Art News & Views

[Book Review]


The Tagore Phenomenon, Revisited

by Sandhya Bordewekar

The Art of Three Tagores: From Revival to Modernity, by Prof. Ratan Parimoo for Kumar Gallery,New Delhi.

This book has progressively evolved from the academic rigour of being a doctoral thesis (“The Paintings of the Three Tagores  Abanindranath, Gaganendranath, Rabindranath: Chronology and Comparative Study”) into a university publication (1973) to the now almost encyclopedic tome that spans socio-cultural milestones across a 100 tumultuous years, comprehensively examining the development of Indian Art from Revival to Modernity (approximately 1850-1950). Prof. Ratan Parimoo's extensive reading, meticulous primary and secondary research, deep analysis, and informed conclusions make it one of the seminal reference books for any study or research that is related to the development of art in India in the immediate pre-Independence era.

The book is divided into ten chapters including a conclusion (as a doctoral thesis would be). Prof. Parimoo articulates the purpose of the book rightaway in the first chapter, Introduction: From Revival to Modernity in Indian Art – it 'is a post-colonial introspective exercise, of our post-colonization status of subjugation, describing the stirrings from a condition of staticity and invigoration towards momentum'. It is also 'envisaged as a contribution to international New Art History'.  The author also establishes connections between nationalism in politics and art wherever appropriate.

The second chapter,19th Century Colonial India, takes the issue of nationalism further. It deals with theorization of nationalistic manifestations, and the reinterpretation of tradition in the light of and discovery of modernity through the confrontation with the Western civilization. The author examines the socio-political setting of 19th century colonial India in the context of the rise of urban centres, nationalistic thought, reformist movements and the establishment of institutions like the Brahmo Samaj etc the rise of local leaders  Gandhi etc and the influence of literature as a mirror of the Indian Renaissance. The third chapter, Western Impact on Indian Arts contextualizes the state of art in India of the 19th century and focuses on the psychological climate existing in the country that helped mould artists' thinking (including that of the three Tagores). Against the background of existing traditional painting styles and the available patronage as well as the strong presence of folk and rural arts, the author comprehensively examines the rise of Jamini Roy, the advent of Company School, European Realistic Techniques, Bazaar Paintings, the reportage of British travellers and painters, the coming of photography, the development of informal 'schools' promoting European techniques with interested Indian painters in Lucknow, Murshidabad, Patna, Banaras, Delhi, Kolkata and different parts of southern and western India, the entry of Raja Ravi Varma.

With chapter four, Prominent Personalities, their Roles and Interactions and chapter five, Aesthetic Ideas, Controversies and the Birth of Art Criticism, the author moves closer to his subject, the Tagores. The influence and range of impact wielded on them and their work by several persons, whether family, friends, visitors to the Thakur Baadi at Jorasanko and at Santiniketan, as well as by the influence of ideas and debates, are explored in detail by the author. These two chapters are crucial in their examination of the ground prepared for the three Tagores. Some of them are Jyotirindranath (Rabindranath's brother), E B Havell, Sister Nivedita, Kakuzo Okakura, among others.

Chapters six, Abanindranath Tagore: Tradition, Assimilation, Change and seven, Regional Responses to the Spirit of Revival, completely concentrate on Abanindranath's own development and work as an artist, with special reference to his fascination for portraiture, as well as that of his pupils (Nandalal Bose, Suren Kar, Kanu Desai, Asit Halder,  and many others), and of the evolution of the Bengal School, the Aban Panthis, the Tagore School, the Thakur Shaili. The author offers detailed notes on his students who took the spirit and message of Revivalism outside of Bengal.

Chapter eight, The Pictorial World of Gaganendranath Tagore, is completely devoted to examining his development as an artist and satirist, focusing on each phase in detail, from the Early Sketches to the last phase in the 1930's decade. And chapter nine is on Rabindranath as he came to painting much later in his life. In terms of art historical chronology, the first nine chapters are extremely well articulated, profusely illustrated with appropriate plates that are placed in proximity with the pages where their references are made, rather than bunched together at the end of the book, which would have been completely reader-unfriendly, given the size and weight of the book!

It is in chapter ten, simply titled Conclusion that an incisive analysis of the impact of those extraordinary years in India's history in the context of the contribution of the three Tagores is offered. Even the post-Tagore period, called 'de-Tagorization' that comprised the years of early modernity, and marked by the thinking of Freud and Marx, is discussed (from 'pragativaad' to 'prayogvaad'). Prof. Parimoo concisely sums up the contribution of the Tagores when he writes, “In their own way the three painters have effectively changed the Indian scene to the extent that it could not be the same again. They brought an era of freedom, of experimentation, a sense of confidence, a sense of independence, from which subsequent generations have certainly benefitted. Their achievement comes as a revelation and establishes the fact that not only modern art arrived with them but it had already taken deep roots --- a realization not dawned on many art critics.”

Tags: art, culture

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