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Abanindranath Tagore: The enigmatic original who wrote art and painted words

Abanindranath Tagore: The enigmatic original who wrote art and painted words

by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri January 31 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 19 mins, 1 sec

The founder of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Abanindranath Tagore’s work defies any straightjacketing, writes Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) was part of an important and influential family: his grandfather was the son of Dwarkanath Tagore, who was among the earliest Indian industrial entrepreneurs. He also had a considerable artistic heritage through his uncle, Rabindranath Tagore, as well as through his artist grandfather Girindranath and older brother Gaganendranath Tagore. He founded the Indian Society of Oriental Art and was its most important artist. He was also the founder of the Bengal School of Art, which played a pioneering role in the development of Indian art. Concerned that Western artistic styles were exerting too much influence on Indian painters, Abanindranath promoted a style based instead on a modern interpretation of traditional Rajput and Mughul art. Tagore also wrote several children’s books, which remain popular in Bengal.

The mammoth nature of the task that Abanindranath faced and his success can be gauged from the prevailing art situation at the time, pulling in two opposing directions: one, the notion of modern art, which involved the positioning of mythological subjects in Western realistic idiom and, two, the revivalist notion of modern Indian art linked to the nationalistic aspiration as opposed to the colonial cultural hegemony.

As K.G. Subramanyan writes, ‘He had to rescue art from the rigid conventionalisms of the traditional artist, he had to release it from the constrictions of pedestrian patronage, he had to reconcile it, at whatever point of contact, with its previous history. He had also to reckon with the new cultural fact that the cultivated Indian was coming out of his traditional predispositions and the old mythologies and symbols did not hold with him the same credence and immediacy as they did with his predecessors. So he had to begin afresh and seek a new language, starting with a personal bivouac with nature and environment.’

Either due to his cult stature or the sheer originality of his contribution to the world of modern Indian art, Abanindranath has ‘remained an enigma to the art-knowing public’. Given how his art resists any straitjacketing, art critics and scholars have found it impossible to confine his oeuvre to any specific stylistic genre or work out a linear chronological progression. As journalist and art scholar Ella Dutta writes, ‘Is he to be seen as the founder of a new school of painting, the Bengal School? Do we take into account his links with the nascent nationalist movement? Or do we only consider his achievements as an artist?’

The works of Abanindranath Tagore cannot be seen separately from the prevalent historical developments of pre-independent India. There is no denying his linkages to the Swadeshi strand in art and his engagement with the so-called revivalist school, but these were intrinsically bound to intensely individualistic sensibility and predilections, which informed his literary outputs too, prompting the assessment that ‘Abanindranath is one single but multifarious personality who “writes art” and “paints words”.

He was undoubtedly a leading protagonist of the Bengal School, but to see him through only this lens will lead to an incomplete appraisal of his works. In March 1924, Abanindranath himself wrote in a letter to Dhirendra Krishna Deb Burman: ‘This thing called Indian art… the more I see this the more I get convinced that what is brought forth in music, painting or sculpture in this way is burglary committed on one’s own or other’s treasures. They are stolen goods we want to trade off as our own… whether you take after Ajanta or Greek or Japanese or China, it is nothing but taking to another man’s way. Why should I port my boat at an alien coast when each one of us has our own? We have no option but to go alone.’

Along with Raja Ravi Varma, his name figures predominantly in discussions of modern art in India. Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist of significance to make a decisive break with tradition, draw upon Western art and work on a pan-Indian scale. However, the Western art he was drawn to was not modern but of the academic neoclassical kind, representing conservative European tastes. Also, his approach to art was like a professional who rather than setting standards was more content at meeting them.

Abanindranath, despite his training under European artists, began as a nationalist. With E.B. Havell linking him to the revival of Indian painting, his work has been seen as a revivalist. Though it has been contended that his work reflects the theme, style and technique of older and oriental traditions, he was an individualist in the modern sense, working neither for patrons nor for the market.

  1. Siva Kumar contends that even though the Indian art scene in the nineteenth century was not as creative or vibrant as it was only two centuries ago, when Europeans were beginning to arrive in large numbers, it was multifarious and many-leveled. Indian art was experiencing a marked impact of European, mainly British, taste and patronage on its styles and genres. At the same time, despite wilting under colonialism and Western realist art and aesthetic, and despite not being a period of great achievements, it was not lacking in breadth and variety. It might have been decadent but it was also fluid and full of prospects. The greatness of Abanindratath lay in the way he turned the situation to his advantage. He did not choose to paint in one of the available styles and give it a new lease of life. Intuitively grasping the eclectic possibilities of the situation, he used its inherent tensions to give shape to a highly personal style.

Though he began by learning to paint in in the Western realist manner, his inner disposition compelled to look away from it and consider alternate practices of art, more specifically Indian art. His first encounter with Indian painting came during his visit to the Hindi Mela where he came across the work of a local traditional artist whom he later identified as the ‘Delhi artist’. After Avisar (depicting Radha out on a tryst framed with text and a floral border), which Abanindranath described as his first attempt at painting in an Indian manner, came The Krishna Lila, the themes originating from medieval Vaishnava literature, considered his first individual achievement. However, even in these paintings, contemporary adherents of the faith thought that his images of Radha and Krishna were uncomfortable deviants, thus rupturing the purity of all the traditions.

It was his meeting with E.B. Havell, soon after the Krishna Lila series, that led Abanindranath to study and appreciate Mughal art. Similarly, it was his meeting with Okakura Kakuzo in 1902 and his interactions with Taikan Yokayama and Hishida Shunso that led him to study Japanese art. The impact of his interaction with Taikan and Hishida is seen in works like The Banished Yaksha, which marks an important stage in his development of the wash technique that reached its fullest development with Bharat Mata, done in 1905. This particular painting, though important in his oeuvre, has received more attention than it probably deserves because of its relation to the Swadeshi movement, during which an enraged copy of it was carried out in processions. Interestingly enough, it was conceived as ‘Banga Mata’, or mother Bengal, and it was Sister Nivedita who gave it the stature of Bharat Mata.

The undercurrent of contrary pulls within Abanindranath is perceptible in another painting done in 1905, Ganesh Janani. As R. Siva Kumar says, ‘If one is icon, the other is fantasy; one makes the political sacred, the other secularizes the religious; there is very little traditional art in one and yet it serves a nationalism nourished by the past, the other clearly has elements drawn from traditional art but ends up subverting tradition.’

For a while, Abanindranath, like everyone else, was swayed by the sweeping tide of Swadeshi nationalism but it did not leave a lasting impact on his art. When it started, he was on the verge of arriving at a personal style in consonance with his sensibility. As soon as he recovered from the initial euphoria of Swadeshi, he returned to his personal quest as an artist. Thus, Shahjahan Dreaming of the Taj, rather than Bharat Mata, offers the first convergence of his sensibility and his artistic means into a personal style.

There is more than one Abanindranath. The early or the nationalist one - the painter of Bharat Mata and the author of ‘Some Notes on Indian Artistic Anatomy’ and ‘Sadanga or The Six Limbs of Painting’ - both hailed as the father of new Indian painting and denounced as the guru of nationalist revivalism. The second Abanindranath is not as well known - the painter of the Bengal Actors series, the Shahjadpur Landscapes, the Arabian Nights and the author of the Vagishwari Lectures. A third or later Abadindranath painted folk and, in the words of R. Siva Kumar, ‘fiddled with found objects’ is better known and admired by some as a ‘half-blue Jamini Roy’.

The Influences

The Swadeshi movement, his encounter with E.B. Havell, his exposure to Japanese art through Okakura Kakuzo, stimulating and scholarly participation of A.K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita in the revival movement and the hugely inspiring presence of Rabindranath Tagore shaped and influenced the formative stage of Abanindranath Tagore’s artistic career.

In the early 1890s his works were first published as magazine illustrations, including illustrations for the stories he had written. In 1890, when he was almost twenty years old, Tagore enrolled at the Calcutta School of Art, taking lessons in Western realistic art, mainly on still-life studies, portrait painting, oil painting and pastel work, from O. Ghilardi (vice-principal of the Calcutta School of Art at the time) and the English artist C.L. Palmer. Palmer taught Tagore how to paint with oils, while O. Ghilardi gave him the benefit of his experience with pastels. Though the Victorian academic style of painting failed to satisfy him and this apprenticeship proved short-lived, it resulted in some notable portraits, for example, Rabindranath (c.1892) and Debendranath (c.1893). Tagore’s most impressive portrait of this type was completed in the late 1920s - a double portrait of his grandsons, which has been described as showing a certain degree of similarity with paintings from the early years of the Renaissance in Italy. Though he had by now become a great admirer of, and advocate for, a distinctively Indian artistic style, these works stand testimony to important lessons from this period that Abanindranath never forgot and which he elevated to an evocative plane. Abanindranath was also becoming increasingly interested in Mughal art, using a style based on this to depict the life of Krishna.

He was subsequently exposed to illuminated manuscripts of Irish ballads and a folio of miniatures of Delhi qalam, which marked another stage in his development as an artist. This led to the Radha Krishna series (1893-95), which revealed the unique genius of Abanindranath for the first time and introduced a new epoch in his own life and in the field of modern Indian painting, The Building of the Taj (1901) and The Death of Shah Jahan (c.1902) - ‘merging his brand of “poetic naturalism” with the compositional structures of Rajasthani or Pahari miniatures’.

In 1903, Abanindranath’s art saw a radical change with his introduction to Japanese wash technique, demonstrated by Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso, the two artists sent to Jorasanko by Okakura. Consequently, Abanindranath produced some brilliant works, his art silently echoing ‘the object-reality and a distant vision imbued with a poetic resonance’. Paintings like Dewali (c.1903), Bharatmata (c.1905), Omar Khayyam series (c.1907-09) (in which the medieval polymath is shown, as one critic put it, ‘dissolved in a veil of atmosphere’), Sun Worshipper (c.1912-13) and Shahjadpur Landscape (c.1927) are some well-known examples of his ‘wash’ paintings. The atmospheric nature of these paintings, which he considered similar to the ‘expressed imagination of a child’ reading a storybook, fascinated him. Though he never gave up the style, he would use it less frequently with time, producing striking works like Shahjadpur Landscape and the ‘moody, light-bathed’ Ullapara Station.

A master storyteller, he often reinterpreted literary sources, overhauling the written word to a visual language, for his imageries and even paint entire series of works, for example, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (c.1907-09), Kabikankan Chandi series (1938), Krishna Mangal series (c.1939) and others. R. Siva Kumar writes, ‘Narration was central to Abanindranath's art. The narrative impulse, as we have seen, informed both his landscapes and portraits, and they became involved and more engaging when they were inflected with narrative innuendoes.’ The hierarchy of history, culture, representation and conventions are wilfully and strategically overturned in paintings like Arabian Nights (1930) ‘where he plays on the Mughal miniature formats by including inscriptions in the Persian calligraphy style (albeit Bengali), and allows characters and locations from his immediate colonial cosmopolitan neighborhood to participate in these resplendent visual dramas sourced from a distant cultural and geographical locale’.

One of the most important influences on Abanindranath was his meeting with English academic and art historian E.B. Havell. Havell came to India in 1884 as superintendent of the School of Art, Madras. He started out as an educationist, but soon ‘became an ideologue and art historian, modifying the curriculum of the school and introducing the study of Indian designs and patterns’. He joined the Government School of Art in Calcutta in 1896 as its superintendent. A decade of teaching and staying in India had brought him close to the swadeshi doctrines of Indian art and culture. He proceeded to abolish the British system of teaching, arguing that ‘in India, painting must be Indian in attitude and spirit’. He went on to include Oriental art in the curriculum, insisting that it should be the basis of all art instructions.

Abanindranath met Havell in 1897, by which time Havell was already a convert to the cause of indigenous art. Reviewing the performance of the Art School between 1892 and 1897 for a government report he stated that by ignoring Oriental art Indian students were being taken in the wrong direction. He reorganized the courses by introducing new ones in design, mural painting and stained glass. He also initiated purchase of more Indian art objects for the art gallery attached to the school, replacing the specimens of European masterpieces with Mughal and Rajput miniature and set out to restore rural arts and crafts. These initiatives were not received well by all his students and art enthusiasts outside, many of whom revolted and left to form the Jubilee Art School dedicated to promoting the study of Western academic painting.

It was under these circumstances that he came to know Abanindranath and found in him an enthusiastic collaborator in his project. For his part, Abanindranath was immediately taken in by the latter’s vision, taking part in Havells crusade for Indian art and supporting its nationalist cause. The two men formed a partnership with the aim of modernizing and refreshing the teaching of art at the Calcutta School of Art, a project that received considerable support from Tagore’s brother, Gaganendranath. Though he was never Havells formal student, he regarded Havell as his guru and considered Havell’s contribution to the Indian art scenario valuable and timely. Abanindranth once said, ‘Havell shaped my vision. He has my reverence as my guru. Often he would appear as collaborator, sometimes as friend.’ The publication of Havells Indian Sculpture and Painting in 1908 came as a breakthrough in Western attitude to Indian art. His Ideals of Indian Art (1911) was a powerful manifesto of the then new Oriental aesthetics.

Then there was of course Rabindranath Tagore. Abanindranath was as much a man of literature as he was an artist. In fact, it is difficult to say which of the two – literature or painting – was his primary field. Shaped by the towering presence of Rabindranath, Abanindranath’s oeuvre brought together ‘a poet’s emotion’ with ‘an artist’s outlook’. His literary output - Raj Kahini, Khirer Putul, Bhut Patrir Des, Budo Angla, among others - stands testimony to his ability to paint images with words, the prose blending into pictures and vice-versa to create a remarkable confluence.

As a Teacher

No discussion on Abanindranath will be complete without a mention of his role as a teacher. Abanindranath Tagore joined the Government School of Art as vice-principal in 1905, at the request of Havell. In February 1906, Abanindranath took on responsibility as the principal for three years, after Havell left, until Percy Brown joined as the head. Abanindranath was to remain vice-principal until he resigned in 1915 in the wake of differences with Brown. He continued as a mentor in Jorasanko’s Bichitra Sabha and later through the Indian Society of Oriental Art. He was the head of the advanced design class, a department, which was later renamed ‘Indian Painting’ class.  

In this crucial phase as an art teacher formally heading a premier institution, he took some remarkable decisions, inspiring a legion of the who’s who of Indian art, many of whom played noteworthy roles in spreading the ideals of Oriental art and establishing what later came to be known as the Bengal School of Painting (it has also been referred to as the Neo-Indian School to suggest its influence and spread across the boundaries of Bengal).

Nandalal Bose and Surendranath Ganguly were Abanindranath’s first students, followed by Asit Kumar Haldar, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Sailendranath Dey, Surendranath Kar, Sarada Charan Ukil, K. Venkatappa and others. Nandalal Bose and Asit Kumar Haldar went on to teach at Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati University.

Taking over as administrator of the Government College of Art, Calcutta, in 1928, Mukul Dey got rid of many of its colonial influences. Kshitendranath Majumdar taught at Santiniketan while he was also principal at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, before taking up the same post at Allahabad University from 1942 to 1964. Sarada Ukil, along with his brothers Barada and Ranada, would teach art from his residence after a short stint at Lala Raghubir’s Modern Art School, before the formation of the Sarada Ukil School of Art, which the Indian government established in 1994.

Samarendranath Gupta became vice-principal of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, exerting a strong influence on Pakistan’s national artist, Abdur Rahman Chughtai. Devi Prasad Roy Chaudhary was the principal of Government College of Art, Madras, until his retirement during which he also served as the founding chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s national academy for fine arts. The extent of Abanindranath’s influence can be gauged from the next generation of this lineage. Artists like Baij, Panicker and Subramaniam are testimony that his teachings, ‘in one form or the other, penetrate deep into the fabric of contemporary Indian art’.


Abanindranath’s fame in India and abroad rests primarily on his role in the revival of Indian art. The historical role attributed to him has received more attention than his oeuvre, most studies endorsing his reputation as the founder of a new school of painting, which is considered thoroughly revivalist in orientation. But as Binodebihari Mukhopadhyay points out, he did not want to discover anything with any specific effort. ‘He had studied the canons of aesthetics, had written on the six limbs of painting (the Sadanga), and had even pleaded for an Indian ideal in his book Bharata-Silpa.’ Yet, he never adhered to these in his own creations. Despite his immense enthusiasm for Indian aesthetic, in his own work and in those of his followers he wanted the world of imagination and idea to take precedence - not any fad or dogma. The chief attraction in his literary and visual compositions is the style - how he tells in the one and shows in the other. In his own words: ‘If words are pictures spoken where sounds weld themselves into form, then painting is a story in form (rup-kathas) told by color and line.’ The paintings of Abanindranath are rup-kathas - tales told by color and the gesture of form, verging on the border of fairy tales. As has been so truly said, ‘the only way to know Abanindranath the artist is to see his pictures’.


1871: Born on 7 August to Gunendranath Tagore and Saudamini Devi

1876: Begins to Normal School but taken out after a short period

1876-1881: Taught at home by private tutors

1881: Father passes away

1881-1889/90: Student at Sanskrit College

1891: November-December issue of Sadhana carries illustrations of Swapnaprayan

1893: Begins to study oil painting from Charles Palmer, leaves after a while

1894-1895: Rejoins Palmer, studies watercolour

1896: Havell takes charge of Calcutta Art School

1897-1898: Paints the Krishna Lila series, meets Havell

1902-1903: Three paintings on Mughal themes shown at Delhi Durbar exhibition. The Passing of Shah Jahan wins silver medal.

1905: Bharat Mata is painted. Joins Art School as Vice-Principal on 15 August. Enlarged copy of Bharat Mata carried in Swadeshi processions on 16 October.

1906: Havell leaves, never to return

1906-1909: Functions as acting Principal of Art School

1909: Percy Brown joins as Principal. Abanindranath rejoins as Vice-Principal.

1910: Studio publishes a portfolio of Abanindranath’s paintings of the Omar Khayyam series

1915: Resigns as Vice-Principal following deteriorating relations with Percy Brown

1916: Vichitra Club formed. Paints Phalguni series.

1919: Paints Tagore, Gandhi and Andrews.

1919-1920: Darjeeling Series

1921: Conferred honorary D.Litt. by Calcutta University.

1921-1929: First Vagishwari Professor of Art

1925-1927: Paints the Shahjadpur landscape series

1930: Paints the Arabian Nights series

1933: Co-editor of the Journal of the Society for Oriental Art along with Stella Kramrisch

1938: Gaganendranath passes away. Starts painting in folk-like style.

1941: Rabindranath passes away

1942-1947: Chancellor of Visva-Bharati


  • Siva Kumar, Abanindranath Tagore, Kolkata: Pratikshan, in association with Reliance Industries
  • Binodebihari Mukhopadhyay, ‘The Art of Abanindranath Tagore’, in Abanindranath Tagore, Golden Jubilee Number, The Indian Society of Oriental Art, Kolkata, 1961
  • Soumya Majumdar, ‘Abanindranath Tagore: A Reappraisal’,, July 2011,
  • Mukul Dey, ‘Abanindranath Tagore: A Survey of the Master’s Life and Work’,,
  • Chitrabhanu, ‘Advocate of Indian Art’, The Hindu, 3 August 2016

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

Indian Society of Oriental Art Abanindranath Tagore Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri Dwarkanath Tagore Rabindranath Tagore Art Heritage Girindranath Tagore Gaganendranath Tagore Indian Society of Oriental Art Bengal School of Art Rajput Art Mughal art Bengal Artist Art Children's Books Modern art Mythology Indian art Culture Cultural Hegemony K.G. Subramanyan Traditional art Cult Journalist Art scholar Ella Dutta Nationalist Movement Pre-independent India India Swadeshi Painting Dhirendra Krishna Deb Burman China Raja Ravi Varma Pan-Indian Sculpture Music Ajanta Ellora E.B. Havell Revivalist Theme Style Technique R. Siva Kumar British Europeans Aesthetic Hindi Mela Delhi artist The Krishna Lila Okakura Kakuzo Taikan Yokayama Hishida Shunso The Banished Yaksha Bharat Mata Banga Mata Shahjahan Dreaming of the Taj Art History Shahjadpur Landscapes Arabian Nights Vagishwari Lectures Jamini Roy Japanese art A.K. Coomaraswamy Sister Nivedita Illustrations O. Ghilardi Calcutta School of Art C.L. Palmer Renaissance Italy Irish ballads Manuscripts Radha Krishna series (1893-95) The Building of the Taj The Death of Shah Jahan Rajasthani miniatures Pahari miniatures Japanese wash technique Yokoyama Taikan Jorasanko Omar Khayyam Sun Worshipper Shahjadpur Landscape Ullapara Station Storyteller Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Kabikankan Chandi Krishna Mangal Landscapes Cosmopolitan Visual Art Drama Persian calligraphy School of Art Madras Educationist Art School Oriental art Design Murals Stained Glass Jubilee Art School Collaborator Friend Raj Kahini Khirer Putul Bhut Patrir Des Budo Angla Literature Teacher Indian Society of Oriental Art Bengal School of Painting Nandlal Bose Surendranath Ganguly Kumar Haldar Kshitindranath Majumdar Sailendranath Dey Surendranath Kar Sarada Charan Ukil K. Venkatappa Kala Bhavan Visva Bharati University Kshitendranath Majumdar Santiniketan Allahabad University Lala Raghubir’s Modern Art School Sarada Ukil School of Art Mayo School of Arts Lahore Pakistan Abdur Rahman Chughtai Devi Prasad Roy Chaudhary Lalit Kala Akademi Binod Bihari Mukhopadhyay