1867 - 1938

Gaganendranath Tagore: Painter and Personality

Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata

Victoria Memorial Hall in collaboration with Rabindra Bharati Society, Kolkata presents an exhibition of paintings of Gaganendranth Tagore. These paintings are part of the collections of modern Indian painters received recently as enduring loan. Professor Ratan Parimoo, director of L.D. Museum and N. C. Mehta Gallery, Ahmedabad is an internationally known scholar and author of modern Art. The artist brothers, Gaganendranath (1867-1938) and Abanindranath (1871-1941). The young nephews of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The two youngsters were always at hand to collaborate with their uncle's creative projects, in particular, music, dance and theatre in their sprawling Jorasanko house in Kolkata. Both had acted in Rabindranath's plays. Interestingly, as Gaganendranath was growing creatively, he developed close affinities with the creatively of the great poet. Gaganendranath visualized befitting illustrations for Rabindranath's Jeevansmriti, My Reminiscences, in 1911. First 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 Bichitra period): most of the caricatures and the Himalayan paintings, Fourth Phase (1921-1925): Cubistic experiments in colour and black ink. Last Phase (1925-1930) Post-cubistic paintings mostly in black and white. Cardinal points in his development are (i) the involvement with Japanese technique, (ii) the confrontation with Cubism and (iii) the highly personal and complex imagery of the late pictures. His work was exhibited in the 22nd exhibition de societe des peintres orientalists francais in 1914 in Paris, London, Belgium and Holland and Athene Gallery in Geneva in 1928. 

Early sketches
The earliest examples of Gaganbabu's paintings are in 1907 in the form of postcards sent from Puri to his daughter. These comprise seascapes done with a few quick brush strokes and thin washes of colour. The other possible earliest works are pencil portraits in the manner of Jyotirindranath. In this period also fall the sketches both in pen and ink and in pencil of pundits and kritankars besides his family members. We are told of the incident of the death of his elder son, the shock of which cast a great gloom over the family and in order to provide a congenial diversion kirtans and kathas were arranged, where Gaganbabu made these sketches.  Besides Jeevansmriti, Gaganendranath began illustration began illustrations of Rabindranath's short story, Kabuliwala, Phalguni and some poems from Gitanjali.

As he gained confidence on the pencil he took up the use of Ink, see the pencil portrait of his sister Sunayani Devi and the ink portrait of Ananda Coomaraswami dated 1909.

This portrait also records the art historian, Coomaraswamy's interactions with Tagore family in the same manner as does the pencil portrait of the Japanese artist and art critic, Okakura (his second visit in 1912).

A few of them are dated 1911, and they form a closely related stylistic group. These could not have been done over a longer period of time. One of the drawings from the repeatedly depicted Shibu Kirtania, the Kirtan singer, was published in Jeevansmriti.

"Jeevansmriti" paintings and grappling with Japanese technique:
The illustrations for Rabindranath's autobiography in Bengali, "Jeevansmriti", published in 1912. Here for the first time we come across some paintings, which definitely derive from the Japanese brush technique. Mention may be made here of the well-known and recorded incident of Okakura's first visit (1902) and his sending of two Japanese artists.  The 'Crow' 'Arrival of Tutor in Rain', 'Abanindranath Tagore Painting while smoking hooka' and 'Portrait study of Mrs. Gaganendranath Tagore' are worthy examples of SUMI-E type ink paintings. .His definite interest in Whistler is however more positively established when we see the slightly later landscapes of night subjects which were significantly titled 'Nocturnes' which had been a favourite theme for Whistler too. In the handling of SUMI-E, Gaganendranath displayed all the skill, all the subtleties that the Japanese expected from a master which is especially conspicuous in the two studies of crows.

Another type of landscape found in "Jeevansmriti" is that done with this washes of colour with minimum of tone and hue contrast, the entire looking almost pale grey as in 'The boat Padma'. It is the sheer limitless expanse that is represented within a small frame. This too is oriental but such landscapes could also have been inspired by similar ones of Whistler, who in his turn also derived such effects from a synthesis of Impressionist and Japanese techniques.

Oriental ink work is definitely used in 'Banyan tree', where the rich and dark tones of fluid ink are juxtaposed to bring out the effect of density and largeness of the gigantic banyan tree. This is one of Gaganendranath's finest and powerful works of this period.

The general enthusiasm for Japanese art among the Tagore circle can be gauged by the fact that the Oriental Society had brought together around 1910 a large collection of original examples of Japanese art for an ambitious exhibition. Differentiating them from one another will enable not only to pinpoint them also to observe how simultaneously he also attempted to synthesize them till a stage came around 1914 when he evolved his own approach to the use of SUMI-E.

Gaganbabu's direct acquaintance with Japanese painting may have been through this exhibition and also through the reproductions in the then famous albums of Kokka. the "Jeevansmriti" ink paintings have several types of brushwork. The fact that several types of techniques are used in them suggests that he worked in various manners all at the same time.

His interest was not limited to only the brush technique of Japanese art but also the whole conceptual range of his art. This can be observed by analyzing examples from each of the two types. 'Calcutta Roof Tops' and 'Women at the Banks of Ganges' are impressionist, wheras The Ganges Again (from "Jeevansmriti") has an oriental quality.

Chaitanya Charitamala
This paintings are undated, most probably they were done after the "Jeevansmriti" illustrations, i.e. after 1910. They were all exhibited in the 1914 exhibition of the Calcutta School held in Paris and London. Almost all of them were listed in the catalogue, a very important document, as it is the first listing of the paintings of both Abanindranath and Gaganendranath till that date. Thus it can be safely surmised that none of the Chaitanya paintings date after 1914.

In one of the themes from Mahabharata (Karna and Kunti) he drew the 'long shot' depicting Karna being followed by Kunti with several attendants one of whom caries a parasol over the queen. In a painting with a lone figure, probably represents Karna in a close-up view.

Pilgrims, Mahabharata Scenes, Himalayan Landscapes and Nocturnes
His approach to pictorial composition at this stage can be visualised by taking the example of 'Chaitanya knocking at the Temple door'. Fortunately it exists in several versions including one complete pencil drawing of the whole composition. Because of the infinite space and mysterious shadows these works can be called romantic. The romanticism becomes more pronounced in the late phase. Also now a definite shift in Gaganbabu's attitude is noticeable. He is no more concerned, like in the earlier works with representing the visual impressions of the outer reality. But what now concern him are his own feelings about the outer world and finding suitable and appropriate pictorial equivalents to them. the so-called pilgrim series are done entirely from memory and imagination, unlike the earlier landscapes. they have visionary' element, found in William Blake and Turner.  

His painting of a prominent waterfall is the well-known Pagla-Jhora (the Mad stream) of Darjeeling. It was the backdrop of Rabindranath's play Muktadhara. Initially Himalayan scenes are before about 1920, but the quality of the 'sublime' achieved through the exploitation of scale, and bringing out the celestial grandeur of the sacred mountains with the way of light is handled, ties up with his late post-cubist paintings of 1920s.

The towering snowy mountain peaks shimmering in the glow of light suggested to Gaganendranath the profile face of Mahadeva looking heavenwards. Very creatively he did a series of ink paintings on gold background where gold colour serves for the light.

Thus, these paintings also relate to the 'Nocturnes' such as 'Pilgrims in front of Puri Temple', and 'Poet in the Sala Grove'. the 'Javanese puppets' and 'Composition No. 2', also executed on gold background however, are connected with theatrical performances.

Satirical drawings and Caricatures
In the theatre activities and stage performances of the Bichitra club, Gaganbabu had been fully active as an actor and stage designer. An interest in the 'comic' and 'comedy' as contents of a play and challenging assignments for an actor, would have been immediate inspirational stimulants even for his pictorial satirical depictions. an immediate phase of theatrical development which certainly influenced Gaganendranath Tagore, are the plays written and performances directed by Girish Ghosh (1844-1911) at the turn of the 19th century, the pictorialization of social satire had already been initiated in the visual medium by the Kalighat painters. Birup Bajra (Strange Thunderbolt) and Adbhut Lok (Realm of Absurd): both these sets of caricatures were published in 1917 and are among the earliest such satirical paintings by Gaganendranth.They could easily adopt facets of contemporary life simultaneously with religious icons, but naive folk painters did not realize that the 'style' of their language did not have the expressiveness for the imageries of the 'comic'. 
Confrontation with Cubism
The first series of cubist paintings by Gaganbabu were reproduced in RUPAM in 1922, along with the article by Stella Kramrisch which are definitely referred to as cubist by the author who titled her article significantly as 'An Indian Cubist'. He shared the fascination for the space-defining characteristic of interpenetrating planes. The difference is that he is basically interested in 'light' and not 'volume'. that is to say, the contriving of receding and protruding planes of negative and positive value, in such a way that they establish a relationship between light and space. another comparison once again points out to the kinship with Feninger rather than Braque. Feninger's painting was done in 1913 and there is a possibility that Gaganendranath knew his work since he probably also had come across his caricatures which is suggested by comparing Feninger's Die Morgen-Zeitung with a similar painting of Gaganendranath. 
Victoria Memorial Hall, Rabindra Bharti Society
Credits: Story

The exhibition was curated by the eminent art historian Professor Ratan Parimoo, Director of the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum in Ahmedabad and author of the books 'The Art of Three Tagores' and 'The Pictorial World of Gaganendranath Tagore'.

Images courtesy Rabindra Bharti Society and Victoria Memorial Hall collection.

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