's style and ideas fuelled the resentment further,' said the Delhi College of Art principal.

Sengupta, who inaugurated an exhibition by 35 artists from West Bengal, 'A Tribute to Tagore', at the Epicentre in Gurgaon a week before his 150th birth anniversary May 9, said, 'Tagore's critics have been proved wrong with time.'

'His works are now a national property and sought after,' Sengupta said. The senior artist is inspired by the versatility of Tagore in his own abstract canvas that portray the poet as a man with many colourful faces.

Tagore's art is a complex combination of doodles, word art, quaint man-animal creatures and gaunt-faced ovoid women painted in ink, water colour, oil and mixed media.

According to a biographical volume, 'Something Old, Something New: Rabindranath Tagore's 150th anniversary volume (edited by Pratapaditya Pal)', he 'always regretted that his countrymen did not appreciate his paintings'.

His peer's uncertainty with his style stemmed from the fact that he had no formal training in art, says the biographical volume.

Artist Nandalal Bose, alarmed by the amateurishness of Tagore's works, patiently compiled an album of reproductions of European masters for Tagore so that he could learn to draw properly. But Tagore returned the album saying, 'it could help his students'.

On his 150th birth anniversary barely a week away, the focus of the India and Bangladesh governments' celebrations, which begin here Friday, is on the poet's art and philosophy - the lesser known aspects of Tagore.

A special digital compilation of art, 'Chitravali', will be released to coincide with his birth anniversary and a mammoth exhibition interpreting Tagore works and his original art by Indian and Bangladeshi artists will be on display in Bangladesh and India.

At the exposition, 'A Tribute To Tagore', artists use his style, technique, ideology and motifs from his compositions to translate them into their creative idioms on the canvas.

A portrait of Tagore seated in meditative repose by senior artist Sudip Roy using the wash painting method stands out from the rest for his mastery over the medium. A charcoal composition, 'Essence of Kolkata', by Subrata Das explores the rural soul of the metropolis with the hand-carted rickshaw as a metaphor.

'When I see rain in north Kolkata - around the Chitpore area, I think of Tagore. He is from north Kolkata. The city looks beautiful during monsoon,' artist Dilip Chowdhury told IANS.

Chowdhury, who creates rainwashed urban landscapes with acrylic on canvas using the technique of water colour, 'reacts to Tagore's poems as an artist'.

Artists Anup Giri and Subroto Gangopadhayay prefer to interpret Tagore's philosophy and artistic ideology on paper. They play with Tagore's commitment to rural reconstruction and promotion of the ethnic arts of Bengal and India on their canvas of dancing tribal men and women.

According to curator Ameeshi Tapuriah, the owner of the Art Nouveau Gallery, who has spent her childhood in Kolkata, 'Any artist who is connected to Bengal cannot stay away from Tagore - they are inspired by him in some way.'

Tagore continued to paint till his death in 1941, and his brush strokes have evidently outlived the harshest of criticis.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)