Rabindranath Tagore was not only the pinnacle of Indian literature, but also a revered artist. His works were exhibited in Europe in 1930–an era when Indian artists were very rarely represented abroad. His transmutation to becoming an artist was led by his enormous creative zeal. While he occupied himself with writing he also often found his expression in brooding doodles and scribbles in his manuscripts. It is recounted in W.G. Archer’s essay, an anecdote described by Grace Rhys in a written record according to Stella Rhys:
“Whatever are those extraordinary little things?’ I said. ‘This little book,' he answered, 'is my treasure. I write my thoughts in it just as they come. Often they are not well expressed. Then, you will understand, I do not want to spoil my precious book with erasures. So I obliterate my clumsy phrases with little snakes and so on.”
He didn’t find the time to go through the rigors of academic training in drawing and painting but frequently drew monochromatic drawings of objects and shapes with a fountain pen in his diary. Progressively doing two-three toned drawings followed by the use of fingers and rags and lastly the brush. The works are said to have been achieved spontaneously, employing the subconscious and accidental. He drew black rhythmic shapes and mythical animals as a result of an urge to rhythm. It was only from 1928 that he took painting proper and by 1930 he yielded about 400 pictures which were exhibited in Europe.
He spent a while making images of people, not quite portraits, mostly women strangely characterized. These recollected faces are replete and layered with emotions. Mulk Raj Anand, an acclaimed writer, describes “their gentle eyes and melancholy faces are half opaque… the pain has ceased but the pathos lingers.” Kadambari who was Tagore’s sister in law and a companion, was a face that left a mark on him as he prematurely lost her to suicide when she was 26. It is said that her reflection can be seen in the vivid faces he drew.
The faces are bold, haunting, some soft with a smiling mouth. The drama and light in his works allude to his involvement with theatre where he wrote plays and designed the sets. The theme of a pensive woman with unwavered eyes is a constant. Tagore’s primary vocation was not drawing or painting. His travels brought him the visual exposure to contemporary world art practices that was reflected directly in his understanding of art. He became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. His influence and contribution to art still survives in the form of his pedagogical ideology in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, a university he founded.
Neogy, P. (1961). Drawings and paintings of Rabindranath Tagore Centenary 1861-1961. Lalit Kala Akademi.
W. G. Archer. (Oct. 1960/Sept.1961). Poet's Pictures : The Drawings of Rabindranath Tagore. Indian Literature, Vol. 4(No. 1/2), pp. 182-185.