The Arts

Rabindranath Tagore's Paintings Reveal His Quest For The World Beyond Words

The poet's death anniversary is perhaps as good a time as any to note that while he was a wizard of the written word, he also knew the limits of verbal semiosis.

In a poem he wrote on April 7, 1934, and dedicated to the poet Sudhindranath Dutta (number 16 in the collection called Shesh Saptak or The Last Septet), Rabindranath Tagore speaks with great enthusiasm about the world he inhabited as a painter, rather than as a poet. 

Today the painted line holds me in thrall.
The word, she is the rich man’s daughter,
Bringing with her the burden of meaning –
You have to worry how you’ll keep her in good humour.
The line is plainer, guileless,
My dealings with her need not fret about meaning…

Just about a month later, to mark Rabindranath’s seventy-third birthday, Visva Bharati News put out its special number with the poet’s photo on its cover. It was an excellent photograph, the poet’s handsome, bearded face looking out serenely from it into the middle distance.

Upon the cover image, however, Rabindranath chose to work with his pen, brush, coloured inks and poster colours, till (as professor R. Shiva Kumar notes in his commentary in the splendid four-volume Ravindrachitravali edited and curated by him): “he (had) made twelve different transfigurations of his face, all different from his outward likeness which the photograph represented, including two that showed him as a woman, and some others that remind us of Shakespeare’s fools.

Rabindranath Tagore at his painting desk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This may well have been an effort ‘to trap one’s shifting self’, as Picasso, Rembrandt and Van Gogh did in their many self-portraits, or a visual record of the inner wrestling with his myriad selves, which ran beneath the tranquillity of the surface.

Or this could simply be the product of a playful imagination that delighted in upturning a faithful representation of a human face. Whatever his motivation, the poet clearly enjoyed the freedom that his brush gave him, knowing that his brush, unlike his pen, would be ‘untrammelled by (his) reputation’.                                       

For all its seeming light-heartedness, Tagore’s perky message to Dutta was not meant to be amusing. He was in earnest, for he had come to believe that: 

“(t)he world of sound is a tiny bubble in the silence of the infinite. The Universe has but the language of gestures; it talks in the voice of pictures and dance. Every object in this world proclaims, in the voiceless signal of lines and colours, the fact that it is not a mere logical abstraction or a mere thing of utility, but that it is unique in itself, that it carries the miracle of its existence.”

It was long believed that Rabindranath happened to come to painting in one of two possible ways: one, when this (for him) untried medium took the great poet’s fancy much as a new toy attracts a child; or two, when he wanted a break from his lifelong – and exhausting, however rewarding – labours with the written or spoken word.

The fact that his first independent, dated paintings (as opposed to doodles that arose out of erasures in his manuscripts) appear not before 1928 (when he was 67 and already world-famous) seemed to validate this line of thinking. However, we now know that he may actually have tried his hand at painting as early as the 1880s. But his appeared to have proven to be some kind of a false start and when he knew he was unable to progress in the direction he wanted to, he gave it up for then.

It has even been argued that it was this early experience that may have delayed his realisation of where his possibilities as a painter might lie. Perhaps the early failure also made Rabindranath that much more unsure about how his paintings might eventually be received. 

A typical manuscript by Rabindranath Tagore, complete with scribblings turned into doodles. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Even his doodles, widely considered the precursors to his paintings, made their first appearance in the late 1880s, while the first definitive appearance of textual corrections fashioned into decorative motifs date back at least to 1904.

Slowly, the doodles become more elaborate, thereby liberating the erasures from the text itself and giving them a formal independence and investing them with rhythmic individuality.

Climbing creepers, lakes and waterways, the hint of an animal shape – all these are mirrored in the doodles till, in the famous 1924 notebook made immortal by Victoria Ocampo, the images that leap to the eye are often drawings or paintings in their own right: they constitute a world of forms – birds, human faces or primeval creatures – that ‘grinned, frowned or laughed at us in a mysterious but fascinating way’, as Ocampo remembered them.

This notebook was really the manuscript of the anthology Purabi and it marks a decisive point in Rabindranath’s development as a painter.

Interestingly, he never gave up doodling, and even after his paintings had been received warmly by viewers and critics in Europe and the US – and in a somewhat more subdued fashion in his own country – he continued to engage creatively with erasures and deletions in texts till very nearly the end of his life.

Indeed, the last surviving doodle is dated February 3, 1941, six months prior to his passing.       

Also read: The Relevance of Rabindranath Tagore’s Politics on His 158th Birth Anniversary                                 

During the last 13 years of his life, beginning 1928, Rabindranath painted and drew with prodigious energy, producing about 2,300 paintings, drawings and sketches. With no formal training to guide his hand, he taught himself to work with ink, pastel, pencil, poster colour, coloured ink and water colour on paper, cardboard and wood, but mainly on paper.

A painting of an animal, by Rabindranath. Photo: artcritique.wordpress.com

Broadly, his oeuvre comprised landscapes, portraits, faces, animals, flowers, figures (in gestures or in rhythmic motion, as in dance) and drawings, but very often it is hard to classify his work into these disparate categories.

For example, he painted many masks that look like live faces, but he also painted and drew human faces that take on impassive, mask-like qualities.

His representations of animals often look like no animal that we know, but that does not make them one bit less real.

The familiar world merges effortlessly into the unknown here, and the poet’s lively imagination, his intuitive feel for rhythm and movement, helps produce a perfectly believable series of animal and bird paintings, so that we find ourselves agreeing cheerfully with the poet that he created “a probable animal that had unaccountably missed its chance of existence” or “a bird that can only soar in our dreams”.

The dream-like quality soaks through many of his landscapes and figures as well, but they evoke spontaneous human responses in the viewer and, to that extent, his work always keeps its distance from surrealism (where the viewer’s sensibility is engaged at a more sophisticated level of acquired responses).

His ornamental motifs tend towards abstraction, but it is their innate rhythmicality, rather than the ingenuity of their craftsmanship, that appeals to the viewer.

A landscape by Rabindranath. Photo: Wikipedia

Rabindranath’s landscapes offer a cornucopia of light, depth and wide open spaces, but they are strikingly devoid of human presence, making nature an autonomous theme, rather than a backdrop to human life activity, as it often was in contemporary Indian painting.

This should not surprise us because, in much of his work as a poet or lyricist, nature takes its place as an animated presence with a life of its own. Some of the later landscapes also emphasise the gathering darkness at dusk, when things do not unroll in the distance but gather up and collapse into a dense foreground.

The world seems to be drawing closer, thickening around us, as it were, a sense echoed in a lot of Rabindranath’s poetry of the same period. 

But the whimsical, the eerie, even the ominous make their appearance in these paintings in significant numbers. This is where Rabindranath’s work with the painter’s brush veers clearly away from his work with the writer’s pen.

Of course, the whimsical is not unknown in his poetry or in his later stories, but the visual appeal of the capricious and the droll was not easy to replicate in poetry or prose even with Rabindranath’s consummate skill with the written word (maybe because he was not in his element in pure nonsense).

One of the faces drawn by Rabindranath. Photo: Ravindrachitravali.

Indeed, some of his later drawings were used to illustrate – and thus to enhance the feel of the absurd in – his 1937 book of nonsense verse Khapchhada and in Shey, a fantastic tale that meanders endlessly through an impressive gallery of uproariously funny characters, also published in 1937. (One readily sees that the illustrations are overall the funnier part of these books.)

But the sinister or the forbidding rarely makes an appearance in his writings, while we come across it not infrequently in his masks, his portraits, his renderings of human shapes and even in some of his later landscapes (though some landscapes of this period are also iridescent with light, colour and hope).

Rabindranath’s repertoire of paintings and drawings tell us two things quite clearly.

One, that his work cannot be pigeonholed into any particular style or school, like post-impressionist, expressionist, or even modernist. The fact that he was entirely self-taught and did not owe anything to any artistic convention or creed is only one reason.

The really important reason is that he had come into painting primarily as a poet-lyricist who had increasingly felt the need for a medium to encompass, or at any rate to fathom, experiences and impressions that the written word could not reach.

With words he could perhaps do more than any other man of his time could, but what about the universe that lay tantalisingly out of reach of the acutest turn of phrase, the most cultivated sense of metre and rhyme? The world where

The thousand voices of the day
Have fallen away from us; and the hours that carry the cargo of sound
Have all cast anchor at the edge of evening’s silent shore?

Rabindranath Tagore’s Face. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In his missive to Sudhindranath Dutta, Rabindranath had drawn a line between verbal or literary semiosis and the apparently purposeless, but palpitating, throbbing world of pure form and shape where the word is unnecessary, expendable and more importantly, inadequate. 

To get the tree to come into flower or bear fruit –
Well, work needs to be done for all that.
But to host the play of light and shade under the tree,
That’s quite another matter.
It is there that dry leaves spread their wings,
Butterflies flit around,
And fireflies shimmer with light at night.
In the drama of the forest they are all borne on lines,
They tread lightly,
And no one holds them to account.
The word never coddles me, for stern is her demeanour;
The line laughs out loud when I am silly,
She doesn’t wag her finger at me in disapproval.

In other words, the poet felt impelled to explore the world of line and colour when his customary apparatus seemed to him to be inadequate to engage meaningfully with his subject. But, he approached painting with the poet’s imagination, the poet’s ability to create metaphors and parallels between different layers of experience, and in this he stood apart from every other painter of his generation.

The second point to note about Rabindranath’s paintings is their exceptional resourcefulness and variety.

No two paintings are alike and, though unlike most trained artists, he never used what could with justification be called a sketchbook, each painting or drawing managed to evolve into an independent work of art with a flavour of its own. This is remarkable, given that he produced such a large number of paintings over a relatively short period.

Even in his songs – the medium that was perhaps closest to his heart – he could not avoid repetitions of tonal structure and movement, but in this, the youngest of all the mediums he made his own, he could be endlessly innovative. Here again, he may have had no equal.

Also read: ‘Knockings At My Heart’ Rediscovers Tagore’s Unpublished Autograph Poems

Even in those last years of his life when he embraced painting with elan, Rabindranath’s poetic output remained staggeringly copious. But his poetry was changing unmistakably in timbre and colour in this period, shedding its mellifluous exuberance and becoming  more intimate – and far less formally ‘poetic’ – in tone, till the prose poem, often stark and completely unadorned, became the norm rather than an occasional exception in his repertoire.

Clearly, here also the poet was exploring a new milieu, a new idiom. He often said that he believed his songs would outlive all else that he had written over his 80 years. In his last years he also confided the hope in his near ones that his paintings might also survive the vicissitudes of artistic taste.

Both these hopes rested on the recognition that neither music nor painting was obliged to depend on the current conventions of language to remain relevant to a particular age. The greatest poet of our time knew the limits of the language that he had spent all his life chiselling and shaping.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic and commentator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.