Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938) was a rare artist who developed a highly-individual style by cherry-picking elements of oriental and Western art that made his paintings quite outstanding at a time when the Bengal School introduced by his younger brother Abanindranath was in vogue. Even when he was experimenting with Cubism, Gaganendranath was not imitating the Western avant garde movement, but was projecting his vision – dramatic, enigmatic, mysterious and mystical at a later stage – of a world fragmented into multiple interlocked planes of light and darkness as if it were being viewed through a prism. This personal style probably stemmed from his passion for photography and the theatre – he had staged many plays written by his pre-eminent uncle Rabindranath.
Gaganendranath is acknowledged as being the first Indian artist to create works in the cubist style, but he was perhaps too radical a thinker to be appreciated in his time as well as ours. How else does one explain the West Bengal government’s inexplicable indifference to his 150th birth anniversary, which fell on September 18? Did the occasion not warrant an exhibition of his original work, which are rarely seen even in Kolkata, the city of his birth?
The Rajya Charukala Parshad’s “celebration” was a joke. It began with a “Let’s sit down and paint pictures” (eso bose chhobi anki) event on September 17 in the Rabindra Sadan-Nandan complex in Kolkata, close to the Parshad building. This was followed by an exhibition of rather poor reproductions of Gaganendranath’s paintings, and culminated in an insightful and informative lecture by R. Siva Kumar, professor of art history at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, which is only to be expected of a scholar who has written and published extensively on all the three Tagores. His lecture was accompanied by a slideshow of the paintings of this artist about whom few hard facts are available, and whose genius was overshadowed by Rabindranath and Abanindranath, both of whose lives are far better documented.
As Siva Kumar said, “Very little dependable information exists on him (Gaganendranath). There are no firm dates of the major events in his life…although he was more active in the public life of Bengal.”
Gaganendranath went to St Xavier’s Collegiate School and later received art lessons from Harinarayan Basu, but he took up painting seriously only after the death of his son, probably in 1907. Perhaps it had a palliative effect on him. Like his brother, Gaganendranath too had a close relationship with his mother who died in 1911 and this impinged on his life and work. He himself was able to paint only till 1930, when he was paralysed by a stroke.
Yet Gaganendranath was no obscure artist. When Nada Raza, a research curator for the Tate Research Centre in London who contributed to the Bhupen Khakkar exhibition (2016) at Tate Modern, was curating ‘The Missing One’, a thematic exhibition on the occasion of the Dhaka Art Summit 2016, the exhibition’s perspectives were guided by a 1920s painting by Gaganendranth. Raza, who grew up in Pakistan, said in an interview that she had been a “fan” of his from her childhood.
Dismissing the “celebration” as mere “tokenism”, Tapati Guha Thakurata, professor in history at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, says the history of the modern art movement in India began in Kolkata and Santiniketan, “yet there has never been any real attempt to bring those works into the public domain.” There is not a single museum where the full oeuvre of the works of artists who galvanised the movement can be viewed, she said. Much of it is under “house arrest” in Santiniketan, and before the invaluable collection was handed over to the Victoria Memorial Hall, they were rotting in the trunks of the Rabindra Bharati Society.
Gaganendranath was quite openly anti-colonial, being closer to Gandhian nationalism than any of his kin and supporting Chittaranjan Das financially to fight the Alipore bomb case. His caricatures burlesqued the follies of the Bengali babus and their bibis pretending to be Europeans, and the hypocrisy and corruption of Brahmins and politicians. His satire has not lost its bite. Because of this, Guha Thakurata feels the Victoria Memorial Hall is an “inapposite” place for keeping his works. She adds, “We have been sitting on” this treasure trove, and wonders why there is no permanent exhibition of these works. The city has so no dearth of beautiful old buildings. “It is part of a much larger apathy on the part of the state government,” she continues.
The Academy of Fine Arts is in possession of Lady Ranu Mookerjee’s “historic collection” dating back to the 1930s-1940s, and the Birla Academy of Art and Culture too has a fine collection from the 1970s and 1980s. Yet nothing has been done to bring them under one roof.
Local institutions in possession of Gaganendranath’s works have no plans to hold exhibitions either. Jayanta Sengupta, curator and secretary of the Victoria Memorial Hall, said before it received the Rabindra Bharati Society collection of 300 works by Gaganendranth, it had none. But in 2012, Victoria Memorial had organised an exhibition of 118 of his works selected by art historian Ratan Parimoo and had published a catalogue too. So they have no plans for an exhibition now.
According to Sushobhan Adhikary, art historian and curator of Nandan and Kala Bhaban in Santiniketan, Rabindra Bhaban has about 35 of Gaganendranath’s cartoons and Kala Bhaban has all 24 of his illustrations of Rabindranath’s autobiography Jiban Smriti, which the poet had requested his nephew to execute, besides his sketchbook. “Gaganendranath was never accorded the recognition he deserves. He brought together the orient and the occident,” says Adhikari.
Siva Kumar says the Victoria Memorial Hall does not have a proper display gallery. The colonial marble statues in the portrait gallery are intrusive and the lighting is not good. But a special exhibition should be held at a better-equipped venue – perhaps at the Indian Museum – and the works should be selected “a little more carefully.”
If only this urbane and sophisticated artist were here to employ his graphic skills to expose the extent of the degeneration of Kolkata, which Bengalis believe to be the cultural capital of India.
Soumitra Das is a journalist based in Kolkata who writes on culture and the city’s built heritage.