Recent interests (and here) in Rabindranath Tagore, not simply as the poet, but also the painter, have provided wonderful opportunities to assess his place in the history of modern Asian art. These undertakings were by and large part of the big splash of celebrations on the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2011 along with symposiums, recitals, commemorations, and what have you.
From 1924, growing impatient with orthodoxy of the Bengal school despite repeatedly chastising his nephews Ganendranath and Abanindranath on their close-mindedness (‘When will you all leave your corner and go out into the wide world?’ he chided), Rabindranath Tagore took to painting at the ripe old age of 63. Picking up the brush, he likened the endeavour to a ‘versification in lines’, and sought to cultivate a poetics of the visual as a cognate to his breathy and rhythmical literary output.
There is remarkable acuity in his method, one that produced a persona that was so singular (as evidenced in the photographic self-fashioning of an absorbed literati) and yet equally engaged with the the vernacular of modernity of its day at the same time. Tagore observes in Chitralipi, ”It interests me deeply to watch how lines find their life and character, as their connection with each other develops in varied cadences, and how they begin to speak in gesticulations. I can imagine the universe to be a universe of lines which in their movements and combinations pass on their signals of existence along the interminable chain of moments.”
There was also the desire to demonstrate a broader engagement with aesthetic by casting a suspicious glance at the discourse of the national, succinctly summed up in Art and Tradition: ‘When in the name of Indian art we cultivate with deliberate aggressiveness a certain bigotry born of the habit of a past generation, we smother our soul under idiosyncrasies that fail to respond to the ever changing play of life.’
In many respects, this was his claim to world citizenry, informed by his visits to the Chicago Art Institute, Armory Show, Bauhaus, British Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Art, as well as his travel to Japan, Dutch Indies and China. The selection of paintings above make a case for one body of work that thematically engages with nativist forms, design and patterning.
While this absorption was in some ways privileged cosmopolitanism - an exceptional mobility afforded only to a select few in an age where boundaries were increasingly being set up and policed, where one could almost see the long shadow of fascism spreading in the backdrop. Paradoxically, this was at the same time a strategic worldliness (for he could very well be a Paris Hilton of his time), with Tagore seeking to reinvent a much more expansive idea of the modern back in his homeland. The political ferment towards self-determination was one that was hotly debated - along what quality? A swadeshi modernity that sought to remain insularly Indian vis-à-vis nationalism one that was capable of embracing a civilisational value that has a global outlook, a kind of return art to life praxis that takes the universal into the local and vice versa?
Tagore did not regard himself as an artist, though he produced a body of work that decidedly broke away from the early Bengal school’s inclination towards the nihonga-inspired wash technique and the application of soft hue that tended to imbue and depict Indian subjects, with references to Ajanta cave paintings and Mughal miniatures, by given them a spiritually lofty and transcendental glow. In spite of its subversion of Academic and Company painting styles by appealing to the indigenous and pan-Asian aesthetic sensibility, the Bengal school art was ironically keenly supported by the colonial elite.
On the other hand, Tagore’s visual trajectory resisted an overdetermination of an aesthetic and iconography yoked to nationalism in the shaping of a modern culture. Though this was initially based on intuition, he would later come to know for certainty the militancy that it engendered, observing first hand the devastating embrace of Tenshin Okakura’s Pan-Asian ideals by a fascist Japanese government in the lead up to WWII.
There is a wonderful lecture by Dipesh Chakrabarty that helps put this into context by tracing the discourse of the civilisation in Tagore’s thinking and understand how this is both different from the terms of nationalism as well as globalisation. This sketches out, I think, a possible middle way to de-centre nationalist essentialism as a determining framework in looking at modern Asian art, at the same time as it acknowledges that a reading of anti-colonial struggle in art could produce a range of complex and nuanced lines of thinking that did not necessarily and teleologically arrive at its principal outcome, which was the emergence of new postcolonial nation states. This can be productive in helping us map out, not just the emergence, but also the sophistication of other artistic modernisms in the outer territories from the imperial centres in Europe, driven by different aesthetic vectors and motivations as styles and its discursive frameworks intimated as life-styles in the words of Meyer Schapiro, by engendering different life-practices and life-worlds.