A Cultural Legacy

Abanindranath Tagore and India's National Identity

Vaaswat Sarkar

Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) was a distinguished  artist and a pioneer of modernism in the Indian art movement. He was born into the illustrious Tagore family of Jorasanko, Calcutta, British India. His family comprised renowned artists and scholars, who were some of the best minds that defined Bengal’s cultural artscape. Abanindranath was greatly influenced by his family particularly his uncle, Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Laureate and arguably the greatest Bengali poet that ever lived.

Abanindranath’s painting style was heavily influenced by the Bengal School of Art, which sought to revive traditional Indian art forms and techniques. His paintings are characterised by their intricate details, delicate brushwork, and rich colour palette, which often includes shades of gold and silver. In his early days, he developed an interest in Mughal art, producing a number of works based on Indian mythology and folklore in a Mughal-influenced style. Later in his life, he incorporated elements of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy art into his work, which gave his paintings a distinctive style. He was also greatly influenced by the works of the famous American painter, James Whistler, and his views on aestheticism.

Abanindranath was a diligent student of the traditional European academic art form learning the full range of techniques but with a particular interest in watercolours. It was his thorough knowledge of European art that enabled him to subvert it later on and incorporate Swadeshi values into his own distinctive Indian style. He had an Indo-centric nationalist ideology in his creative practice and believed that Indian art should return back to its roots to recover its spiritual values. Such strong ideas shine through in his paintings, which portray romantic and poetic sensibilities, reflecting his interest in mysticism and spirituality.

One of Abanindranath’s most famous paintings, Bharat Mata, was created during the Swadeshi movement, which emerged in response to the Partition of Bengal in 1905. The Swadeshi movement involved Indian nationalists boycotting British goods and institutions. The central figure in the painting holds various items that represent Indian culture and the economy of early 20th-century India, including a book, sheaves of paddy, a piece of white cloth, and a rudraksha garland. The subject is also depicted with four hands, which is a common Hindu symbol of immense power. This evocative painting serves to portray a corporeal imagery of the nation as "a mother figure seeking liberation through her sons, as described by Jayanta Sengupta, the curator of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. The painting went on to become a powerful symbol of Indian nationalism underscoring the importance of cultural heritage in shaping India's national identity. Abanindranath cemented a cultural legacy that played a key role in shaping the identity and modernism of Indian art. Along with his brother Gaganendranath Tagore, he founded the Indian Society of Oriental Art, which aimed to promote traditional Indian art forms and techniques. He also established the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata, which trained a generation of Indian artists and helped to establish a distinctly Indian style of painting.

After Abanindranath Tagore's death in 1951, his eldest son, Alokendranath, bequeathed nearly all of the family's collection of his paintings to the newly founded Rabindra Bharati Society Trust. Although the artist had not sold or given away many of his paintings during his lifetime, the Rabindra Bharati Society became the primary repository for Tagore's works. Unfortunately, these paintings have been banished to dark offices and permanent storage, preventing the full range and brilliance of Tagore's talent from being effectively projected into the public domain. Despite being intimately known to a small circle of art connoisseurs and scholars in Bengal, the true measure of Abanindranath's talent, particularly in his works from the 1920s to the 1940s, has yet to be comprehensively profiled for the contemporary art world. Art experts such as K G Subramanyan and R Siva Kumar have championed Tagore's talent, but little has been done to showcase it to a wider audience.

 [Source: Homegrown]

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Vol 55, No. 48, May 28 - Jun 3, 2023