ABANINDRANATH TAGORE (1871-1951) AND THE BENGAL SCHOOL OF ART: A REAWAKENING IN THE SPHERE OF INDIA
During the Swadeshi movement in Bengal major changes were coming in, inspired by indigenization as the soul force impacting all spheres of life; the industries, literature, beginning of the spinning of handloom and there was a widespread boycott of everything that was Western. Art and paintings weren’t left alone. Abanindranath Tagore infused the spirit of swadeshi in paintings. He was the principal artist and creator of ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ and the first major exponent of Swadeshi values in Indian art thus ushering in a new awakening and revival of Indian art.
One of the most striking aspects of his works that make him stand out from his contemporary times is that rather than depending on hard and fast binaries of “Eastern” and “Western” styles, his paintings reflect a medley of the influences of Japanese ‘wash’ style and Chinese ink painting; English pre-Raphaelite and Art-Nouveaun trends and Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings. He modernized the Mughal and Rajput styles in order to counter the influence of Western Models of Art under the British regime.
These influences on his artworks can be drawn back to earlier times of his apprenticeship. He was born in Jorasanko, Calcutta on 7th August 1871. Abanindranath’s first formal training in pastel and watercolor and life study was under the supervision of his private tutor, Signor Gilhardi. He attended the studio of Charles Palmer, an English painter; for instructions in oil paintings and portraiture and took classes from Okakura who taught him the Japanese ‘wash painting’ method and the quality of organic unity in art. The “Krishna-Lila” series painted by him in 1895-1896 displays a unique blend of both all these styles.
Miniature Painting of the “Krisna-Lila Series”, 1896. Appended to Gita-Govinda highlighting the Vaisnavite tradition of Bengal. It showed experimentation with ornamental calligraphy in Persian style letters. These stylistic influences shaped what came to be known as the Bengal School of Art, marked by a certain “Indian-ness”. What gave his paintings this peculiar character was the romantic and spiritual aesthetics embodied in them. Rather than the realistic simulations and skillful workmanship, invocation of mood, feelings, and emotions or ‘bhava’ in the paintings was a crucial aspect, best manifested in the “Mughal Art Series” (1902-05).
“Passing of Shah Jahan” from the “Mughal-Art Series” (1902). It best emulates the techniques of Mughal art along with the intensity of emotions. Painted against the wan hues of the night sky and a dying Shah Jahan wrapped in a dull brown shawl attended by Jahanara his daughter at his feet, brings out the inner pathos of the picture.
His works were primarily on literary and historical iconographies. The classic instance is to be found in his painting of "Bharat-Mata" (1905), originally conceived by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as “Banga Mata”. This nationalist icon of the stature of a goddess, yet distinct from any known deity of the Hindu pantheon, the image is invested with a sacred and spiritual aura that is unique to the idea of the nation and of artistic creation. One of his first ‘wash’ painting, it showcased the spirit of the motherland. It formed the image of the swadeshi movement.
Bharat Mata (1905), The young and full-bodied, four-armed ascetic figure holding sheaf, cloth, palm-leaf manuscript, and prayer lotus in her hands, was read as a nationalist mother-goddess granting the blessings of food, clothing, learning, and spiritual strength on her children. It formed an image of the Swadeshi movement.
In the post-Swadeshi phase, his works marked a passage into a privatized domain of art during the 1920s-40s. He strayed away from the contemporary dominant new modernisms in art marked by non-figurative abstractions/ psychic forms. Tagore’s most spectacular form of art in the 1920s largely included a body of portrait-masks a series of bodiless faces that were inspired by the dance dramas of Rabindranath Tagore. He produced his first genre of theatre pictures, “The Open Air Play Series” around 1919-1920 based on amateur dramatic performances/stage performances. His artworks during this phase were inspired by legends, fables, historical and literary themes like the “ Arabian Nights” series manifesting the exuberance of narrative detail and intricacies of figures, objects, and scenes that reflected somewhat objectivity than the outplay of emotions like in his older works, along with his works on landscapes, birds, and animals that emerged during this time as his primary areas of work.
Even though in his later phase Abanindranath retreated to his aristocratic lifestyle, producing art works in his leisurely time, his early works inhabited a public sphere of art practiced during the Nationalist phase of his career, providing an alternative to existing colonial counterparts, an autonomous and exclusive social space for modern art. The real significance of this art movement was not just the indigenization that it brought but also it opened up various new institutional sites for modern art activity in the country. The Bengal school of art is seen as the first artistic avant-garde in India that was later institutionalized and led to the coming up of a new exclusive circle of art journals, critics, connoisseurs and led to certain cultivation of tastes in Indian art. By modernizing the Indian art forms like the Mughal and the Rajput paintings, he sought to promote the Indian style within British art institutions.
Thakurta, Tapati Guha (2009), Abanindranath Known and the Unknown: The Artist versus The Art of His Times, Calcutta; Centre for Studies in Social Sciences.