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The art of Gaganendranath Tagore

The art of Gaganendranath Tagore

by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri October 8 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 12 mins, 32 secs

At the height of darkness comes the first stirrings of dawn - a renaissance in the arts, literature and social life. It is against this backdrop that we need to evaluate the works of an artist like Gaganendranath Tagore (1864-1938), writes Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Indian painting had reached a sort of dead end. The disciples of Ravi Varma and the Patna and Tanjore strands of the Anglo-Indian School had stopped producing anything remarkable. Traditional Indian art had fallen into a certain decadence and rigidity, characterized by a loss of spirit. Those sensitive to this process of decay and inspired enough to do something about it realized the need to break new ground in all aspects of Indian cultural life. As so often happens, at the height of darkness comes the first stirrings of dawn - a renaissance in the arts, literature and social life. It is against this backdrop that we need to evaluate the works of an artist like Gaganendranath Tagore.

Gaganendranath was born in 1867, the eldest son of Rabindanath Tagore’s cousin Gunendranath, a pioneer in the patronage of the arts, notably the theatre. Gunendranath’s death in 1881 thrust the responsibility of the head of a branch of the Tagore family of Jorasanko on Gaganendranath at the age of fourteen. This meant that he had precious little formal schooling, which, like in the case of Rabindranath, gave Gaganendranath the opportunity for self-education. It was probably the visit of Count Okakura at the turn of the century and his advocacy for discarding the European in favour of the indigenous, that provided Gaganendra the initial stimulus for the discovery of his latent talent in art. It was his direct contact with the two well-known exponents of Okakura’s Bijitsu School, Taikwan and Hishida, who had been deputed to liaise with Indian artists, that provided the active impulse. It is perfectly reasonable to speculate that Gaganendra must have taken more than a casual interest when Taikwan started initiating his brother Abanindranath in the technique of Japanese brushwork.

It has been mentioned of Gaganendranath, that the ‘general impression is that he was a dilettante, an amateur, though a brilliant one’. However, this appraisal misses the important point of his development as a seriously involved painter, which is a crucial aspect of Gaganendranath’s life. As has been noted by his cousin Rathindranath, Gaganendranath was a painter most supremely indifferent to the value of his own creative genius.

What has also impeded an understanding of the influences on his work is the lack of a comprehensive biographical account, as are available for Abanindranath. Or the fact that unlike his brother, Gaganendranath never indulged in introspective or confessional writings. Adding to the difficulty of evaluating the work of this individualistic genius is the variety in his oeuvre, broadly comprising, as listed by Jaya Appasamy: Romantic paintings with a fairy-tale atmosphere, Sketches, portraits and caricatures in black and white (he was the first Indian painter to be absorbed with black and white), Landscapes, Abstract paintings with a mysterious sense of light (this use of light was another aspect he pioneered) and Cubist paintings. It is this enormous range, which precluded a single highly developed style and allowed him to experiment, that makes an evaluation of his work fraught with difficulties.

The successive stages of Gaganendra’s artistic career were marked by a daring originality of conception and the execution of a bewildering variety of themes in different styles and techniques: (i) Brush drawings in Japanese style, some of them with exquisite gold backgrounds, (ii) Portrait sketches, (iii) Illustrations of Rabindranath Tagore’s Jivansmriti - My Reminiscences, (iv) Watercolour sketches of rural Bengal, Ranchi and Puri, (v) Himalayan studies, (vi) Chaitanya series, (vii) Caricatures of Indian life, (viii) Experiments with cubism, (ix) Folklore picture, (x) Symbolic pictures of death and the otherworld.

Given his virtuosity, neither did these phases follow in strict chronological order nor were they mutually exclusive episodes. At the same time a broad chronology can be worked out as follows:

First (early) Phase (up to 1911): Puri landscapes, portraits and other figure sketches, scenes from Calcutta and illustrations for My Reminiscences, some of them in Japanese brush technique.

Second Phase (1911-1915): Chaitanya series and other related paintings done from imagination, including the Pilgrims series, most of which are done in black ink (SUMI-E). Night scenes and paintings on gold paper may also belong to this phase.

Third Phase (1915-1921): The Bichitra period comprising caricatures and the Himalayan paintings.

Fourth Phase (1921-1925): Cubistic experiments in colour and black ink.

Last Phase (1925-1930): Post-cubist paintings mostly in black and white.

The key points to note here are: (i) the involvement with Japanese technique, (ii) the confrontation with Cubism and (iii) the highly personal and complex imagery of the late pictures.

Postcards sent from Puri to his daughter, circa 1907, primarily seascapes rendered in a ‘few quick brush strokes and thin colour wash’ comprise the earliest examples of Gaganbabu’s paintings. Pen and ink sketches and pencil sketches of pundits and kirtan singers besides his family members also belong to this period. Following the death of his elder son, the family took to arranging kirtans and kathas to divert him from the pall of gloom that had enveloped him. These sketches originated from here.

The illustrations for Rabindranath’s autobiography (Jeevansmriti, in Bengali), published in 1912, make for a distinctive body of work. Many of these paintings derived from the Japanese brush technique. The ink paintings in My Reminiscences have several types of brushwork, suggesting that he was not limited by a particular technique and worked in various manners at the same time. It also demonstrates his attempts at synthesizing various techniques till a stage came around 1915 when he evolved his own approach to the use of sumi-e.

One of Gaganendranath’s finest and most powerful works of this period is the Banyan Tree, in oriental ink. His engagement with the entire conceptual range of Japanese art is particularly found in certain landscapes - Calcutta Roof Tops and Women at the Banks of Ganges, which are impressionist, and The Ganges Again (from Jeevansmriti), which has an oriental quality that evoke not impressionistic space but oriental vastness and infiniteness of space.

In this early phase Gaganendranath was realistic in his approach, concerned with reproducing direct visual experience, either straight from nature or unfiltered even if transcribed from memory. He began with a broadly impressionist technique but depended heavily on Japanese technique and its variations.

Gaganendranath’s interest in the Chaitanya story probably stemmed from the kirtans arranged for the family to help them overcome the shock of his son’s death. He may also have been drawn to the saint, and his approach of frenzied devotional ecstasy, as he was a Vaishnavite by faith himself. The early works of this series - Chaitanya and Footprints of Vishnu, for example, are closer to the style of Abanindranath in its use of curved lines typical in the contemporary works of his brother. The series of paintings referred to as ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘Nocturnes’ also date to this period in his development. An idea of his approach to pictorial composition at this stage can be gleaned from Chaitanya Knocking at the Temple Door. Given the infinite space and mysterious shadows that characterize these works, critics have called them romantic. The romanticism becomes more pronounced in the later phase. This phase also marks a definite shift in his attitude.

The visual representation of outer reality is no longer of interest to him. Instead, he is responding to the world around him at an intimate, personal level and endeavouring to find suitable and appropriate ways to express this visually. In the ‘Nocturnes’ series, there is also the marked shift seen in his move from depiction of landscapes during the day to sunsets and night effects, as evidenced in the ‘Pratima Visarjan’ series - The Festival of Lights, Santhals Dancing at Night around a Fire. These paintings have led reviewers to evoke parallels with Turner’s and Whistler’s sunsets and the latter’s nightscapes.

Sometime in the period 1916-18, Gaganendranath turned to a new medium, the caricature, to give expression to his fund of humour and satire. The Kalighat painters had already made social satire the subject of their work. But it was Gaganendranath who pioneered the cartoon as an artform in the books Adbhut Loke (1915), Virup Vajra (1917) and Reform Screams (1921). They were unsurpassed as resourceful and original drawings at the time and continue to be so, constituting some of the finest caricatures done in Indian since the death of the Rajput tradition of the eighteenth century. His cartoons – Modern Marriage Market in Bengal, The Hindu Priest and New Education – lashed out against orthodoxy in Hindu society, castigated anglicized Bengalis and prevalent social evils, while the political cartoons draw attention to the tyranny of the British Raj in a strikingly original idiom, for example, The Gift of Self-Government or Peace Reigns in the Punjab (which painted the brutality of martial law in the province).

In an article in Rupam, 1922, significantly titled ‘An Indian Cubist’, Stella Kramrisch, the American art historian who specialized in Indian art and Hinduism, says, ‘In 1922, our artist introduced cubism in India, and at once cubism shows another aspect. The transformation of cubism as a principle of composition from an interpenetrating order of vertical and horizontal units into an expressive three-dimensional context or emotional pattern is the artist’s contribution to Indian Art to cubism alike.’

The rider comes in the following addition to the essay: ‘Cubism would have had its mission in Indian Art, had it been integrated by it, for it does not mean anything else but the newly awakened consciousness of a spiritual reality which knocked at the door of Indian Art. This did not happen and the “cubist paintings” of G.N. Tagore remained an isolated phenomenon… it became part of his dynamic conception, whose diagonal design soon led to an unconscious but steadily progressing destruction of cubism.’

This makes his engagement with cubism as difficult to evaluate as his other work. In what is probably the only statement directly attributed to him as given by Kanyalal Vakil when he interviewed the painter in 1926, ‘…(the new experiments) have enabled me to discover new paths and I am now expressing them better with my new technique developed out of my experiment in cubism than I used to do with my old methods. The new technique is really wonderful as a stimulant.’

His acquaintance with cubist language probably stems from the exhibition of modern German paintings sponsored by the Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta in December 1922, following Rabindranath’s visit to Germany in 1921. Apart from art books, critics have pointed out the influence of theatre during the Bichitra years (1916-19). In the context of theatre, two aspects need to be noted: (i) lighting and (ii) arrangement of sets. He may have been acquainted with the ideas of Gordon Craig, the leading revolutionary scenographist of his time, as also some of the new ideas of leading Russian scenographists who were among the first to adopt Cubist, Futurist and Constructivist ideas to stage décor. He also became aware of a new approach to lighting, which preferred dark shadows by throwing light beams on the principal characters from different angles. As an example one could mention the paintings Tagore Reading His Poem at the Congress Session and Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose Demonstrating His New Apparatus.

Gaganendranath had been an early enthusiast of photography and in the play and juxtaposition of lights and shadows created by artificial means. As such, by the time he became aware of cubism, he had already developed his peculiar approach to light and the mysterious shadows it cast. The two versions of Destruction of Dwarka (Swarnapuri) and Saat Bhai Champa epitomize the best of this so-called cubist phase.

Gagenendranath understood the structure underlying cubist paintings. He also realized that light and space, as expressive values, had never been used in Indian painting before. He sought to combine structure, stark simplicity of form, light, space and surface design in a coherent whole, never achieved by any Indian painter thus far.

The term post-cubist was first used by reviewers in 1930 to describe his work, thus demonstrating the subtle change that had come to his approach. Before he fell fatally ill in 1930, forcing him to stop painting, he had continued to experiment. His work in the second half of the 1920s can be seen as a unified group, distinguishable from that of the first half of the decade. He reconciled the ‘loose, “floating” quality and the infinite space’ of his early works with the compact structure and closely knit spatial configuration of cubism. The subjects are not easy to read and interpret and offer ample opportunity for psychological analysis. This makes him probably the first individualist in the country.

‘Dreamy interiors, fantastic architectural complexes, groups of ghostlike veiled women ascending or descending spiral staircases leading into what appears like an abyss… gigantic mythical figures, supernatural beings, to whom the mortal humans seem voluntarily submitting themselves, appearing midget-like in front of the towering hovering images’ - these are some of the tropes of this last phase of his oeuvre. There are excursions into dreams too (for example, Dreamland). As also fairy tales, arising out of some works he wrote in the late 1920s, which were published posthumously as Bhodor Bahadur. He was among the first Indian painters to create a mythology both personal and individual at the foundation of which lies a collective unconscious, which reflected the modern Indian psyche.

Gaganendranath is an example of the real artist who adopts any convention that happens to be at hand or catches his fancy yet always rises above it. On the one hand, he was affiliated with the school founded by his brother, Abanindranath Tagore, and on the other with the cubist school of Europe. It is a mark of the vigour and genuineness of his artistic impulse that he was able to keep his work free from both influences to the extent he did. His art could be in turns intellectual like the cubists, sinuous like the Japanese or contorted like the expressionists. Between the bit of his cartoons and the mysticism of his cubist-futurist work, he conveyed the language of his times like no other painter.

Sources: Benodbihari Mukhopadhyaya, ‘Gaganendranath Tagore’, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, ‘The Art of Gaganendranath Tagore’, Ratan Parimoo, ‘Gaganendranath: Painter and Personality’, Jaya Appasamy, ‘The Art of Gaganendranath Tagore’, Mulk Raj Anand, ‘Gaganendranath Tagore’s Realm of the Absurd’, Stella Kramrisch, ‘An Indian Cubist’, Amina Kar, ‘Gaganendranath Tagore’

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