Three Crown Jewels~I
The Entire Pictorial Ouvre Of Tagore
IT cannot be disputed that the Ministry of Culture in Delhi makes a concerted effort to establish Rabindranath Tagore in the public mind internationally on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary. Unfortunately, it has been impossible, as many had hoped, to get Santiniketan declared a World Heritage site during this anniversary year. Santiniketan is not Rabindranath. It is not easy to provide documentary proof that Santiniketan as a geographical area and receptacle of pedagogical ideas has radiated an influence into the world which is still noticeable today. Of Rabindranath’s works, this can be established any time. But do his ideas on education, nationalism and universality continue to have palpable currency? An attempt is being made to establish this.
However, many events have happened and are about to happen, initiated and subsidised by the government, which give sparkle to this anniversary. Let me begin by giving my full-hearted congratulations to the team which made the four stout volumes of Rabindra Chitravali happen. This is a world-class publication by Pratikshan Publishers in collaboration with Visva-Bharati and the Ministry of Culture. It collects excellently faithful reproductions of Rabindranath’s paintings in large format. The editor, Kala Bhavan’s art historian, Prof R Siva Kumar, has spent his entire working life researching the Bengal School of Art, especially the Santiniketan crop of painters. This is the crowning achievement in this hard-working and self-effacing scholar’s career. Hailing from Kerala, he made Santiniketan his “nest” three decades ago. We all know how difficult teamwork is in India, especially in West Bengal. Here, some of our country’s best minds in art history, photography, editing and publishing have combined their expertise to bring before us, for the first time, almost the entire pictorial œuvre of Rabindranath Tagore. Leafing through these four books, I felt exhilarated and could hardly sleep the next night for joy.
All paintings available at the Rabindra Bhavan and Kala Bhavan of Visva-Bharati as well as at Rabindra Bharati, the Indian Museum in Kolkata and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi have been included. Private collections have been left out. Even then, not less than approximately 2000 paintings are reproduced! A separate brochure provides documentary data for each picture.
The first volume brings before our amazed eyes the manuscript doodles, starting with Purabi (1924). As Siva Kumar’s Introduction affirms, these lines embroidering the words and lines of a manuscript were first inadvertent, intuitive scribbles while the mind groped for an appropriate word or phrase. Then they gradually expanded into symbols and emblems, faces and bizarre figures, mostly bird figures. Painting independently from manuscripts began in 1928, and already two years later, Rabindranath felt ready to show the world his new creations. In 1930, in Paris, he mounted the first exhibition which he took along with him wherever he went in Europe and America.
The second volume of Rabindra Chitravali presents one genre in which the poet was passionately interested: in the human face which sometimes freezes into masks. The third volume contains a collection of pictures of the human body. Although in traditional Indian art, the human body is not neglected, R. Siva Kumar confirms: “Rabindranath played a seminal role in getting the human body written into modern culture.”
The fourth volume shows what Rabindranath’s art is known for best: his landscapes and flowers as well as his black-and-white drawings which were mostly illustrations for his own books. As we can see, the editor has opted for a thematic division of the material. With this, the viewer becomes a bit overwhelmed by hundreds of very similar pictures and designs one after another. The individuality of each picture may have more easily emerged with a mixed arrangement. However, the alternative sensible organising pattern, a chronological sequence, would have been fraught with potential mistakes and may have become a guessing game as many pictures are undated. However, within the thematic groups a chronological order has been attempted. As Siva Kumar was bringing together these paintings, he realised that the projected four volumes did not contain all the material that had come to the fore. So a fifth volume, ready to come out in a year’s time, is being prepared with miscellaneous pictures, with textual documents and a few scholarly essays.
The important feature is that with the Chitravali, the world can experience Rabindranath face to face, without the mediation of translations, without the distraction of sombre black robes or beautiful eyes and oriental clichés. It is, one may argue, not the whole of Rabindranath we get in these paintings. True, neither do Bengali-speakers get him wholly in his writing and his songs. There is an uncanny symbiosis in Rabindranath’s forms of expression which we, who love this creative genius, have not yet fully gauged.
The second gem is a collection of DVDs, called Tagore Stories on Film, with five classic feature films based on Tagore’s stories and novels, then Satyajit Ray’s famed documentary on the poet, and the remnants of a stage play, Natir Puja, which was directed as a silent film in 1932 by Tagore himself. The leaflet attached to the collection (which, alas, should have been done more professionally and comprehensively) tells us that over a hundred feature films have chosen Tagore narratives as their plot. Of them we here have three Bengali films of which two (Tin Kanya and Ghare Baire) are by Satyajit Ray and one by Tapan Sinha (Khudito Pashan), further, two Hindi films (Kabuliwala by Hemen Gupta and Char Adhyay by Kumar Sahani). All these are rather recent as the early films have, unfortunately, all been lost or destroyed due to improper storage.
This very reasonably priced collection was brought out by the National Film Development Corporation in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Within a few weeks it has become a collector’s item; I could get a borrowed copy only after some begging and pleading. Will the publishers not please release more copies? Here we have two sides of the poet, the painter and the provider of cinematic plots, which we are, globally, less familiar with and which are, at any rate, not part of the “Tagore myth”.
(To be concluded)
The writer is a Tagore scholar based in Santiniketan; he can be contacted at
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